By Jen Benepe
Has your nose been singed lately by a cyclist as you stepped off the curb?
Well it’s summer, and with more bicycle riders out there, the chances are if you step off the curb against the light, you could get hit by a bicycle.
But whose fault is it?
Most New Yorkers don’t see their role in the mess, and perceive cyclists as dangerous additions to an already chaotic city.
Amid growing criticism from public officials and the public, the city’s chief of the Department of Transportation has issued a crackdown of sorts on cyclists, coordinating with the department’s “partner” the city’s police force who have stepped up ticketing of the two-wheeled miscreants.
To complement the punitive measures, now DOT commissioner Janette Sadik Khan has instituted a new public relations campaign called “Don’t be a jerk,” aimed at the normal Fred and Fredette asking them not to ride on sidewalks, against traffic or through red lights.
“As our streets have become safer and as more New Yorkers take to two wheels, bike riders need to adopt a street code,” said the commissioner in a statement. ” To put it a little more bluntly, don’t be a jerk.”
But while the new commercials featuring well-known celebrities John Leguizamo, Pauline Porizkova and Mario Batali run on NY-1 News and other television stations, flying under the radar of city officials is a whole new breed of delivery cyclists speeding on electric bikes.
Many of these delivery people are traveling at high speeds, are not being ticketed by police, and are not paying attention to any commercials on TV, according to media reports, and by their own admission.
What’s worse, at the same time recreational cyclists and commuters—the same people the city is trying to cultivate to convert most of their trips to two-wheeled transit, are being targeted as bad guys.
Recreational cyclists report that they are being ticketed in excess in Central Park, and in many cases, not being protected by the NYPD from bike lane parkers, red light walkers, speeding and turning motorists, and now even a new breed of pedestrian strolling aimlessly down bike lanes as if they were the Champs Elysees in Paris.
The result is a mismanagement not only of expectations of the public for bike lanes, but also of cyclist behavior as some user segments are allowed to run haywire through the city, while one small group of users is for all intents and purposes persecuted as the bad guy. In sum, it’s a freaking mess.
A Battle that Has Slowed Bike Lane Progress, Increased Accidents
Bike lane naysayers, which include public officials like Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, and Councilman James Vacca of Queens, have been pitted against supporters, dividing this city almost as starkly as if it were in the throes of a religious war.
The fight has resulted in the slowdown of bike lane development to a crawl, with progress now marred by lawsuits and public bickering.
But the latest developments also reveal that the city’s response is akin to blaming the victim, and will only serve to further deteriorate safe cycling conditions.
Many Cyclists Are for More Enforcement
All of the cyclists we spoke to are for greater enforcement, even if they have doubts about the DOT campaign’s effectiveness.
Steve Hindy who publicly supports the campaign lost his son Sam, who was struck by a motorist while cycling across the Manhattan Bridge in 2007. “I bet you I could walk out on my block right now and I would see cyclists going the wrong way or on the sidewalk,” said Hindy who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn and owns the Brooklyn Brewery, a popular beer company.
Other cyclists admit that since the campaign started, they have been more careful to stop at red lights, even though they were always careful to mind for pedestrians and motorists in the past.
But as the campaign gets underway, car drivers still park their cars for hours in record numbers with impunity in the few precious bike lanes we have, pedestrians walk blindly into the streets, and taxi clients open their doors without looking, with little enforcement to stop them.
And no one in the city seems to be paying attention to whom exactly is breaking the law and what their potential impact on overall safety is.
“I guess [the campaign] is a good start, but I haven’t seen anything targeting taxi users, pedestrians, and motorists,” said Peter Engel who is communications coordinator for the Five Borough Bike Club, a recreational group in the city.
He said he heard the DOT was developing a campaign directed at drivers, but believes the current campaign should be better integrated with messages to cyclists and motorists together.
A spokesperson for the city’s DOT would not comment on whether another campaign targeting all the other scofflaws—most importantly drivers who are responsible for 99.9% of crashes and deaths—would be forthcoming.
