Eyes on the Street: NYPD Gives Manhattan Cyclists Unsafe Instructions

An NYPD variable message sign on First Avenue tells cyclists to stay in the bike lane even as they approach a mixing zone, where they should be shifting to the right instead of hugging the curb. Image via ##https://twitter.com/#!/eveostay/status/192247593206685697/photo/1/large##@eveostay##

The NYPD appears to be taking bicycle safety into its own hands, offering faulty safety tips to cyclists on both the First Avenue and Fifth Avenue bike lanes.

In both locations, the NYPD has recently installed variable message boards informing cyclists that they must remain in the bike lane and obey all traffic laws. Legally, cyclists are required to remain in bike lanes, but not when they are preparing to make a turn or confronting unsafe conditions in the lane — broad exceptions that recognize staying in the bike lane doesn’t alway make for safe cycling. This is a distinction the NYPD has failed to grasp before.

The NYPD’s instructions are a particularly bad fit on First Avenue. There, the NYPD signs were placed at mixing zones, where cyclists and left-turning motor vehicles are supposed to merge into a single lane of traffic. The Department of Transportation’s bicycle safety manual specifically instructs cyclists to merge with autos and shift to the right at mixing zones, taking the full shared lane, and not to continue in a straight line hugging the curb (a diagram is available at the bottom of this post). The NYPD’s signs instruct cyclists to ride in a way that has been singled out as unsafe.

It is not clear why the NYPD started deploying its message boards to tell cyclists to stay in bike lanes, nor how the department selected locations (signs have been seen at both First and 20th Street and Fifth and 14th Street). The Department of Transportation’s much-publicized skeleton speed boards, for example, are deployed to streets that have a documented history of rampant speeding. Is there any equivalent reason for these boards — which could make cyclists less safe — to be deployed?

Neither NYPD nor DOT have responded to Streetsblog inquiries about the boards.

The Department of Transportation's Bike Smart manual specifically instructs cyclists to merge right into mixing zones, not to head straight along the curb.
  • mitch

    My first thought when I saw that thing on First Avenue was, “Great, here comes a ticketing blitz. Maybe I should take Third Avenue for a while”. Imagine my surprise when I saw a livery cab driver getting a ticket for being in the bike lane this morning. I’d actually be A-OK with the NYPD cracking down on cyclists if it were paired with a real commitment to keep bike lanes open. I’m skeptical though.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for writing about this.  I saw the sign on 5th the other day and was upset that I only had two middle fingers to give to the NYPD.   Is there someone we can call to complain to about this?

  • J

    Clearly, the NYPD has no idea what it’s like to actually ride a bicycle. Mixing zones were specifically created so that cyclists and drivers could see each other. Cyclists need to look to their right at these intersections  to see if cars are entering the mixing zone. Now, this massive sign blocks much of that view making it much harder to see cars and therefore much less safe. Stellar work, as always (sarcasm).

  • Anonymous

    I went to the 13th Precinct Community Council meeting last night and pointed out the flaw in the language on the sign.  The deputy inspector who was taking questions said that cyclists who are leaving the lane to clear obstructions will not get tickets.  I did not think to bring up the mixing zone issue that you guys bring up.  We’ll see.  I believe the D.I. also said that the sign will move and will also address motorists and pedestrians.

  • J

    Perhaps NYPD is only concerned about “safety bikes”. Penny-farthings, on the other hand, can just go nuts.


  • Anonymous

    @ddartley:disqus when I said “the flaw in the language,” I don’t mean grammar.  I mean the flaw in saying “must stay in bike lane” without any indications of how there are times when it’s expressly permitted to leave the bike lane. 

  • Joe R.

    This lends credence to those who say the purpose of protected bike lanes is more to get bikes out of the way of cars than for the safety of cyclists.

    I also really surprised that nobody fully explained 34 RCNY § 4-12(p) to the NYPD. Basically, it seems the range of exceptions is so broad that a cyclist need never ride in the lanes at all. “When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, motor vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, pushcarts, animals, surface hazards) that make it unsafe to continue within such bicycle path or lane.” covers a lot of ground. I might personally say at the speeds I typically cruise at, the obstructions usually present in the protected lane make it unsafe to use at all. Remember under NYC law I’m allowed to ride at any speed I choose, up to and including 30 mph, contingent upon traffic conditions of course. Forcing me to ride in conditions which are more limiting than those which apply to cars effectively amounts to unequal treatment under the law (i.e. cars can and often do safely travel at the 30 mph speed limit in their lanes but I can’t safely do so in my designated lane). I could even make a good argument that with merging cars every 2 blocks, double-parked delivery trunks, plus hordes of pedestrians overflowing from the sidewalk, those bike lanes are unsafe to use at any speed.

