Eighth Avenue’s Narrow Sidewalks Land a Cyclist in the Hospital

With six lanes for traffic and parking but only a narrow band for the much larger number of people on foot, it was only a matter of time before tensions boiled over.

Gregg Baker sustained a broken clavicle, two broken ribs, and a collapsed lung when an unidentified man knocked him off his bike in the Eighth Avenue bike lane on May 14.
Gregg Baker sustained a broken clavicle, two broken ribs, and a collapsed lung when an unidentified man knocked him off his bike in the Eighth Avenue bike lane on May 14.

Midtown sidewalks are so narrow and crowded that some avenues are constantly simmering with low-level conflict. On Eighth Avenue, pedestrians and cyclists squeeze into a miserly band of street space while motorists indulge in six lanes of traffic and parking.

Two weeks ago, the tension boiled over and landed Gregg Baker in the hospital.

On May 14 at around 4:30 p.m., Baker, 63, was biking up Eighth Avenue just north of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. A man walking toward him knocked Baker off his bike, sending him careening to the pavement and inflicting injuries that necessitated a three-day hospital stay.

The assault happened in the bike lane between 45th and 46th streets, which like most of Eighth Avenue in Midtown was overflowing with pedestrians in the late afternoon rush. No stranger to the tightrope act of navigating the narrow space allotted to biking and walking in that part of Midtown, Baker was proceeding with caution, biking slowly and ringing his bell.

“It’s kind of a zoo, you know, it’s rush hour so there’s pedestrians, cars, everything,” he said. “Pedestrians are heading south, I’m heading north, so they can mostly see me, but they don’t move. I had very little room to pass. I wasn’t going that fast either because, you know, it’s not possible. I don’t want to see anybody get hurt.”

As he made his way up the block, a man walking in the opposite direction in the bike lane stuck out his elbow, knocked Baker off his bike, and kept walking.

The impact of the fall caused serious injuries. Baker sustained a broken clavicle, two broken ribs, and a collapsed lung.

Baker says the police who arrived at the scene did not attempt to track down the man who assaulted him. They told him the shove was probably unintentional, he said, and didn’t check nearby storefronts for security footage that could have identified the perpetrator.

As much as the assailant is to blame, the allocation of space on Eighth Avenue was also a culprit. The failure to provide sufficient space for walking and biking makes conflict — intentional or otherwise — more likely.

In Midtown, the overwhelming majority of people are on foot. The ability to access Midtown via transit and walking sustains the city’s largest concentration of jobs and its biggest entertainment district. During the morning and evening rush, hundreds of thousands of people are heading to and from Midtown’s great transit hubs. And the sidewalk network is woefully insufficient for them.

On Eighth Avenue, the sidewalk is so packed during peak hours that the painted buffer between the bike lane and parked cars functions as an ad hoc walkway, as Streetfilms’ Clarence Eckerson and Streetsblog Publisher Mark Gorton documented earlier this month:

With so little room, Baker says pedestrian frustration is understandable. “Pedestrians are also kind of struggling for space there. I guess they’re angry too,” he said. “If I ring my bell, many, many times they do not move. They are looking right at me. They know I’m there, and they don’t move anyway.”

Baker has lived in the area for 20 years. “This part of town has changed,” he said. “There’s a lot more cars, a lot more people, and there’s more bicyclists.”

While the creation of the Broadway pedestrian plazas in 2009 relieved some of the worst pedestrian crowding in Midtown, much more needs to be done. The sidewalk network feeding Penn Station, in particular, is at a breaking point.

Building out wider sidewalks is a more expensive long-term undertaking than the parking-protected bike lanes, NYC DOT has added on some Midtown avenues over the past several years. But if Midtown is going to have a functional bike network it also needs wider sidewalks, as Baker’s experience shows so starkly.

DOT has experimented with a combination of sidewalk expansion and protected bike lanes, but only in fits and starts.

