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Why You Can’t Trust TV News to Report on Bike Lanes

11:30 AM EDT on September 19, 2014

Earlier this week, in an "investigation" seeking to link bike lanes to traffic congestion, ABC 7 reporter Jim Hoffer drove around Manhattan avenues timing his trips. The station ostensibly wanted to test DOT's numbers showing that average travel times on two streets with protected bike lanes decreased after the lanes were installed.

It's a terrible way to measure the performance of city streets, but when Hoffer disclosed his times on Eighth Avenue -- an average of 7 minutes, 9 seconds to make the 11-block drive from 23rd Street to 34th Street during seven tests over two days -- the results sounded so ludicrous, even for Midtown, that we thought: Two can play this game.

Streetsblog ran five tests during the evening rush (between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.) on Wednesday and Thursday. Instead of driving Streetsblog's Mobile Unit SUV, I took cabs. ABC Eyewitness News helpfully blared on Taxi TV every time.

The average trip time? Four minutes, 37 seconds, about two and half minutes quicker than ABC's average, and a minute and a half longer than the average in DOT's report. I was unable to replicate ABC's 7-minute-plus average, with the longest run coming in at 5:37. The fastest run clocked in well below DOT's average at 2:37.

Here's the secret to ABC's report: Traffic, especially in Midtown, can be a crapshoot. Anyone familiar with this part of Eighth Avenue knows that traffic can snarl between 31st and 34th Streets near Penn Station. Sometimes it can be a quick ride through, and sometimes you're stuck behind someone getting in a cab or a driver turning through a crowded crosswalk.

Hoffer also never mentioned that Eighth Avenue, like Columbus, has the same number of lanes as it did before the protected bike lane was installed. So if something is slowing Hoffer's SUV down, it's not fewer car lanes. Maybe Hoffer hit some bad traffic. Maybe, despite the fact that the street has the same number of lanes as before and now has more space for turning cars, he was out to blame that traffic on bike lanes.

What does this all prove? Not much, except that you can't trust TV news to report fairly about anything related to bikes, and there are much better ways to assess city streets than timing a few driving runs. (That’s why Streetsblog focused on the more statistically robust safety results in our coverage of the report that precipitated ABC 7’s segments.)

Oh, and if Hoffer is looking for a quick, reliable way to get up Eighth Avenue, might we suggest using the protected bike lane? A ride from 23rd to 34th Streets, including waiting at red lights, took just four minutes, five seconds during rush hour Wednesday. It would've been even nicer if there wasn't so much car traffic in the way.

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