Why You Can’t Trust TV News to Report on Bike Lanes

Earlier this week, in an “investigation” seeking to link bike lanes to traffic congestion, ABC 7 reporter Jim Hoffer drove around Manhattan avenues timing his trips. The station ostensibly wanted to test DOT’s numbers showing that average travel times on two streets with protected bike lanes decreased after the lanes were installed.

It’s a terrible way to measure the performance of city streets, but when Hoffer disclosed his times on Eighth Avenue — an average of 7 minutes, 9 seconds to make the 11-block drive from 23rd Street to 34th Street during seven tests over two days — the results sounded so ludicrous, even for Midtown, that we thought: Two can play this game.

Streetsblog ran five tests during the evening rush (between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.) on Wednesday and Thursday. Instead of driving Streetsblog’s Mobile Unit SUV, I took cabs. ABC Eyewitness News helpfully blared on Taxi TV every time.

The average trip time? Four minutes, 37 seconds, about two and half minutes quicker than ABC’s average, and a minute and a half longer than the average in DOT’s report. I was unable to replicate ABC’s 7-minute-plus average, with the longest run coming in at 5:37. The fastest run clocked in well below DOT’s average at 2:37.

Here’s the secret to ABC’s report: Traffic, especially in Midtown, can be a crapshoot. Anyone familiar with this part of Eighth Avenue knows that traffic can snarl between 31st and 34th Streets near Penn Station. Sometimes it can be a quick ride through, and sometimes you’re stuck behind someone getting in a cab or a driver turning through a crowded crosswalk.

Hoffer also never mentioned that Eighth Avenue, like Columbus, has the same number of lanes as it did before the protected bike lane was installed. So if something is slowing Hoffer’s SUV down, it’s not fewer car lanes. Maybe Hoffer hit some bad traffic. Maybe, despite the fact that the street has the same number of lanes as before and now has more space for turning cars, he was out to blame that traffic on bike lanes.

What does this all prove? Not much, except that you can’t trust TV news to report fairly about anything related to bikes, and there are much better ways to assess city streets than timing a few driving runs. (That’s why Streetsblog focused on the more statistically robust safety results in our coverage of the report that precipitated ABC 7’s segments.)

Oh, and if Hoffer is looking for a quick, reliable way to get up Eighth Avenue, might we suggest using the protected bike lane? A ride from 23rd to 34th Streets, including waiting at red lights, took just four minutes, five seconds during rush hour Wednesday. It would’ve been even nicer if there wasn’t so much car traffic in the way.

  • Joe Enoch

    The key to journalism success is grabbing the big exclusive. Nice job!

  • Jeff

    Where’s Veronica Moss when you need her?

  • Joe R.

    And the news of the day is that driving in Manhattan often isn’t much faster than walking. It was that way long before we had bike lanes. I recall one instance where we made the mistake of driving one of our cats to the Animal Medical Center (not my decision, BTW) instead of taking the subway. It took us literally two hours to go around a block.

    This “investigation” should focus more on what makes people nuts enough to even think of driving in Manhattan during peak times rather than on the very low average travel speeds.

  • TV viewer

    Catching the ABC7 bit on the taxi TV was sheer brilliance and/or serendipity. Well done.

  • When I first read ABC’s report I was completely aghast, I knew they must have chosen the absolute worst conditions ever to enhance their performance.

  • Sean Cooper

    I live in the Greater Boston area, and it takes me 25 minutes to bike 5.2 miles. The same trip driving can take 40 to 45 minutes, and I don’t even have a protected bike for much of the way. I can’t see why anyone would want to drive if there was a healthier alternative.

  • SteveVaccaro

    It’s like when NBBL did their Prospect Park West bike counts in inclement weather! Or when the Times did it’s Columbus Avenue bike path counts at 6:30 a.m.

  • c2check

    I would argue they could probably stand to remove a traffic lane, too, to make more room for peds (and maybe a contraflow bike lane?): while I biked up 8th around 6pm a few days ago, the bike lane was filled with… pedestrians! while the car lanes were actually pretty empty. (I took to riding in the car lane instead.)

  • Eddie

    That’s my experience too. The 8th Avenue protected bike lane is usually so blocked with pedestrians that when I’m in a hurry to get up to the UWS I usually take 10th Avenue instead, although it’s more dangerous.

  • BBnet3000

    Its not as bad on the sections that are actually built to a good standard (the earlier ones that arent painted green and have separate turn lights). I think there really is a design aspect to this, in addition to the shortage of pedestrian space due to the street being primarily given over to autos.

  • A news investigation ONLY focusing on the time driven and not including quality of life, safety, effect on business, and environmental impacts is really woeful. In the end, it’s just a math assignment. And any person could do that story.

