Rolling toward a safer city for cyclists

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | I’ve wanted to write a column on biking in the city for a while now. Somehow, though, despite thinking about it a lot, I always end up putting it on the back burner each week as something more pressing invariably comes up.

Yet now we are facing a crisis as the number of cyclists’ deaths so far this year in the Big Apple has already spiked to 18 — nearly double the 10 deaths for all of last year. Cyclist injuries are also on the rise.

I’ve always wanted to write a cycling column focusing on the fun and freedom of riding a bike in the city. But the mounting deaths are a grim reminder of just how dangerous it remains to pedal a bike on Gotham’s mean streets.

That’s why the bike lanes are so crucial. I definitely “stay in my lane.” I feel safe in the lanes. I can ride a CitiBike from my work in Downtown Brooklyn to my home in East Midtown Manhattan, 4.6 miles, in just over a half hour — and the entire trip is in a protected bike lane: Jay St. to the Manhattan Bridge, then up Allen St. and First Ave.

It’s faster for me than commuting by subway — by 15 minutes.

Biking over the bridge is great cardio, and a side benefit is I find I think things through while doing it. Somehow by the time I reach the span’s midpoint, things on my mind resolve, and then I’m happily flying down the other side.

Of course, there’s also the health benefit, both physical and mental. Small annoyances fade much more quickly after a good bike ride, and your body feels energized. Just the act of riding feels liberating — because it is.

A photo, from around one year ago, of a kiosk that tallies bike rides over the Manhattan Bridge. (Photo by Lincoln Anderson)

At the bottom of the Manhattan Bridge there’s a kiosk with an L.E.D. display showing how many cyclists have used the bridge so far this year — well over 600,000 — and how many each day, usually somewhere around 7,000 or so in the warm weather, I think. (Somehow, I never actually seem to be riding by it at 11:59 p.m. to check the day’s final tally.)

The bike lane on Allen St. is one of my favorites. At one point, the lane actually veers up onto the mall and you’re riding along a landscaped path with flowers and tall grasses along the sides while dodging the occasional low-hanging branch and you sometimes can even hear crickets — in the concrete jungle. It’s like a little, refreshing, meditative nature ride, and all the while you’re totally safe from traffic, up on the mall.

But if you really want to hear crickets, try the Hudson River bikeway. I heard a virtual cricket concert there riding along the path’s Chelsea section this past Friday evening.

No question, the bike lanes have increased cyclists’ safety. Just look at the relatively new two-way lane on the east side of Chrystie St. on the Lower East Side/Chinatown, which I take on my way to work. Before, there were separate one-way bike lanes on each side of the street, and the Downtown one ran right past all kinds of lumber stores and beer outlets, with forklifts constantly backing up into the bike lane. Now, with the two-way lane on the east side of the street, the cyclists are safe — but those riding Downtown have to go slowly and ring their bells so crossing pedestrians look out for them.

Granted, though, the lanes aren’t perfect. Sometimes you get people going the wrong way in them — bikers, skateboarders, delivery guys on e-bikes — and pedestrians using them as a sidewalk extension. If the lane is protected by a row of parked cars, you always still can get “doored,” so you have to ride cautiously. And, even if I’m in a bike lane, I’m always looking over my shoulder when I go through an intersection to check for turning cars.

Most drivers, I find, though, are pretty considerate, to be honest. Especially lately, maybe because of the awareness over cyclist fatalities, I’m finding a lot of drivers and cabbies are stopping before making their left turns, going out of their way to let cyclists go by first before completing their turns. As I pass, I usually nod my head or flick my fingers on my right hand a bit while not letting go of the handlebar, to thank them for letting me go first.

I grew up in New York City before there really were any bike lanes. Sure, there were the Central Park and Prospect Park loops on the weekends or after work, but that was it. Looking back now, I sort of can’t believe I actually rode around town on the streets with traffic.

