A Proposal for NYPD: Protect New Yorkers From Jerks on the Road

Photo: Clarence Eckerson
Failure-to-yield is one of the most dangerous behaviors on the street, but you'd never know it from the types of summonses NYPD chooses to enforce most frequently. Photo: Clarence Eckerson

The state of pedestrian-cyclist relations got some ink in the Times this weekend, in a piece the headline writers chose to run under the banner “The Cyclist-Pedestrian Wars.” That’s a pretty inflammatory choice of words, especially when you consider that the Times style guide still calls for using the non-confrontational “accident” to describe traffic collisions that kill pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists. (Maybe these are the same headline writers who took Robert Sullivan’s 2009 plea for bike-ped solidarity and called it “The Wild Bunch.”)

Early in the piece, there’s a big tell that the “war” between pedestrians and cyclists, in many places, still consists mainly of fighting over the leftovers on our streets:

Cyclists who disobey traffic laws are the No. 1 complaint among residents of the Upper East Side, according to the police.”

The Upper East Side is also a desert of bike infrastructure. To get anywhere on a bicycle, you have to brave some of the widest, deadliest streets in New York. As long as motorized vehicles have such a stranglehold on the road, a lot of cyclists are going to opt for the haven of the sidewalk, no matter how many summonses the NYPD hands out in response to these complaints.

Put out some physically-separated bike lanes — like the city had promised to do on First and Second Avenues — and the sidewalk won’t be such a contested zone between pedestrians and cyclists on the Upper East Side.

The Times also revisits the difficult-to-pin-down nature of data on bike-ped collisions:

Nobody seems to keep reliable data on bicycle-pedestrian crashes, though two researchers at Hunter College analyzed data from 100 hospital emergency rooms across the nation and found evidence of at least 38,000 such collisions between 1980 and 2009 (about 38,000 people die in car accidents each year). The researchers, Peter Tuckel and William Milezarski, found no discernible change over the nearly 30-year period studied.

I can add one other data point that gets somewhat more specific. According to a spokesperson with the State Department of Health, an average of 81 pedestrians are hospitalized annually as a result of bicycle collisions, across all of New York State. That comes to about 1 out of every 200,000 New York residents.

I don’t have an exact apples-to-apples comparison with traffic injuries, but the Department of Health reports that statewide, from 2004 to 2006, an average of 312 pedestrians were killed, 3,446 were hospitalized, and 12,104 made emergency room visits each year as a result of motor vehicle traffic.

This isn’t very fine-grained data, but it does explain why, these days, you often hear public health authorities voice support for policies that protect pedestrians and cyclists from the dangers of automobile traffic, while they tend not to say much about policies to protect pedestrians from the dangers of bikes and cars.

Reader Paco Abraham sent in this re-working of the
Reader Paco Abraham sent in this headline re-write, envisioning some Times coverage devoted to the shared interests of New York's walkers and bikers.

Now New Yorkers are seeing cutting edge bike-ped policy right in front of our eyes. Several miles of Manhattan roads below 34th Street have been re-designed to make walking and biking safer, and the mutual benefits are real. But here’s the thing: perceptions matter. If pedestrians don’t feel they have a stake in the changes, it’s going to be that much harder to win support for re-engineering other streets with safety in mind. The screaming headlines don’t help, and neither do those reckless cyclists who let the headlines gain traction.

At this point, though, I’d say a bigger impediment is the fact that the agency responsible for protecting New Yorkers has been so disengaged from the effort to improve street safety.

The engineers are doing their part to try safer new street designs and see what works best. But what about the police? Do they have any public message to help New Yorkers understand which motorist behaviors pose the greatest danger on NYC streets? What is NYPD doing to make sure New Yorkers know how to drive and ride on the new street designs? How are they measuring compliance with the law, and enforcing the rules so that streets function as safely as they should?

When it comes to traffic enforcement and preventing pedestrian injuries and deaths, the police prefer to stay silent. When it comes to cycling enforcement, they seem focused on sidewalk riding. The Times reports that tickets for sidewalk-riding accounted for the vast majority of summonses that NYPD issued to cyclists the first six months of 2010 — 13,632 out of 15,957.

This should embarrass NYPD for two reasons. One, they’re on track to issue more than 27,000 sidewalk riding summonses this year when far deadlier motorist behavior is getting far less attention. The agency handed motorists all of 5,866 summonses for failure-to-yield violations in 2007, according to Transportation Alternatives’ report Executive Order. Unlike sidewalk riding, failure-to-yield kills: It’s a contributing factor in 27 percent of crashes that kill or seriously injure pedestrians.

The second reason is that the cyclist enforcement they’re doing isn’t targeting behavior like riding the wrong way or blowing through reds. Compared to irritating but generally slow-moving sidewalk riders, salmon and red light burners seem far more likely to catch pedestrians unaware and cause dangerous conditions for other people on the street.

So here’s my modest proposal. Before the bus lane enforcement blitz that’s going to accompany the roll-out of Select Bus Service on the East Side next month, police should pick some intersections on First Avenue below 34th Street and measure all the law-breaking that goes on. Then, in addition to keeping the bus lane free of cars, they should ticket the motorists who fail to yield to pedestrians, turn left from the wrong lane, block the bike lane, or speed through those intersections. Ticket the cyclists who ride the wrong way or burn through red lights without stopping. Give the cyclists who block the crosswalk a stern talking to, and remind the pedestrians who stray into the bike lane that they should stay on the sidewalk. Then measure compliance with traffic laws after the blitz.

What sort of violations are most common? Which pose actual dangers to other people? What effect does enforcement have? New York needs this sort of data to get past the notion of a “war” between pedestrians and cyclists and see that the real struggle is between the jerks and the non-jerks on our streets.

