Don’t Dismiss “Don’t Be a Jerk”

Last week, Doug Gordon wrote that DOT’s upcoming “Don’t Be a Jerk” campaign is the wrong message to educate cyclists at the wrong time. I disagree.

“Don’t Be A Jerk” is precisely the sort of catchy phrase that is needed to wake up all New York City cyclists, of all economic classes and educational backgrounds, to the need to obey the rules of the road.  It is simple and direct, and has a New York ring to it.

Illegal cycling is commonplace. And illegal cycling is what feeds the backlash against bike lanes in New York.  To deny this is dangerous to the future of cycling in New York.

Just this Easter morning, my daughter and I jogged up 8th Street from Fourth Avenue for a run in Prospect Park.  We saw three cyclists riding up 8th against traffic, and a giggling couple riding up the very narrow sidewalk on the south side of 8th Street between Prospect Park West and Eighth Avenue.

If this isn’t “jerky” behavior, I don’t know what is. There are clearly marked bike lanes on 9th Street.

The DOT under Janette Sadik-Khan has paved the way for cyclists on NYC streets.  We need to use the bike lanes, and use them responsibly. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot use the bike lanes when it is convenient, and then ride the wrong way, or on the sidewalk, or through stop lights and stop signs when we want.

Transportation Alternatives is addressing aberrant cycling behavior with its “Biking Rules” campaign and its Bike Ambassadors program. These efforts reach a certain segment of the biking community. But they do not have the pervasive impact that a TV, radio and billboard “Don’t Be A Jerk” campaign will have.

I hope it will be presented in several languages.

Of course I am in agreement with Deputy Mayor Wolfson’s reasoned arguments about the importance of cycling to the future of the city.  I have written elsewhere about the dramatic gains in safety that have resulted from the DOT’s re-engineering of New York’s streets.

And yes there are New York drivers who drive like jerks.  But previous administrations taught them that the roads belonged to cars. The Bloomberg administration has given cyclists 250 miles of bike lanes on the city’s streets. The bike-share program is coming. We need to show that we want bike lanes and will use them responsibly.

Steve Hindy is a member of Transportation Alternatives’ Board of Directors. The views expressed in this post are his own.

  • Joe R.

    Thank you for pointing out the obvious. I always hear from complainers how cyclists actually obey the law in places like the Netherlands, always stop for lights, etc. I don’t doubt it. Of course, these same people fail to neglect how well their cycling infrastructure is designed. I’ll bet in most places a cyclist could take a 10 mile trip and maybe encounter one or two red lights. It’s not a burden on any level to stop that infrequently. Put a Dutch cyclist in NYC and I’ll bet they’ll quickly tire of stopping and waiting 75 seconds every three or four blocks. So yes, the problem is failed designs as you say. You want cyclists to obey things like red lights, then design infrastructure so red lights are a very rare thing. By definition human power in a mode which just isn’t amenable to frequent starting and stopping. Ask any person walking if they would obey the law if it meant stopping and waiting a full minute or more every block or even half block ( this would basically be equivalent to what cyclists in NYC encounter if you consider that 4 blocks cycling more or less equals one block walking ). You’ll probably get a lot of strange looks why they should have to do something which would make walking take 2-3 times as long. And yet these same pedestrians think cyclists should follow such a set of rules simply because we as a society lack the imagination to design better infrastructure.

    Infrastructure is really the key. Until we fix that we’re just trying to drill a hole in water.

  • Anonymous

    I live in BK, so I don’t really see what goes down in manhattan or if there are a lot of conflicts between bikes and peds. It definitely a car/bike issue out here, IMO. The newspaper didnt record the number of conflicts between bikes and others, just the number id people who went through the light. I’d be curious to know what percentage of people jaywalked at that intersection during the same period.

    My sense is that the outcry against going through lights is less connected to actual safety, and more to the bike lane kerfuffle–“those guys are getting a handful of lanes, they have a big sense of entitlement, they should have to wait for lights like the rest of us.” I think this gets to exactly what is wrong with the cyclists-are-jerks-campaign concept: it pits one group against everyone else rather than addressing reality.

  • Guest

    Ask your city commissioner (or whoever the person in power is) to request that the DOT review and update the warrant on that traffic signals. According to best practices all stop lights must be warranted. The good news is that the warrant criteria have changed. Therefore, an intersection that warranted a signal 40 years ago may not warrant one today. This is especially true if there are other signals nearby. The proximity of other traffic signals may negate an otherwise warranted signal.

