Yield to Bicycles

By Charles Komanoff

New York City's bicycling landscape is suddenly more bountiful. Along Manhattan's Hudson River shoreline, a nearly continuous, 12 mile long, paved bike path stretches from Battery Park City to the George Washington Bridge. And after a 40-year ban, cyclists and walkers are again allowed on the Manhattan Bridge.

However, two other events last week underscored the still-fragile status of cycling in New York City.

The Parks Department closed a mile-long portion of the popular East River promenade on the Lower East Side and does not plan to reopen it any time soon. According to the department, the pilings that support the promenade have rotted to the point that collapse is a real risk. Apparently the authorities knew for years that the structure was deteriorating, but did nothing.

On the same day the closing was announced, a cyclist riding in a bicycle lane under the FDR Drive near the Manhattan Bridge was killed when a livery cab hung a left turn and struck him head-on.

The cyclist's death is typical of the more than 100 fatalities to bicycle riders in New York City over the past five years.

Driver misconduct outweighs cyclist error threefold as the principal cause of cyclist fatalities here, according to a case-by-case analysis by the activist group of which I am a member, Right Of Way. Improper turns, running red lights, speeding, and unsafe passing by motorists kill more cyclists than the leading cyclist infractions of running red lights and riding the wrong way in traffic.

But city officials continue to peddle the fiction that "cyclist error" is the "primary contributing cause" in three-fourths of cycling deaths. The message is clear: In New York, streets are for cars, and cars alone.

To be sure, the culture pays lip service to the bicycle as a symbol of eco-friendliness or fitness. But bikes are not granted space, psychic or physical, to flourish as routine transportation. Ironically, our society, buckling under the burdens of gridlock, obesity and road deaths (not to mention global warming), still relentlessly valorizes driving, while scorning cycling.

This is in stark contrast to Europe, where cycling to work and to school and for errands is a dozen or more times as common as in the U.S. Widespread bicycle use contributes importantly to the quality of life in prosperous countries like Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. And less emphasis on cars means that Europeans are half as likely as Americans to die in car crashes.

It is true that Europe's compact cities are conducive to cycling. And many European cities and towns are laced with networks of Hudson River-style bike paths separated from regular roads. But the biggest reason that Europeans cycle for transportation is that custom and law compel drivers to observe cyclists' right of way on ordinary roads and streets.

The bicycle rider's right of way is fundamental to safety, far more so than wearing a helmet. The vast majority of serious cycling accidents involve crashes with motor vehicles. Relatively few fatalities would be averted if all cyclists wore helmets, since fatal accidents usually involve extensive body trauma.

The simplicity and economy that make the bicycle a marvelous instrument of urban mobility also leave the rider completely exposed in a traffic stream full of ever-larger, heavier, and more powerful vehicles. But if the vulnerability of cyclists is rooted in physics, it is consummated in governance.

Almost a century ago, New York State's vehicle and traffic law granted cyclists full right to the road. It also protected cyclists from unsafe passing, tailgating, and lack of due care by drivers.

Yet none of these provisions are enforced today, and drivers are never told about them.

So it should come as no surprise that in New York a driver can run a cyclist off the road and sometimes right into the emergency room or the morgue and face little risk of prosecution or often even a traffic ticket. Indeed, the livery car driver whose unlawful turn killed the cyclist last week received no summons and is free to go on driving for a living.

There is a solution, embodied in a recent proposal by a Canadian medical official.

After two cyclists were killed one week apart in Toronto several years ago, the regional coroner undertook a study of thousands of cycling accidents, including three dozen deaths over a ten-year period, to determine how to reduce cycling casualties. His key recommendation was to establish, as law, "the principle of motorized vehicles yielding to non-motorized vehicles."

Just as motorboats yield to sailboats on the water, motor vehicles would yield to bicycles (and bicycles to pedestrians) whenever the two vie for the same space on the road and there is no explicit traffic indicator such as a signal. Putting into law this "common sense rule," said coroner W.J. Lucas, "would likely significantly reduce risk of injury and death" to cyclists.

This simple and intelligent recommendation offers an opportunity to begin reforming traffic enforcement and, indeed, refashioning our road culture. No longer would a motorist feel entitled to take over a traffic lane from a bicyclist - the single largest cause of cyclist fatalities in New York.

If bikes truly got a stake in the road system, cyclists would be more willing to observe traffic laws and pedestrians' right of way. This would not only improve pedestrians' equanimity but could also clear the way to a cyclist-pedestrian alliance capable of wresting dominance of the streets from drivers.

New York needs more cycling. To paraphrase the downtown bicycle inventor-guru George Bliss: among all forms of travel, the bicycle best harmonizes mobility with community.

Sadly, common courtesy alone can not guarantee the safety and provide the dignity that would induce large numbers of New Yorkers to ride. A law giving bicycles precedence over cars is a long-overdue first step toward civilizing our streets and promoting our city's health and well being.

Charles Komanoff is an economist and a member of the pedestrian and bicyclist rights group Right Of Way.

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