  • You really nail something important: physically separated bike lanes can significantly reduce bike/ped conflict. Very regrettably, some people are portraying the lanes as part of a growing “war” (I’m SO angry at the use of that word), when in fact they help bike/ped interactions a lot.

    I’ve seen the lanes’ conflict-reducing abilities in profound effect, at least from my own individual perspective, on Broadway in the 50s and upper 40s. In those lanes, where there is real, copious space for bikes to move, and concrete refuge islands, it is really hard to get irresponsibly close to pedestrians–even oblivious and careless pedestrians–unless you try to. And the handful of times I’ve zipped through there a little irresponsibly, I felt like a jerk: my proceeding through red lights felt very flagrant and obnoxious. That is a positive effect indeed, resulting from the design of the re-built road.

    I complain a lot about the less robust physically separated lanes like those on 1st Ave between 14th and 34th, and sure enough I think they do far less to prevent bike/ped conflict.

    But the lanes on Broadway are great. A lot of non-cyclists are carping that by adding new lanes, the city is inviting more danger to pedestrians, but if they city gets it bike lanes right, they will have just the opposite effect.

  • Larry Littlefield

    As I’ve said, ideally the NYPD would have a squad or two devoted to bicycle enforcement (against cyclists and those impeding cyclists) on the most heavily used bicycle routes.

    Perhaps a square would be comprised of two officers on bikes, one officer on an electric bike for pursuit, and one in a car. They’d spread out and coordinate via radio, and take turns on the two bikes so they would not be expected to ride for entire shifts.

    They could be trained to distinguish between a cyclist that rolls up to a red light at 3 mph, sees no vehicles coming for two blocks and no pedestrians in the way, and jaybikes slowly besides jaywalkers. And a cyclist that blows through a red at 20 mph perhaps to swerve into a pedestrian when a motor vehicle appears.

    Perhaps a bicycle etiquette and driver’s ed video could be produced, and offending cyclists could be offered the opportunity to retrieve their bike and watch the video in place of a $100 fine.

    But all this would require resources, and we are in a budget crisis that will intensify next fiscal year. And in March 2007 New York City had only 565 police officers per 100,000 residents according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared with a U.S. average of 207.

    In any event, serious collisions between cyclists and pedestrians mean the cyclist was going too fast in proximity to pedestrians. As for the motor vehicles, it’s all about speed.

  • Nice writeup, Ben. I am wary of ascribing godlike properties to law enforcement. I don’t think that blitzes in one zip code will make a difference in behavior citywide. Attending precinct-community meetings en masse is probably the best bet for making larger changes, but given the balkanized nature of community boards, that’s a lot of meetings to attend for a single cyclist who might go through two or four community boards on her daily commute.

    To Larry’s point, if the city took away the paracops who direct traffic as a congestion-control measure, those officers could be used for bicycle enforcement.

  • CityHallMaven

    “As long as motorized vehicles have such a stranglehold on the road, a lot of cyclists are going to opt for the haven of the sidewalk,”

    Fine. You rationalized that piece of law-breaking with the standard sophistry.

    Now please be so kind as to rationalize the epidemic of running red lights and salmoning.

  • Red

    Oh, Maven. There is no excuse for running red lights or salmoning, and that was pretty clear in the article. You did read it, correct? This article calls on the police to ticket cyclists engaging in that behavior.

  • Glenn

    Bike lanes and other road diets achieve the same motorist behavior goals (below limit speeds, cautious at intersections, etc) as traffic enforcement that the police seem unable or unwilling to do. So keep building them…

  • Jacob

    Larry, I think you make a great point. If a common cyclist argument for breaking the law is that drivers and pedestrians don’t know what its like to ride in the city, increased enforcement and ticketing of cyclists must come (at least in part) from officers who are also riding. Not only does this expose NYPD personnel to the conditions cyclists ride in, I think it also makes it easier to open a dialogue with the officers, as they could talk with cyclists in their environment (at stop lights for instance).

  • J

    Maven,

    To determine an effective way to combat any problem, it is essential to understand the underlying causes behind it. In this case, “Why do cyclists run red lights, salmon, and ride on sidewalks”?

    Ben eloquently states the causes, of which cyclists are well aware, and from those we can begin addressing the problem in a comprehensive and rational manner. To do otherwise is reactionary, inefficient, and quite often ineffective.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Larry, I think you make a great point. If a common cyclist argument for breaking the law is that drivers and pedestrians don’t know what its like to ride in the city, increased enforcement and ticketing of cyclists must come (at least in part) from officers who are also riding.”

    Although it can be abused, in the end you have to rely on the common sense of the police officer. Most officers are not out there ticketing people who jaywalk when there are no motor vehicles coming. But if jaywalking was legalized, it would be abused and become impossible to enforce against the abusers. Same thing for cyclists. You have to rely on officers who understand what is really creating a hazard.

    But it appears we can’t afford them.

  • J C

    I know this is an unpopular view, even among cyclists lately, but it’s important to look at ped vs. bike vs. car in terms of numbers and impact to frame this (mostly bogus) debate in a rational way (please accept these as ballpark “on the order of” type of numbers):

    Approx mean weight: Person, 150lbs. Bike, 170lbs. Car, 1 ton.
    Approx mean speed: Person, 4-5 mph. Bike, 10-15mph. Car, 40 mph.
    Approx surface area requirement: Person, 0.5 sq ms. Bike, 2 sq ms. Car, 10 sq ms.
    Approx braking distance: Person, 5 ft. Bike, 15 ft. Car, 120ft.

    Everyone harps that bikes are more like cars and need to behave that way. But it’s just the PC thing to say because the letter of law lazily lumps them together for the most part. But while bikes are certainly different from pedestrians, they are MUCH MORE different from cars in every respect. A car on the sidewalk and a bike on the sidewalk are different. A bike “running a red light” is virtually the same as jaywalking. Imagine if every time I got to a red light, I dismounted, walked my bike through the light, then rode on. Any loudmouth who condemns me for riding through would have to approve of this almost identical behavior unless they don’t jaywalk — but don’t expect to see any bullshit trend pieces titled “Jaywalkers: Out of control apocolyptic menace” any time soon.

