Eyes on the Street: The Nascent First Avenue Bike Lane

first_ave_bike_lane.jpgThe beginnings of the First Avenue protected bike lane, at St. Mark’s Place. Photo: Ben Fried

It’s not finished yet, but some segments of the First Avenue bike lane are quite rideable. I used about eight blocks of it this weekend.

This Saturday, I was able to bike from my apartment in Prospect Heights to the East Village, and back again, without really leaving a marked bicycle path. The only exceptions were the side streets at each end of the trip, and those felt a million times safer than crossing high-speed traffic sewers like Atlantic Avenue and Houston Street.

A lot of the bike infrastructure on that trip — including the Allen Street lane, the Sands Street bikeway, and the brand new Vanderbilt Avenue bike lane — didn’t exist a year and a half ago. The protected lanes on First and Second are creating some extremely useful connections to these recent improvements. You can ride for long stretches and feel like you’re using the genuine article: a safe, connected bike network.

Living where I do, I’m lucky enough to be able to take advantage. New Yorkers who live in East Harlem and on the Upper East Side deserve an ironclad guarantee that they’ll get access to this network of safer streets as soon as possible.

  • s

    Are all these arguments about bike lanes generally, or about these new bikes lanes?
    I was perfectly happy with the 2nd ave bike lane that was “improved,” and I want it back, desperately. Not a perfect design, but close enough for me.

  • I think Jonathan said it well in his last paragraph and BO put this rule quite well:

    Which is not to say I disagree with Herzog that cyclists are obligated to take all necessary steps to avoid colliding with pedestrians, including slowing down or even stopping(…)

    That is the first rule of the road with cars and with boats.

    And CSM I agree with you as too, move at speed, just not in the bikelane, its intended for the uninitiated. ( I question how many of these newbies can even balance their hybrids at 10mph.)

  • Your complaint about pedestrians “getting in your way” when you have the all-precious “right of way” is all the proof I need for not following the “letter of the law.” As per the Weekly Carnage, this so-called “law”, with its “letters” and whatnot, has convicted 10 of the 68 drivers who have ended a human life so far this year.

    This is similar to the thought processes that lead to the motoring behavior we see on our streets. One of my cycling friends and I like to joke about how motorists seem enthralled by the color red (meaning they tend to stop at red lights). It may seem counter-intuitive for transportation safety advocates to be making fun of motorists for the consistency with which they stop at red lights. But what we find funny is that stopping at red lights is just about the ONLY thing they do. They’re following the “letter of the law.” They sure as hell aren’t following the spirit of the law, which is to operate your automobile in a way such that people around you don’t feel their lives are at risk. But hey, they can sleep tight at night knowing that, despite the fact that they passed a cyclist with a one foot buffer at 30 miles per hour (technically within the letter of the law), cut off a pedestrian who had a red crosswalk signal while making a turn (following the letter of the law), and so on and so forth, as long as they stop at those red lights!

    I once had an irate driver literally chase me down 9th ave (he cut me off very suddenly and quickly, so I tapped on his window as an emergency means of communicating the impending danger). And I mean chase: Accelerating as fast as he physically could to catch up to me, cut across four lanes of traffic, slamming the brakes and jumping out of the car when he thought he was close enough to do whatever it is he wanted to do to me… But boy did he stop and wait at every red light he saw!

    It’s pretty clear what I’m going for here, though I’ll stop short of the Shared Space schemes we are seeing rolled out in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe due to the unique nature of our city. But the point is, be human. If you are that bothered by pedestrians, human beings just doing their thing, getting in the way of your precious vehicular right-of-way, then you may as well just sit in a metal box and make loud honking noises whenever you’re mildly inconvenienced.

  • Chris

    Let’s all agree that when we use parking-protected bike lanes, with all the ensuing feelings of dignity and safety, that we respect the rules of the road. Stop at red lights and YIELD to pedestrians when they have the right of way. Cyclists are getting worse and worse reputations every day and it’s time we consider growing up a bit in our habits.

  • Mitch

    Count me as another cyclist who finds these new lanes to be just too narrow. They’re more like sidewalk extensions and with a line of parked cars on the right, there’s no escape when one encounters a gaggle of pedestrians or a bag lady towing a shopping cart full of aluminum cans or any one of the other one million things you might find in a NYC street. I appreciate that NYC is primarily a city of pedestrians and the multitudinous street life is what makes this city such a special place but I think I preferred having the entire avenue to deal that with that multitude, not just a small sliver of the street. Plus, you KNOW that double parkers are still going to find a way to get in there and then you’re really stuck! Maybe the city should just leave the avenues unpaved. The milled surface of First Avenue has been a very effective traffic calming measure these past few weeks!

  • Mitch

    I guess my question would be, why is stopping the only response to encountering a pedestrian? Whatever happened to going around them?

