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Bicycle Safety

Does Summer Streets Need a “Fast Lane”?

12:09 PM EDT on August 18, 2008


This weekend, on the second Saturday of Summer Streets, the first thing my wife Jennifer and I noticed as we ascended the ramp from 42nd Street to Park Avenue was the quiet. I mentioned to Jennifer that I had come across a blog comment likening the scene to the New York portrayed in the post-apocalyptic Will Smith movie "I Am Legend," minus the super-human zombies. Plot holes notwithstanding, that didn't do it justice. The absence of engine noise and incessant honking didn't seem eerie, or even surreal. Just blissful.

The second thing we noticed was an event "marshal," stationed in the middle of Park Avenue at 40th, cheerfully repeating this instruction to passersby: "Bikers to the left, walkers to the right." Based on all I'd read about cyclists and pedestrians co-mingling peacefully during the first week of Summer Streets (which we missed), this seemed odd.

Not for long, though, as Jennifer and I were nearly hit by speeding bikes no fewer than three times between 40th Street and low 20s. Though we stayed to the right in the designated "slow lane," we were passed on the right more than once. Bells were few and far between, while verbal warnings, in our experience, were non-existent. Realizing that a half-step toward either curb at the wrong moment could result in injury, we learned to look over our shoulders before making any lateral moves. Crossing a street from corner to corner, meanwhile, felt less life-threatening but not much more convenient than any other day, as pedestrians, for the most part, yielded the right of way to oncoming bike traffic. We found conditions calmer around Union Square, but by that point we were pretty much sticking to the sidewalks. We were not alone.

Lest this post set off a modal prejudice-fueled flame war: I come in peace. While we encountered a handful of cyclists behaving irresponsibly, it goes without saying that we were passed by hundreds more who were courteous and respectful of the potential for bodily harm, to pedestrians and themselves. And no doubt there were plenty of incidents when those on foot carelessly endangered oncoming riders. Ben Fried has described Summer Streets as "a 7-mile classroom in ped-bike etiquette and sharing the road," and that's a more than fair summation at this point. Summer Streets is still an experiment, and with cars removed from the equation (even intermittently), pedestrians, cyclists and the city must figure out how to manage a population accustomed to being relegated to the margins.

So, Streetsbloggers, how do we do it?

Photo: Brad Aaron

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