Predictions of Bike-Share Carnage Are a Mirage and a Distraction

Just when you thought the bike-share detractors might have run out of steam — or at least taken a time-out — along comes an intellectually muddled piece in the NY Post warning of dead bike-share users littering Midtown streets.

“Three people died in Paris’ first year of bike share. New York should heed Paris’s lesson.” That’s the ghoulish lede of Manhattan Institute transportation expert Nicole Gelinas’s “Gore de France” piece last Saturday. But despite the headline, the column can’t be dismissed as mere tabloid titillation.

For one thing, Gelinas is a thoughtful journalist — probing, numerate, and far more prone to squawk about municipal unions’ pensions than the city’s pursuit of livable streets. In an aptly titled, in-depth 2012 City Journal piece, “Ungridlocked,” she lauded DOT chief Janette Sadik-Khan’s re-engineering of city streets for greater safety and efficiency, and warned the next mayor not to backtrack on the city’s new bike lanes and bus lanes. “Rip out the new, pedestrian-friendly Times Square?” Gelinas wrote then. “You may as well suggest demolishing the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.”

And there’s truth enough in Gelinas’s reminder that traffic hazards await bike-sharers. Despite a roughly three-fold drop in NYC cyclist fatality rates (deaths per cyclist), by my calculations, over the past dozen years, cycling here can morph from joy to jeopardy in the blink of an eye. Concerns that new cyclists could be placing themselves in harm’s way are reasonable enough.

But “Gore de France” misses its mark. It overhypes prospective increases in cycling deaths due to bike-share. It treats dangers that cyclists face as a separate species from dangers to pedestrians, and thus passes up a chance to advocate for traffic safety approaches that would benefit everyone, not just cyclists. Its negative slant obscures bike-share’s potential life-extending benefits from traffic-calming and healthful transportation.

Let’s start with Gelinas’s fatality forecast. She extrapolates from deaths in the initial years of Paris’s Velib program and cautions us to brace ourselves for “at least six [cyclist] deaths beyond the usual expected by the end of 2015 — all on the cute, clunky blue bikes.” And that’s just in the Manhattan Central Business District. Gelinas’s two bike-share deaths a year in the CBD would come on top of the baseline level of two to three.

That’s a stretch, and one that may stem from the widespread tendency to underestimate just how much cycling there already is in Manhattan. I estimate that day in and day out around two-thirds of a million trips are made by bike in the five boroughs. Probably a third to a half of those start or end in the CBD. Gelinas figures that 5,500 Citi Bikes will make 27,500 trips a day, tops. If so, they’ll only add around 10 percent to current bicycle travel in the CBD.

For those new trips to suffer two fatalities a year, each one would have to be nearly 10 times as perilous as a typical CBD bike trip is now. That could be, but experience in London, Washington, and Boston — each of which, Gelinas notes helpfully, have had bike-share for a few years, with zero deaths — suggests otherwise. Sure, Citi Bike users won’t be as battle-tested as the current biking base, but they’ll almost certainly be less aggro and more rule-abiding, especially given the “clunky” nature of the bikes.

A deeper defect of Gelinas’s approach is that it segments dangers to bicyclists from general road dangers facing everyone. Her column reinforces this artificial divide by withholding until paragraph 20 the revelation that “nearly all of the early Velib deaths involved a truck, with these large heavy vehicles making a blind right turn.” Does Gelinas not know that over the past decade this same maneuver by the same class of vehicle has probably killed a hundred New York City pedestrians, like Jessica Dworkin, the Greenwich Village artist whom a turning 18-wheeler crushed to death at Houston Street and Sixth Avenue last August?

It’s ongoing mayhem like this, and the authorities’ indifference to it, that makes mockery of Gelinas’s demand that Citi Bike kiosks advise users to “be afraid of trucks.” Wouldn’t it be more effective, as well as more ethical, to demand behavior modification by drivers who bring danger into the picture? Wouldn’t it be more productive to require vehicle operators to adhere to traffic laws rather than requiring vulnerable road users to always make the right move?

“Most of those people,” Gelinas says of the departed Velib users, “would not have been injured if they had stuck to their pre-bike way of getting around.” Maybe in Paris, but don’t tell that to NYC pedestrians, including the half-dozen or more who’ve been killed lately by drivers on sidewalks.

It’s past time for Gelinas and indeed all of us to stop obsessing over “bike safety.” Together, let’s own up to the fact that dangerous driving in all its guises — failure to yield, driving too fast, following too closely, turning too aggressively, multi-tasking, etc. — endangers everyone, not only cyclists. The sooner we root out traffic danger at the source, by targeting those who create it, the sooner we’ll have a city where everyone, from the Citi Bike newbie to war heroes, can finally be safe.