  • Suzzane said:

    “Just this week a driver almost squished me as I was pulling up to a light… IN A BIKE LANE… because he apparently thought bike lanes were for making turns. I yelled at him that he was in the bike lane and in the yell-fest it became clear that he had NO IDEA how to drive with cyclists ”

    Ehm….yes, bike lanes are for making turns usually. It is MUCH safer for a driver to merge into a bike lane and turn instead of cutting across it. It sounds like he merged improperly, but to say that cars are not allowed in the bike lane for any reason is simply wrong.

  • Just to add to that, I’m looking at the NY drivers manual and it does not appear to cover proper use of bike lanes by vehicles. Perhaps the guide needs to be revised to take into account the large number of new bike lanes.

    Here is what I learned (from the california manual)

    “When you are making a right turn and are within 200 feet of the corner or other driveway entrance, you must enter the bicycle lane to make the turn. Do not drive in the bicycle lane at any other time.”

  • Suzanne

    Ha! I’ve been spending the last hour trying to figure that out – I just saw a network blog post that it’s the law in DC (right after I posted, of course). BUT apparently this is not the case everywhere – Cars are supposed to turn from the bike lane in DC and California but not in Oregon.

    I can’t find anything anywhere, including the NY DMV site. Does anyone know what the law is here? (Sorry I’m going so off topic here…)

  • The confusion over the law leads to the following points:

    1) The states are doing a bad job at educating people over the proper way to drive. The NY drivers manual is terrible compared to the California one (from what I just saw). I have also looked at the Massachusetts manual and was surprised that it barely touches upon streetcars, light rail and trains in general, even though they’re found in the state (compared to California)

    2) People moving from one state to another dont have to take the local driving test, so small differences in law may result in confusion. I took my test in california, so if I were to move to oregon, how would I know that for some reason they do not require merging into the bike lane to turn?

    = Unsafe conditions for everyone.

    Also, regardless of what NY law says (if it says anything), I am firmly of the belief that drivers should merge into the bike lane to make a turn. It is much safer that cutting across the lane, which can result in a t-accident. Yes, being squished/pushed off the road sucks, but it’s much better than slamming into a turning car. Cars obviously are directed to move into the rightmost traffic lane to turn, and since the bike lane is a traffic lane, the car should also merge into it.

  • BicyclesOnly

    The applicable law in NYC comes from the city rules, not the state. 34 Rules of the City of NY Section 4-12(p)(2) says cars are not supposed to cross the bike lane except when accessing a parking spot, a driveway to private property, or when circumnavigating an obstacle in the roadway that leaves the bike lane as the only way to proceed, and even in those circumstances, only after checking and making sure that doing so does not interfere with oncoming bike traffic in the lane. So I think NYC does not provide for turns from the bike lane. This is probably why NYC bike lanes typically disappear at intersections, or become a series of dashed lines a,d chevrons–so that the cars that turn across them are not technically breaking the law.

    There are good arguments for doing it this way: it requires cars to maintain a clear ROW for bikes in the bike lane until they are sure they can clear the bike lane and execute the turn. This is analogous to how cars are supposed to handle crosswalks when turning: don’t enter the crosswalk until you are sure you can clear it expeditiously and fully execute the turn.

    Of course, cars almost never do it that way. Usually they nose into the bike lane or crosswalk little by little until they ar fully in and then go through (and in fairness, it would be hard to make turns at all during some times of the day in heavy pedestrian traffic areas any other way).

    Given that cars will tend to nose in, there is a good practical argument that they should nose all the way to the curb (across the path of the cyclists), because then it is easier for the cyclists to pass the car on the right.

    The Second Ave. path from 14th to Houston employs “mixing zones” at intersections with left turns. The theory is that cyclists and motorists are supposed to negotiate around each other in the mixing zones, but somewhat contradictorily, the motorists’ access to the mixing zone is governed by a line of “yield teeth” (a painted line of triangles) that is supposed to to the motorist that they should sit at the threshold of the mixing zone on the yield teeth until there is a break in the cycle traffic. (Of course, there is nothing on the signage, the DoT’s website, or anwhere else to tell people what yield teeth are or what they mean; you learn these things from sitting through presentations by DoT officials at Community board meetings). The green paint is suspended in the mixing zone to signal to the motorist it is OK to turn subject to the need to yield to cyclists, and to signal to the cyclists that they are no longer in a right of way exclusively dedicated (at least in theory) to them.

    If the left-turning motorists observed the yield teeth, they would never get in the way of cyclists. But motorists don’t. This could be fixed by putting up signs at each left-turn intersection telling motorists to yield to cyclists. Or by educating motorists what yield teeth mean. Neither looks likely at present to happen

  • m to the i

    I like hearing all of these perspectives on the 2nd avenue lane. I go back and forth depending on the day thinking its great or that it totally doesn’t work. I agree with those who say that once the pedestrian islands are protected it will work much better. I saw tire tracks all through the pedestrian island area from cars making turns onto 2nd ave. its no wonder everyone stands in the bike lane.