  • Elliot

    Larry, can you clarify this part of your comment from #2?

    “But all this would require resources, and we are in a budget crisis that will intensify next fiscal year. And in March 2007 New York City had only 565 police officers per 100,000 residents according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared with a U.S. average of 207.”

    I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic about “only” 565 officers per 100,000 residents, or if there’s a typo somewhere that is hiding your point. As it reads, it looks like New York has 2.5 times as many police per capita as other US cities.

  • J:Lai

    First of all, the city definitely could afford more officers for traffic enforcement. These positions are fairly cheap, and in many cases are actually net revenue generators, due to the income from payment of summonses(? is that the plural?) and tickets, as well as the fact that most of these officers are relatively junior.

    However, I think over-reliance on enforcement is a mistake. Even if the number of traffic enforcement agents doubled or tripled, getting a ticket would still be a rare event for both drivers and bikers. If the chance of getting fined for breaking traffic laws goes from 1% to 2%, or even 5%, it is unlikely to change aggregate behavior very much.

    Physical design features are the best way to achieve compliance with traffic regulations.

    Car speed can be regulated by making roadways narrower, changing the timing of signal phases, and adding bumps where necessary.

    Grooved pavement at intersections can force bikers to slow down, reducing the ability to “burn” through red lights.

    The list goes on. All of these types of measures have the advantage of being fairly inexpensive to implement, and of not relying on enforcement to achieve compliance.

  • Ben, thank you for writing this. This is a big story which has been simmering for the last 6 years at least. NYPD fails everyone in New York City everyday through lax traffic enforcement against everyone on the roads. They fail again with a strong anti-bike bias fostered by Bloomburg and Kelly’s approach to Critical Mass.

    I can’t imagine it is really more cost-effective to put cops on motor vehicles that require fuel than on a bicycle. A cop on a bicycle not only can relate better to the cyclist’s experience, but can better appreciate and enforce against dangerous motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. More cops on bikes might even legitimize it as a mode of transportation in the eyes of some of the haters.

    Why do they hate our freedom?

  • I agree 100% with Ben’s modest proposal, but want to take it one step further. Don’t just do a pre-SBS blitz, do it all the time, all across the city. As the tickets add up, it will quickly bring a wave of traffic calming and street safety we all desire. At the same time, please don’t do your ticket blitz simply from a squad car, but also on foot as undercover pedetrians and dare I say… even as cyclists?!!!

    Side question – has there ever been serious talk NYC installing a bicycle liaison like LAPD did?

  • Glenn

    As a point in fact, CB8 which encompasses the entirety of the Upper East Side approved the DOT’s plan for protected bike lanes on First and Second Avenue. That plan is on the shelf until that new guy Goldsmith gets onboard it seems. Even extreme anti-bike people on the community board now understand the logic of using bike lanes as an anti-sidewalk riding strategy.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic about “only” 565 officers per 100,000 residents, or if there’s a typo somewhere that is hiding your point. As it reads, it looks like New York has 2.5 times as many police per capita as other US cities.”

    It has 2 1/2 times the national average, which includes cities, suburbs, rural areas. And more than most cities.

    For a comprehensive tabulation of local government (and publicly-funded in areas such as health care) in NY vs. other parts of the state vs. other cities see the spreadsheet attached to this post.

    http://www.r8ny.com/blog/larry_littlefield/2007_census_of_governments_local_government_employment_and_payroll_data.html

    I just posted data on comparable revenues and expenditures by category here. New Yorkers spend 50 percent more of their personal income on police, compared with the U.S. average, but that doesn’t include the huge cost of police pensions, which I suspect is even more disproportionate.

    http://www.r8ny.com/blog/larry_littlefield/the_2007_census_of_governments_finance_data_local_government_revenue_data.html

  • JC wrote:

    > but don’t expect to see any bullshit trend pieces titled “Jaywalkers: Out of control apocolyptic menace” any time soon.

    Unfortunately, such pieces are common in our newspapers.

  • Adam

    This is what the NYPD does to improve the infrastructure, 1st Ave and 23rd street, yesterday morning:

    http://a-world.net/files/cycling/2010/09/20/new-yorks-finest-01.jpg

    ConEd perpetually blocks the 1st Ave bike lane:

    http://a-world.net/files/cycling/2010/09/20/con-ed-01.jpg

    Peds ignore red light and oncoming cyclists, including a traffic cop, I nearly hit the traffic cop,she wouldn’t yield:

    http://a-world.net/files/cycling/2010/09/20/peds-red-light-traffic-cop.jpg

    Peds in NYC have this strange notion that they “always have the right of way”, which is incorrect, and that it’s OK to walk and jog in bike lanes:

    http://a-world.net/files/cycling/2010/09/20/joggers-in-bike-lane.jpg

    Unless there is some pedestrian education and NYPD enforcement of both law-breaking cyclists AND pedestrians this conflict will never end.

    Adam

  • BB

    good job.

    In the 80s they took out the protected bike lanes in NYC.

    Why not enforce the bell statue and bust them with a speeding limit ticket (community service available) on sidewalks?

  • MRN

    I think the fact that scofflaw bicyclists are THE NUMBER ONE COMPLAINT of UES residents aught to be taken seriously. You can’t point the finger back over your shoulder at cars – take care of your own house before telling anyone else to clean theirs. That’s right out of the bible, folks.

  • J C

    MRN,

    Just because they’re the number one complaint (or suggested to be anecdotally) doesn’t mean they’re the number one problem. If the residents don’t care about fatalities and serious injuries caused by car/truck/bus collisions, that doesn’t mean the police shouldn’t.

