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Biking It

by Bruce Schaller, Jul 18, 2006
 The deaths of three bicyclists in traffic accidents in June brought renewed attention to bicycling -- not only as a form of recreation but also of transportation in New York City.

The deaths illustrated the variety of cycling trips in the city and the range of dangers facing cyclists. Derek Lake, a 23-year-old filmmaker, was crushed beneath the wheels of a tractor-trailer on Houston Street in Manhattan as he biked to work on a rainy Monday, June 26, apparently after slipping on a steel plate covering a construction trench. Dr. Carl Nacht, a 56-year-old physician, was hit by a police department tow truck as he rode with his wife along the Hudson River Park bike path near 38th Street on Sunday, June 25. Donna Goodson, 41, was killed on Rockaway Parkway in Brooklyn on Monday evening, June 5, when a truck turned in front of her onto Avenue D.

Clearly, cyclists face danger whether they ride on a street like Houston without even a bike lane marked on the pavement, or on bike paths separated from the flow of traffic. Except for a few bike paths along parkways, nearly all bike paths and lanes in the city require bicyclists and motorists to watch out for each other.

Not Less Safe

Coming in close succession, these accidents might lead New Yorkers to believe that bicycling is becoming less safe. But this is an incorrect conclusion. The number of traffic accidents involving cyclists has declined by about 40 percent in the last decade, even as the number of people cycling has increased by 40 percent, according to the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. This group believes that the decline in accidents shows that there is safety in numbers; when motorists see more bicyclists they are more likely to watch out for them.

Other cities are experimenting with ways to improve bike safety that go beyond the standard public education. Chicago, which recently announced plans for a 500-mile bike network that would put a bike lane within a half-mile of every resident, plans to try raised bike lanes; this would dissuade motorists from veering onto the bike lane. (Chicago also plans to install showers and bike lockers at a commuter train station on the edge of the Loop.)

More Bicyclists, And More Bike Lanes (Though Not Enough)

How many people bicycle in New York City? Transportation Alternatives estimates that 120,000 bicyclists make 400,000 bike trips per day, at least in the warmer months. That is twice the number of daily riders on the PATH system, and equivalent to the number on the ten most popular bus routes in the city.

The increased popularity of cycling has been spurred by an expansion in bike lanes around the city. The Hudson River Park path, which is shared by bicyclists, in-line skaters and (on some portions) pedestrians, means that one can now cycle from the Battery to the George Washington Bridge with only a brief detour onto city streets around West 130th Street. Along the East River are traffic-separated paths from 125 Street to the Battery except for a detour onto city streets in Midtown. Other boroughs also offer excellent cycling options. These include, in Brooklyn, traffic-separated paths on Ocean Parkway and next to the Belt Parkway and on-street bike lanes on Dean and Bergen Streets and Bedford Avenue. Other boroughs also offer a mix of on-street and traffic-separated bike lanes and paths, as shown in the city’s bike map. Connecting the boroughs, all four of the East River bridges, as well as the Triboro and George Washington bridges, have bike access.

Even with this progress, however, cycling advocates point out that the city is only slowly moving to complete its 1997 master plan that envisioned a citywide network of bike facilities. Indeed, the lack of progress is one of the factors cited by Andrew Vesselinovitch when he quit his job earlier this month as the Department of Transportation's bicycle program director.

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Off-street paths have increased from 51 miles in 1997 to about 100 miles today and on-street bike lanes have increased from 41 miles to about 90 miles, according to Transportation Alternatives. These figures put the city about one-fifth of the way toward the master plan goal of 909 miles.

The city has not set a schedule for completion of the master plan network. As a result, while there are attractive bike lanes around the city, it can be hard to get to them. For example, a cyclist like Derek Lake who bikes over the Brooklyn or Manhattan bridge and heads uptown needs to travel on city streets for a number of blocks before reaching even an on-street bike lane.

Barriers To A Bike-Friendly New York

The need for a true network of bike lanes is not the only barrier to making New York City truly bike-friendly. The city’s master plan noted that potential cyclists want three things:

*on-street bicycle lanes
*secure bike parking
*facilities to shower and change clothes.

A 1990 survey conducted by the city’s transportation department found that nearly 50 percent of Manhattan office workers surveyed who live within 10 miles of work would cycle to work if provided these facilities. Yet how many employers offer bike parking or showers for their employees?

Biking Elsewhere

How does New York City rank among other cities as a place to bike? According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau on how people travel to work, 0.4 percent of workers in the New York metro area biked to work in April 2000. This figure is on a par with other major cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles. However, the bike-to-work rate in these cities is only about one-third of the rate in San Francisco (1.4percent bike to work), Madison, Wisconsin (1.7 percent) and several Canadian cities -- Vancouver (1.9 percent), Ottawa (1.9 percent) and Montreal (1.3 percent), according to a study by John Pucher at Rutgers University. European cities have achieved far higher levels of cycling -- 25 percent of all trips nationally in Denmark are by bike, as are 18 percent in the Netherlands and 11percent in the former West Germany. London, the city that most closely resembles New York, is spending ÂŁ24 million annually (about $44million) in cycling infrastructure, training, promotion and education.

Cycling in London has increased by 72 percent overall and 100 percent in summer months since 2000, according to Transport for London.

New York City has every reason to aspire to the levels of bike usage seen in the most bike-friendly cities. The Pucher study, comparing Canada and the United States, found that higher rates of cycling in Canada are attributable to such factors as higher urban densities, more mixed-use development, shorter trip distances, lower incomes, and higher costs of driving a car. Sounds a lot like New York – except that the study also found that higher cycling rates are also due to more extensive cycling infrastructure and safer cycling conditions.

Bruce Schaller, who has been in charge of the transportation topic page since its inception in 1999, is head of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis about transportation. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. 

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