    I know everyone is so afraid of taking on the same voice as drivers but i dont think its too much to ask for people walking, talking on their cell phones, salmon, etc to stay out of a 5 foot swath of road so that cyclists can have a safe path. certain lanes have more than enough space for that (ie. allen st, even 8th & 9th) but not 2nd.

    but what i really want to mention are the new sharrows on Vanderbilt that are in the complete wrong location on the street. i tried it out the past couple of days on my commute to work and i will never do it again. the sharrows are in the door zone and the street is just wide enough that cars will squeeze next to you to pass and not go over the yellow line. it does not feel safe at all. my senses tell me to ride right on the outside of the sharrow to be safely outside the door zone. they should re-stencil them another foot or 2 further into the road.

  • m to the i: you are right on target. There is no excuse for putting sharrows at the edge of a traffic lane that is not wide enough to accommodate a car and a cyclist side-by-side (~15′ wide), for exactly the reason you mention.

    DoT officials will admit cyclists are entitled to take the center of a lane that is narrower than ~15′ for safety, but they keep laying sharrows and erecting signage in a manner that suggests that cyclists should “share the road” by riding side-by-side with motorists when it’s not safe to do so.

    (I use ~15′ as my minimum based on generally-accepted standards that cyclists need 5′, and the prevalence in NYC traffic of SUVs and commercial vehicles with widths (including mirrors) of ~8′, with the need for ~1′ maneuvering room on either side of the vehicle).

  • Hildagirl

    So I really love the bike lanes, but often do not use them. I also get up to 20-22 on my commute which takes me all over the city. I go up and down 1st and 2nd regularly, and most of the other Ave.s although 7th and 6th are the ones I mostly avoid. I use the bike lane if getting sweaty is not the option I want, and I am often very happy to find that going slower gets me there as well. I find that trying to really get somewhere fast in the bike lane is the most frustrating of all activities, and makes me crazy and angry and it is just not worth it.

    But if I am in heels, or going out or tired or looking for an address or talking with a friend that I am riding with, or with my kids, or have the packs full, then the bike lane is great. If there is enough room for someone to go the wrong way, I tsk tsk, but let them through.

    I also make lots of effort to stop at red lights, 99% stopping rate for peds, and just try to generally get along with people, whether they are in cars or on foot. A ‘thank you’ at the right time to someone (who albeit is supposed to stop anyway!) who stops for me can actually make me feel better as well as (hopefully) making someone else have a nice day.

    It has taken me a long time to have this attitude. I have been (very) close to pounded because of my mouthing off in the past, and had too many close calls to count, but how can anyone expect others to respect you if you don’t practice what you preach? You are reading or commenting on this because you have an affinity to biking, or transportation, or urban living, or some other reason. But you care. Act that way.

    BTW if you do not use the bike lane, remember VTL 1234 does not apply in NYC at this time. Know your rights, it is the safest way to ride.

  • dporpentine

    I’m with Chris O’Leary: confront salmon, call out pedestrians, and just generally make the clueless recognize that dangerous behavior is dangerous.

    And if you can’t see the dangers in salmoning and in all kinds of pedestrian behaviors . . . I fear for your safety.

  • dporpentine

    And can I just ask Hildagirl: What special effort is required to stop at red lights? Seems pretty darn easy to me.

  • BicyclesOnly: The DOT actually did install signage on 2nd Avenue at each left turn indicating to motorists what to do: “Turning vehicles: Yield to bicycles.” Unfortunately, they’re placed about 15 feet off the ground – far too high even for most drivers to see – and are often hidden from view by tree branches or other signs.

    In a perfect world, they’d put the signs next to the traffic signal, or maybe in the zebra stripes on the right side of the mixing lane.

  • Suzanne

    In a perfect world, cities would be full of protected bike lanes and greenways and cyclists and pedestrians would get a head start on their traffic light. Apparently, Copenhagen is the perfect world… But we can always dream (and agitate)!

    Thanks for the bike lane/turning info!

  • Hildagirl: you’ve got the right etiquette and attitude in my book, sounds like we’ve been shaped by the same riding experiences. I think remonstrating against bike lane invaders is important and I’ve done a lot of it in my life, but I find myself doing it less and less. I’ve mellowed out. I rely on the bell now.

    But I would point out those who ride on streets with bike lanes or paths that are safe and available for use, but choose not to use them, face the possbility of a summons for violation 34 RCNY 4-12(p)(1). But if the bike lane is blocked, including congested with pedestrians, cars, or other cyclists, cyclists can use a traffic lane.

    Chris: glad to hear DoT thought to pu in the signs, sorry they are not visible. Hopefully those at T.A. with DoT’s ear can try to intercede, if not to fix the existing signs, at least to make sure signs to be installed are more visible to motorists.


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