  • a proposal for nypd: do your fucking job

  • Doug G.

    The fact that bikes are the number one complaint on the Upper East Side shows that Upper East Siders have very little to complain about.

  • Speaking as a resident of the Upper East Side, I’d agree with Doug G. There isn’t much in the way of serious intentional crime on the UES for the residents to complain about, so residents are focused on quality of life issues. But that’s not a bad thing. I think most people, probably doug G. included, want to live in a neighborhood where little or no intentional crimes are being committed.

    The problem, as J C points out, is that too many UES residents accept as inevitable the criminal recklessness or negligence of motorists in their neighborhood. They accept it largely because most of them use motor vehicles for transportation (relatively heavy car ownership and lots of cabs) so it’s easy for them to identify with drivers. So they feel its OK to pick on the people who aren’t like them, the delivery cyclists (the bike commuter rates on the Upper East Side are as low as anywhere in the city, comparable to suburban New Jersey). Delivery cyclists are the clear majority of cyclists on the street in the Upper East Side, at least from 4 pm to 9 pm, owing to the common habit among Upper East Siders of ordering in dinner multiple times every week.

    So I’d add to Doug G.’s comment that, in addition to the UES complaints about cyclists reflecting how little else folks have to complain about, it also reflects how much they order in!

  • …and reflects how they create their own problems!

  • Joe R.

    Only thing to add here is whatever the NYPD does regarding enforcement, please limit it to the problem areas in Manhattan. We don’t need or want zero tolerance enforcement of every pedestrian or cycling law in the outer boroughs where population density is far less. I can certainly understand complaints about sidewalk cyclists or red light runners in midtown where they can and do cause real harm. However, in the outer boroughs the sidewalks are usually virtually empty, and at night especially, there is almost no traffic to worry about if you pass a red light. In the outer boroughs unfortunately traffic lights have sprung up like mushrooms in the last decade. Most weren’t needed from a traffic safety or control standpoint, but were put there because of vocal community organizations. Most are ill-timed for typical cyclist speeds. Any zero tolerance policy then would basically reduce average cycling speeds down to walking speed. And it would proportionately slow down pedestrian trips as well. In short, keep any Manhattan sensibilities regarding treatment of cyclists or pedestrians in Manhattan. We’ve already had the outer boroughs ruined enough by the Manhattan-centric City Council and City Hall. Maybe it’s high time for Queens and Staten Island at least to secede from NYC.

  • Ada

    @Joe R. – agree, that’s a very good point. I ride through some intersections in Maspeth and Williamsburg that I literally saw a car coming out from certain side streets 5 times or less in several years.

    However, closer to the Williamsburg Bridge things can get a bit hairy along the Grand Ave bike lane during rush hours.

    Adam

  • Mitsu

    I don’t really understand the point of view of this article — riding on the sidewalk shouldn’t be targeted? I totally disagree. Riding on the sidewalk is known to be far more dangerous than riding in the street, for everyone, including cyclists. It is simply a myth that it is somehow safer to ride on the sidewalk. It is not. You are much more likely to get into an accident, get hit by a car coming out of a garage or driveway, etc. Don’t do it.

    Another big cause of accidents for cyclists is riding too close to cars — ride in the lane. Give those car doors lots of clearance. Bike lane or no bike lane, it is far safer to ride with plenty of clearance from car doors. It is relatively rare to get hit from behind by a car, but very common to get hit by a door, knocked into traffic, and then run over by a car or truck.

    I also don’t agree with the idea that police should target cyclists who don’t stop at red lights — come on, give me a break. In Manhattan there are lights every block, and it’s simply impractical to expect that a cyclist is going to come to a full stop and wait at every red light, even if that is the law. There are plenty of laws which cops don’t enforce to the letter of the law, and that is at it should be. Sure, cyclists who run red lights at full speed are doing something quite dangerous (both for themselves and everyone else), but ordinary, common-sense slowing down at reds and careful crossing is both the norm in Manhattan and I think the most anyone should reasonably expect.

    Yes, we need more bike lanes. But I don’t agree with much of what you write in this post.

  • Joe R.

    I agree with what you wrote regarding the red lights, Mitsu. Fact is not only in Manhattan, but on virtually every road in the city, there are simply far too many traffic lights and/or stop signs to expect a cyclist to stop at each one. I once did a little ad hoc experiment on a 1 mile section of road in Queens. I purposely did the experiment at 1 AM so traffic wouldn’t be a confounding factor. Following the letter of the law, stopping for the full cycle at each light, resulted in it taking 12 minutes to go the mile. That’s 5 mph! I can walk at that speed. The lights on many roads are timed horribly. You get a green, and even if you accelerate like a subway train leaving a station you’ll often see the next light turning yellow when you’re two car lengths from the intersection. Doing this for even a mile was beyond annoying as well as very exhausting. Stop, wait, accelerate to around 20 mph, slam on brakes because you just missed making the light, repeat nearly every single block. Doing the same mile my usual way, I passed through the first red light I encountered after looking for cross traffic. I managed to go about 10 blocks on green before needing to do this again. The mile took 3 minutes and 10 seconds this way, about 19 mph average speed. I would estimate if I wanted to be jerk and fly through the reds without slowing or looking at all, then maybe I could have shaved another 15 seconds off the mile. However, I’ll gladly accept a 15 second per mile speed penalty in exchange for not being a jerk or risking getting killed. I won’t accept a nearly 9 minute per mile penalty simply to follow the letter of the law. Non-cyclists simply don’t get that NYC has far too many traffic lights which aren’t timed to cyclist speeds. I often hear from them how cyclists usually stop and wait on red in Europe. It’s never mentioned though that European cities usually have far fewer lights, opting for traffic circles or even uncontrolled intersections instead. They also often time their lights to cycling speeds, although I personally think the 20 km/hr they usually use is a bit too slow ( 30 km/hr is more in line with what a decent cyclist can average ). A red every few miles really doesn’t bother me, but one nearly every block makes cycling totally worthless as a means of efficiently getting around.