The block of Eighth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd has a painted sidewalk extension separated from the bike lane by heavy planters. The bike lane is protected from car traffic by plastic bollards — there is no parking lane on that side of the block.

That’s just one block out of at least dozens where foot traffic overflows. Another plan to widen eight blocks of the sidewalk on the west side of Seventh Avenue — between Times Square and Penn Station — has yet to be implemented, even though it would use low-cost materials and could be built out in a matter of days.

Until there’s a comprehensive plan and timetable for building out a network of wider sidewalks and protected bike lanes in Midtown, walking and biking will be relegated to second-class status on New York’s busiest streets.

  • MatthewEH

    At peak times (4:30 PM on a weekday would certainly qualify), I’ve just taken to riding in the leftmost traffic lane on this part of 8th Avenue. (From 43rd Street — where the single block of extra dedicated space ends, northward into the low 50s.) If I ever get pulled over and ticketed for it, I’ll bring this news report to court with me to fight it.

    I have also noticed that some people have gotten in the habit of walking in the bike lane or the bike-lane/parked-car buffer zone here regardless of the state of the sidewalk. Which is to say, the sidewalk can be pretty empty and there are still jagoffs who insist on walking in the bike lane.

  • redbike

    The 8th Av bike lane between 33rd St and the mid-50’s is adjacent to a sidewalk that’s absurdly narrow. (Good to read Streetsblog has finally realized this.) The 9th Av bike lane from 57th St to 34th St is also adjacent to an absurdly narrow sidewalk.

    Long-term: sure, advocate for widening these sidewalks (and perhaps reconfiguring the arrangement so it’s not so convenient for pedestrians to meander in bike lanes).

    Near-term, how about advocating for cops on bikes patrolling 8th Av’s bike lane between 30th St and 55th St and 9th Av’s bike lane between 55th St and 30th St. That’s an easy loop. A few cops on bikes riding this loop regularly might lessen the current chaos. I don’t think it’ll make things worse.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Did the MSM cover this assault?

  • redbike

    Manhattan’s 8th Av bike lane isn’t the only one with this behavior. It highlights an overarching flaw placing a bike lane adjacent to a sidewalk, at least in NYC. (nod to Polly Trottenberg: “Culture eats policy for breakfast.”)

    A few suggestions: First, acknowledge that if either a bike lane or a sidewalk (or both) see only light use, locating one next to the other works; not so where space is limited and demand is high. We need a better design (Widen both?) that acknowledges NYC culture and behavior. Second, (mentioned in my other comment), how about adding police patrolling on bikes?

  • DoctorMemory

    Are the NYPD bike cops any less, uh, themselves than the automotive-based ones? Adding more cops to a bike line strikes me as a great way to increase the number of $250 summons written to bike riders without actually increasing safety anywhere.

  • MatthewEH

    Not the only lane where this happens, but it is by far the worst, IME.

    Quite honestly, I feel like enforcement efforts are kinda futile if the built environment doesn’t meet people’s needs while channeling and guiding them towards better behaviors. That’s the take-home from peer cities that have done a better job than NYC with all of this.

  • MatthewEH

    Foot traffic volume on 9th Avenue is nowhere near what it is on 8th. (Makes sense, as that’s where the subway entrances are, the front entrance to Port Authority, more businesses, taller buildings, etc.) I rarely have issues with peds walking on and along the lane on 9th Ave. There is a trouble spot at 33rd Street where peds waiting for a walk signal will stand in the traffic-adjacent bike lane at the southeast corner of the intersection, instead of further east, behind the bike lane. But this is perpendicular traffic, not parallel.

    What gives me the most trouble on 9th Ave, really, is cars stacking up in the turn pockets to make the left turns on 41st, 39th, and sometimes 37th Street. It can be very hard to cleanly merge around them, or thread one’s way between one turning car and the next.

  • redbike

    Are the NYPD bike cops any less, uh, themselves than the automotive-based ones?

