Department of Health Takes a Snapshot of Bed-Stuy Cyclists

bed_stuy_graphic.jpgImage: NYC Department of Health

The city’s Department of Health has made encouraging physical activity, which can help prevent obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other ailments, a top priority. As part of promoting healthy lifestyles, the Department’s Brooklyn District Public Health Office spent last summer studying cyclist behavior in Bedford-Stuyvesant to learn who in that neighborhood travels by bike, and how, so as to better be able to promote cycling in the broader North and Central Brooklyn area. The recently released results [PDF] provide a rare neighborhood-scale look at who cycles, how they ride, and what they think of biking conditions. 

DOH studied cyclists on four blocks with bike lanes. Two, DeKalb Avenue where it crosses Throop and Bedford Avenue where it crosses Fulton Street, had buffered lanes. The others, Tompkins at Putnam and Franklin at Myrtle, had unbuffered painted lanes. The researchers gathered most of their data on cyclist behavior using video cameras, and also conducted more than 300 surveys. 

BedStuyBikers.pngImage: NYC Department of Health

During the 10 recorded hours at each intersection, spread across the week, over 2,400 cyclists rode through the study areas: more than one per minute at each crossing. Most cyclists — 89 percent — rode in the bike lane, and those riders were obstructed by an illegally parked or idling car fully 10 percent of the time captured on camera. 

Demographically, 80 percent of the cyclists were men, with 40 percent identifying as
black, 39 percent as white, 15 percent as Hispanic, and two percent as
Asian. They tended to be regular commuters, with 65 percent reporting biking for half an hour or more at least five days in the previous week, and most lived in the area.

The survey also underscored the need for further bike safety improvements across the city. Of the cyclists surveyed, 27 percent had been involved in a crash in the last three years alone and a full 74 percent had felt unsafe on their bike. 

One reason that DOH survey is particularly important is the lack of decent data about biking behavior outside Manhattan. DOT’s screenline count tracks only the crossings into the Manhattan CBD while a Department of City Planning study from last year looked at Manhattan bike lanes between 2001 and 2008. Census data covers the entire city, but is believed to undercount cycling by ignoring non-commute trips. These Bed-Stuy numbers may only be a one-year snapshot of a single neighborhood, but it’s all part of painting a fuller picture of New York City cyclists. 

  • I live in BedStuy. The only decent lane going north is on Bedford Ave; we need better bike infrastructure in the eastern part of the neighborhood. Stuyvesant Ave (which has no lane) is a good candidate for a lane going south.

    Both Patchen and Ralph should be made into one-way avenues, with a big buffered bike lane in each.

    The lanes on Throop and Tompkins are nothing more than free parking for whoever wants it.

  • Have to agree with David_K. Bike lanes physically separated from cars make people feel much safer.

  • Moe

    This item is a nice antidote to several ignorant charges about NYC cycling:

    1. That it’s an elite-type activity
    2. That no one uses the city’s bike lanes

    Everyone promoting cycling in town should keep it handy.

  • Let’s face it, Bed-Stuy is not 40% black and 39% white.

  • Forget about ethnicity – ask income! Then compare to automobile drivers income. Then do the same at a mass transit stop. And finally any intersection in the neighborhood.

  • By my calculations, at a maximum, 13% of the bicyclists interviewed (in Bed-Stuy!) lived in one of the six Bed-Stuy zip codes (each of which extend outside of the neighborhood to some extent).

    This is a great argument for the antibikelane groups like the ones in Borough Park some years back; five out of six cyclists on bike lanes are from outside the neighborhood, only passing through.

  • J. Mork

    Is it an argument to close all of the streets to motorized traffic also?

  • Jonathan, I wonder how many of the cars that drive through Bed-Stuy on these streets are from the neighborhood.

  • Chris, given that the BQE and Atlantic Avenue run past the neighborhood (but not through), and that the last 20 years of new construction has been automobile-oriented, I would estimate that at least 50% of the motor vehicles that passed through the four survey points are from the same six zip codes.

    What results have we gotten from the last 10 years of bicycle advocacy? Bed-Stuy should be a hotbed of cycling; it’s dense, compact, lacking rapid-transit infrastructure (with the teardown of the elevated trains), and close to the job, shopping and recreation centers of downtown Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. It’s carpeted with bike lanes (DeKalb, Tompkins, Franklin, Bedford, Throop, Willoughby). There’s even a paucity of grocery stores, so it would make eminent sense to use a bicycle to reach further-away shopping.

    But the results show that only 20% of riders are women, and that more than five-sixths don’t live in the neighborhood. How is this anything but a catastrophe for bike advocacy and bike advocacy groups?

  • Chris, I think Jonathan’s estimate makes sense. I have a guess, which I cannot back this up other than by offering my own observation, but I think there is a fair amount of out-of-neighborhood traffic on the main north-south avenues (especially Bedford and Marcus), but most of the cars on the east-west streets are local.

    Jonathan is right that BedStuy should be a hotbed of cycling. Streets are wide, and many have lots of shade trees. It feels good to bike there. As with most of NYC, less than half the households own cars — at least, on my street (Decatur), where there is always ample parking available. Five or six adults on my block regularly cycle, and there are more kids than that (under 12 years old) who ride up and down the block regularly. In fact, one kid across the street repairs bikes on his stoop; we just gave him a pair of pliers because he was always coming over to borrow ours.