  • Thank goodness we have excellent journalists like Stephen Miller and Clarence to serve as a counterweight to advocacy organizations like ABC 7.

  • ADN

    So, do we think Jim Hoffer simply fabricated the results of his “investigation?” Other than some drastic traffic catastrophe on the avenue, I can’t imagine a scenario where anyone would legitimately generate the results he claims to have gotten.

  • ABC7 just continued with more stories today about the bike lanes. Another string of endless complaints by drivers and biz owners who claim the bike lanes cause the traffic jams. Quality reporting.

  • lop

    One or two more double parked trucks than usual?

  • Traff

    Flippin’ ABC. I see they’ve got a new show coming up called “How To Get Away With Murder”. That’s about driving in NYC, right?

  • carma

    i have the unfortunate privelage to ride up 8th every now and then. it always becomes a pedestrian walkway and you can never really go more than 15mph without using extreme caution. i wonder if the reason is truly because the sidewalks cant contain any more pedestrians or that tourists just love walking in the bike lanes just because…

  • qrt145

    I also ride on the 8th Ave. bike lane sometimes. The sidewalks look pretty crowded to me, and filled with obstructions, too. Not to mention the occasional construction zone which messes things up even more. So I don’t really blame pedestrians that much for falling into the temptation of walking on an admittedly not so heavily used bike lane (I do fault those who do so without paying attention). My guess is that most of these pedestrians are commuters and not tourists (at least at the time/place where I use this lane).

    In the post-Sandy days, this bike lane was surprisingly usable. My impression was that this was a combination of two factors: fewer pedestrians _and_ more cyclists than usual. People respond to what they see: when they see a cyclist go by every few seconds they are much more like to respect the bike lane than when there is only one cyclist per minute.

  • Eric McClure

    This is some of the best TV news journalism I’ve ever seen.

    Love the Streetsblog theme music!

  • I think you can trust that he got stuck in some crappy traffic and that his numbers are real.

    What’s clear is that he’s leaving out the key facts, as Stephen points out: that no lanes were lost in these street reconfigurations or that it’s just a fact of life in NYC that about a million things could slow you down while driving, the least of which are bike lanes. It’s dishonesty by omission.

    He also claims that the bike lane has pushed double parked trucks farther out into traffic. That’s not true. It’s pushed them farther from the curb, but they’re the same distance into traffic as they were before. That’s either complete dishonesty or honest-to-god stupidity. Who knows.

    Whether this is deliberate agenda-driven malice on Hoffer’s part or just lazy journalism from someone who likes a good story but doesn’t know a lot about traffic engineering is something only he can answer.

  • skeptonomist

    Weather and darkness. For those who are not aware, riding a bike at night can be suidical – drivers just don’t look for pedestrians or cyclists. It is best to assume that you are invisible (not invincible). Of course this is not so bad in well-lit city streets. Rain also cuts down on drivers’ visibility, aside from the fact that water on oily city streets makes them very slippery. Of course cyclists in cities in other parts of the world manage to overcome these obstacles.

  • I also don’t believe he is purposely making up any numbers. It’s just really lazy journalism of the worst kind. They went out when they knew it would be tough to replicate the DOT’s numbers. And until we actually see any of the ENTIRE video clips (like Streetsblog provided) we have no idea what they did while behind the wheel. Did they get behind a double-parker and just sit there until they moved? At least Streetsblog just used a cab and told him to drive.

    They just decided to do some time trials. They already had their slant set up – that bike lanes cause problems for YOU viewer. You can tell that in the language they used that Doug pointed out. ABC7’s claims don’t add up!

    I mean if they went out and got better or the same numbers as NYCDOT were they prepared to sing the praises of protected bike paths and call for them to be placed on every Avenue? Of course not….

  • walks bikes drives

    A good set of lights makes up for that. And the streets are not slippery when wet if you have a decent pair of tires in your bike. The issue really is safety, as you allude to, but not based on weather and darkness. It’s drivers. Plain and simple.

  • sammy davis jr jr

    This is GOLD!
    Thank you, Streetfilms!

  • Justin

    Man this looks pretty cool, maybe that’s what Aaron should do if one of the TV stations back in SF ever tries to pull something off similar to this

  • sammy davis jr jr

    Could not agree more! The 8th Ave sidewalk is too narrow for the volume of pedestrians. After factoring in obstruction – fixtures such as street signs, muni-meters, pay-phones, sandwich boards, and newspaper boxes – there’s barely 6 feet across for pedestrian flow.

    While I find it annoying when pedestrians walk in the bike lane, I can’t blame them at all!!

  • Recall that old book, “how to lie with statistics”? Congestion requires a lot of data collection. As you say, its easy to cherry pick, or just be unlucky, and infer the world from inadequate data.

  • Sean Cooper

    My path takes me along mostly dedicated pedestrian lanes.

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