Thursday, April 29, 2010

Bike Commuting Tip#3: Red Light, Green Light, 1, 2, 3

Let me begin by stating that the law is the law.

If you live or work in NYC one thing becomes apparent--the rules get translated a little differently here compared to elsewhere. Perhaps it's best to say the usual rules and regs don't always make sense here, but then there is the dilemma that rules are needed. Theory and reality have a hard time being one in general, but in NYC this union is especially elusive--especially with regard to transportation. Folks jay walk every chance they get, they definitely have the right of way, and their light is theirs and red lights only matter if cars are coming fast and frequently enough that one cannot get across. You know what? It works. It works very well. It happens that cyclists in NYC act a lot like pedestrians. They do not stop for red lights unless they have to. Also, there does not appear to be much of an effort to crack down. There are several reasons why this isn't so bad, even though it sometimes irritates jealous motorists.

First of all, a bicyclist is hard pressed to inflict either serious or even any bodily harm or damage to motorists and their cars due to collision. Second, a bicycle/pedestrian collision is probably equally dangerous to both with a greater danger to the cyclist. This is because even a glancing blow could bring a cyclist down. Cyclist vulnerability to pedestrians is evidenced by the recent video footage used to convict a NYC police officer who intentionally knocked down a cyclist for no apparent reason at a Critical Mass ride. ( This of course does not excuse cyclists hitting pedestrians, however, that does not appear to be a problem to date. Thus, the principal danger is to cyclists themselves. The motorist's insurance will not be paying out if you get hit while running a red light. This is the top reason to take care. The other reason that cyclists passing red lights is tolerated is that a bicycle is a human powered vehicle and needless stopping and starting is needless wear and tear on the body. I am not going to be happy if I have to stop when I am going uphill. Finally, the loss of speed from stopping and starting needlessly defeats the advantage and usefulness of a bicycle as a commuter vehicle, which is counter to all common sense.

All the same, I do not believe cyclists exercise enough caution at red lights. Some seem to have a philosophical objection to stopping at any red lights. Even if you feel you can get away with it, it is wise to stop or at least slow down considerably for pedestrians, traffic enforcement agents, and yes, even for cars. In the first case, they have the right of way, and you hit my Grandma or my kid and we're gonna have a problem! In the second case, the city spends money on traffic agents because they're needed. Of course I am referring to the ones actually directing traffic, not giving out parking tickets. This means it is a good idea to respect them and pay attention. In the third case, why give drivers cause for anxiety if it's not necessary? I'm not gonna tell you exactly what to do, just be considerate and use good judgment.

I will end by repeating that the law is the law. 

Bike Commuting Tip #2: Dexter and Sinister

As previously posted, making a left turn can be the trickiest part of cycling in the City of New York. This is because there is more than one way to do it. Each way depends on traffic and perhaps the configuration of the road. It's not as hard as it seems. Making a right turn is usually ridiculously easy, even at red lights and "Stop" signs. This is because a bicycle is so slim that even if cars are coming a bike can make a right turn (at slow speeds) and never enter the danger zone or affect moving traffic at all--I'm not suggesting it, but it can be done. On the other end of the spectrum, a left turn requires great care at all times.

The complication arises from the fact that a bicycle is a relatively slow-moving vehicle. As such, its proper place is usually, though not always, on the right. As previously posted, staying out of the way is best in city traffic. In any case, one usually has no choice in the matter. The challenge is to get from the right to the left, and then actually make the turn. Traffic changes from moment to moment--even a pedestrian knows that. NYC pedestrians know it very well. They cross whenever they get the chance, not merely at the crosswalk on the walk signal. Making a safe left turn is a little like that--it requires a little flexibility.

There are several scenarios off-hand that come to mind. There is slow-moving, congested traffic and there is traffic that is moving well. As I write I have several intersections in mind. In Chinatown, there is the intersection where Pearl Street runs into Chatham Square. I am usually coming down Pearl and looking to make a left at Chatham Square, but fortunately so is everyone else (including the right lane sometimes) and traffic gets jammed up there because oncoming traffic is also trying to turn there. Slow traffic is good for left turns because it gives a cyclist a chance to get to the left. Sparse traffic may do the same, but it is trickier because it moves faster and is harder to gauge. The other consideration is whether you'll get a chance to turn. Turning lanes are helpful here. Is oncoming traffic heavy? The easy and safe way to make a left if in doubt, or traffic is too intense, is to stay on the right, stop on the other side of the intersection where you want to turn, and wait 'till the light changes and proceed with the new flow of traffic going in the direction you want to go. This is a good, if inelegant, default tool to fall back on, as well as useful while one is learning to handle traffic.