  • Guest

    PS, Joe, to address your other point, signals and new control boxes are expensive, so they will probably be replaced when the entire road is scheduled for maintenance. Probably not what you want to hear, but… next time there is a major project scheduled for a road, you now know to contact the decisionmakers and insist on modern upgrades like detectors, ped calls, bike detectors (really cool), short cycle lengths, and a controller that can switch between timed directionals during the day and detector-triggering on the cross street during off-peak hours (and blink cycle in the wee hours).

  • dporpentine

    On my bike, all year long, in the snow and rain and so on, I do all the things you say–stopping at red lights, waiting behind crosswalks, etc.–and have repeatedly made similar points on here about how comical the “I’m a radical, I do the same thing as everybody else” posture is among the willful lawbreaking set here, but the campaign isn’t about encouraging *good* behavior. It’s about joining in the shame chorus for bikers in general. And that’s a bad idea, even for those of us who follow the law, since plenty of people think that the law is riding on sidewalks or only riding on streets where there are bike lanes, etc. There’s too much fundamental ignorance out there. The city’s just feeding it by adding on the word “jerk.”

  • dporpentine

    On my bike, all year long, in the snow and rain and so on, I do all the things you say–stopping at red lights, waiting behind crosswalks, etc.–and have repeatedly made similar points on here about how comical the “I’m a radical, I do the same thing as everybody else” posture is among the willful lawbreaking set here, but the campaign isn’t about encouraging *good* behavior. It’s about joining in the shame chorus for bikers in general. And that’s a bad idea, even for those of us who follow the law, since plenty of people think that the law is riding on sidewalks or only riding on streets where there are bike lanes, etc. There’s too much fundamental ignorance out there. The city’s just feeding it by adding on the word “jerk.”

  • dporpentine

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m middle-aged and no kind of athlete, yet I manage to do about 10 miles a day on my bike, stopping the full length at every red light, and I feel fresh as a daisy at the end of my ride. Perhaps you’ve never done it enough to realize how wonderfully recuperative waiting at red lights can be?

  • dporpentine

    Sorry: this was intended to be a reply to Joe R.’s comment from yesterday at 6:35 p.m.

    I’ll blame Disqus–naughty Disqus!

  • carma

    hmm.. you maybe onto something. waiting a red light just so you dont “stink”. listen up all office workers.

  • Joe R.

    Without knowing your route, how fast you ride, how many lights you encounter, what you say is totally meaningless. When I say that on the streets where I ride, if I wait out one light, it’ll often mean getting caught at the another 3 blocks down, etc., I’m not kidding because I’ve tried it just for kicks. On a ten mile trip like you take, that would mean starting and stopping in excess of 50 times. Can you do that? I was strong enough at one time to have some friends seriously suggest that I consider bike racing. Even now at middle age I pass a lot of kids half my age, and yet I just plain can’t start or stop that often. It’s a huge strain on the legs going from a dead stop to 20 mph in 5 or 6 seconds, as I need to when I’m starting out at a light with cars to avoid being in the middle of pack of wild SUVs. Only so many times in a ride that can be done. Back when I started out riding 32 years ago, I did like you, and pretty much waited out every light. This was when the city probably had 1/5 the traffic lights it had now, so it wasn’t a major burden in terms of either time or stress. The drivers weren’t crazy like now to the point that I feel far safer NOT being anywhere near the intersection when the light goes green. Moreover, like I said, I was physically in great shape. I could “gun it” to make the lights more often than not, often hitting speeds of 30+ mph in the process. Even stopping and waiting out lights, I had little problem averaging 16, 17, even sometimes 20+ mph on some rides. Lots of luck doing that now that I’m 48, and the streets have 5 times as many lights. On a good day I might manage 26 or 27 mph spurts on level roads if I’m trying to beat the light. Stressful on the legs to be sure, but less stressful than coming to a complete stop and restarting. Often I just can’t beat the lights, and if I do, there’s another one waiting for me a block down anyway, making the attempt pretty much pointless. This is unlike years ago when if I made a light, it was clear sailing for another half mile or more. Oh, and waiting at lights isn’t recuperative. When I stretch to put my foot down to keep from falling over, it affects the same muscles which give me leg cramps. Once doing this I was in such excrutiating pain I couldn’t move for 5 minutes. Try walking for a minute in someone’s shoes before passing judgement.

