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Schwartz, Soffian, and the So-Called “Bike War.”

September 25, 2013

First, the obvious: Sam Schwartz is a great friend to cyclists and pedestrians.  He was an early fan of bike sharing, has long been a cheerleader for Janette Sadik-Khan, and envisions a future in which New York’s rivers are crisscrossed with new bridges exclusively for people on two wheels or two feet.  So when he and former DOT Deputy Commissioner Gerard Soffian claim that they “ride bikes in the city regularly, are card-carrying Citi Bike members, and have engineered many of the city’s bike lanes” as they do in today’s Daily News, they aren’t trying to use the old “Some of my best friends are bike lanes” excuse.  They mean it.

Despite the clichéd “bike war” language of the headline and the reference to “peace in the Middle East” in the kicker, a close reading of Schwartz and Soffian’s piece reveals something extraordinary: a city that’s moved beyond the bikelash.  Indeed, it isn’t until three paragraphs from the end that the writers present this rather sensible proposal:

…start to accept that bike riders shouldn’t have to follow all of the rules established for car drivers, since cyclists navigate the road more like pedestrians than cars. Allow for turns on red after stops and when there are no pedestrians. In lower-volume outer borough communities, consider allowing bikes to ride straight through on red after a stop, again when safe to do so.

It’s a sign of New York’s maturing relationship with bicycles that we are moving away from the outdated notion that cyclists and drivers must be subject to the same rules no matter the circumstance, and Schwartz and Soffian should be applauded for presenting this idea seriously.  While I have some minor quibbles–there are plenty of lower-volume inner borough intersections where allowing cyclists to proceed straight on red would be reasonable–the very fact that this proposal has made its way into one of the city’s major dailies is an encouraging step on the road to rationalizing traffic laws for people who travel by bicycle.

Schwartz and Soffian offer other smart, if somewhat obvious suggestions, such as keeping drivers out of bike lanes and cracking down on cyclists who violate the law, hopefully in a manner that actively targets the most dangerous behavior.  Changing the penalty structure so that fines for cyclists and drivers are commensurate with the threat posed by each mode is also a worthy effort and would send a powerful message that not all offenses are created equal.

What Schwartz and Soffian suggest doing with the money from such a crackdown, however, leaves something to be desired:

Lastly, use some of the revenue collected from bikers to launch a public education program.

While much is made of the “Three E’s” of traffic calming–engineering, enforcement, and education–numerous attempts to teach the public about the rules of the road have shown that education is typically the shortest leg of the stool.  That may be because education relies on an impossibility in a city as big and diverse as New York: that the people being educated today will always be the same people using the street tomorrow.

The DOT can tell cyclists to stop being jerks, but it isn’t until separated bike lanes are installed that sidewalk riding goes down significantly… and permanently.  So perhaps a better place to steer the money would be into cycling infrastructure projects that make compliance with the law not just obligatory, but safe and attractive.

Schwartz and Soffian are not wrong to suggest that a little more respect for the rules of the road would be helpful.  That no cyclist has killed a pedestrian in years is cold comfort to those who cling to their increasingly futile opposition to bike lanes and other provisions for cycling, and no advocate can afford to discount a person’s perception of their own safety.  But fear and anecdotes, including Schwartz and Soffian’s unscientific observation of busy Manhattan intersections, should not rule the day.  As the two men remind readers, despite the perceived dangers posed by red-light-running cyclists or pedestrians who blindly step into bike lanes, it remains a fact that drivers still kill around 150 people each year.

If the next mayor is to continue the dramatic increase in cycling New York has experienced since 2007, then managing the “tensions between drivers, bikers, and walkers” will only get him so far.   As Schwartz and Soffian eventually conclude, it will take a serious re-evaluation of the legal and physical space in which cycling currently exists in our city.

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14 Comments
  1. Jesse permalink
    September 25, 2013 4:22 pm

    I liked this piece but I had a few quibbles too. The first was the 50-2 ratio of cyclist infractions to motorist infractions. The fact that the number of motorist infractions was so low just means to me that they didn´t have a speed gun or they weren´t watching a street with a bike lane or they simply didn´t count all the aggressive “yields” to pedestrians when turning. Whatever, this is not a big deal since they didn´t actually condemn cyclists for breaking the rules.