    In Manhattan they should only use signals on the avenues at intersections with main crosstown arteries like 42 Street. Putting signals at every block is beyond ridiculous and also unnecessary from any safety or traffic control standpoint. And in the outer boroughs about 95% of the signals should be taken down. There are traffic signals where I live at intersections with a one-way street which moves away from the main road. By definition no traffic can ever drive into the main road unless it’s going the wrong way. So what then is the point of even having a signal there? If it’s to allow pedestrians to cross, then why isn’t it set up to turn red only when a pedestrian pushes a button, instead of on a regular cycle. A lot of what NYC DOT does defies logic.

  • Adam

    You people are looking for excuses really hard. I stop at red lights (with very few exceptions in industrial areas of Brooklyn and Queens) and it takes me 35-40 minutes from Maspeth to 1st/Ave and 34th street. I don’t see a reason why cyclists should be excluded. Should pedestrians be excluded too? Cyclists already ride like lunatics, all we need now is let them blow through red lights legally, yeah… awesome idea indeed.

    Most Americans can’t drive and don’t know the traffic laws, traffic lights are needed because that’s the only way for drivers to be able to deal with intersections. If you removed 95% of lights in Queens it would become a complete mess. People don’t even know how to deal with all-way stop signs. If there are no lights people don’t know how to drive through an intersection, period.

  • Joe R.

    Adam,

    How many miles is your trip? I’m asking because doing it my way I typically average 15-17 mph. In 40 minutes then I can cover about 10 or 11 miles while still operating safely. Stopping for the full cycle of every light, even when I can safely proceed, would likely cut my average speeds to 5 or 6 mph. If that’s the case, I might as well just walk. Maybe on your route the lights are sparse or better timed than where I usually ride. Like I said last post, I’m OK if I have to stop a few times in a 20 mile ride for whatever reason. Every few blocks however is ridiculous.

    There’s also a safety issue here. Starting out on a green, along with cars jockeying for position, is a good way to get killed. A friend of mine was doing exactly as you say, stopping at every red. One time an SUV went into the far right lane because they wanted to be at the head of the pack when the light changed. This is very common motorist behavoir. My friend, who was waiting at the red light, ended up in the hospital. Had he gone through the light after looking, this wouldn’t have happened. Another thing is bikes stopped at a light are breathing in carcinogenic exhaust from all those idling cars.

    Fact is traffic lights exist solely for the convenience of drivers. Maybe the answer is really to get more cars off the road, and also increase driver training, before removing the lights. For now though, allowing cyclists to legally go through lights, and pedestrians to legally cross at don’t walk signals ( only if both can safely do so ), basically codifies into law what most already safely do. I don’t ride in Manhattan, but when I walk there I never wait at don’t walk signals if I can safely cross. Doing so would easily double how long it takes to get anywhere. I simply don’t see why cyclists or pedestrians should be slowed down inordinately simply for the convenience of cars. In fact, I really don’t see why cars should even be allowed in a place full of transportation alternatives like Manhattan where at best they average jogging speeds.

    You’re justifying continuing the dumbed-down behavoir we’ve come to expect from drivers rather than expecting more out of them. Once we started moving to laws and traffic control devices, instead of putting the onus on the driver’s ability, we began to take thinking out of the driving process. Cyclists are the last remaining group on the road who still use thinking and common sense. And now we’re gradually dumbing down this group as well by also putting the onus for their safety solely on laws and traffic control devices. All I ever hear about cyclist safety nowadays is follow the law and wear a helmet. Nothing at all about defensive cycling, bike handling skills, or common sense. And then we wonder why cyclists get in a lot of totally avoidable “accidents”? People rise or fall to what is expected of them. As we’ve removed the need to think from the driving process, it’s little surprise then that drivers have focused their attention elsewhere, often with catastrophic results. Uncontrolled, unmarked roads have already proven to be safer in Europe. It’s something we should try here, especially in the outer boroughs.

    Another idea I have is to just build elevated bikeways above the mess that is NYC streets. Costly for sure, but it totally removes all obstacles to greatly increased use of cycling.

  • Adam

    My commute is 8 miles one way. I don’stop on every block. Lights are timed for 17mph (or something like that) traffic and I can easily make most of lights. I perhaps stop between 10 and 20 times which is really no big deal.

    I’m sorry but the argument that riding through a red light is safer for a cyclist than waiting at a green is just pure nonsense. I don’t understand where people get that idea from. It’s an urban myth. What happened to your friend was not a common accident. It is more common for cyclist to get hurt when riding through a red light.

    Majority of road users are cars. This will not change. Get used to this. Even if we get half of the cars off the road we would still have traffic and they would still be the majority of road users.

    Lights are to control the flow of the traffic. Traffic is not just cars, it also includes pedestrians and bicycles. Even in a world without cars you would still need some kind of traffic control.

    Oh, where are all the cyclist you mention that use thinking and common sense? Because I see very few on NYC streets :))

    Codifying what most safely do? Safely??? Most jaywalkers are ignorant and reckless. Most cyclist are the same. You want to make that into law?

    You don’t ride in Manhattan? Then you don’t understand anything.

    Please wait at the light when you walk. I don’t trust your judgement that it’s safe to cross. Follow the rules, don’t fight them. These rules are the result of many years of urban development and were though up by people much smarter than we are. The problem are not the rules, as you are making it sound, but the people who do not follow them.

  • Mitsu

    Many pedestrians start walking across the street against the light without looking, because they assume they’re going to hear the car coming. This is indeed ridiculously dangerous behavior and it happens all the time in my experience.

