Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Brooklyn Bikers

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Robert Sullivan on the NYTimes argues for bikers to reach a higher level of “civility” to show good faith in Bloomberg’s recent travails concerning favorable bike policies. I agree on principle, but not how he envisions it.

For starters, it’s clear that Sullivan and I are different types of bikers. As in an earlier post I made, I pointed out the different habits of Brooklyn and Manhattan traffic flow and thus biker attitude, and I believe Brooklyn is affecting his view more than Manhattan.

Now, let me get the agreements out of the way: Yes, I do believe the new bicycle infrastructure is succeeding in a number of ways of separating bike traffic and car traffic, and one of the unfortunate side effects is that bike traffic is paired with the much slower (and less regulated) foot traffic. Unfortunately, I would have to disagree in how this came about: Sullivan thinks the bike lanes are a generally good thing. I don’t.

What bike lanes do is force the biker into the shoulder of large thoroughfares, which means that they’re now at the mercy of jaywalkers, delivery trucks and taxis making pickups or dropoffs (and their oblivious hailing passengers-to-be) and even crowds of people midtown when they spill out past the sidewalk to wait for the light, when the bikers should be going with the traffic flow. Moreover, bike lanes don’t address the dangerous circumstances as they are: Intersections. Bike lanes are designed for thoroughfares, a location where relatively few accidents occurred anyway as everybody’s driving the same direction, but increase chances at collisions in intersections, because they’re essentially adding a second, third, fourth place for drivers to look out for traffic when making turns and drivers don’t do that. Not to mention that they make turns on the side opposite the lane more difficult for the bikers.

Worse yet are the bike “paths,” which are lanes painted on pedestrian thoroughfares. This is rot. Bikes are motor vehicles (hell, I have the law on my side on that one, Sullivan) and it’s just bad planning to have a vehicle capable of 30mph on the same path in the same direction as pedestrians. Drawing a bike path down a long straightaway like, say, Riverside Park and the path along the whole west side of Manhattan, and expecting bikers not to barrel down them is like, say, making two-lane roads 36+ feet wide and expecting cars not to speed. The engineer’s utopia exists only on paper.

All this, however, is Manhattan I’m talking about. Brooklyn, as I said before, is a bunch of tree-lined one-lane one-way streets with little traffic interspersed around car levees – highways in all but name – that divide the speed between cars and bikes as starkly as possible. As such, Manhattan’s all about inserting yourself into vehicular traffic, Brooklyn’s all about avoiding it.  Thus, etiquette in Brooklyn differs. Bikers, eschewing cars and large streets altogether, are paired up with pedestrian flow more often and bike lanes then become a courtesy not to bikers but to pedestrians, as they ostensibly add predictability to biker flow. I’m not sure I agree with this entirely, as I find a bike lane on a one-lane one-way street somewhat superfluous, especially with double-parkers, but it is an argument that can be made. But as I said earlier, all these egregious offenders of general bike etiquette I usually see in Brooklyn – the baby seats in traffic, the headphones – as those bikers don’t deal with traffic as we know it.

The difference between Manhattan and Brooklyn is that Manhattan traffic is slower. All streets have on-street parking, car flow is ridiculously heavy all the time, and all drivers are used to – trained, even – dealing with pedestrians who view jaywalking as a god-given right like breathing or hating the Red Sox. Bikers thus have temperate, relatively observant drivers to deal with and a traffic flow they can keep up with. This is a smarter solution than creating infrastructure to separate bikers from traffic AND bikers from pedestrians, because there, quite simply, isn’t enough room for the most part for all that street furniture. Manhattan’s already not car-oriented. Brooklyn still is, to an extent, but considering how dangerous the bike path along the West Side Highway in Manhattan is (counted in sheer number of biker deaths), traffic calming measures would probably get more mileage than even physically separated bike lanes.

Ironically, as an aside, the Manhattan Bridge is safer and better both for bikers and pedestrians than the Brooklyn Bridge, mainly because the Manhattan bridge separates bikers from pedestrians, but that’s something of a happy coincidence considering the original design of the bridge.

Now, I also agree that certain bikers can be less asinine. Critical Mass, for instance, who purposefully block traffic and buzz pedestrians in a bid to be more visible (and visibility is not one of our weakest points, I also concede). I don’t ride on the sidewalk on principle – I’m a motorist, as I said earlier. I tend to avoid extended routes the wrong way down one-way streets (the exception being when I’m making a stop on that block) because it’s inconvenient and dangerous for me, too.

I’m not about to stop running red lights, however, because the entire benefit of street biking – as a messenger and a commuter, of which I was and am – is in making decent time, and waiting a minute every three blocks counteracts the entire benefit of speed. This isn’t to say I wantonly barrel through 34th Street or cross 7th Avenue without looking. But if I see an opportunity, I take it. To go back to attitudes, I don’t bike for my health; I bike to get somewhere, and until that becomes viable, biking will be a hobbyist’s realm only.

Now, I’ve never hit a pedestrian or been hit by a car in NYC. I have, however, been socked by a pedestrian for barreling down the bike lane he was standing in while he stared off into the middle distance for a cab. I’ve never collided with a car, but I have been cut off by cars making turns at intersections and by buses making deep inroads to the shoulder at bus stops because I stayed in the bike lane instead of the opposite, safe side of such drivers.

I’ve had pedestrians yell at me for running red lights, sure, but I’ve also had pedestrians yell at me when they were the ones going against the light. Quite frankly, all this rules-bound etiquette really boils down to one thing and one thing only:


That’s it. Expect bikers. Expect pedestrians. Expect cars. The more you look, the less likely you’ll be surprised. Pedestrians wearing blinders because the sign says walk are as dumb as drivers who wear blinders because the light is green. Biking’s easier than driving in the sense that eye contact is very easy to make. Do so.

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2 Responses to “Brooklyn Bikers”

  1. Broken Record « Big Smoke
    on Mar 10th, 2009
    @ 10:33 am

    […] argued earlier that bike lanes put me on the wrong side of turning traffic and add yet another place for people to […]

  2. Try-Hards « Big Smoke
    on Sep 11th, 2011
    @ 8:42 pm

    […] street after street with bike lanes – even though I believe the bike lanes themselves are somewhat pointless and at times counter-productive – as he’s increased the profile of biking as a viable means of transit, but dear lord […]

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