    Like I’ve said many times whenever we discuss this subject, I don’t commute, I don’t ride at times when there’s heavy traffic, and I hardly ever encounter pedestrians while riding. In short, I’m not denying anyone their right-of-way if I carefully pass a red after seeing if it’s safe to do so, nor am I creating a dangerous situation. Look, I’m 100% on your side when it comes to jerks on bikes. I think I hate them even more than you, especially the wrong-way riders wearing dark clothes without lights. Can’t say how many times I’ve missed those idiots by inches. There’s worlds of difference between what I do on the streets of Eastern Queens at 10 or 11 PM, versus some of the stories you tell of jerks doing totally asinine nonsense in midtown during the height of rush hour. The sad part is because of the state of the city streets, the light timings, and so forth, the bike is basically useless to me for anything other than late-night recreation, and then only on certain roads where I know I won’t encounter all the many traffic signals. If this is the city’s idea of making cycling more appealing, then they can keep it. And as much as I’d love an Idaho stop law so I can do what I do without fears of being ticketing, even that is really just a tacit acknowledgement that NYC sucks for biking. It honestly sucks more now than it did 30 years ago. If we did this smartly, we would have lots of bike infrastructure so you and I can do 9.5 miles of a 10 mile trip on bike roads with needing to stop at all. If that were done, you won’t hear a peep out of me anymore about stopping for traffic lights as it would be so infrequent I could do so without undue burden.

    Lately I’ve taken to just using the Schwinn 240 in the basement. No worry about tickets, no need to stop, if I get cramps I’m already home. Sure, it’s nowhere near as much fun as street riding, but I see a lot more of it in my future the way things are heading. The last six months of goings on have turned what was once a joyful escape for me into a stressful exercise looking for police plus dealing with the increasing number of bike haters on the internet. I’ve only went for maybe eight rides so far this year. I’m really ready to just throw in the towel if things don’t change soon. The real jerks aren’t on bikes, they’re in charge. Leave it to NYC to f up something as great as cycling. Time to do an hour on the Schwinn….

  • Joe R.

    Without knowing your route, how fast you ride, how many lights you encounter, what you say is totally meaningless. When I say that on the streets where I ride, if I wait out one light, it’ll often mean getting caught at the another 3 blocks down, etc., I’m not kidding because I’ve tried it just for kicks. On a ten mile trip like you take, that would mean starting and stopping in excess of 50 times. Can you do that? I was strong enough at one time to have some friends seriously suggest that I consider bike racing. Even now at middle age I pass a lot of kids half my age, and yet I just plain can’t start or stop that often. It’s a huge strain on the legs going from a dead stop to 20 mph in 5 or 6 seconds, as I need to when I’m starting out at a light with cars to avoid being in the middle of pack of wild SUVs. Only so many times in a ride that can be done. Back when I started out riding 32 years ago, I did like you, and pretty much waited out every light. This was when the city probably had 1/5 the traffic lights it had now, so it wasn’t a major burden in terms of either time or stress. The drivers weren’t crazy like now to the point that I feel far safer NOT being anywhere near the intersection when the light goes green. Moreover, like I said, I was physically in great shape. I could “gun it” to make the lights more often than not, often hitting speeds of 30+ mph in the process. Even stopping and waiting out lights, I had little problem averaging 16, 17, even sometimes 20+ mph on some rides. Lots of luck doing that now that I’m 48, and the streets have 5 times as many lights. On a good day I might manage 26 or 27 mph spurts on level roads if I’m trying to beat the light. Stressful on the legs to be sure, but less stressful than coming to a complete stop and restarting. Often I just can’t beat the lights, and if I do, there’s another one waiting for me a block down anyway, making the attempt pretty much pointless. This is unlike years ago when if I made a light, it was clear sailing for another half mile or more. Oh, and waiting at lights isn’t recuperative. When I stretch to put my foot down to keep from falling over, it affects the same muscles which give me leg cramps. Once doing this I was in such excrutiating pain I couldn’t move for 5 minutes. Try walking for a minute in someone’s shoes before passing judgement.

    Like I’ve said many times whenever we discuss this subject, I don’t commute, I don’t ride at times when there’s heavy traffic, and I hardly ever encounter pedestrians while riding. In short, I’m not denying anyone their right-of-way if I carefully pass a red after seeing if it’s safe to do so, nor am I creating a dangerous situation. Look, I’m 100% on your side when it comes to jerks on bikes. I think I hate them even more than you, especially the wrong-way riders wearing dark clothes without lights. Can’t say how many times I’ve missed those idiots by inches. There’s worlds of difference between what I do on the streets of Eastern Queens at 10 or 11 PM, versus some of the stories you tell of jerks doing totally asinine nonsense in midtown during the height of rush hour. The sad part is because of the state of the city streets, the light timings, and so forth, the bike is basically useless to me for anything other than late-night recreation, and then only on certain roads where I know I won’t encounter all the many traffic signals. If this is the city’s idea of making cycling more appealing, then they can keep it. And as much as I’d love an Idaho stop law so I can do what I do without fears of being ticketing, even that is really just a tacit acknowledgement that NYC sucks for biking. It honestly sucks more now than it did 30 years ago. If we did this smartly, we would have lots of bike infrastructure so you and I can do 9.5 miles of a 10 mile trip on bike roads with needing to stop at all. If that were done, you won’t hear a peep out of me anymore about stopping for traffic lights as it would be so infrequent I could do so without undue burden.

