Anatomy of a Ticket Trap (Or, “It’s the Design, Stupid.”)
Last week, in the midst of what seemed like a fairly large crackdown on cyclists, friend and fellow StreetsPAC board member Sebastian Delmont tweeted a picture of police officers ticketing people for riding on the sidewalk on Clarkson Street, just off of West Street.
Clarkson Street is a major exit off of the West Side Greenway for cyclists heading to points east. It’s also a place where one will find a lot of cyclists riding on the sidewalk, for reasons I’ll outline below. The question I have is this: is conducting a ticket sting at this location an effective use of limited NYPD resources? As is evident in the picture above, there are no businesses that face the street. Pedestrian traffic is very light to the point of not even existing at some hours. Does ticketing cyclists in this location do anything to enhance public safety?
Now, I know some people may read this and think that I’m making excuses. After all, the law’s the law. Ride on the sidewalk and get caught? Tough, right? Plus, some people may believe that by focusing efforts on places where it’s easy to catch cyclists, the NYPD can influence behavior and encourage cyclists to observe the law in locations where pedestrian safety is a genuine concern, such as the crowded sidewalks of Soho or Midtown. Ticket a person for riding on the sidewalk here, and he’ll think twice before doing it anywhere.
But that line of reasoning relies on a tabloid-fueled idea that cyclists are either willfully flouting the law simply because it’s easy to do on a bicycle or because they’re ignorant of how the law applies to them. Indeed, one of the explanations I’ve heard for this recent crackdown is that with all the new cyclists out there thanks to Citi Bike, it’s important to make sure everyone is aware of and follows the rules of the road.
But on Clarkson Street, as at other locations where the NYPD choses the convenience of easy ticketing over the targeted and challenging effort of ensuring safety, I believe cyclists are making a highly rational choice that no amount of enforcement will ever change. That’s because the invitation to ride on the sidewalk is built in to the very design–or lack of design, if you will–of this particular street. Not only that, but people who ride on the sidewalk here are no more or less likely to ride on the sidewalk in other locations, making this NYPD effort rather useless. (More on that later.)
So what is it about the design of this street that encourages cyclists to violate the letter of the law, knowingly or not? Let’s start on the greenway.
Cyclists looking for a place to turn east off of the greenway can find signs like this one, directing them to Clarkson Street:
But there’s a problem. Even though the NYPD may want cyclists to start thinking like motorists as they prepare to exit the greenway, the greenway won’t let them:
Instead, the design of the greenway invites cyclists to wait in a shared space with pedestrians, positioning people on bikes so that they’re facing not a bike path or cycling-specific markings, but a crosswalk. There isn’t even a traffic signal facing cyclists looking to cross here, so it’s no surprise that cyclists wait for the walk signal and proceed with pedestrians, as this cyclist demonstrates:
Normally there’s a painted sharrow pointing cyclists to the street, but due to the high auto volumes on West Street it rarely survives for long after being repainted. Even when visible, the sharrows direct cyclists into the middle of an intersection where drivers have a left turn signal when the north/south car traffic is stopped. It’s no surprise that cyclists would rather mix with a few pedestrians than head straight into a shared space with turning trucks and cars.
So what do cyclists see when they get to the other side of West Street and find themselves staring down Clarkson? A poorly maintained, uneven cobblestone street that’s riddled with shoddily filled potholes:
It’s not just that it’s uncomfortable for cyclists to ride on cobblestones. This close-up shows just how much a rider would have to be focused on the ground in order to avoid falling:
If you believe that a poorly maintained street might send you to the ground, you probably don’t want to think about what would happen if you fell while a truck was passing:
So cyclists have a choice that isn’t much of a choice at all: ride on a street where the risk of falling onto a roadbed that’s shared with trucks is very real, or hop up on this:
I would argue that cyclists who ride on the sidewalk on this stretch of Clarkson Street are making an entirely rational decision, choosing the safe and smooth over the dangerous and rough. Even in the unlikely event of a pedestrian using the sidewalk here, sharing space with people on foot is far less dangerous here than it is on certain stretches of the greenway.
This person on a Citi Bike makes every single one of the choices I outlined above. He waits in the shared pedestrian space, crosses more or less with the crosswalk, and then hops up onto the sidewalk on the other side:
The cyclist in the two pictures below may have been taking her first ride from the greenway to Clarkson. After riding in the crosswalk, she actually merges left with the apparent intention of taking the road, but less than half a block later realizes there a safer and smoother option.
Cyclists who take the sidewalk on Clarkson Street generally do so for two blocks. But when Clarkson crosses Greenwich the street changes from cobblestones to blacktop. There’s even a freshly painted class two bike lane that begins here:
So what do cyclists do when they reach Greenwich Street? They make another entirely rational choice and switch from the sidewalk to the bike lane. Here’s a Citi Bike rider doing just that:
I stood at the corner of Greenwich and Clarkson and watched as cyclist after cyclist made the same choice, riding on the sidewalk for two blocks to avoid the rougher parts before switching to the smooth bike lane at the first available opportunity:
So what does this prove? That cyclists are renegade scofflaws with little to no disregard for the laws of a polite society? That the strong arm of the law needs to punish rule breakers with $50 tickets or criminal summons? That ticketing cyclists will get them to think twice about ever breaking the law again? No, no, and no.
In the absence of police officers punishing them for not doing the right thing, the cyclists in these pictures show that compliance with the law is rarely more than one usable bike lane away. In fact, by waiting for cyclists to ride on the sidewalk on this particular block and not just two blocks east, the NYPD is demonstrating a rather intuitive understanding of the concept that better infrastructure breeds better behavior.
Despite what the tabloids may tell their readers, most cyclists are rational actors. It’s the design of our streets and the priorities of our police department that are totally irrational.