Summer Streets: Bikes and Pedestrians Get Along Fine Without Cars

We excerpted this essay from reader Jen Petersen to lead off our first Summer Streets photo gallery yesterday afternoon. Her full account follows.

If New York City’s inaugural Summer Streets event on August 9th was any indication, it seems that bikes and pedestrians do just fine without cars. Here’s why, as observed from the seat of a peregrinating pedicab:


1) With cars completely off the route, cyclists, walkers, runners, skaters, rollerbladers, and ‘others’ (see above) had plenty of space. Instead of our normal elbow-to-elbow jostle for the scraps of an automobile-packed Avenue, we spread out over all the traffic and parking lanes, and found that when we’ve got room, we do pretty well together. A Park Avenue ‘for’ cars means the less prioritized modes are unfairly pit against each other in a sort of low stakes turf war. But at Summer Streets, there was no need to squabble over the scraps.


2) We could talk and listen to each other. Without automobile engines idling, anxious drivers honking, and bus air brakes squealing, it was breathtakingly quiet. People on bikes, foot, rollerblades, skateboards, and ‘other’ wheels, could actually hear things, including each other. And so more than once, approaching a clump of moseying pedestrians from behind, I would make the quick calculation that my four foot-wide pedicab would certainly not fit around them, and gently tap my bell (it was so quiet, ginger signaling would do just fine), slow down a bit, and say in a cheery voice: "Coming around you!" And I was also free to strike up conversations with all sorts of strangers, and not just ones on bikes! Imagine how city streets would feel with more people talking to each other, and not shouting at each other.

3) When cars and bikes share the road, the expectation is that bicycles behave more like cars, since most New York City streets have been engineered for automobility. Except on roads with special accommodations for bikes, such as the separated cycle track on 9th Avenue between 23rd and 14th streets in Manhattan, the path of least resistance for urban cyclists is the one of automobile avoidance. Sometimes cyclists avoid cars by using shared bike/pedestrian paths (such as the Hudson River Greenway), but these are in precious short supply. Many cyclists instead avoid cars by grasping handlebars tightly, eyes fixed on the road ahead, and attempt to ‘keep up’ with the dictates of automobile-sped traffic. We avoid injury by girding up as for battle against possible encroachments by cars and pedestrians. But an unfortunate side-effect of this defensive driving–type strategy is that cyclists can displace their automobile-spun mistrust onto even the most obediently flow-maintaining pedestrians, who are by now well-trained to leap out of harm’s way from the threatening cyclist bearing down.

Bike travel as battle is automobile-reactive, and when cyclists let the tempo of automobile time/space rhythms become their own cadence, we can easily let the humanity drop out of our commutes. In suddenly humane Summer Streets, pedestrians and cyclists were free to enjoy each other’s compatibly human paces! And so…

4) We choreographed impromptu dance steps! According to some, Lafayette Street and Park Avenue are tragically design-flawed for the occasion. I mean, we’re a first-rate city, so oughtn’t we have Class ‘A’ improved bike/pedway for such a demonstration of urban space for people? Isn’t anything less terribly dangerous and isn’t the city putting us all at risk by opening up an unscripted ribbon of roadway to rag tag multi-modals like us?

No way!

In the absence of special pavement markings delineating lanes for walkers, runners, cyclists, rollerbladers/skaters, people with children (and strollers), and others, we had to be responsible for our footprints. The burden of regulating our interactions and avoiding altercations was on us; NYPD was only keeping the current conflict-free where it met automobiles at transverse streets.  And so it seems when we travel at more or less the same speed, and the journey is itself the destination, we somehow figure out how to use each other as signposts.  Now if we could just figure this out on a workday, in all five boroughs…

  • Dan!

    It is hilarious how in the local newspapers and blogs here in seattle there is a low-grade ongoing war regarding the users of the (in)famous burk-gilman trail. The usual references to spandex-clad peacocks versus joggers versus dog-walkers versus casual riders and recumbants…how nice it would be, here in seattle, to have a park avenue day, a summer streets day – in short, for all of us “alternative transportation” folks to not have to fight over the 6-foot wide ribbon of asphalt.

    it looks like it was a beautiful day –

  • There’s a NY1 poll on their (redesigned) home page, which asks “Will you take part in the Summer Streets program?” Responses are leaning strongly to “no”, so Streetsbloggers should get in there and cast their votes.

  • Very nicely said Jen. I agree with your statment about bike travel being “auto-reactive”. I was there for nearly every minute of Summer Streets, I wish the New Yorkers who haven’t experienced a traffic free avenue would try it. The resistance to change, the change away from fossil fuels AND car culture, is so disheartening.

  • Andy B from Jersey


    I think that poll is closed. I tried to vote on it and couldn’t find a way to do so. If you got a link please forward!

  • Michael Steiner

    The NY1 poll seems indeed to be gone. When i voted, it was also slightly tilted towards the “no”. However, the way the question was phrased, i.e., “will you go”, not “do you like the idea”, it seemed to me actually exceptionally good to have an almost even result (in fact, the thought of close to 50% of NYers showing up would be almost frightening … 😉

  • We could talk and listen to each other. Without automobile engines idling, anxious drivers honking, and bus air brakes squealing, it was breathtakingly quiet. People on bikes, foot, rollerblades, skateboards, and ‘other’ wheels, could actually hear things, including each other.

    A friend mentioned that, but it didn’t really hit home to me until today, when my son and I were walking on the Upper East Side. I couldn’t hear what he was saying to me, and this was on one of those “quiet” tree-lined streets off of Park Avenue.

    In Woodside we do have streets where an adult and a child can have a conversation without shouting – not near the el, of course.

  • Great beard, Segway dude in picture #1!

  • “It seems that bikes and pedestrians do just fine without cars.”

    Right on, Jen. I had pretty much the same observation. From my NRDC blog post on Summer Streets: “Amazing how the conflict disappears when traffic of the four-wheeled variety is out of the picture, isn’t it?”

    More here:

  • Nicely put Petersen. See you Saturday!


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