    Stopping at every red light, even if the street is totally empty, is simply needless. Pedestrians don’t do it, and neither do cyclists. I mean, the number of cyclists I have seen doing what you do, Adam, is practically zero in the city. And I really don’t see anything wrong with this — it’s the unwritten rules of the city — provided you do it carefully and safely, checking for traffic before you cross. I often do see messengers and other people doing all sorts of crazy shit, blowing through red lights without slowing down, etc., and of course I think that’s ridiculous. But to sit and wait at every light in Manhattan? That is excessive and it’s never going to catch on.

    I’m in favor of more bike lanes, separated bike lanes, more bike awareness, and safe biking and pedestrian and driving practices, but let’s use some common sense here.

  • Adam

    During the time I commute there is enough pedestrians and cars in Manhattan and Williamsburg that I never sit at an empty intersection. I’ve seen red-light-running cyclists hit by cars many times during the years. It’s just stupid.

    My problem is that most people are self-centered, irresponsible and, as you noticed, most already are reckless and inconsiderate despite the laws that are in place. It scares me to think what would happen if you remove those laws, it’d be free-for-all!

    The laws should be kept as they are and enforced for all drivers, cyclists AND pedestrians. What’s the rush anyway?

    I agree with the idea though that during off-hours the lights in less dense areas should be basically turned into four way stops (all red lights blinking). I saw it is actually done in some areas.

  • Joe R.

    Adam,

    My answer to what you wrote is that the rules are often not followed when they require unnatural behavoir and/or restrict the majority on account of the actions of the few. If a minority fail to follow a law then the problem is enforcement. If a majority disobey a law then it’s simply a bad law. Do you really think most pedestrians will sit staring at space if they can cross an empty street? A good law will seek to weed out the worst behavoir rather than requiring everyone to drastically alter their behavior. The problem with the system we have is that it can only work if you have 100% compliance. Even then, it’s not a good system because it favors cars to the detriment of other modes. 100% compliance is an impossibility anyhow. Even if nobody intentionally disobeyed the law, human error will mean sometimes people just won’t see a red signal, then the system breaks down. Or a vehicle might have mechanical failure.

    Another danger is once you remove thinking from the process, people are on autopilot. They automatically assume if they follow the laws nothing bad will ever happen. It doesn’t work that way in the real world. I always look, even on green, because you’ll always have red light runners no matter how much enforcement you have. And the kind of accident I described is way more common than you think. I stopped waiting at lights whenever possible years ago precisely because motorists love to play the “I’m going to be first in line” game. After dozens of close calls, I figured I’m safer on the other side of the intersection. Now when I know I can’t pass a red because of heavy cross traffic, I slow down about half a block away, and just coast, timing my speed so I hit the light a little after it flips back to green. Much safer than stopping at the intersection, and incidentally still 100% legal. And it’s easier for me to steer out of the way of any trouble while moving slowly as opposed to completely stopped.

    No, I don’t ride in Manhattan. No reason to. I only ride recreationally. Riding recreationally in Manhattan is about as far from enjoyable as it gets. I know that because I was a messenger for a short time back in 1981. Traveling by bicycle into Manhattan, even with the bike lanes, still isn’t terribly viable for a bunch of reasons. The badly timed lights are only one reason. Too much pollution and too much traffic ( taxis in particular ) are others. I’d rather just take the subway.

    Sure, some cyclists and jackwalkers are ignorant and reckless but I wouldn’t say most. Maybe you see mostly delivery guys and texting pedestrians? Where I live I’m just not seeing this majority of reckless, clueless cyclists and pedestrians. Just because some small percentage messes up then those who exercise proper judgement have to be stymied? This is what is so wrong about our society nowadays. A few idiots screw up doing something, and then suddenly that something is banned or restricted or regulated. It makes more sense to just educate the idiots. I’ll be the first to admit we need better cyclist training, and it should start in grade school.

    In the absence of cars, then no, you don’t need traffic lights. Pedestrians and bicycles have enough visibility and manueverability, move at low enough speeds, to avoid each other. It worked just fine that way back in the days when most traffic couldn’t exceed 15-20 mph. When cars started being able to exceed 30, 40, 50 mph, then you needed some means of keeping them from colliding. Unfortunately along the way we decided as a society to subordinate other modes of transport in favor of the automobile.

    The real problem is infrastructure, not lack of adherence to laws which are at best a compromise for all, at worst a major hindrance. Pedestrian and cyclist and auto infrastructure should all be as separate as possible. This is not only safer, but allows each mode to operate optimally. We already have highways where cars can run without traffic lights. We definitely need more grade separated pedestrian and bike paths. Or just ban cars/taxis, at least in Manhattan. That reduces road traffic to buses, police, and fire, perhaps with delivery trucks restricted to night. Now road traffic is 1% of what it was before. This is sparse enough that bikes, peds, and motorized vehicles can coexist on a see and be seen basis.

    And I’m hardly ignorant of the subject. I had a transportation engineering course in college. I’m an electronics engineer by trade. I know all about optimizing things and also about human behavoir. It’s better to design things to work with human behavoir, than to try and change human behavoir to fit a suboptimal design. NYC right now is doing the latter. It will have about as much success continuing to pursue this course as drilling a hole in water. In my opinion, strict enforcement may well make things worse. Instead of drivers/cyclists/pedestrians all looking out for each other, they’ll instead be looking out for police for fear of breaking some arcane law they may not even know exists.

  • Mitsu

    I do ride in Manhattan, but at all sorts of different times, not only to commute, and there are definitely many times of day when, if I were to stop at every red light, I’d just be sitting there like an idiot at a totally empty intersection, with other pedestrians and cyclists crossing the street. I certainly don’t go through red lights if there are pedestrians or cars crossing.

  • Joe R.

