For some, riding a bike is a hobby, a method of relaxation; for others it is a daily, relied upon mode of transportation. With the rise in popularity of bike riding and the influx of bike lanes popping up around the city, inexperienced riders, unlawful riders, uninformed drivers, and unaware pedestrians have given rise to bicycle related injuries and deaths throughout the five boroughs.
Many advocacy groups have formed around the consensus that the number of riders in the city has increased, and that laws need to be created or enforced and cyclists, drivers, and walkers need to be educated on the safe and legal ways to share the road.
Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood in Manhattan, is known for having a diverse repertoire of exotic cuisines, from Argentinean to Ethiopian, from Moroccan to Cajun. And although the neighborhood boasts its rich ethnic background, this array of restaurants results in an overabundance of cyclists, namely delivery people.
The area includes two bike lanes – one on 8th Avenue and one along the Hudson River, each at the opposite extreme of Hell’s Kitchen’s Eastern and Western boundaries, respectively. Bicycle riders do not have a designated safe place to ride, and often end up breaking the law to get around. When cyclists break the law, it is dangerous for them, pedestrians, and motorists.
The lack of education about riding safely around the city is one of the chief problems. With bike riding growing extremely popular, inexperienced riders are taking to the streets to get to work, save money, and help the planet. However, without knowing how to get around safely, new unlawful riders pose a threat to everyone on the road, and most infractions are caused by the unawareness of the wrongdoer.
There are many opportunities for riders, experienced or not, to learn about cycling safety. Bike New York, a cycling advocacy group that hosts events such as bike rides where the streets are closed to cars, uses its proceeds to support their Bicycle Education Program, which was started in 2004. This program offers free classes and training, and their website, http://www.bikenewyork.org, says that you can “Be a better urban biker! Get to know your bike, learn basic repairs and adjustments, and ride safely and confidently in traffic.” These skills can greatly reduce the amount of and the severity of injuries that occur from bike accidents caused by ignorance to the laws.
Kellin Bliss, who has been biking in the city since he moved here three years ago, doesn’t use a bike as his typical method of transportation. He says, “I only really ride my bike for pleasure. In the summer however it is nice to avoid the occasional cab fare, so I will take longer bike rides.” Although Bliss rides his bike around the city, he says, “I do not know anything about the safe biking initiatives.” This statement rings true with many riders around New York. Although groups like Bike New York, among others, encourage riders to learn the proper ways of riding in an urban environment, many of these plans have not been sufficiently advertised for riders to use the programs to their full potential.
The New York City Department of Transportation and Mayor’s office released a pamphlet entitled, “Bike Smart: The Official Guide to Cycling in New York City,” last updated in Spring 2010. The brochure explains very clearly and accurately how to use New York City’s three types of bike facilities: bike paths, bike lanes, and shared lanes. In all three types, unless noted, riders should ride in the direction of traffic, a law that is too often ignored. Many cyclists in Hell’s Kitchen go the wrong way on the roads, cutting corners very close, and riding on the sidewalk. This is very harmful to local residents, as sidewalks in the area tend to be narrow, forcing pedestrians to step off the sidewalk into the street to let a cyclist pass, or causing hesitation when crossing the street because bikes come from every direction.
The installation of parking protected bike paths around the city has led to a decrease in accidents. According to the NYCDOT pamphlet, “In Manhattan, parking protected bike paths have deduced bicycle, pedestrian and vehicular injuries by up to 48%.” The brochure also explains the how to safely make turns, how to use bike boxes, how to signal to cars and pedestrians, how to lock your bike up, how to safely and properly wear a helmet, light, reflector, and bell. According to the document, “Seventy four percent of cyclist fatalities result from head injuries.” The literature also states that “45% of bicyclist fatalities in New York City happen in the dark,” stressing the importance of obeying the New York State law which states that cyclists must use white front lights and red tail lights on their bike when they ride at night.
Although bike lanes, in general, are an improvement to the city, they lose their effectiveness if they are allowing, potentially even increasing, danger. In New York City, it seems that the bike lanes are encouraging more riders, yet creating an even more dangerous environment for them. Bliss agrees, saying, “On the whole, I think bike lanes need to be severely improved. Separated bike lanes are very useful if there is a physical barrier separating the lane from the road. I feel that more often than not, there isn’t a physical barrier. I feel like that is pointless because cars just consider it apart of the road. The way most bike lanes are situated, you will often see cars double parked in the bike lane, forcing bicyclists to enter traffic.”
The NYCDOT has an enlarged section on their website, www.nyc.gov, about cycling education, bike lanes, and more. According to New York State law, bicycles are considered vehicles, and therefore must follow the rules that apply to motor vehicles. Riding on the sidewalk is prohibited, unless the rider is 12 years old or younger.
Riding on the sidewalks is a big problem in Hell’s Kitchen. Streets like West 55th Street, West 50th Street, and 10th Avenue have larger, wider sidewalks, and are ideal for a cyclist trying to zoom through traffic. The problem is establishments are not educating their employees on the importance of bike safety, not only for the rider but for everyone else who is using the road as well.