  • Thanks for a measured response. I hope Streetsblog can continue seeing both sides of certain issues and people. The comment section has been full of argument lately–maybe everyone has too much pent-up energy waiting for bikeshare?

  • What a great response Charlie! So hard to understand why the Post editors have such loathing for bicyclists that everything they touch–including the few remaining relationships with credible journalists–is tainted.

  • Anonymous

    Cycling is good, and people should be able to choose to do it. If cycling is dangerous, the answer is to make it safe, not to stop being from doing it.

  • Eddie

    It’s inevitable that there will be some injuries and fatalities with Citi Bike, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to embrace it. A man just was killed on Monday in Toronto doing a stupid stunt on a Bixi bike. All bike share users are adults, and we need to be responsible for our mistakes.

  • Daphna

    Thank you for this excellent article. I hope Nicole Gelinas reads it! Gelinas was on streetsblog yesterday looking for responses to her article and was complaining that the feedback she was receiving was anonymous, too general and not specific. She should be happy Charles Komanoff’s article. I wish this kind of journalism were in the NY Post.

  • KillMoto

    Charles, your last paragraph is unmitigated genius.

  • Charlie Bicycle Habitat

    Thanks Charlie

    In the 1970’s NYC averaged mid to high 20’s of cyclists being killed by automobile each year. IN ’73 the Dot counted 250 cyclists entering the CBD. When I am asked why its safer today I respond “lots more cyclists” My opinion more cyclists may very well have the effect of driving cyclists death and the cyclist death rate down. I like her idea of extrapolation but believe she is extrapolating the wrong thing. There may be a point where more cyclist result in more deaths per mile but I think we are far from that point. I believe we are still at the point where the more we enter the conscientious of drivers, other cyclists and pedestrians the sager we are,

  • Guest

    Charlie, great analysis!

    Gelinas’ main fallacy is in assuming that *all* Citi Bike users represent new and inexperienced cyclists. This is a common refrain among critics, from someone as reasonable as Gelinas to the most hysterical NIMBYs.

    Many Citi Bike users are already “battle-tested.” European tourists are probably very well acquainted with bike share systems and if they’ve been on a Boris Bike (On the “wrong” side of the road, even!) then they’re probably ready for NYC. A lot of tourists are already familiar with DC’s Capital Bike share. Other users may be Jersey City or Hoboken residents who can’t take their own bikes on the PATH at rush hour, but who regularly cycle in neighborhoods that approximate road conditions in New York. Another subset of users are people who regularly cycle in NYC but who want the freedom and flexibility of not always relying on their own bikes. This last group is probably well represented among Streetsblog readers and the first wave of the 12,000+ first subscribers.

    Not that their won’t be some issues or injuries, but I think most people who get on a bike in NYC will be far more confident than conventional wisdom currently believes.

  • KillMoto

    Actually the whole thing is, but that last section struck me especially so.

  • I agree that Gelinas is thoughtful. I’m glad to see a respectful response on Streetsblog.

    I expressed my opinion to her earlier this month that “safety in numbers” has already “kicked in” in NYC ( https://twitter.com/eveostay/status/332321114963468289 ) , but it looks like I wasn’t persuasive enough. Thanks, Charlie, for crunching the numbers regarding the the number of cyclists we already have on the streets.

  • Mike

    What’s wrong with demolishing the BQE?

  • Anonymous

    I do wonder why Paris seems such an outlier when it comes to bikeshare fatalities.

    I still think it would be a good idea to teach cyclists to beware of trucks, even if you think the problem is the truckers’ fault. Teaching potential victims to defend themselves is better that doing nothing at all, which is what we have now. Yes, taming dangerous motorists is the ideal to strive for, but don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

  • AcuBill

    Great post, Charles. Respectful, thoughtful tone that will encourage a response from Gelinas. Terrific analysis.

  • Anonymous

    I found this article in the Washington Post interesting, pointing out some of the downsides with their successful program (of course, nothing is perfect):

    http://tinyurl.com/mgpe99y

    “Simon Pak, manager of Bike Rack, a bike shop in Northwest Washington, expressed concern about novice bikers on the roads — he said he’s witnessed several accidents. ‘Since Capital Bikeshare started, any incident [I’ve witnessed] in bike-to-bike collisions have been with Capital Bikeshare riders. They’re the most inexperienced riders emulating more experienced riders,’ he said.”