  • The bigger problem with this is not the message from NYPD nor the department’s disturbing ignorance of the law, but the message it sends to motorists.  You can’t pay for this kind of advertising on a busy New York City street and NYPD is giving it away for free.

    I rode on Jay Street today and had to ride around a truck parked in the bike lane, not an uncommon occurrence there or anywhere else.  The driver of a white Mercedes leaned on his horn behind me.  When I went back into the bike lane, he pulled along side me and screamed out of his window, “STAY IN THE BIKE LANE,” calling me a number of profanities not fit for a family website.  He then sped forward, pulling over into the bike lane — to give me a taste of my own medicine, I suppose – before driving away and turning on Tillary.  With all his attention focused on intimidating me, it’s a miracle he didn’t hit a pedestrian, cyclist, or other car.

    The message was clear: “How dare you mere cyclist get in MY way on MY street.” 

    Signs like this one create more conflict than they resolve.  A driver may not pay it much heed on First Avenue, but they eventually internalize the message and use it when some damn cyclist dares to get in their way somewhere else.

  • Anonymous

    @Doug_Gordon:disqus I had a similar experience yesterday on Vanderbilt. A guy in an SUV beeping his horn at me while we were both waiting at the light*, telling me that bikes have to yield to cars. People’s ignorance and the apparently unstoppable reality of road rage in this city make for a dangerous combination. 

    * Given how many times I’ve been yelled at, beeped at, and just generally attacked by drivers for waiting at lights, it’s a wonder that I bother.

  • Ethan

    I don’t really get the furor here. In the mixing zone (at least as depicted in the DOT manual here) the bike lane and the left lane become one. So moving to the right side of that lane, you wouldn’t be leaving the bike lane, would you?

  • BkBiker

    It’s probably just a matter of “had the electronic sign hanging around, who do we want to harass today?”

  • Joe R.

    @dporpentine:disqus Honestly, I stopped waiting at lights years ago partly because it made me a ready target for abuse, and also partly because starting out with the pack of cars made things way more dangerous than just looking and proceeding if it’s clear. Sure, I very occasionally get flack from drivers for doing that, but it doesn’t compare to the abuse I used to get waiting at a light, especially from motorists who wanted to turn but had to wait for me to accelerate out of their way.

    @Doug_Gordon:disqus I never thought those signs might send a sublimal message to drivers that bikes don’t belong on the same roads as them but you’re right. I’ll also bet good money quite a few motorists will take those signs to mean bikes don’t belong on roads without bike lanes at all.

  • @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus I’ve definitely had drivers tell me I didn’t belong on a street without a bike lane, including one that runs right by my apartment. 


    I’m sure my experience is no different than a lot of other people’s.

  • m to the i

    The sign was likely placed at 1st ave and 20th street because it is a school crossing. the light timing is a bit funky. the light turns red on 1st ave and peds can cross but pedestrians are simultaneously given extra time to cross 20th st. so lots of bicycles go through the light, some at very fast speeds. i admittedly go through too but i yield to peds and go through at a slow speed. if you wait for the light to change on 1st then you get to the mixing zone on 21st street with lots of trucks and car ready to not yield to you. much safer to get through that intersection with the extra ped crossing time.

  • Great take on this, Noah, and thanks for the link.

    The signs would be a more accurate representation of the law to say “for safety, bikes need not stay in bike lanes”. 

  • @Uptowner13:disqus LOL my velocipede has no use for bike lanes.

    I think the NYPD and every other road authority is missing the human scale of riding a bike.  It is likely that I would ride right by this sign without ever seeing it.  Its too high in the air to catch the eye of a cyclist paying attention to what is right in front of him.  Its the same problem ever other sign on the street has.  Too big, too high, not gonna see it until I’ve been past four times already and think, “what does that massive sign say?  Ohhh it says not to ride your safety bikes in the street”

  • Anonymous

    I saw these signs this weekend.  They made me so angry.  I wish they’d enforce the yield to bikes while turning left law.  I’ve seen many close calls.  We’re scape-goated again as usual. 
    Furthermore, it’s not the bikes who have trouble staying in the 1st ave bike lane.  It’s a gosh darn refugee.  It’s the peds and cars who need education on interacting with the bike lane.  It’s not a smear on peds and drivers, rather, they’re not as accustomed so naturally they should have some education.  But the notion that bikes have trouble staying in the 1st ave bike lane is nuts.  And if the DoT actually wanted to make a difference, they’d have those signs facing north so as to address the Salmon, who actually are some-what of an issue on 1st/2nd ave. 

