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A Picture’s Worth

December 10, 2010

Would you ride a blocked bike lane?

One of the big things I took away from yesterday’s City Council hearing on bicycles was the difference between “noticing” something and “studying” something.  Every bike lane skeptic or opponent would offer testimony that he or she “noticed” how few bikers were using a particular bike lane.  Council Members Koo and Vacca repeated their observational findings over and over again; each time they went outside, they rarely saw anyone using the bike lanes.

What was discouraging to me yesterday was the level to which many members on the Transportation Committee chose to rely on what they noticed rather than what the DOT has studied.  Many of them willfully ignored data that is available to anyone with an Internet connection.  (I’d imagine it’s even more available to City Council members who have both Internet connections and the phone numbers of DOT staffers.)  Obviously, this is a factor of ideology and politics more than intelligence.

That’s why stories like this one from the New York Times City Room blog are so disappointing.  One expects that a news media organization as intelligent as the Times would rely less on what its reporters notice and more on what they study, or, for a better word, report.  Here’s the scientific findings of Jospeh Berger, who observed the bike lane earlier this week:

A reporter standing Monday morning between 82nd and 83rd Streets counted just six bicycles using the lane in the half-hour period between 9:23 and 9:53, and three of those were local deliverymen.

Some softballs here.

– Thirty minutes of observation is all it took for this reporter to determine that, “so far, few bike commuters and other cyclists seem to be using the Columbus Avenue lanes.”  Thirty minutes.  Thankfully, the DOT and other city agencies base their decisions on weeks if not months or years worth of data.

– It was 33 degrees on Monday, as Berger notes.  (Did he guess or did he, you know, look that information up?)  I wonder if during that same thirty minutes of freezing temperatures the reporter didn’t also determine global warming to be a hoax.

– The reporter began his scientific study at 9:23 AM.  Wouldn’t the average office-working person already be at work by 9 AM?  Traffic on the West Side Highway is surely worse at 8:30 AM than it is at 9:30 AM.  It’s probably non-existent by seven minutes before ten.  Bike riders are subject to the same time sensitivities as car drivers.

– What difference does it make if three of the cyclists were deliverymen?  Do only yuppies on Dutch bikes deserve bike lanes?  What’s funny to me is that if this were a story on hundreds of cyclists breaking the law, running red lights, or salmoning, I doubt that the Times would break this behavior down by type of cyclist.

And then there’s the picture.  Surely it was picked because it illustrates Berger’s theory that the bike lane is under-used.  But look closer.  There’s a van parked in the bike lane.  On top of that, there’s an empty parking space.  Using Berger’s own standards of scientific theory, can I safely say that there is no shortage of parking on Columbus Avenue?

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