Getting Ready for the 5 Boro Bike Tour

I took the train today. I was quickly reminded why I am such an avid biker. Upon entry to the #7 train at the 61st Street station in Woodside, I got shoved and packed in in the most unceremonious fashion. I felt my temper flaring and quickly began thinking it's just for a day or two--I switched trains to advantage at Queensboro Plaza and the rest of the ride was fine. I felt bad for thinking so ill of our system so quickly. It was still slower than biking, but it is nice to have the option. I used the option because I figured it was wise to rest up before the Five Boro Bike Tour on Sunday. I didn't really have time to train for it. Yes, I am a regular biker, but cycling 14-15 miles a day isn't the same as cycling 42-44miles in a day. I figure the next best thing is to rest up and save my strength.

I am also wondering which bike I am going to ride. I've been really tired lately. True I don't sleep as well as I should, but that usually doesn't do it. Anyway I haven't had the time to work on my bike that I need. It needed a bit. I planned to change the handlebar stem, switch the tires from the front to the back and vice versa, as well as put a new wrap on the handlebars and clean the chain. I'm sure there is more. Oh yes, I forgot the big job: overhauling the bottom bracket, which was complicated by the need for new caged bearings and a difficult to remove crank. I honestly don't think I can get it all done in time. Thus, it will be the Sears bike in action--it's in pretty good shape and only minor adjustments are needed.

I am really looking forward to the event. It will be my first time, which is a little surprising after all these years living in this city. It's too late to register for it now, but there are events organized by Transportation Alternatives ( that are not too late to participate in like the "Tour De Brooklyn" or Queens or the Bronx. I hope to bring my son to those and to enjoy some good rice and beans, plantains and chicken at the end of that last one--heck the last two promise some good eats.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Bike Commuting Tip#1: "Right of way" vs. "Stay out of the way!"

I am both a motorist and a bicyclist. I've lived in one or another of this city's boroughs all my life. I learned to drive here and I think that makes all the difference. Daddy taught me, and he was livery driver! I already appreciate and understand the rules in the seemingly confused and chaotic mess that is NYC traffic. One of the problems, I feel, is that many urban bikers aren't urban motorists, which contributes to safety concerns and friction between the two groups. In fact, there is an antipathy between these two groups that is regrettable and serves no purpose that I can see--neither is going away! Now you don't have to learn to drive in this city to commute on a bicycle, but if you're biking on NYC streets, then you kind of already are driving in this city. See what I mean? What's my point? In the short term, understanding a motorist's point of view is useful to a bike commuter, and in the long term, better relations between cyclists and motorists reduces the list of needless enemies bikers must face on the road to change, which saves time, energy and treasure.

My first piece of commuter cycling advice is to discard notions of entitlement to the right of way. This attitude is usually accompanied by the tendency to overuse said right of way, or any other privilege one perceives one has. First of all, right of way is granted to cyclists because they are the weaker vessel. They are human powered, relatively slow-moving vehicles. Right of way is not granted because we are special. Personally, I don't care to be granted something as a charity and overusing a charity does not endear the recipient to anyone. Second, right of way isn't much consolation after an accident. I hate to put it this way, but a driver's license and keys to a working automobile practically constitute a license to kill. Unless it can be shown that a law was broken or that the driver was impaired, it's "just an accident." Now if this is true, why is it allowed? The system works for a number of reasons.

A. People are usually disinclined to kill and often yield even when they have the right of way, just to avoid an accident.

B. Even if folks were not disinclined to kill, they may fear the consequences from a collision, which may result in damage to their own vehicle or person.

C. Even if only passingly concerned about the above, they may fear legal or financial consequences.

A bicyclist can only rely on the drivers in category "A" because the other motivations are weaker. The folks in category "B" aren't concerned at all. The folks in category "C" are wondering if they can get away with it. Of course that concern arises after the fact and I wouldn't claim these folks are out to kill, or that anyone is, but all these factors arise after the fact.

Like it or not, we cyclists are in the motorist's house. Furthermore, since we are obliged to rely on a motorist's goodwill for our safety, it is wise to curry favor. Now I can sense the rage of some bikers who feel they are being green and are superior, but outside your "Ivory Tower" it doesn't mean much. This doesn't mean you are completely wrong, just that the world hasn't caught up yet, and that is not an unusual condition. It's called the "human condition" and we're all part of it.