    The second issue was this: “Meanwhile, bike riders need to recognize that more than a million and a half people enter Manhattan every day by car; they are not evil beings, but essential to our vitality.” What a blatant straw man! No one argues that people who drive in are evil and should be denied access to the city. Many, including Schwartz himself, argue that maybe that should be treated as a privilege and not an absolute right. And that drivers don´t operate in a vaccuum: their decisions affect other people. They should pay for that privilege and they shouldn´t be given blind deference to the extent that they tyrannize almost 100% of the street space in all 5 boroughs, thereby depriving actual residents of space in their own communities.

  2. September 25, 2013 5:14 pm

    My big beef? This paragraph which HAS to be a typo:

    “We spent a few hours out on busy Manhattan streets counting violations. Not a scientific examination, but better than pure anecdote. We saw about 50 violations an hour by bikes (meaning the pedestrians aren’t crazy) and one to two an hour by cars, as well as countless by pedestrians (meaning the bikers aren’t crazy).

    One or two? I see at least that many at every intersection by cars each cycle. Should be it one or two HUNDRED?

    Just what were they counting? Did they count just car red light running? How about crosswalk incursions? Driver cell phone use? Cars parking in bike lanes or double parking? Not yielding to pedestrians? Aggressive turning? Speeding (did they have a radar gun?

    The article is not very clear. Although I do like many of the ideas presented and think our next mayor should consult with Gridlock Sam to think outside the box, I’d love to see some of their data on this statement.

    • Andres Dee permalink
      September 26, 2013 2:37 pm

      Clarence, I was thinking along the same lines. The reality of a “busy Manhattan street” serves as a check on car behavior and artificially lowers the rate of “violations”. In Midtown, peds rule: Cars can’t really bully peds at the crosswalks. Speeding is difficult to impossible. A more valid test would be a less dense street, where motorists routinely cut peds off (and those who don’t get beeped from behind).

      I’m not sanguine about changing the rules of the road for cyclists. The rules are confusing enough as is (example: some people believe that cyclists are supposed to be on the sidewalk, others believe that cyclists are supposed to face traffic, like those educational materials from AAA telling us as kids how to walk when there’s no sidewalk). To add variations, is just potentially disastrous.

      A missed opportunity was to call for the authorities to differentiate between the “casual” violators (cyclists who run reds, salmon or use the sidewalks at slow to moderate speeds and who defer to peds) and the “aggressive” ones, cyclists who drive fast and make clear that as a ped, they will run you down if you don’t yield. The “casual” violators are easy pickings for the cops, but the bigger problem and harder to ticket, IMHO, are the “aggressives”.

      Finally, these traffic engineers totally dropped the ball on what is expected of motorists.

  3. September 25, 2013 6:03 pm

    Note that 50-2 can be interpreted in a way that is rather more favorable to the bicycles — at that allegedly appalling rate of infractions, bicycles kill zero pedestrians per year (most years), cars kill 150. This suggests that applying traffic laws to bicycles serves no objectively useful purpose — if they break them that often and nothing bad happens, why do we have the law (for bikes) in the first place?

    But on the other hand, really? 50-2?

    I expect, when confronted with this logic, to see the car-happy respond with “wait, we break the law plenty much too”.

  4. Andy B from Jersey permalink
    September 25, 2013 6:17 pm

    Uhhhh… Errrr….

    Sam Schwarz should come to Idaho first and see how the privilage of treating stops signs as yeilds and red lights as stop signs, often called the Idaho Stop, is totallay abused by cyclists out here. Yes it works great in THEORY but in actual practice, I’m afraid American cyclists are too imature and irresponsible. I could give dozens of examples of this privilage being abuse while I’ve live here in Idaho but the most aggregous happend just the other night. While driving my car I almost hit a guy who blew through a red light at 20mph and who also had no lights on his ike even though it appeared the bike was worth several thousand dollars. The only reason why I feel that there hasn’t been more crashed caused by this rule is because Idaho is one of the least densly populated states in the nation. You’re just less likely to crash into someone blowing a stop or a red if the roads are empty.