One summer when I was in college, I was even a bike messenger, as that seemed like a cool way to make some spending money for the school year. I remember one image: A messenger who wore a lacrosse helmet and shoulder and kneepads for safety. As much as protection, it was a statement, too — that it’s a war out there.

I, though, didn’t last. After a few days, I literally was terrified to go back out on the streets. I just sensed it was going to end badly because I was out there for hours at a time, pedaling hard in the summer swelter, getting tired — plus my bike wasn’t even that great, just my Dad’s three-speed. No one really wore helmets back then. It just seemed way too dangerous. But now, with the bike lanes, it would be a piece of cake.

I remember, another summer, biking up Fifth Ave. and Adam Purple — the Lower East Side “gardens godfather” — biking past me and handing me one of his rolled-up fliers for some protest or be-in. He was likely heading up to Central Park to scoop up a fresh load of horse poop to fertilize his Garden of Eden.

Admittedly, though, the lanes can get jammed up, such as by slower cyclists. Robyn Hightman, a 20-year-old bike messenger, was reportedly riding outside the bike lane at Sixth Ave. and 23rd St. in Chelsea, when she was fatally hit by a truck. Other messengers said that it’s common at that spot to zip outside the lane for a block or so, then duck back into it.

I found myself doing the same thing about a week later at 23rd St. and First Ave. when a pack of cyclists in front of me were too slow. But I really looked over my shoulder for traffic as I was doing it, and luckily there wasn’t any on the street at the time.

While I really do like the bike lanes, I am not a big fan of “sharrows,” which bikes and cars supposedly can “share.” These are totally unprotected areas that cars can drive onto — so it’s basically at the driver’s discretion whether she goes into them. There are sharrows near the Queens Midtown Tunnel that I ride in, but I really don’t like doing it. Obviously, the sharrows are there because the Department of Transportation doesn’t want to “block” drivers from getting to their precious tunnel, but it’s simply dangerous for cyclists. If I’m feeling tired or just leery, I ride my bike slowly along the sidewalk (which is never too crowded) until I get to 34th St. and Second Ave., where the protected bike lane begins.

Even protected bike paths aren’t always safe. A “ghost bike” marks the spot on the heavily used Hudson River bikeway toward the north side of Pier 40, at W. Houston St., where Eric Ng, an N.Y.U. graduate, was killed in 2006 by a drunken East Village man who drove his car onto the bike path following a company party at Chelsea Piers. Ten other cyclists have been killed on the bike path, including eight on Halloween in 2017 by a truck-driving terrorist. (File photo)

Upper West Sider Olga Cook was biking on the Hudson River bike path in June 2016 when she was fatally struck at the Chambers St. intersection by a truck making a right turn from the West Side Highway. (File photo)

“Staying in my lane,” so to speak, I really haven’t had any problems. There was one time, though, I was really flying up Allen St. on a CitiBike (albeit in a “sharrow” zone that always puts me on high alert) and zooming across the E. Houston St. intersection, but then something told me to slow down. And it was a good thing, because someone had thrown down a French gate-style metal fence right in the bike lane, and if I had hit that, it would have been a mess. In general, a good rule — even with bike lanes — is to know your route and never ride out of control.

Yes, sure, I see some cyclists out there who blow through red lights. Personally, I always stop at the special bicycle stoplights on 14th and 23rd Sts. along First and Second Aves. Again, it’s just safer. The only time I really make bad moves is if I’m rushing, and usually I regret it.

The Friday night after Hightman’s tragic death, I was in Chelsea for an offbeat dinner party I regularly go to. Afterward, I went by the white “ghost bike” memorial to her by the curb on Sixth Ave. It was festooned with flowers, messages, candles. I spoke to a young woman who had also come by to pay her respects. Taking a working break from college in Europe, she lives in Brooklyn and bikes to East Midtown every day, 8 miles each way.

Glancing over at the sidewalk, she said in her country, there would be a wide bike lane there and it would be raised above street level to protect it from traffic.

I said something about New York City always valuing speed and business, which maybe is why cars are prioritized.