So in practical terms what does it mean? Time waits for no one and in NYC that is especially true--double that for "rush hour." A bike commuter is after all biking during rush hour. Thus, my advice is to stay out of the way! Stay to the right and out of traffic, unless your path is blocked (This is when you use "right of way.") or your destination is to the left (This is the most problematic street bicycling matter and will be addressed next.). Do not impede traffic! You do so at your own risk. The desperation spawned by our economy is such that the motorist that hits you may actually not see you.

Traffic And Cyclists

The most unsettling thing to those who consider taking up bicycle commuting in NYC is the traffic and the attendant safety concerns. The first thing I would emphasize is that you are right to be afraid--be very afraid! Okay, not that scared, but you are indeed taking a risk when you ride a bicycle in the street. A NYC government, joint agency report titled, "Bicyclist Fatalities and Serious Injuries in New York City 1996-2005," helps to assess the level of risk an urban cyclist takes. ( Predictably, most cyclist fatalities, occur in urban areas, which it happens is also where regular cycling as a form of transportation makes the most sense. According to the report, there were 225 bicyclist fatalities between 1996 and 2005. (Key Findings pg.2) Twenty-five fatalities a year is not insignificant and it explains the painted white bicycle memorials I see from time to time on the roadside. I noticed this less in the past year, but the weather's warming up so we'll see. I really don't mean to scare folks away from biking. I happen to believe that the benefits well outweigh the risks, but neglecting the risks is a non-starter.

There are enough stats out there to scare you into never leaving home. You're taking a chance to cross the street and certainly when you get into a car, but still you do it. Why? Because the benefits outweigh the risks. It's the same with biking--especially if you really enjoy it. The good news is that reponsible bikers are safer than irresponsible cyclists. Traffic stats can always suffer from inaccuracies, but according to this Bike Almanac site,">, dangerous riding habits result in more death and injury. The site refers to data that indicates that 11% of cyclist fatalities are attributable to riding against traffic, or "wrong way riding" alone. According to previously mentioned government report, 89% of all accidents occur at or within 25 feet of intersections. All evidence points to good driving habits, but what are these? According to, in 90% of cases it is the motorist's fault. Now I don't want to lessen the importance of organizations like "Right of Way" and others, whose work has been invaluable to cyclists, but the open, anti-motor vehicle bias of "Right of Way" is clear--check out their site">! Neither do they appear to be aiming for objectivity.

I cannot find much fault with their arguments, which are mostly true. I only take issue with their conclusions. This is a big country and the car isn't going away. I am all for public transportation, but it is not applicable everywhere. There is no urban rail system like the one in NYC, just as there no city like NYC. Furthermore, the upkeep of such a system has been a major challenge only sustainable this long by a city with the resources that NYC possesses. This only further speaks to the importance and viability of urban bicycle commuting, but also for the notion of shared roads and reconciling cars and bicycles. One could argue that cars are not the problem, only the internal combustion engine needs reforming or replacing. Indeed, cyclists and motorists share many of the same qualities, very American qualities of independence and self-reliance--the cyclist more so, of course. Convenience and cost certainly play a role here as well, though no one should leave out mere pleasure. In light of this it is surprising that cyclists are often portrayed nearly as subversives. I think those dedicated to our consumer culture feel threatened by them. More on this later.

I agree with an essayist on the "Right of Way" website on two important points--the need for more cyclists and the hatred that bicyclists are sometimes faced with. Check out their "unprintable essays" section. In the line up are some fine essays that are worth a read. One of them is under the caption, "What Cycling Really Needs," but actually titled "The Need For More Cyclists" and are the remarks of Charles Komanoff at bicycling conference. He argues that "...teaching people to be better cyclists, while helpful, isn't enough." According to Komanoff, the safety needed is in numbers. This is true, but the forces that make for more cyclists are not so easily controlled and putting policy before practice is not easy, absent price pressure or popular appeal.

I submit that both price pressure and popular appeal are on the side of cyclists and safer cycling can expedite the important goal of getting more people biking. Among other things, one of the goals of this blog is to make biking safer by passing urban cycling advice to would-be and current cyclists. My warnings in advance, with regard to traffic advice, I write of the world as it is, not as it should be. Thus, some of my practices may not be kosher, but when you start cycling it becomes apparent that the rules are a little vague. This is not by design, but by default. The rules of the road are written for cars, and rightfully so. This is a transition period and the rules for cyclists, it seems to me, are still being written. How the rules get written depends a great deal on us cyclists. Thus, cyclists are often obliged to make things up as they go along, but there are some rules and "anything goes" is not a good idea. More later.