  • Anonymous


     A guy in an SUV beeping his horn at me while we were both waiting at the light*, telling me that bikes have to yield to cars. 

    Amen, brotha.  I wish they’d ticket drivers for that.  Like, it’s not cool having cars honk or buzz you for being in front of them, especially when you’re hardly holding them up, if at all. 

  • Anonymous

    This seems to describe First Avenue. It surely must be 40 feet wide.

    —34 RCNY 4-12(p)(3) Bicyclists may ride on either side of one-way roadways that are at least 40 feet wide.

    I’ve always felt safer riding on the right. Drivers tend to cut you closer on the left because it’s easier for them to judge the distance to you. When they pass you on the right, they tend to give a little more leeway.

  • fj

    no kidding; public space street laws protect the automotive monopoly and the whole fault accounting process and control of other forms of mobility

    without cars just think if jaywalking laws make sense or how many traffic lights & other control signs and rules of the road would be necessary

  • Tallycyclist

    fj  You should check out the book “Fighting Traffic:  The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.”  It’s a very comprehensive history of our streets from the late 19th/early 20th century.  The term jaywalking didn’t start to take hold until about 20’s.  Before that, cars did not exactly dominate the streets.  If people from 100 years ago could see what our cities would become today, I wonder if they would have fought harder and perhaps, successfully retain the equal (or arguably greater) rights pedestrians had to the roads.  

  • fj

    Tallycyclist, Nice! Let’s hope for accelerating restoration of rational public space which can’t happen fast enough.

  • KillMoto

    I happened upon one of those signs late one night, its control box not only unlocked but open, user manual inside next to the keyboard.  I was sooooooooooo tempted to write my own message to motorists!

  • Hilda


    My husband beat a ‘must stay in the bike lane’ ticket in 2010.  Enough of an anomaly to make the news…

  • Anonymous

    @f9bd7b80a3fd8a1d970a082a5b7657a4:disqus I’ve beat them too. all you have to do is get the judge to look at the law. the thing is they are still forcing us to show up to court for something completely legal. This is a punishment in and of itself.

  • Didn’t anyone else notice that the left lower edge of the sign is overhanging the bike lane in that picture?  It looks like it could poke your eye out and drop you to the pavement if you don’t notice it.  That’s the more immediate hazard I noticed about that sign.

  • A year ago I was nearly flattened at 11th Street and 1st by a van making a high speed left turn from the travel lane to the right of the mixing zone.  He cut in front of another car making a legal turn.  As he sped away, he yelled “I go first”,  an utterance that sums up what I assume most drivers(and cyclists) are thinking at any given time.   

    I’m sure that almost everyone who rides on 1st or 2nd Avenue has a similiar story.  Cars simply do not slow down in the mixing zone or yield….ever.  There are signs at every mixing zone saying that turning vehicles  must yield to bikes and yet I think it’s happened to me half a dozen times.   Every intersection along 1st and 2nd avenues has a volume of pedestrian traffic that makes the above diagram impossible.  Cars cannot execute their turns this way because there are pedestrians in the crosswalk. If even two vehicles are trying  to turn at the same time, there is no space for bikes and the only options is to wait for all pedestrian and vehicular traffic to clear or to go around and nearly get run over by fast moving cars.  

    No one sees this sign from inside a car is going to think about sharing any space with a cyclist.  This sign tells the motoring public that they should go first every time.  

  • The Truth

    It has been obvious to me for quite some time that the NYPD really needs to have a mandate for a few key positions with qualified transportation engineers. 

    It is understandable that the NYPD needs to handle enforcement operations, emergency detours, crowd control, etc., but they really need somebody who is qualified to help make sure they’re really contributing to public safety. 

  • Check it. We scooped Streetsblog on this story over a year ago!

    I am grateful, at least, that when the NYPD’s purposeful and dangerous mis-information campaign hits the streets in giant flashing letters for all to see, Streetsblog can cover it.

    A bit of prevention, perhaps in the form of keeping a vibrant Critical Mass alive in NYC (by merely listing the monthly bike ride on this web site), would actually empower the cycling community to stop this epidemic of bias/ignorance in the NYPD.

    Please, Streetsblog, for the safety of us all, list Critical Mass as happening the last Friday of every month, 7pm, Union Square North! I hope all in the community who have a problem with this flashing sign can come out 4/27 to educate the NYPD about our rights.

    Still we ride. Until we are run over by a reckless left-turning motorist at least…

  • Just took this shot yesterday of a beer truck blocking the bike lane in front of one of these signs: 


    Pretty much captures the absurdity of the city hectoring cyclists about their behavior… 

  • We also have to give importance to cyclists as much as we give importance to motorists. Cyclists are also more vulnerable.