Monday, April 12, 2010

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.


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