Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

If People Are Going To Ride Bicycles In New York In This Weather, We Can't Win

Walking my kid to school this morning, shivering, frustratedly yanking him away from the patches of "snow" he was so desperate to walk through, I was amazed by how many people were riding their bikes over the same slippery, ice-frozen streets. All bundled up in bulky coats, exhaling visible breath through the scarves wrapped around their faces, some of them carting their own kids in specially designed second-seats. There they were, peddling along, getting to work, clumsily negotiating a very-difficult-to-negotiate terrain and traffic, making better time than I was. (Though, to be sure, I did not envy them. They all seemed to have expressions on their faces that said, "What in God's name am I doing riding a bicycle today?") So today was the day it became clear, to me at least, that New York City is actually going to become a bicycle city. It's like the part in Godfather II, when Michael sees the revolutionary blow himself up in Cuba, and knows the government's going to fall. You can't fight that kind of commitment.

Personally, I am opposed. If people want to ride a bike, they should live in Portland or San Diego or someplace. Someplace more spread out. New York's too crowded for bicycling. I know that it's better for the environment, and probably a good thing, overall, for the world and everything, if more people biked. But I think the city should be for walkers, first and foremost, and it's too confusing to have to pay attention to another thing, moving at another speed, while you're crossing the street. (Or worse, up on the sidewalk. Don't get me started.) It's enough having to deal with cars and the baby strollers and the skateboarders and everything else out there whizzing around at different speeds.

I actually think bicycles should be banned in New York City. Or at least, Manhattan. In fact, all other vehicles besides delivery trucks (which we need to bring delicious food to our excellent restaurants) and taxis and buses should be banned, too. (Dogs, too, actually. For similar pedestrian-centric reasons.) I realize this is a radical stance. It's probably the only thing that keeps me from being mayor.

But with the real-life mayor pushing so hard for more bike lanes (and there are already so many!) and less car traffic (which I support!) and a biking populace so eager to change the world for the better and keep themselves fit while doing it, I can see which direction the wind is blowing. The bikers will live longer than me. And be in better shape to fight. So what to do to make the best of it?

One of the big problems I have with the growing number of bicyclists can probably be solved pretty easily. It is the shouting. Too many times, while walking in a park or by the river or on a bridge, where leisurely walkers share space with people speed-biking for exercise, I've been startled by a loud, barked, "Hey!" or "Watch it!" or even a command of "Move!" as a helmeted jocko flies past in a startling blur of technicolor spandex. Now, I know this is for my benefit as much as the loud-voiced bikers'. It's important that we let each other know where we are. It's certainly preferable to a collision. But it's rude. ("Move!"? Excuse me? You move.) The whistles are horrible, too. (Shit! It's the cops!) The bells are better, but they sound too much like something from "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" to be taken as seriously as they should be. Maybe someone could invent a contraption wherein the push of handlebar button would emit a loud, but not too loud, recording of a more pleasant voice (soothing soothing, but classy, like Kristin Scott Thomas, maybe, or Cate Blanchett or something) issuing a more polite warning. "Excuse me, friend, on your left," or "Beg your pardon, but if it wouldn't be too much to ask, might you be able to step to the side?" Or maybe something as simple as, "I am here, I am here with you."

Or, hey, maybe just this recording:

That would be a compromise I could live with. Good ol' Freddie, providing a better way to alert pedestrians to the presence of fast-moving, flat-bottomed health-nuts. A better way to make the rockin' world, and our overcrowded but ever-more environmentally conscious city, go 'round.

47 Comments / Post A Comment

jaimealyse (#647)

I am fine with a clear "on your left!" It is helpful, and stops me from getting hit. But once, while I was riding down the west side greenway path, a spandex cyclist shouted from behind me, "move to the right!" Which was awful! Cause I heard "[shoutshout] right!" and the convention is "on your [whichever side]!" and it was confusing and obnoxious.

Hi, Awl, thanks for being my therapy on this.

iantenna (#5,160)

i think what you really mean is not less bicycles but less assholes and that is a platform i can get down with.

kneetoe (#1,881)

I recommend the voice that tells me which direction to drive my car.

brianvan (#149)

I rode to work today in NYC. I rode to my doctor's appointment before work too, and even he was flabbergasted that I would attempt it now.