    Fair question. My experience — this is anecdote, not data — is “yes”, if only barely. At a minimum, I’ve found they’re more likely to be aware of how traffic laws actually apply to people on bicycles in NYC.

    Would they issue appropriate summonses to wayward pedestrians and miscreant motorists? I’d guess that depends on the orders they receive.

  • Joe R.

    Also consider the sheer level of congestion which these other cities just don’t experience. Manhattan is too crowded for its own good. In my opinion no street arrangement is going to be anything but a half-assed compromise for everyone. Every time I walk in midtown I’m annoyed and frustrated, to the point I’ll sometimes bang on cars when they get in my way. Experiments with rats invariably show crowded conditions breed antisocial, everyone for themself, behavior. Congestion pricing would be a good start but the fact is we need to get the volume of motor vehicles in Manhattan down by 75% to 90% to have even a hope of designing efficient streets.

  • MatthewEH

    Some good points in here. I’d lump in “build out and impose a congestion charge on vehicle traffic” as part of the environment to build, in fact.

  • redbike

    enforcement efforts are kinda futile if the built environment doesn’t meet people’s needs while channeling and guiding them towards better behaviors

    Agreed, which is why, since its construction, I’ve been so negative about 8th Av’s bike lane next to a too-narrow sidewalk. It couldn’t work. It hasn’t worked. Anyone who actually rides a bike on this route knows this.

  • Brian

    I love how the bikers are always in the right no matter the situation

  • When I was a kid I hated seeing bike cops. I thought that they were there to harass bicyclists.

    But now I wish we had them. It would be very nice having police officers riding up and down the bike lanes on Eighth and Ninth Avenues, on First and Second Avenues, and on the various other important bike lanes, ordering drivers and pedestrians out of the lane, and calling for tow trucks for cars that are parked there. (And if they gave tickets also to those bicyclists stupid enough to blow red lights, then I would be just fine with that.)

    If these bike cops were to become a regular thing, then just the expectation that there would be a police officer cycling through every so often would be enough to keep many drivers from blocking the bike lanes, and from doing many of the other illegal acts that they commit because they know that the chances of being caught are essentially nil.

  • Joe R.

    If bike cops could be trusted to enforce laws which protect cyclists while also doing reasonable enforcement against cycling transgressions then I would be 100% in favor of them. Yes, ticket cyclists blowing reds without looking, not yielding when turning, etc. Basically only go after those who put others in danger, and ignore technical but safe violations. Unfortunately, that seems beyond the ability of the NYPD. More bike cops will likely mean even more nonsense tickets for cyclists. And because it’ll be easy to go after pedestrians, there will probably also be a rash of jaywalking tickets. So basically, I’d rather just not have cops anywhere near bike routes, whether they’re on bikes or in patrol cars, as there is no upside. They won’t enforce any laws which protect us but they’ll be happy to use cyclists as easy targets to meet their quotas.

  • William Lawson

    “They told him the shove was probably unintentional” – that’s NYPD code for “we have no motivation whatsoever to investigate this as the crime it probably was, so we’ll just take our usual line of convenience and act like it was an accident.’ They are so incompetent and pathetic.

    I bet the assailant was the exact same guy who ran up to me yelling a few weeks ago as I biked the same lane. He ran right up screaming “you f-ing serious? You f-ing serious? Get in the road!” This, from a pedestrian who was blatantly in MY space instead of the sidewalk where he belongs. You have to be ever vigilant for the psycho classes in NYC, especially since we have a police department which point blank refuses to do its job.

  • William Lawson

    Yeah because the fact that the biker was in the bike lane where he belonged and the pedestrian was not on the sidewalk where HE belonged has no bearing on it at all, right?

  • William Lawson

    The problem is overwhelmingly cars. By every possible metric, not least of which is the hugely disproportionate amount of space they take up per occupant. We’ll never see any meaningful improvement in the level of congestion in this city until we manage to persuade a huge proportion of motorists that it’s selfish and unnecessary to drive their cars into the city. Ultimately, given that drivers are largely immune to reason when it comes to their vehicles, that’s gonna mean congestion pricing.