“This country is great, but in some ways this country sucks,” she said, sadly. “It’s pissing on the little guy,” she said, of cars mowing down cyclists and the lack of more protected spaces for biking.

I reassured her that while we are not there yet, we’re getting there, that young people, especially, want to be able to bike safely in the city, and that, gradually, it will happen.

We touched on the fact — probably I brought it up — that Hightman was killed after she veered out of the bike lane, and I said I never do that — only, of course, to actually do it myself a few days later. That’s because, she explained, I have a “reverse commute,” so the lanes I’m riding in aren’t as crowded. Yup, she was right.

(The dinner party’s hostess later told me that she had seen the scene after Hightman’s death — the truck was still there — and that the cyclist actually had been trying to go from the right side of the avenue to the left side, where the bike lane is.)

A pedicab driver came biking by with two fares, calling out to them, explaining the white ghost bike, “…and her name was Robyn.”

The young Euro biker and I eventually said goodbye to each other.

CitiBikes are a safe and fast way to get around the city. (Photo by Lincoln Anderson)

As usual, I pedaled home on a CitiBike, along the new protected crosstown bike lane on 26thSt. There’s a ghost bike there, too, just past Eighth Ave. A small sign notes it’s for Dan Hanegby, 36, who was killed by a bus in June 2017. His death — the first of a CitiBike rider — led to the creation of that crosstown bike lane and also one on 29th St., which I also use when I’m going to the Friday night party.

Sadly, Hanegby died on an unsafe street that today — because of his tragic death — I ride on in safety.

We should all be able to bike safely.

Although I strongly support bike lanes, I totally empathize with Villagers who feel the new crosstown ones on 12th and 13th Sts. are misplaced on their narrow side streets. There really should be community buy-in. At the same time, these bike lanes are great for cycling because they are wide, with a healthy buffer zone. I frequently use the one on 12th St. when I’m biking home from visiting a friend at Westbeth.

In addition to the bike lanes, CitiBikes also make cycling safer — because they are pretty slow, sturdy, with fat tires that roll right over potholes and excellent brakes. Hard to believe, but I’ve been a CitiBike member for nearly six years now. It took a bit of getting used to riding on what, at first, felt like a clunky gym exercise bike, but I was soon riding them everywhere.

According to my account, I’ve logged (or slogged?) 1,709 CitiBike trips, traveling an estimated 2,868 miles — or 100 miles more than the distance from New York City to Los Angeles. So, basically, I’ve biked across the country. In doing so, my account info tells me, I have not spewed 2,329 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. So I guess that’s my little part of a Green New Deal.

We might not be Copenhagen yet, in terms of a safe bicycling culture. But I think we’ll get there. More bike lanes will make cycling in the city safer. Cyclists must do their part, too, by riding safely and deferring to pedestrians — especially mobility- and balance-challenged elders, who are fragile and can be badly injured in falls.

Meanwhile, things change. You don’t see messengers riding around decked out in “armor” anymore. Adam Purple, that combustion engine-hating paragon of pedal power…well, it turned out he had a very dark side as a sex abuser. And now we have the ever-growing bike-lane network and bike-sharing. And we have a City Council speaker who has vowed to “break car culture.”

But we still have cyclists dying — more than before. Many of the deaths have been in Brooklyn on streets without bike lanes. In response, at the end of last month, the mayor announced the city would create 10 “bike priority districts” in Brooklyn and Queens, plus add 30 miles of new protected bike lanes per year — up from the previous 20 per year. Obviously, that’s going to have a huge impact.

As the saying goes, and for safety: “Stay in your lane.”

Anderson is the editor in chief of The Villager, Chelsea Now, Downtown Express and Manhattan Express.

16 Responses to Rolling toward a safer city for cyclists

  1. Thank you for writing this and balancing a little bit all the hatred towards using a bicycle as means of transportation in the city.

    Please elaborate more on your sympathy for “Villagers who feel the new crosstown ones on 12th and 13th Sts. are misplaced on their narrow side streets.” 12th and 13th streets are not narrower then the 26 and 29th streets which have the praised crosstown bike lanes.