Two months ago I was pretty sure I would have stopped riding by now. But it's only 5 minutes to work, so why not?

Most of the time, this isn't going to do jack shit for my vital signs. It's just not enough exercise. And I'm hardly doing it because it's "greener". Rather, it's just fast, it's a nice way to start and end the day, and it beats walking 3/4 mile.

I do think we need to do something about the "scofflaws" though. One of them almost killed me last night. He was riding the wrong way down an avenue directly at me, on a motorized (illegal) bike, with no helmet. He had a headlamp, but he didn't bother to turn it on. He was delivering food, which is what most of the violators do for a living. There is no amount of making our city "like Amsterdam" that's going to make that kind of riding safe or acceptable.

However, there's no reasoning with the non-bicycling community either, because lots of those people will tell you to your face that they hope you get run over by a bus because you sometimes drag across red lights when the path is clear*. Dealing with those people is even more unpleasant. They are quite serious about banning cycling in NYC. When you find out that what most of them really want is more parking instead, then you have to agree to disagree and move on.

Then you get to the pro-cycling advocates, but the die-hards are probably also people who got arrested in the 2004 RNC Convention protests. They really don't have "a filter". They have no sense of politics. And they're letting the anti-cycling crowd run roughshod over them by allowing the bad stereotypes (the wrong-way delivery guy, the spandex prince, the insufferable fixie hipster, the hippie protester) to be the representations of cyclists to the larger community. So they're useless too.

Meanwhile, I just ride every day, follow the rules, and mind my own business. Sometimes I have to yell at someone who jumps out into my path when I have a green light. Sometimes cabs hit me. It's less terrifying than it sounds. But it ought to be safer.

*If you're not proceeding through a clear intersection with a red light, you're probably not going to live very long on your bike. There are some states that allow cyclists to treat red lights like stop signs. It's a fair compromise to the problem that traffic signals are geared for car speeds and not bike speeds. And it's often very safe, since everyone's supposed to be aware of their environs before entering an intersection anyway, RIGHT?

djfreshie (#875)

I try explaining that Red Light Running activity, and both fellow cyclists and motorists alike tend to respond with "If you want to be treated like a grown up car, you have to pay attention to the rules of the road like everyone else." I hate that. I'm not a car. I'm a bunch of flesh attached to two wheels, completely unshielded. I am an extremely polite, very defensive cyclist, and being defensive and cautious as I can possibly be still doesn't keep me safe, because everyone is a ridiculous asshole that cares more about getting somewhere 30 seconds faster than my actual safety. Red lights are the only occasion where I am certain that 1) traffic moving with me is not moving, and 2) traffic moving across me is fully visible. It is as safe a decision I can make if I'm not retarded about it.

MaryHaines (#3,666)

I can't worry about bikes running red lights (as long as they don't do it at top speed in the wrong direction) until I have a sense that there's actually a penalty for CARS that run red lights. I see five to ten cars/trucks/buses do it every morning on my way to work. Sometimes there's even a traffic cop standing there, doing nothing. It's pretty freaking infuriating.

djfreshie (#875)

I KNOW! Traffic cops drive me mental. First of all, the revenue from speeders and red light runners is SO much higher, and you get to chase em down! Stop wasting time with illegal right turns and half-stops. Lazy jerkasses!

The thing is there's asshole bikers, asshole drivers, and asshole pedestrians. Nobody likes any of them. But an asshole car is like Rock vs. Paper and Scissors. It always wins. People have no concept of the fact that we still haven't entirely adapted to driving a ton of steel and machinery around lines…automobiles are barely a century old.

And there's no field of work in the world where people operate machinery as complex as cars without years of training and practice. Sure, we train people, but the test is one good day of being a good boy or girl, and then as soon as you get your license, speeding off through school zones. We're fucking retarded all of us. Motorists (myself included) should have to endure a year of biking in whatever city they plan to drive in, before they are entitled to a driver's license.

Really, we let anybody drive. Why is everyone entitled to drive? Or bike? Or walk. Some peoples out there are so incapable of doing things.

Backslider (#819)

The argument that cyclist must follow the rules "like everyone else does" is absurd. No one in New York follows any rules unless those rules coincidentally match their desire of the moement. People jay walk and don't even notice. Everyone reading this sentence in New York has already jay walked today. All of you.