“Wrong way riding probably does more to stir up the rest of the community against cyclists than anything else,” said Jon Hill, 41 who lives in Hell’s Kitchen and has been cycling to work since 1994. But he also knows that cyclists are not the cause of most fatalities and accidents in the city.
Hill also believes that cyclists should be able to stop at a red light followed by cautious crossing if done properly, a finer point of traffic rule development that the city is not even close to reaching.
“I think people say, the reason I am jumping ahead of the cross-box is because I am scared because there are cars revving up behind me,” said Engel.
A “Schmetwork” of Un-Finished, and Sometimes Dangerous Bike Lanes
Some cyclists complain that the unfinished bike lanes are more dangerous than none. Indeed, even where bike lanes exist, they abruptly begin and end like roads to nowhere.
Referring to the DOT’s published NYC bike map, and not including the Greenways that run along the perimeters of Manhattan, or the roadway inside Central Park, there are only a handful of very short, protected bike lanes in Manhattan, most of them below 42nd St. Protected bike lanes have parked cars on the outside of the lane, and sometimes bollards to prevent motorists from entering them.
Out of the 250 miles of bike lanes that have been built since 2005, about 8 miles or 3.2 % are protected bike lanes traveling north and south. The longest protected bike lane on the city’s streets stretches along First Avenue and is no more than two and a half miles long:
What’s worse DOT says that of the total 900 miles of planned protected (green) and unprotected (red and orange) bike lane miles that have been proposed only 23% have been completed so far.
Some bike lanes have been stalled, like the badly needed extension of the Columbus Avenue lane south from 79th St., or scuttled altogether like the planned lane in Williamsburg, Brooklyn which was squashed by complaining residents who said they didn’t want to see partially clad cyclists traveling amidst their religious population.
The situation in Brooklyn is much the same as Manhattan, but in Queens and the Bronx it is even worse, where cyclists have complained of being physically pushed off the road by drivers, all the while being subjected to screaming taunts, with the most common refrain, “Get off the road, you don’t belong here,” shouted by truck drivers who could crush them in seconds.
Whose Parking in My Lane?
Also pity the poor cyclist who tries to ride along the majority of the city’s bike lanes (marked red or orange) that are routinely used as extra parking spots by motorists, with the worst offenders often the police themselves who park their NYPD and private vehicles directly in them for hours as if they were their own private parking spaces.
“The NYPD has created very serious safety problems for cyclists, greatly jeopardizing them by forcing them to weave in and out of bike lanes to avoid blockages due to motor vehicles, said Prof. John Pucher, a transportation expert at Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.
“The NYPD has thus been negating much of the progress made by NYCDOT’s program of vastly expanding the bike lane network, “ he added.
Sensing that the streets are a battleground, cyclists might be reacting with fighting strategies. For one, when roads are dangerous, cyclists often ride on the sidewalk, said Pucher.
Meanwhile cyclists have been stewing in anger after they received $270 tickets for running red lights in Central Park at the crack of dawn when not even a snapping turtle was crossing the road from Strawberry Fields to The Lake.
But the point that most New Yorkers are missing is that no matter how annoying, bike lanes save cyclists’ lives. The raucous debate is not only slowing their progress, but could also equate to more accidents and deaths in the interim.
A study conducted by the city’s DOT in 2005 found that out of a total 226 cyclist fatalities from 1993 to 2003 in the five boroughs, only one occurred in a marked bike lane. But nearly all cyclist fatalities or 92% were the result of a crash with an automobile.
Illegal Electric Bike Use is Growing—by Restaurants
The same cops that don’t ticket parking scofflaws have also turned a blind eye to the growing use of electric bikes by restaurants.
“I see delivery guys every single day going up [a hill in my neighborhood] on electric bikes,” said Liz who lives on the Upper East Side, but did not want to reveal her identity for this article.