    The nice thing about Copenhagen or any other city (Paris, London, Stockholm, any such city) who prioritizes bike infrastructure is the ability it gives the elders in society to bike safely. When you go out on the street in europe you see a high portion of the people using a bicycle are over 60. Safe infrastructure allows more age groups to have more mobility.

  2. Maybe it’s just time to ban bicycles. They’ve proven to be highly dangerous to their own riders.

  3. Agree with many of your points, but I don’t think we’re going to transform nyc into another Amsterdam, nor should we want to.
    NYC needs a diverse set of transportation options, which includes private automobiles as a major component in that mix.

    • Where will you find the space in Manhattan for a plan that “includes private automobiles as a major component in that mix” ? Are you going to limit the amount of vehicles allowed to drive through the neighborhood or just allow unlimited growth in a limited space ?

    • New York City has almost 10 million people. It is the worst possible place to use a car; the more drivers on the street, the more pollution and asthma-related deaths, the more traffic jams and lost time and productivity, and more traffic fatalities. We should be doing everything to discourage the use of private cars and everything to encourage the use of public transport and bicycling/scooters/other non-polluting personal transportation options.

  4. Thank you for a thoughtful, encouraging article for bike riders.

    I just want to add another wonderful route: You can bike safely along the East River from 37th St. to the Battery along a promenade. It’s fabulous.

    Unfortunately, the city plans to close and demolish East River Park and Stuyvesant Cove Park, taking out 2 1/2 miles of promenade. Next year, the parks will be bulldozed for an unnecessarily drastic flood control plan. The park will be closed for years while it’s rebuilt 8 feet higher.

    The city said that the many bikes that use the path can just use the bike paths on 1st and 2nd Avenues, which are already crowded. If you’re a biker, tell your City Council member (especially Carlina Rivera, whose district the park is in) to stop this plan. There are better, less destructive plans that will give us flood control and not kill our park.

  5. this is excellent and thoughtful.

    my parents live in the west village, and i ride down to see them every week along the new 7th avenue bike lane. this is a life-saving lane for me, and I often see more people riding than cars (at all times other than rush hour.)

    as for the “progressives” who fight against bike lanes: i get it. you don’t want some random immigrant who is just bringing you your food hot and fresh to have safe ride. after all, they are different and lesser than you. that’s your argument for trying to make sure their lives are more dangerous, right? and when they, forced by the lousy pay and the fact that they have no benefits and are paid per delivery, go the wrong way down a street, you don’t even need to consider why they might be making that decision, because you are progressive! you live in the village! you probably give to the ACLU!

    and global warming and cars, and asthma and cars, and 6 lane “avenues” which are just highways eating up space that could be wider sidewalks, more cafe space, parks and so on…who wants any of that when you can have your 4,000 lb personal vehicle that you store for free on the street. what could be more progressive than that.

    • Until bike riders are required to take at least a short course in rules of the road and accident prevention, the prevalence of idiot scofflaws on bikes will continue to be the main source of safety risk in our city. Like other work commuters, I rode my bike here in the city for 30 years without incident, but I was a trained motorist FIRST. You really can share the road without the annoying bike lanes… The very presence of bike lanes gives bikers a sense of entitlement which allows all too many of us to take incredible risks and make thoughtless mistakes – especially around pedestrians. For everyone’s sake, ride only in the direction of traffic, obey every street light and sign, and NO PHONES!

  6. I’ve ridden on the 12th/13th and 26th/29th lanes often and they are vastly different. 26th and 29th are a few feet wider, so parking was maintained on both sides and the bike lanes are a narrow 4 feet wide, between the parking and the curb. 52nd and 55th are currently being updated with this same design. On 12th and 13th, there was not enough space to do this, so parking had to be removed on one side and the bike lanes are 6 feet wide. They are “protected” by flimsy bollards and a wide buffer, but are sometimes blocked by illegally parked vehicles.