If you drove a car in New York City today, you broke the speed limit. I promise you did. The legal limit here is 30 mph, on all streets and avenues unless posted otherwise. You did 45 on the upside of the Williamsburg Bridge until you came to a dead stop at the apex. And you are a scofflaw. Once you got to Delancy you ran a yellow as it turned red. You blocked the box on Houston Street. Shouldn't you follow the rules like a grown-up?

Cyclists are singled-out at this moment for breaking the rules because we are at a tipping point. There are enough cyclists around that non-cyclists notice them a lot, but once there are a few more, you will fail to see them anymore.

Dave Bry (#422)

That last part seems probably right. Pulling back for a longer-range view is always good.

Jared (#1,227)

Holy crap! A comment section to a post on biking that's full of reasonable opinions politely expressed! Add a "new niceness" tag to this one or something. ("On your left" is my preferred locution too.)

My one quibble: "it's too confusing to have to pay attention to another thing, moving at another speed, while you're crossing the street." Um, usually you can do this in the same glance that you use to tell whether there's a car coming? Is this really a problem?

MollyculeTheory (#4,519)

It's less innate-feeling to gauge how fast the bicycle (vs. a car) is going to arrive so I always end up with this panicked "okay the car is past, oh god, can I go now? I'm going to start – OH NO I AM GOING TO WALK INTO THE BIKE! Abort! Okay, go … now?" interior monologue. Which is probably my problem, to be fair.

BannedinDC (#8,305)

With cars you can give one glance down a oneway street and be pretty certain nothing's coming from the other side. Not so with bicycles.

MaryHaines (#3,666)

Yep. And also, there are the bikers (almost always restaurant-delivery people in my experience) who you can't count on to follow any rule, whether it's "stay off the sidewalk" or "ride in the direction of traffic" or "stop (even momentarily) at the red light" or "yield to pedestrians." I wait for a walk signal, start crossing the street, and then see one of those guys coming toward me, and I have to decide whether or not I feel like playing chicken. Most of them have developed an amazing ability to stay upright and in motion and just miss hitting pedestrians, but some day I'm going to trust the wrong pizza guy.

I was hit by a bike once — by a guy going the wrong way down the street and didn't stop for the light nor the massive group of pedestrians who were in the crosswalk at the time. Guy didn't stop after he hit me either.

Joey Camire (#6,325)

I'm a bicyclist that just sucks it up. I occasionally want to yell, but I hold it in. I'm worried about a "Falling Down" type of Michael Douglas moment in the future. Like when people just walking along decide to run out sideways into the bike lane and I crash into parked cars. Or when people are walking in the bike lane next to an empty sidewalk. But, I think it is all just another form of road rage. People like being mad at other people they hope they won't see again, and walking side by side it's not as easy to be pointlessly angry at people.

mountedmontaigne (#9,036)

I think people who are biking every day have a pent-up need to discuss these issues because you have that hour or two to think about it every day. It's as endlessly fascinating as subway or sidewalk etiquette. Ordinary people who would never yell at someone are yelling at people and behaving in bizarre ways.

I started out biking aghast at the manners of fellow bikers. Proceeding at a mellow, observant pace, giving right of way, eye contact, and hand signals seemed so much more sensible than goosing pedestrians and blasting through intersections like a maniac. Plus, how much faster can riding like a fiend really be?

But the cumulative rudeness and stupidity of other bikers, drivers and walkers has a way of changing you. I get angry now. The dude standing in the middle of the lane on his bluetooth gets cursed out. Cars get cut off. When I have the light I am gonna go, and if the jaywalkers want to play chicken, it's on. I do not like that I have become this way and it makes me want to stop biking sometimes.

Delivery guys– they aggravate me less because there's a sense that they are doing a tough job and need to bike to live, whereas I'm commuting. They get a pass. However, given how they ride (how hard is it to find a street where traffic is moving in the same direction you are? It's a block away!) I am surprised that there aren't more injuries.

zidaane (#373)

Hand signals have the hilarious presumption that cars even see you or care wtf you want to do. When I see a bicyclist using those with their giant helmet, some headphones on and their nice mirrors and lights, I see a future 1 paragraph column in the local paper.

myfanwy (#1,124)

"do not like that I have become this way and it makes me want to stop biking sometimes."

