Monday, November 8, 2010

Nitty Gritty City

When I visited NYC last week, I specifically left myself some extra time to wander around looking at the city's new bicycle infrastructure. 200 new miles of bike lanes in the past three years, for over 1500 total lane-miles. Impressive, no?
Bike lane on Broadway
Well, yes and no. The infrastructure itself is first class. I mean, I am really jealous, and I wish we could get anything that looks like that in Atlanta! Many of the lanes used colored pavement to make them stand out. Most of them are buffered, at least at key points. A beautiful bicycle-only path loops most of the way around the island of Manhattan, offering views of waterfront parks, and the bridges have designated bicycle lanes separated from motorized traffic. Altogether, it forms a pretty comprehensive network until you get out toward the edges of the city.
Traversing the Williamsburg Bridge on a dedicated bike lane. The pedestrian route is on the opposite side, also elevated above traffic.
Newly installed buffered lane with bike signal and signage
Using the lane
Bicycle facilities on the Brooklyn Bridge
A separated path next to 11th Avenue
However, I saw very few bicyclists relative to the total volume of traffic. There are streets in Atlanta with more frequent bicycle traffic than many parts of Manhattan! The majority of the people I did see on bicycles were making deliveries - men transporting restaurant take-out and flower bouquets for low wages. There were also a handful of spandex-clad athletes, some groups of tourists on rented bikes around major attractions, and a smattering of hipsters and everyday folks on basic city bikes. Hardly anyone was riding in the bicycle lanes. A large percentage were riding the wrong way, against traffic, in either the general purpose lane or a bike lane. Some were on the sidewalk.
Empty delivery basket, traveling wrong-way in the bicycle lane
A woman rides against traffic on a quiet street
Rented bicycles near Times Square

Chinese food trumps traffic controls
What's going on? I suspect it is the local transportation "culture". Every city has one. NYC has a dominant pedestrian culture in which motorists tend to expect people to be in the street. They drive cautiously compared to other cities and are very good about yielding to pedestrians. People cross the street whenever there is a break in traffic, regardless of signals or pavement markings. It seems to be understood that pedestrian travel is an essential part of a functioning city. This was the only place I have ever been in America where I felt like drivers interacted with me person-to-person when I was on foot. This is good for bicyclists, because drivers are expecting to see people in the roadway and to be respectful towards them. It does have drawbacks, though, as pedestrians often take over bicycle lanes.
Annexed bike lane
Bells are required in NYC - and used frequently on the Brooklyn Bridge to shoo pedestrians out of the bike lane

There is also an issue of supply and demand. Central Park and the waterfront path were popular. These routes had few pedestrians and ample room. Better yet, they allowed cyclists to travel at full speed, bypassing the traffic signals and congestion on parallel streets. But they didn't go where the people on bicycles were trying to go. For the delivery guys trying to transport hot food a few blocks away, as fast as possible, it seemed most expedient to ride up the nearest street even if traffic was going the opposite way. With lots of one-way streets and few curb cuts, the bike lanes rarely took cyclists to the front door of their destination. Instead they used the closest lane, often on the opposite side of the street from the bicycle facility, and rode up the sidewalk from the corner. The unprotected bike lanes served little purpose at all, filled with delivery trucks and double-parked cars, and the rest of the traffic was moving at bicycle speed anyway. At the Brooklyn Bridge, a one-way vehicular ramp forced bicycle riders coming from lower Manhattan to make a large lap around the block to reach the bike route; most rode wrong-way up the ramp instead.
One-way access to the Brooklyn Bridge bike route
 Theft is clearly an issue, and bicycles of any apparent value were rare. The vintage steel frame bicycles that I love were fairly common, probably because they are cheap, less attractive to thieves, and come equipped for city riding with baskets and fenders. Pedicabs were available in a few places, but the prices were exorbitant relative to a taxicab ($20 for 15 minutes).
A riderless pedicab using a brand new lane

Here are my recommendation to Mayor Bloomberg, who I'm sure is reading this, and to transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan:

New York City needs a bike share program! Transportation in NYC is all about flexibility - take the subway to work, then walk to a nearby restaurant to meet friends, share a taxi over to the Village, maybe catch the bus home. But if you ride a bicycle somewhere, you are stuck with it. If your friends are taking a cab, you have to ride and meet them, or leave the bicycle behind and hope you can come back for it later. With a bike share, that flexibility is restored. It can be substituted for any other mode without committing you for the rest of the day. Friends can spontaneously decide to cycle somewhere together. And theft is not a concern for the rider.

 I would also recommend buffered two-way bike lanes, contraflow lanes, and, where feasible, separated bicycle paths that give riders an advantage over traffic. They could also use official recognition of the bicycle delivery operators, and ask them what type of infrastructure they need - priority bicycle parking? They could also support pedicab expansion and freight distribution management.
The waterfront path


  1. Couldn't agree more! We've been trying to bring a bike share program to NYC for the past 18 months and have a lot to share about why the city hasn't launched one yet. Check us out

  2. Patricia, thanks for sharing! It would be a great model for NYC. I'm surprised that there isn't more financial support...I can't think of anywhere that commands a higher advertising premium than Manhattan. It seems like ad companies would be knocking down their door.

    Hope to try it on my next visit. :)