    Lately I’ve taken to just using the Schwinn 240 in the basement. No worry about tickets, no need to stop, if I get cramps I’m already home. Sure, it’s nowhere near as much fun as street riding, but I see a lot more of it in my future the way things are heading. The last six months of goings on have turned what was once a joyful escape for me into a stressful exercise looking for police plus dealing with the increasing number of bike haters on the internet. I’ve only went for maybe eight rides so far this year. I’m really ready to just throw in the towel if things don’t change soon. The real jerks aren’t on bikes, they’re in charge. Leave it to NYC to f up something as great as cycling. Time to do an hour on the Schwinn….

  • dporpentine

    Joe R.: I’m really not trying to pick a fight, but I just can’t see why stopping and starting is so hard. . . . I really can’t.

    I can understand the infrastructure argument–even though I don’t agree with it. But there’s just absolutely nothing about my direct experience that makes me feel like it’s hard to stop and start my bike.

    Oh well. One person’s experience . . .

  • Andy

    I do stop at red lights and stop signs, but I get why cyclists would prefer not too. Even if it is no faster overall because we’ll all be stuck at a longer light down the road, there are just so many times when slowly rolling through an empty intersection is more relaxing than having to stop and start every block. The stops exist to prevent big cars from crushing people, which I find much less of a concern with cyclists. Even when I’m walking through busy intersections, a bike is no cause for concern (we’re both not interested in colliding and can easily adjust paths to make that not an issue), where a car is not going to be easily able to adjust where they are going, and that’s why so many stops exist.

  • Andy

    I do stop at red lights and stop signs, but I get why cyclists would prefer not too. Even if it is no faster overall because we’ll all be stuck at a longer light down the road, there are just so many times when slowly rolling through an empty intersection is more relaxing than having to stop and start every block. The stops exist to prevent big cars from crushing people, which I find much less of a concern with cyclists. Even when I’m walking through busy intersections, a bike is no cause for concern (we’re both not interested in colliding and can easily adjust paths to make that not an issue), where a car is not going to be easily able to adjust where they are going, and that’s why so many stops exist.

  • carma

    JoeR, heres a thought. if you dont like stopping at a light. adjust your pace so that you dont have to stop at the light when you approach the intersection. slow down your trek, so you always get a green.

    I apply this when i drive, so that i can minimize braking. but unfortunately too many idiots race to the light, only to see red.

  • Been using a Shimano internal hub since February. Makes it much easier to downshift at lights. #justsayin

  • Joe R.

    dporpentine,

    I know you’re not trying to pick a fight and you mean well. Stopping and starting isn’t the problem if I only needed to do it a couple of times in a 20 mile ride. It’s the sheer number of times I would have to start and stop which is. You may not have this problem on your commute. And you’re only going 5 miles each way, which for me is barely a warmup. I see little point riding if I’m going to have to stop and wait 45 to 60 seconds every 3 or 4 blocks, and that’s exactly what would happen given the law and the infrastructure. Remember that I’m not doing utility cycling here. I’m out there solely for exercise and enjoyment. I can get neither by strictly obeying the letter of the law. And like I said, I just plain CAN’T. I simply can’t stop and start perhaps 100 times or more in a 20 mile trip. It’s just not physically possible for me. I actually follow carma’s suggestion of adjusting my speed for red lights when there’s too much traffic to pass, but that still doesn’t solve the problem of light timing. Wait out one light, then get caught at the next 3 blocks down which I easily could have made otherwise. Pass the light, chances are I get greens for the next mile. It’s the difference between 3-4 minutes a mile versus 10. It’s the difference between possible leg cramps which strand me miles from home versus not. Bikes are all about efficient use of human power. Averaging 5-6 mph on a bike because of poor infrastructure and laws is exactly the reason why the bike haters always bring the law into the picture. It makes cycling so unpleasant and inefficient many will give it up in disgust.