    They also talk about people dropping their subscriptions due to problems with bike distribution, finding stations either empty or full.

  • Andy

    More people biking means less people driving. The fact is that it’s people driving that are doing the killing, so anything to reduce that number will make cycling safer.

  • Anonymous

    Important point, Guest, well-stated, and now stunningly obvious — though only after you’ve said it. And thanks to all commenters so far for support.

  • Eddie

    “More people biking means less people driving.”

    Well, not necessarily. Most people who use Citi Bike would not be driving otherwise. They’d probably either be walking or using public transportation.

  • Guest

    I think a lot of people will opt for a Citi Bike instead of a taxi for crosstown trips or for hops that are too awkward for a train or bus ride.

  • Guest

    I don’t know if I’d take a bike shop owner’s criticism of bike share users as the be all and end all.

    And as the story says, finding a station empty or full is not altogether different from watching a crowded bus skip your stop or not finding a seat on a rush hour subway train. I don’t think anyone is expecting the bike share experience to be without a minimal amount of normal frustrations.

  • KillMoto

    Can’t agree more. When bike share came to Boston, I bought a fob just to support the program. With my commuter bike never out of arm’s reach (sits right in my office at work; garage at home; folded in the trunk in the rare car trip…), I thought I’d never use it.

    But I did. For short trips in town, why hassle with taking my own bike and locking it up? I can use bike share and not worry.

    So yeah – another use case for the experienced bike share rider. The hard core cyclist who simply doesn’t want his seat stolen.

  • Andy

    I had more of a comment but kept it short. I wouldn’t assume it’s a 1:1 conversion, or anything close, but I do firmly believe that the ability to have one-way bike use will reduce car trips, even in a large dense city.

  • Anonymous

    To me the most telling thing about the article is that Gelinas acknowledges that part of the Parisian response to the problem was to educate bus drivers–but, as Komanoff notes here, nowhere in her article does she suggest that New York take that approach. And of course there’s no hint that the police should behave differently. It’s just bikers, DOT, bikers, DOT, and on and on.

  • Guan Yang

    Exactly. I have a bike and even have bike parking in the basement. But I’m often too lazy to carry the bike up the stairs, and sometimes I want to make a one-way bike trip, or only bike part of the trip.

  • ZoeW

    Couldn’t it also have the effect, as a friend of mine suggested, of deterring drivers “put off” by having to contend with so many more bikes on the road? These drivers might switch to public transportation–or even be inspired to hop on a bike.

  • Anonymous

    I completely agree, although I suspect the same number of taxis will stay on the road, or at least the yellow cabs will, given their limited number. If they feel a dent in business (unlikely during peak periods), they might consider spreading out a bit further, though.

  • • First the riders would be too fat for the bikes. Then they would be too small and weak to handle heavy cruiser bikes. Now they’re on the brink of death.

    We’ve heard from the tabloids, what are they saying on teevee? I’m sure Marcia Kramer is working on a segment about the terrorist threat they pose.

  • • First the riders would be too fat for the bikes. Then they would be too small and weak to handle heavy cruiser bikes. Now they’re on the brink of death.

    We’ve heard from the tabloids, what are they saying on teevee? I’m sure Marcia Kramer is working on a segment about the terrorist threat they pose.

  • Anonymous

    This is infuriating and embarrassing, I’m ashamed to live in this city /sobs

  • Eric Britton

    On Ms. Gelinas who interviewed me at length for this article:

    This is a very very bad, disgraceful piece of gutter journalism. It is a disservice to the people of New York.

    I am embarrassed concerning the way in which she has entirely warped our hour long telephone interview during which I tried hard to give her a balanced view of city cycling, pubic bikes, and the quality of the experiences of Lyon and Paris with their public bike projects. (Did she mention that in Lyon where the system is just about the size of the one to come on line in NYC, there has been one fatality and that it took five years for that to come about. The cyclist looked the wrong way on entering a poorly designed intersection.)

    I should have known better. From the beginning of our interview she kept harping on the bikes will kill line, and as I read her article some weeks later what I can note is that she did not budge a single nanometer from the position that she clearly had decided on before doing any “research”. That’s what she wanted to write and that’s what she did. (There must be a name for this kind of journalism.)

    I do not know the “Manhattan Institute”, but if her piece is representative of what they are up to it must be a pretty scary place.

    Eric Britton
    http://www.worldstreets.org

    PS. I think I have now seized her personality. She is the kind of person who
    loves to bicker, and will do it endlessly because it allows her to continue to
    get public attention for her views. As to that, I can give no better counsel
    that “Don’t feed the troll”.

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