This. Thank you.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

I use a skateboard (in combination with subway) for transportation. I decided against a bike because I don't know how do you not have it stolen (and where in the fuck do I keep it in my apartment). Can't ride a skateboard in rain or snow, but since I work from home, when weather's bad I just don't go out.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

I think bikes fit in nicely with the New York culture of optional observance of rules. I'm sure the bikers and the Town Car drivers understand each other pretty well.

Jared (#1,227)

Yes. When I'm on my bike it's the cabs I worry about the least. They pay attention, and they're not so scared of me that they become hesitant and get in the way.

JennyM (#9,039)

Not sure how long brianvan has been biking in NYC or what his first hand experiences are with 'hippie protesters', but an alternative view to his negative comments about "pro-cycling advocates" are listed here, http://times-up.org/index.php?page=critical-mass
Despite lack of appreciation by the mainstream, which is to be expected when one is working towards positive social change, "pro-cycling advocates" have made a huge positive contribution to the fact that bicycling will remain a permanent and growing fixture on NY streets. This is a long term process.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

I love cycling and cyclists, except for the assholes who think they own the road and the moral high ground. But I feel the same way about drivers, too. Assholes, regardless of mode of transportation, suck.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

The ones who just own the road are their own victim, God blessem. It's the ones who own the road and the sidewalk who'll take you out of this vale of tears.
(Also, you can't be against assholes in general because it's just not proctical.)

myfanwy (#1,124)

Ahem. Me, last weekend, in Saskatchewan, -29 degrees C, studded tires. You have no idea how deep the crazy can go in bikers.

checkonetwo (#3,234)

I was in Amsterdam a month ago, and they’ve got plenty of motorized bicycles and Vespa-like things taking up room in the bike lanes. The city is smaller, though, and so many people bike that if you’re a tourist not well acquainted with the rules you can usually just follow a native.
In addition, recordings on bicycles with instructions will only become reminiscent of the calls of “WATCH THE TRAMCAR, PLEASE” one hears so obnoxiously often in the cesspool known as Wildwood, New Jersey (and maybe other cesspool-like locations along the shore, as well? I’ve never been to the shore in North Jersey), so my immediate reaction to that idea is PLEASE GOD NO. I'd really much rather hear "on your left!" from an actual human being. It's three words, it can't be that difficult.

mikepick (#9,044)

"do not like that I have become this way and it makes me want to stop biking sometimes."

No. I am certain that there is an ironic venn diagram that places people who complain about cyclists in the same space as people who complain about the new Times Square, or hipsters, or gentrification, or how people can't handle New York City and should move back to the suburbs because they don't want to hear assholes shouting outside a club at 3AM.

Why is it that cyclists are the only ones that have to follow the "rules"? Who doesn't jaywalk? Who doesn't speed? Who doesn't text or yak on the bluetoof while crossing the street/dragging their child across the street/driving/ordering fast food?

It's New York. Suck it up and stop being a city of whiners. And look both ways before stepping on the street, lardass.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Wait, what's wrong with complaining about the new Times Square? I don't even live in NYC and I hate it.
Also, you are the asshole cyclist that I can't wait to mow down in my Prius. Gunnin' for you, kiddo – when smug meets smug at 30mph, I'm gonna win.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Why you make my edits go away, The Awl? :( SAD PANDA.

IsaaciusTorrente (#9,046)

There is an over/under with the cold threshold on a riding a bike. Kind of a
(how much I to a hate the MTA/time it take to get to work riding)-will I attend a happy hour after work=bike or not.
For the rest, try not to be an jerk while riding, avoid regular/private car drivers and make sure not to run down an infant. For some reason,doing something casual, non-confrontational and that happens to be good for the world as a whole has become a movement. I just don't want to die on 2nd avenue tomorrow.
Other then that, seriously, it's a bike. There are no "white mannequins" for pedestrians that have been run down by bikes. NYC…BIKES…how many people that live in Manhattan have cars? The next time yo bitch about bike…think about never ordering delivery again.
Feet-Bikes-Cabs-Delivery Trucks-B&T(oh i said it)-people with drivers
(I'm not sure where the mythical Manhattan middle class car jockeys fit in here-educate me and then i can cancel my Zip Car membership)

lbf (#2,343)