    I already said it above, but by turning Patchen and Ralph into one-ways with buffered bike lanes, and by a little reconfiguring of east-west lanes (Willoghby and Dekalb are mere strips of paint), BedStuy could be a very inviting place to ride a bike. Of course, we need some enforcement of traffic laws — especially on Dekalb and Lafayette, which at times can feel like highways. But we need traffic enforcement all over the city.

  • Noah Kazis

    Jonathan, I’m curious how you reached that number. As I see it, 324 cyclists were surveyed, and in just the four Bed-Stuy ZIP codes with the most cyclists surveyed, there were at least 88 cyclists.

  • Noah, you are correct. Thank you. I used the wrong denominator; the total number of cyclists spotted, not the number actually surveyed.

  • Noah, thanks for pointing that out. Something seemed a bit off about Jonathan’s stat give the color-coded map in the study. 88 is a very conservative number, since the maximum of the range of respondents in the map is 71. Even assuming only one zip code at the maximum of 71 and the rest at the minimum of the range (22), that’s 40% of surveyed cyclists that were local – still a conservative estimate.

  • J:Lai

    As someone who bikes in NYC a lot, I would estimate that around 90% of the miles I ride are outside the neighborhood where I live. In fact, I typically bike in the neighborhood where I live only at the beginning or end of a longer trip. For trips within the neighborhood, I would almost always walk instead of bike. It’s not worth carrying the bike down and then back up from my apartment if I’m only going to save a couple minutes.

    I don’t know if I’m typical or not in this behavior, but it’s just something to think about to put the numbers on local usage in context.

  • JK

    This is a cool study, and exactly what the city should be doing. But, isn’t this what the Department of City Planning is supposed to be doing citywide? Shouldn’t studies like this be the puzzle pieces, which taken together, make a picture of cyclists and the cycling environment? Why does it take a local office of the Health Department to do this? (hat’s off to the Brooklyn District Public Health Office but why them? Is there a division of labor with DCP and DOT?) Lastly, is there some coordination of agency research on cycling, and discussion of what findings mean? Just wondering.

  • amanda

    I don’t understand why it matters if people who ride on bike lanes in Bedstuy are from Bedstuy or not. I live in Bedstuy, I’m a Caucasian woman, and I bike everywhere. I don’t own a car and I don’t take public transportation unless I’m not able to bike for some reason. Although I live in Bedstuy, I commute to other parts of the city, I usually am biking through about 5-6 neighborhoods minimum per day and I think that’s fairly common for anyone who seriously uses their bike as transportation. Should I not use bike lanes in Clinton Hill because I don’t live there and am only passing through or going to a store or restaurant there? If lanes are improved, expanded and we continue to build new lanes on more streets it inherently promotes biking. I’m sorry, but that is the dumbest argument I’ve ever heard. And you’re saying that cars in Bedstuy are mostly from Bedstuy because the highway doesn’t pass through the neighborhood. For one, cyclists do not have a choice to go on a highway to avoid going through a neighborhood, we have to take regular streets, and two of course there are drivers from other neighborhoods passing through Bedstuy, there are major roads going through the neighborhood. I’m sure there are plenty of people using Bedford for instance to get from Clinton Hill to Williamsburg.

    I think this is a wonderful study and that for the most part it accurately reflects the cyclists and biking conditions in Bedstuy. I’m absolutely positive that I am one of the people who was in this study as I go through at least two of the intersections more than once per day. Someone should be waving this in Marty Marowitz’s face whenever he proclaims that no one uses the bike lanes in Brooklyn. I laugh at statements like that during commute times when I’m one of 25 bikes on just one block traveling down a bike lane on my way home from work and can see more on the block ahead and more on the block behind the pack that I’m riding in. Biking is absolutely the cheapest, most efficient way to get around the city, but especially Brooklyn since most of the public transportation feeds into Manhattan and on most streets that are clogged with traffic cars can’t even drive as fast as a bike can zip by them. What would take me over an hour to get to by public transit in Brooklyn, only takes me 20 minutes to bike to.

  • Amanda, I admire your commitment to cycling in Brooklyn. You ask, why does it matter where the cyclists who are using the streets come from?

    Here is the short answer: political power comes from concentrated representation. Survey shows that the people who care about bike lanes on (for example) Gates Avenue are scattered all over the city; the people who care about parking spaces on Gates Avenue are concentrated in Brooklyn Community Districts 2 and 3.

  • Alyssa

    I just wished they had surveyed the participants who live in the area about their weight and height and then compared that to the average BMI of various age/race classes in the community. Demonstrating the obesity/health care costs reductions that could happen with more cycling in Bed-Stuy. Beyond just safety for all road users, changing people from car commuters to biking commuters will dramatically decrease the obesity related health problems that plague black communities. The recent Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/04/health/nutrition/04fat.html) about rising obesity rates has doctors and experts clearly pointing at increased biking and walking will reduce obesity. They mention how DC has one of the lowest rates of obesity, even though predominately black, since most people are using the subway system meaning they walk more frequently than motorists. Subway service is limited in Bed-Stuy so clearly promoting safe biking options is as a crucial public health solution in this neighborhood.

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