    “During the time I commute there is enough pedestrians and cars in Manhattan and Williamsburg that I never sit at an empty intersection. I’ve seen red-light-running cyclists hit by cars many times during the years. It’s just stupid.”

    Adam,

    I didn’t really address this much in my last post, but let me clarify something here regarding passing red lights. For the record, most of my riding is after 9 PM. There is virtually no cross traffic. And I mostly stick to wide roads like Union Turnpike. If I take the center lane while approaching a red, I can see cross traffic from over one block down, and WILL easily be able to slow or stop.

    The situations you describe are when an idiot cyclist tries to weave dangerously through an intersection full of cross traffic. I DO NOT do this. Ever. If traffic is heavy, I either stop, or hit the brakes half a block down, then slowly coast so as to hit the intersection when the light changes. No way will I ever deny a pedestrian or motorist their legal right of way, period. This is part of a code of ethics I follow. So please don’t lump people like me in with those cyclists exercising both horrible judgement and egotistical behavoir.

    And sometimes I’ll admit on rare occasions if I hit the lights right, and pick the right streets, riding late at night I may well go 8 or 9 miles without hitting a red. During rush hours though, forget it.

  • Adam

    Yes, I was talking about pedestrians walking onto the roadway in front of oncoming vehicles and cyclists weaving through busy intersections. That’s where the problems, conflicts and accidents occur and that’s where we need enforcement. If you ride after 9pm then this doesn’t apply. Like I said, after hours lights should be set to four-way stops (blinking red lights), except for known dangerous intersections.

    Laws like you described never existed and never will because no matter what there will always be a segment of population that won’t be happy with them. Laws are not meant to be instinctive, they’re designed largely to actually prevent people from acting on instincts, because that would be chaos. Even the simplest, most primitive cultures have rules for that very reason.

    Likewise, it’s impossible to separate all modes of transportation without significant and unrealistic (financially and technologically) changes to cities’ infrastructures. You’d also need more space and there isn’t any. Theoretically, in the absence of cars there will be more space available, but you would still need connection points and intersections at which some regulation would be required.

    The car related lobbying is too strong. The city govt tried congestion pricing, tolls on all East River bridges and all kinds of organizations raised hell. Banning cars in USA cities is not possible due to politics.

    To lower car usage you need a vastly improved mass transit. Very few people will ride bikes compared to those willing to take mass transit if it’s clean, comfortable, safe and on time. NYC Subway is at its capacity, MTA is broke, the City is in financial hardship as well, there is very little that can be done about the subway. The rapid bus system is a great idea but the way I see it, it’s not executed correctly. It’s a half-assed effort. I work right on 1st ave and buses hardly ever get to travel in the bus lanes, they’re always blocked by trucks and cabs because there is no enforcement. I think cameras are coming but they will still allow yellow taxis to stop in bus lanes, so it won’t work. Originally, they were talking about dedicated taxi stops but that didn’t happen.

    So there is my point: you can’t have ideal infrastructure and you can’t ban cars, and there is little that can be done to significantly lower the number of cars due to poor transit, therefore strict rules are the only way to manage this mess.

    And I stick to my statement that MOST cyclists and pedestrians are ignorant and reckless and no, they’re not delivery guys, they’re other commuters mostly.

  • Joe R.

    Adam,

    Regarding Manhattan, I probably have to agree with you for the time being. Yes, it’s a mess, and no, until we can do something about mass transit it isn’t getting better. Hopefully in time driving will start to become stigmatized as much as smoking. There was an article I read about how generation Y doesn’t want cars, so maybe there’s some hope there. Once enough people decide they want mass transit, then that’s what we’ll put our money into. When cars reach some minimal critical mass in Manhattan where only a very small minority uses them, we can think about banning them, and increasing the street space for both pedestrians and cyclists. That would solve most of the issues we have now. Ironically, it’s a shame city politics work as they do. A majority of city residents actually favored banning cars from the city in a Daily News poll. Unfortunately, the city can’t do that or even pass a congestion tax without upstate approval. To me that seems patently unfair. NYC residents should be able to decide how their streets are used, especially given that we send out more in taxes than we get back in spending on both state and federal levels.

    Yeah, the outer boroughs should do something like you said late nights regarding the lights. Along main arteries, set the lights to blinking yellow for the main road, blinking red for minor sidestreets. Keep the signals active only where main arteries intersect.

    I’ll admit I’m cool to the idea of BRT for most of the reasons you say. If we can have a physically separated bus lane, and also preemption of traffic signals, then the idea has merit. I personally think it’s pretty depressing how this country has starved mass transit over the last 50 years. Now we’re finally coming to the realization of all the harm cars cause, but there’s little money to fix it.

    All this being said, I really do like my idea of elevated bike lanes with on-off ramps every few blocks. No need to put them everywhere. I’m thinking just run them along every avenue. Anyone needing to go crosstown a few blocks would simply exit and take regular streets. Perhaps just have a few crosstown elevated lanes connecting to the bridges going to the outer boroughs. Maybe extend the lanes over places like Queens Boulevard or other main arteries in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. If you build the lanes over sidewalks, pedestrians get a sheltered sidewalk as a bonus. Maybe you can even roof over the bikeway to allow cycling in inclement weather. We can’t do it now, of course, but this is an idea for when the economy turns around. It would cost way less than building another subway line.

  • Adam

    Even if there is hope it’d take another generation or more to do this. Our cities are too enslaved to the car. It took many decades for the car culture to do the damage to American cities. It will take many decades to undo this.

    I’ve seen the idea of elevated bike lanes. The objections were:

    1. They would be consdired an eye sore by local residents.
    2. They would have to be high enough to clear people, trees and infrastructure that it would make it hard for average cyclist to climb up, the ramps would be pretty steep and it would be hard to find enough space for the ramps. The ramps would be long enough to require significant space on the street or on the sidewalk that would largely defy the purpose. And you would need a ramp on each and every block or peopele won’t use them.
    3. They would conflict with city infrastructure: ConEd, telephone, cellular and cable TV devices mainly and overhanging traffic lights and the trees.
    4. In case of bike collision emergency services would have difficult access.
    5. Expensive to mainatain.