According to state law, electric assist bicycles and other vehicles like them (such as dirt bikes) are illegal on any street other than a private driveway, but their use has been growing exponentially, confirmed residents from Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan.
What’s worse, the situation is confusing even for the authorities. The NY State Dept. of Motor Vehicles website says in no indefinite wording that electric bicycles cannot be used on any public street or highway. However, a spokesperson for the department said that if an electric bike is being pedaled, technically it is not illegal to use it.
But since the law forbids their registration, the existence of electric bikes is somewhat of a Catch-22 said DMV spokesman Nick Cantiello. As vehicles, in order to be used they must be registered. “We’ll have to take a closer look at that contradiction,” concluded Cantiello.
New York City could technically supersede or further clarify state law, and they have: electric bikes are illegal in the city. Title 19, Chapter 1, Subchapter 3, and paragraph 19-176.2 of the city’s administrative code is quite explicit in saying that electrically powered vehicles that be propelled without pedaling and are not registerable by the state, are not legal in the city—defined in the language as electric bicycles as well if they can move over 15 mph. Use of such a vehicle can result in a $500 fine, impoundment of the vehicle, and a traffic violation.
The NYPD declined to respond to the reporter’s question about the number of electric bikes being used in the city, and if the users are being ticketed. Indeed, it is not even clear if the NYPD had noticed their use, or even knows that under city code they are illegal. Net-net, their use seems to be not only unregulated, but also ignored by city officials and NYPD.
Ed Pino, a resident of Forest Hills Queens estimated that there are 300 to 400 electric bikes being used in his area, with many of them being ridden the wrong way and on sidewalks, predominantly among
restaurant delivery personnel.
What’s more, the use of electric bikes by delivery people who need to get from A to B in the fastest way possible, may be contributing to a growing sense among the public that being struck by cyclists will result in severe injury, because in some cases, that could become true.
“I don’t think electric bikes are safe. It is hard to judge whether on average they are ridden at a faster speed, but they are bigger and heavier which makes then less safe even at the same speed,” wrote another rider aged 56, who has been riding here for 40 years.
Other residents particularly those who don’t ride bicycles may not know the tell-tale signs of an electric bike, which can move faster than 25 mph without pedaling, but are silent. Thusly New Yorkers aren’t likely to distinguish between the illegal vehicles that might hurt them, and those that probably won’t.
Still, since the city has no idea how many electric bikes are being used, and since no industry group keeps track of their use because they are illegal, there are no numbers on how many are being used, and if they are being ridden at greater speeds than normal bicycles.
Standing on the corner of 79th Street and Columbus Ave. on May 19 this reporter noted 10 delivery personnel passing every three minutes: 3 of 10 were riding electric bikes.
One delivery man riding an electric bike at about 25 mph without slowing jumped the curb onto the sidewalk and rode halfway down the block till he got to his destination. We tried to interview the two stoic-looking doormen standing in front of the building where he had left his vehicle, to ask them whether they knew he was breaking the law by riding an electric bike, and indeed, doing so on the sidewalk, two infractions, a question which didn’t break their code of silence. They ignored us as if we didn’t exist.
The City’s “Don’t be a Jerk campaign” is unlikely to change any behavior either, said cyclists. Why? Wrong audience, wrong medium.
“Most of the offenders are restaurant delivery guys, most of whom aren’t English-speakers and probably aren’t sitting at home watching NY-1. The other repeat offenders are, honestly, jerks who don’t care if they’re being called jerks,” said Liz, a member of the New York Cycle Club. Even if 100 percent of the scofflaws aren’t restaurant delivery people, in essence, it doesn’t matter because the target audience doesn’t give a damn.
Glendon Gordon, another member of the club, said the campaign sends the wrong message.
“The last thing I need as a cyclist, surrounded by motor vehicles, is a possible public perception of cyclist equals jerk. As a cyclist my life depends on the respect of motorists, not their derision.”