The Midtown North Police Precinct has generated flyers to put in restaurants and throughout the neighborhood reminding offenders about the dangers of unlawful riding and of the fines that are issued to lawbreakers. At a Midtown North Community Council meeting in October, a representative of the Midtown North Precinct said that they are aware of the problem, and that they are working hard to reduce the number of occasions where unlawful riding takes place. Better enforcement is one way in which the precinct is trying to dissuade these criminals from breaking the law over and over again.
Many riders are outraged by the lack of enforcement regarding bicycle laws, designed to protect riders, just as they are about the lanes that are designed to protect them. Bliss says, “I feel like more enforced penalties and fines for drivers who violate the rules for bike lanes would be appropriate. More physically separate bike lanes are a must in my opinion; there should be no way for cars to enter a bike lane and vice versa.”
Although there are many separated bike lanes, cars can still enter them, and often police cars, marked and unmarked, idle in the lanes or drive through them to avoid traffic. “Law enforcement is using this space for their own personal driveway,” says Erica Breslow, a native Hell’s Kitchen resident and cycling enthusiast. “This forces cyclists to ride in traffic. Nothing irks me more than seeing a police car in a bike lane. They’re supposed to be protecting us, but instead they’re making the roads more dangerous for bike riders, drivers, and pedestrians alike. And the cyclists on the sidewalk? Well, they’re just being as reckless as possible. There is no reason to ride on the sidewalk. People come out of buildings and you don’t see them, children often play on the streets. Riding on the sidewalk is just asking for an accident,” she adds.
Although law enforcement is working to increase public awareness of bicycle traffic violation problems, some citizens don’t believe they are doing enough. Jack Brown, who runs the Coalition Against Rogue Riders, said in an email interview, “Responsible enforcement promotes responsible cycling.” Brown supports the increase in awareness and law enforcement regarding dangerous cycling habits, but feels that the NYPD has missed their chance to prepare for the increase in riders and the dangers being posed. Brown, via email, says the problem is now in the “Misjudgment of the attitudes unleashed and enabled by the extended lack of enforcement.”
Brown is also dissatisfied with the way Transportation Alternatives, another cycling advocacy group, has been handling the issue of dangerous riding. In the same interview, Brown said, “The city and T.A. have done a poor job of education, preparation, and enforcement.” He believes the group is the “acknowledged brain child of the Dept. of Transportation.” Although the Coalition Against Rogue Riding and Transportation Alternatives are both cycling activist groups in New York City, their views of the proper way to approach the problem vary, causing animosity between the groups.
Some bike safety groups in New York are doing a good job of promoting the proper education and implementation of safe riding. Fast’n’Fab, a New York based Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender bike club, holds weekly rides as well as special events and a monthly dinner hosted by members. “Our ride routes do not include sidewalks, or streets ridden in the wrong direction,” says club President, Gerry Oxford. The club plans to encourage safe riding, Oxford explains, “This year we hope to host workshops on how to ride safely, covering such topics as helmets, earwear, lights and road behavior.”
Oxford is dismayed by the outburst in dangerous riding in the city. He says, “As a longtime bike rider in NYC, most of the time in Manhattan, I have to say that I think this issue is being misrepresented in the press. I feel that the streets of the city have become considerably more dangerous in the past few years, for riders as well as pedestrians, not because all bike riders are behaving badly, but because [a] fast-growing segment of bike riders is doing so.” He continues to explain, “I’m talking about the delivery men, of course, who ride without lights, without respect for street direction, without stopping for lights, and who use the newly developed bike lanes as their own fiefdom, riding on them in whatever direction suits them.”
With his own experiences haunting him, Oxford has had personal experience with the dangers of riding in the city. “I’ve had two minor accidents in the past six months, both due to the reckless riding of delivery men.” Delivery riders are a big issue in Hell’s Kitchen, and in the city. There have been plans to license the bikes, and to place obvious logos or insignias representing where they are working, so that if an incident occurs, the proper people are contacted, and so that when unlawful riding is witnessed, a fine can be charged to the restaurant as well as the rider.
Many think this is a good idea, including Oxford, who says, “Personally I think that the city should look to licensing delivery bikers, with a system in place to ensure that any restaurant whose delivery bikes break the law more than a couple of times loses the right to have delivery bikes.” These plans, however, have not yet come to fruition.
Pedestrians are not strictly victims in bicycle related crimes. Many times, bike-pedestrian accidents are caused because the pedestrians aren’t obeying the rules of the road. “Pedestrians think they can cross the street wherever they like, because they have the ‘right of way,’ Breslow explains. “But having the ‘right of way’ does not make it okay for you to walk into a bike lane, hail a cab, wait for traffic to pass to cross, or do anything for that matter. The bike lane is for cyclists – not motorists, not pedestrians, not police officers, cyclists.” Oxford agrees, saying, “And then of course there’s the appalling behavior of pedestrians, who frequently treat cyclists as if they didn’t exist, even when [cyclists] have the right of way.”
Bike safety is a problem throughout New York City, and in an area like Hell’s Kitchen, which is filled with restaurants, and delivery people on bikes, there needs to be a better solution to education and enforcement of the laws created to protect everyone who shares the road. Advocacy groups, who seem to share a common goal, disagree about the best path to follow. Many argue that education and enforcement would lower the risk of injury and death by cycling accidents, if only the cause were more widespread and publicized. At Unfortunately, pedestrians, motorists, and cyclists have yet to find a way to coexist safely.