  • Joe R.

    I found this, Adam:

    http://www.thepurehands.org/cycleways/

    Interesting that I’m not the first to think up this idea. No arguing about your list of potential objections. Ramp length might be problematic in some cases. You need to get at least 15 feet up to clear large trucks. Assuming an average cyclist can deal with a 7% grade, then you need about a block to get that high. You could have steeper ramps of 10% or 15% where weaker cyclists would just walk their bike up. I think maybe if these could be made dual use, perhaps also carry electrical or cable/phone lines, then the idea could gain traction.

    An alternate idea is to put bike lanes below grade. Putting aside for the moment that underneath Manhattan is a tangled mess of infrastructure, the merit here is you only need to go low enough to clear the height of a cyclist, say perhaps 7 feet maximum. This cuts your ramp size by half. All that said, cost would be the big show-stopper. Everytime you do anything underground in Manhattan, it costs a fortune relocating utilities.

  • Every time I see a cop I take a moment to “complain” about the cars that run red lights and sit in the crosswalk and speed in my neighborhood. (Also, the endless and unexpected u-turns…) I do this over and over every day. I think we should all do the same to it is clear what the “#1 complaint” is, wherever your neighborhood might be.

  • I think those cycleways could be a great way of adding “greenways” (grayways?) to the city along possibly old elevated routes.

  • Adam

    The arguments against elevated bikeways aren’t mine, although I agree with them, I’ve read about this somewhere else.

    I think underground bikeways are ever more unrealistic. First and most, I ride a bike because I like to be in control, above the ground and outdoors. I hate being stuck underground on a subway with no options. If I can’t feel the sun and wind and see the sky I’m not interested. There is no way I would ride my bike in underground tunnels unless for curiosity or if this is a one-time organized bike event, but not daily. I’m sure majority of cyclists would agree. Although, such tunnels would provide weather protection so some people may like the idea, but I don’t mind getting wet outside.

    Plus I’m sure this would be even more expensive and probably plain impossible to build: Manhattan is mostly solid rock and the top layer is a maze of cables, pipes and ducts going tens of feet deep. These bikeways would have to run as deep as subways. Unrealistic.

    Anyway, I didn’t really mean to get involved in such a long discussion 🙂 So this may be my last post so please don’t be offended if I stop responding, I basically said what I had to say on this subject.

    What we have discussed so far is Utopian dreams, totally unrealistic. This is not Japan with their robotic bike parking.

    We shouldn’t waste time discussing dreams. We should focus on what’s here now and the fact is the City has taken away an entire lane from the traffic! Considering the politics and the opposition, this is a remarkable achievement.

    What needs to be done is not crossing swords over far out ideas that are never going to happen but over what needs to be done with what we have, to make people understand how to utilize this new setup and how to live with it.

    We need education and traffic law enforcement. The traffic laws are fine, leave them alone (except for the off hours red lights). We need people to follow them. We need to hammer the idea into peoples’ heads that all of us: pedestrians, cars and cyclists have equal rights for the roads but we need follow the rules to avoid conflicts.

    The problem, the way I see it, is not really the infrastructure, which of course could be improved, but the human behavior and lack of enforcement.

    We need drivers to slow down and yield, we need pedestrians off the streets and back on the sidewalks, we need to cut down on jaywalking, and we need cyclists to follow the rules like everybody else and respect red lights when there is traffic and pedestrians at the intersection and we need to root out salmoning and sidewalk riding.

    Cheers! Adam

  • Joe R.

    I’m probably done here as well, Adam, given how much we’ve already said. I just threw out some ideas for the future. I realize elevated bike lanes are too expensive for the time being, even putting aside the issues you mentioned, and I already said underground bike lanes would be unrealistically expensive, at least in Manhattan. I merely wanted to put the idea out there. I’m not sure I would like underground bike lanes either for the same reasons as you. Their primary advantages would be relatively constant temperatures year-round, plus freedom from inclement weather, but that’s not enough to justify the enormous cost.

    We do need education and enforcement of existing laws. We also need common sense. Nobody, whether it’s a motorist, cyclist, or pedestrian, should interfere with the legal right-of-way of anyone else. This is a common courtesy which I see violated far too often by all. My only concern in writing my lengthy posts was my wish to see police go only after the most dangerous, egregarious segment. That includes those who fly through red lights while weaving through pedestrians/cars, wrong-way riders ( there is zero justification for this behavoir ), and those who ride on crowded sidewalks, particular when the street has a bike lane.

    It’s good the city is finally taking cycling seriously as a mode of transport. However, this good will can easily be undermined via overzealous enforcement which results in reasonable riders getting tickets. In February 1999, for example, I got a $75 ticket for sidewalk cycling. This was the only time I ever got a ticket riding. I was returning a rented tape at 10 PM on a totally empty sidewalk. Even the cop admitted I wasn’t the type of person the law was meant for, but he had no choice because it was one of those zero tolerance orders from above. It’s exactly things like this which I don’t wish to see repeated. For years after that, I lost interest in cycling, worrying that maybe there were other arcane laws on the books that I might be breaking. Whenever I rode I spent more time looking for police than watching the road. And I rode way less. Getting an expensive ticket for a technical violation may well turn a new cyclist off to the idea of cycling for good. This is why I say go after only the worst of the bunch. If they do, then a ticket will likely be a learning experience rather than a pointless money grab for the city. I feel the same about motorists. I get annoyed when cops give “easy” tickets for drivers going maybe 37 in 30 zone, while not going after those who drive like maniacs.

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