    If we could reduce the amount of vehicular traffic in this city by 30-40%, we could have double width sidewalks and quadruple width bike lanes. Not to mention considerably fewer fatalities and significantly healthier air.

  • JL

    I had a similar experience about a month ago. The guy looked like Tex Cobb the wrestler/boxer, actor at his prime. Twice my size (I’m fit but a welterweight at 145). He toke a football stance and flexed his arms after I ring both my bells. He roared and I went around him feeling my left side was vulnerable to a kidney punch. He blocked the lane but didn’t step towards me. Without flinching, I was bracing for contact that never came. I do remember not liking how vulnerable I was being clipped in. I wasn’t looking for a fight and he looked a little mental.

  • redbike

    It would be very nice having police officers riding up and down the bike lanes

    Today, by chance, I saw a NYPD sergeant and what I can only identify as “brass” (white shirt and tie, but I didn’t recognize rank insignia) both riding police bikes at Av A and 13th St in the East Village. My point: though it’s uncommon, NYPD rides bikes.

    I’m aware of the caution “Be careful what you wish for; you might get it”, but specific to Manhattan’s 8th Av bike lane, police on bikes couldn’t be worse than the current chaos.

    Elsewhere up and down this thread, there seems to be agreement: pedestrians on 8th Av’s too-narrow sidewalk are of course going to spill over into the adjacent bike lane because … wait for it … 8th Av’s sidewalk is too narrow. This failed design should be acknowledged and fixed. And not replicated elsewhere. Until that happens, I’ll cautiously repeat: I don’t think cops on bikes in situations like this would be a bad idea.

  • redbike

    Police (and prosecutors) exercise discretion about what they enforce. Recall that though Cy Vance was re-elected last November, almost 10% of the votes in that contest were for a write-in candidate. Has that experience informed Vance’s discretion? Perhaps. Fact is: his priorities do seem to have changed. Similarly, if those of us riding bicycles maintain an adversarial relationship with the NYPD (which I’ll quickly concede the NYPD’s behavior encourages), there won’t be any change, certainly no change for the better. Asking for cops on bikes patrolling bike lanes means some folks on bikes will have to amend their behavior. Considering the current chaos, I don’t think that’s an unreasonable trade-off. (And yes, I agree the real problem is the built environment biased toward cars.)

  • BruceWillisThrowsACar@You

    You’re a fucking moron and likely a troll.

    Cyclist was cautiously riding in his designated space on the roadway.

    Ped was NOT in his designated space and instead walking on the portion of the street designated for bikes only.

  • JL

    I don’t think the short-term solution would involve police enforcement and keeping the bike lane clear for bikes only in this area. I don’t think they even have a law in the books at the present. I would be surprised if the average patrol has cyclist safety (not cyclist ticketing) in the top 10 of their “duties”. It wasn’t that long ago that they were the ones knocking people off there bikes. Most memorable- the cop who gave a body check to a random cyclist going by in Times Square during a mass ride and cops yanking people off on the Manhattan side of the MBridge. NYPD and cyclist relationship hasn’t been great since the Republicans came to visit.

  • Joe R.

    If the bike cops mostly corral the pedestrians to the sidewalk and keep cars out of the bike lane then it’s hard not to see them as a good thing. The present design breeds chaos. Keeping each user where they belong will mitigate some of that chaos. That said, I’m not keen on using wholesale sanctions against either cyclists or pedestrians in situations like this. Yes, ticket cars parking or blocking the bike lane but use the bike cops to direct pedestrians onto the sidewalk like crossing guards might. And use them the same way to keep cyclists off the sidewalks. You might ticket the worst cyclist behavior like blowing reds through crowded crosswalks. You might also ticket the occasional pedestrian who goes into the bike lane 5 times after being told to stay out.