    • wkgreen permalink
      September 25, 2013 11:00 pm

      As I understand the Idaho Stop Law, it allows cyclists to proceed through an intersection after coming to a full stop and then only if it is clear of vehicles and pedestrians. If one blows through “at 20 MPH” in the way that you describe that would be against the law anywhere, Idaho included. This would be a problem of enforcement. And cyclists are no more immature or irresponsible, or less law abiding in any other aspect, than anyone else in American society. When such a large group is seemingly flouting the law with near unanimity, it’s time to look at the nature of the activity that they are engaged in and make changes to the rules. On the other hand, most cyclists in NYC don’t blow reds for reasons of personal and public safety. They usually stop or slow down until all is clear. If there is a difference between Idaho and NYC in that respect then that may also be a result of density that you mention. When we have rules with rational penalties that everyone can live with they need to be vigorously enforced.

  5. Jesse permalink
    September 25, 2013 6:56 pm

    Ok honestly I still don’t see why people are so in love with bikes. They’re just mini-cars, that burn hamburgers instead of gasoline. The only problem with ANY mode of transit is that it doesn’t compensate society for the externalities it produces (often this has a lot to do with subsidies, especially for bikes and cars). That’s it. If cyclists paid the roughly $2.50 per day it would take to cover there externalities, which includes parking, and lane construction, then I’d say the city has a maturing relationship and I’d welcome more biking. At this point advocating biking is like advocating diet soda, just because its slightly better doesn’t mean it’s “good” for you or society. You can’t have sustainable transit unless it pays for itself and for some reason in this country we think that cheap transit, particularly cheap personal transit, is our god given right, its totally nuts.

    • Andy B from Jersey permalink
      September 25, 2013 7:18 pm

      Uhhh, Jesse. You do realize that a good portion of the construction and maintenance costs for city roads are paid for through property and other city taxes. The reality is that those who drive cars are driving on roads subsidized by everyone and in NYC a large percentage of “everyone” are people who don’t drive at all. Those that ride bikes already pay for the roads they ride on through their property and other city taxes.

      Taking your logic one step further you might expect pedestrians to pay to walk on the sidewalk.

      With regards.

    • September 25, 2013 7:59 pm

      Nobody pays their way, and bikes are darn sure less subsidized than cars. Should I therefore assume that you are even more enthusiastic about banning cars? It’s estimated that driving a car into NYC costs other people $160 just for the time lost to delays, never mind the 150 pedestrians killed, never mind the noise, pollution, and wear and tear on the roads, never mind all the space wasted for parking.

    • September 25, 2013 8:26 pm

      Should pedestrians pay for sidewalks and the negative externalities of walking?

  6. Joe permalink
    September 25, 2013 10:01 pm

    After nearly being hit by a car today (NY plate “ROAD 64”) and knowing that calling 911 will have zero effect because our police department is out-to-lunch when it comes to traffic enforcement against psychopathic drivers I don’t have much sympathy for allowing car drivers into the CBD outside some restricted hours (1am to 5am maybe). Just ban cars in the CBD and institute a 15 mph speed limit in the rest of the city with strict camera enforcement and tickets at $10 per lb of vehicle weight * mph over the speed limit. Soon our vehicular homicide rate would fall below our gun homicide rate and the impact on the vitality of the city would be entirely positive as New Yorkers could begin to cross streets again without undue fear of death.

    PS I’d allow for certain exceptions to the no motor vehicles in CBD during peak hours, but the drivers would need to be women or castrated men who have driven the same type of vehicle for at least 20 years in another city, be between the ages of 40 and 45 and have no tickets on their driving records; with monthly tests in a simulator to verify they haven’t lost their superior driving skills. This way you could still have motorized ambulances and firetrucks, but you’d have someone behind the wheel who won’t drive like the typical asshole NYC driver.

    All of this said a NYC driver who would gladly give up this privilege for a better city.

  7. MGH permalink
    September 26, 2013 2:56 pm

    IMHO, this is just a cultural thing. I ride a bike daily and most people I encounter that run a red light, don’t have a reason at all to do so in the first place. I’ve heard all the excuses and, again IMHO, I can only accept a very few of them. It’s not hard to just wait out a red light. It’s not hard to NOT go against traffic.

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