    Make no mistake, although motorists complain about cyclists disobeying the law, they’re perfectly happy when laws which make life inconvenient for them are disobeyed. Most motorists will be far happier if a cyclist passes a red, versus being stuck behind them in the traffic lane while they’re pedaling up to speed. Maybe one day all the cyclists in the city should have a “rule-book slowdown” day. Take the traffic lane and stick with it as the law allows you to. Stop at every light. Turn at no more than 5 mph, yield to every pebble while you’re turning. The city will come to a standstill, people’s food will be cold by the time it gets delivered, but hey, cyclists will all be obeying the law. I’ll gladly participate in something like this, if for no other reason than to see drivers and commuters in buses fuming when they’re averaging walking speed because they’re stuck behind cyclists getting caught at every other light. Bring every other group down to the speeds cyclists would be if forced to obey the law, and maybe they’ll see the light. Either the laws will get changed in our favor, or better yet we’ll get the grade-separated infrastructure which should have been built in the first place.

    Anyway, I’m not part of the problem. It’s more important in my opinion to worry about the cyclists who actually hit or otherwise create a threatening atmosphere around pedestrians. That’s the reason for the uptick in bike complaints. My kind, the kind who carefully pass lights only when they safely can, has been around literally forever. I’ve never heard anyone complain about it until the media got us on the radar. The media is using the law as an excuse to turn people against cyclists. I’ve lived in this city all my life. It’s never been a place where any group has complied with minor laws to any great extent. This is why I just don’t get why there’s suddenly all the press on obeying the law. I’m even puzzled by the push to get drivers to go 30 mph because I’m not seeing that speeding is a major problem either. Drivers speed because the speed limit is set too low on many streets. As with bikes, the focus should be on that small segment which actually does overtly dangerous things like jockeying for position, or failing to yield when turning. I know I’m a minority here when I say I couldn’t even care less if a car passes a red light, so long as they slow enough to see if it’s clear. I think the difference between you and I is I prefer to just tell people what the overall goal is, and let them as adults best decide how to accomplish it, versus micromanaging/scripting every action via laws or traffic controls. When you take thought out of the driving/cycling process, you get exactly that-dumb drivers/cyclists incapable of coping with novel situations. The more the focus remains “wear a helmet and obey the law”, the worse things are going to get. We’re not even making an effort to do what really needs to be done, which is give these novice cyclists a set of tools by training them in proper bike handling skills and judgement. People rise or fall to the level of expectations set for them. Now we’re treating cyclists like children incapable of exercising any judgement at all. It should be no surprise that in many cases then this is exactly how they’re acting. We can do better. We should do better.

  • Steve Hindy

    Thanks for your great comments and ideas. I too hope DOT extends the program to aberrant motorists’ behaviors. I had nothing to do with the creation of this program, but it is coming and I hope it serves to increase use of bike lanes and curb bad behavior. I know we all want safer streets and more bike lanes.

  • Anonymous

    It should have been about hot heads as the real problem. Hot Headed Hipsters on bikes, hot headed drivers in cars, trucks, and brain dead pedestrians in the midst of multitasking mania. The problem we ALL have is NOT related to the type of vehicle but the brain behind it. Somewhere during the metamorphosis from anal retentive midwesterner to neophyte artsy fartsy Newby Yorker, this obvious situation has swung from arrogance to ass kissing, with no balance in between.

  • Out Out

    I partly agree. I’d have no objection if this campaign exposed jerky car behavior as well as jerky cyclist behavior. I personally hate the jerks on bikes I see every day brushing by pedestrians, failing to yield to pedestrians etc.

    However being a ‘jerk’ on a bike is more quaint than being a ‘jerk’ in an SUV. How humorous would it be to show an SUV taking a left turn at 50 MPH to beat a red light, ‘losing control’ and killing a pedestrian on the sidewalk. The devastation caused by drivers cannot be an amusing ad campaign.

  • Don’t listen to all the criticism TA, your messaging is having a great impact! Just this morning–to use the required formula–I was following a cyclist on Prince Street who proudly displayed one of your adorable Biking Rules spoke-card-things. She stopped at the inevitable red light at Lafayette–yay!–but then carefully/illegally rode through it. :'(

    Since I turn right at that intersection, I did my now habitual and absurd legal maneuver: get off the bike, walk a diagonal on the sidewalk, then ride up Lafayette. I guess I am more scared of $270 tickets than the Rules Enthusiast who rode in front of me; I am certainly not her match in the false celebration of Dumb Rules. But perhaps if a few dozen more cyclists become mobile hypocritical advertisements for TA’s inscrutable positions on our sacred and immutable 20th century traffic laws, then certain Prospect Park West dwellers will support separated bicycle lanes in front of their mansions. That, or they’ll toss you some shiny nickels for doing anti-cyclist PR better than LCG Communications.

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