Wow, all the riders in this comments section are thoughful people I can relate to. Got nothing to add except a simple notion: non-asshole cyclists (ie. us, most of us) have to pay attention for everyone. If a car crashes into us, we get hurt bad. If a pedestrian wanders into our path, we can get hurt pretty bad. So pedestrians, you rule the sidewalk, no question, but pay some fucking attention to your surroundings as soon as you get out of it. Especially if you're doing it in-between parked cars or against the light. Thanks.

mikepick (#9,044)

"Wait, what's wrong with complaining about the new Times Square? I don't even live in NYC and I hate it."
It just strikes me as funny that a city of people who pine for the "character" of the bad old days get the vapors on sight of a cyclist like a bunch of little old ladies.
"Also, you are the asshole cyclist that I can't wait to mow down in my Prius. Gunnin' for you, kiddo – when smug meets smug at 30mph, I'm gonna win."
You're making a lot of assumptions about me on a single post – I'm neither kiddo nor maniac – and I wouldn't have thought a Prius could do 30MPH, anyways. :)

gumplr (#66)

Has anyone else read Jean Merrill's The Pushcart War?

I read it as an adult per the suggestion of a native New Yorker who claims it as one of her favorite books from childhood. Great for kids but also winkingly mature. The type of peddler is different, but the gist of sharing the roadways and learning to live together is the same. (Wikipedia helpfully describers it as "a children's equivalent of the adult book The Monkeywrench Gang", which, I suppose, but also :/ .)

Characters include: Morris the Florist, Mr. Jerusalem, Harry the Hot Dog, Papa Peretz, Louie Livergreen, Moe Mammoth of Mammoth Moving, and Maxie Hammerman, "The Pushcart King".
Highly relevant to this conversation!

mishaps (#5,779)


I loved that book in fourth grade. LOVED. Like, was heartbroken I had missed the era of the pushcarts, loved.

Now I have to go see if it is still in print, immediately.

mishaps (#5,779)

It is! http://www.powells.com/biblio/62-9780440471479-0

Buy one for your friends for Festivus!

zidaane (#373)

I've been biking for over 25 years in cities and my thoughts are it's incredibly rude to yell anything at a pedestrian when you are going 10 times faster than them on the same path. It's not different than calling out "I'm swinging a bat by your LEFT ear".

You all are entirely missing the point: Bry wants to ban dogs?!?!?!? WTF?

Dave Bry (#422)

I know. I know. It's terrible. And I realize this opinion will not me any popularity contests. Or even any who's-a-decent-compassionate-human-being contests. But don't you think dogs would be happier out of the city, too? (Except the tiny ride-in-a-starlet's-purse dogs, which I suppose can be happy wherever people have purses.) Don't dogs want to run around where there's more grass? And better places for them to poop?

It's the dogs I'm thinking of here! (Sort of. But not really.)

As someone who moved two large dogs from the "open" spaces of SF and the East Bay to NYC, I can tell you this:

1) NYC is a very dog-friendly city.
2) Dogs love wide open spaces WHEN YOU ARE AROUND. Otherwise, they feel like they need to defend too much territory, which makes them anxious.

As long as you can get them out to walk and take advantage of parks/dog runs, they are perfectly happy here.

Dave Bry (#422)

I trust your expertise. And I am sure your dogs are made happier by being with you, wherever you move to, than they would be if you left them. And I'm certainly happy you moved to New York. So I thinks it is, in fact, the best thing that you brought them here. Your feelings are now my own.

SpenceL (#8,567)

Bry, you are starting to sound like a 40 year old…

/wonders if this happens to all of us

Dave Bry (#422)

Get off my lawn!

Tully Mills (#6,486)

I wish more cyclists would put baseball cards in their spokes and pretend they were riding motorcycles.

SpenceL (#8,567)

Tully, you should look into moving to the Neverland Ranch. NY I'm guessing isn't going to have many cyclists like that.

/just messing with ya

Nelson Trautman (#9,077)

I think you are crazy to say that New York of all places should not have bicycles. They should go to somewhere more spread out?? The denser a place is, the more fit it is for bicycles. Cars are for places that are more spread it. The reason bicycles are so popular in Portland is because its so damned small that it has the effect of being as dense as New York (in terms of how close everything is).

Also, check this out: http://www.nocarsmilwaukee.org

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