  7. Thanks Lincoln for sharing your musings on your experience getting around our crazy city on two wheels. You help break down the bewildering misunderstanding that holds out that cyclists are some kind of alien race and a blindness toward the great majority of us, who are simply trying to get from place to place without endangering our neighbors in the way that car-driving does.

    However I have no love lost for our neighbors on 12th and 13th Sts. who believe that their convenience to occupy our public space with their private property – without paying, even! – is a higher priority that everyone else’s ability to get around without risking life and limb. The whole city is changing, indeed the whole world. In enlightened cities, it’s not acceptable to make some people suffer on buses that don’t move or non-functioning sidewalks and deadly crosswalks while a small class tries to preserve their unsustainable private auto usage. What works in an abandoned urban wasteland does not in a vibrant modern city.

  8. I predict that this discussion will only escalate – selfish and self-righteous are the loudest on both sides of the issue. I have lived in NYC since 1974 – Lower East Side since 1977. I rode my bike safely for many years to work jobs midtown, upper west side, West village and World Finance Center. I managed just fine without bike lanes. As a pedestrian, however, I have been struck twice by bicyclists riding on the sidewalk – one of those occasions I had to be treated in a hospital and the bike tore up my only good suit which I was wearing on way to a job interview. Disclaimer: I also own a car. I regularly transport seniors, like myself and boxes of goods between our church and senior centers… YOu do not have to be old… only out of shape or have a health issue, to make the decision that it is not smart to ride a bike anywhere except along the East or West side river-ways, or such as Central Park… Riding a bike to “get your exercise while going to and from work” is selfish and inconsiderate of pedestrians… it raises RISKS to pedestrians… especially to seniors. The misuse of bike lanes and scofflaw cyclists are a much greater danger to pedestrians than motorized traffic… which, for the most part HAVE to follow the rules of the road or suffer consequences…. bicycle/pedestrian mishaps are hugely underestimated… police are not usually called so there is no record. I actually witnessed a bicyclist who ran the red light at 2nd ave. and 14th street, struck a senior, knocking him to the ground. When the senior got up and yelled at the cyclist, the cyclist then picked his bike up over his head and tried to strike the senior with it…thank God,bystanders restrained him. You can not go 2 blocks in our neighborhood without seeing at least a half dozen bikes running the red lights, and very often going the wrong way or riding on the sidewalks – OH yes! and frequently speeding. Did you know that there used to be an 8-mph speed limit on bike riding in the city… that could help a lot to re-institute. But unless we license bikes – at least the rental bikes and messenger bikes – Cops will never catch them, and bikers will never mend their ways. I confess that years ago, I actually got a $65 ticket for riding my bike up onto the sidewalk a block from my apt. at 10pm when not a soul was walking at the time…Guess what? I never did that again! BTW: Those hundreds of thousand bike riders could get their exercise walking to and from and up and down stairs in the subways – and at the same time make the MTA solvent enough to keep the system in good shape. If seniors and physically-challenged could access the subways (not enough working elevators), we could all make a difference in the fiscal health of the city conveyances. I am rambling now on purpose, in case your either interested or enraged yet. You can never compare NYC to European or Canadian cities. Our street grids are result of much smarter and far-thinking planning than those medieval cities. We were designed for traffic – Very smartly planned to move vehicles – our streets are the arteries that have made quality of life and commerce so attractive in NYC. The more you clog the arteries, the more frustration, anger and danger you create.

  9. Wow !

    I did not even mention the hoardes of idiots riding bikes with one or no hands while using cellphones / devices!!!!!

  10. I bet you never show the guts to post my comments

  11. Right on, G. J. It’s the self entitled and selfish cyclist extremists that are a menace to the city. This mayor is kissing up to this minority and the ride share companies, ignoring the interests of everyone else.

  12. Where will you find the space in Manhattan for a plan that “includes private automobiles as a major component in that mix” ? Are you going to limit the amount of vehicles allowed to drive through the neighborhood or just allow unlimited growth in a limited space

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