    Unfortunately, the NYPD doesn’t seem to know how to operate like this. You might say cops can use discretion if told to do so by their higher ups. However, the police have to be trained to make judgement calls for that. Based on what I see, the NYPD never had such training. They operate more like a paramilitary unit, where they use the maximum force to subdue a threat as rapidly as possible, even if that “threat” is a cyclist slow-rolling a red light.

  • MatthewEH

    Christ, what an a-hole

  • redbike

    I won’t argue history with you because I know you’re right. For what it’s worth, I was there.

    The Republican National Convention to which you refer was in 2004, a while ago. Perhaps some of today’s improved bicycle infrastructure may be, in part, a consequence of group rides at that time.

    This is a thread about the 8th Av bike lane. There seems to be agreement: for folks riding bicycles, the 8th Av bike lane is useless. Actually, worse than useless; the 8th Av bike lane is dangerous.

    I’d like to see a bike lane on 8th Av that bicyclists can use safely, but that won’t happen tomorrow or anytime soon. The current bike lane is designed for chaos. It seems to me the only near-term fix for the bike lane is the presence of cops riding bikes. Cops in cars (or on motorcycles as during the 2004 RNC) — we know — have a windshield perspective.

    Are cops our friends? Ummn, no, I don’t think so, and I think that’s a shame. Perhaps this is an opportunity for the NYPD to demonstrate whether they can change along with infrastructure.

  • Knut Torkelson

    If you think an increased NYPD presence is gonna do anything good for cyclists you’re living in a fantasy world. They’d probably park one of their little car things directly in the lane, then stand there telling peds to get out.

  • Brian

    No just someone who see cyclists breaking traffic rules on a daily basis. Cyclists always seem to have an excuse that justifies why they don’t have to follow the rules but everyone else does

  • Brian

    If we dramatically improved the subway system it would help with this traffic mess but that will take years and billions of dollars

  • lostarchitect .

    Just like car drivers and pedestrians, you mean? Yeah, you’re right, cyclists aren’t unique, everyone breaks the rules.

  • MatthewEH

    And this story, where there’s absolutely no indication that the cyclist did anything wrong whatsoever, is the place to air your views? Geddouddahere.

  • AMH

    Good lord, 8 Av drives me nuts but I never considered the potential for this kind of injury. I still fear for my life riding 6 Av, so there are no options left.

    By the way, it’s just a matter of time before something like this happens on the greenway. I’m pretty familiar with the concrete hazards by now, but it was extra crowded yesterday and multiple people (including me) nearly plowed into one of those NYPD cubes.

    Can this guy sue the city for horrible design? Would that even make things better, or backfire?

  • we do not need NYPD andenforcment, we need good street design. when the 8th av bike lane was proposed the Community board 4 asked that the sidewalks be enlarged as a prerequisite : Here is the text of the 2011 approval letter
    ” Enlarge sidewalks on Eighth Avenue from 34th to 40th Streets and from 42nd to 48th Streets and remove all pedestrian barriers above 42nd Street. If DOT would like to try this on a trial basis, markings on the ground and flexible bollards could be a good first step. It should be noted that this has been a long-standing request from CB4. The “pedlock” on the west side of Eight Avenue has been thoroughly documented in the course of the various rezoning, with pedestrian service levels of D3. As a result, today pedestrians use the bicycle lanes to walk from 34th to 48th streets as a matter of course, especially at rush hour with commuters in a hurry to catch a bus or a train. The safety of a protected bike lane adjacent to the curb will entice many more pedestrians to use the lane and will result in increased pedestrian/cycle conflicts or, as occurred on Broadway south of West 42nd Street, very limited bicycle use. “.

  • Rex Rocket

    I suggest that only cops on bicycles should be able to ticket bicyclists. No shipdits sitting in cars using their phones, nobody hiding between cars and jumping out to nab you, only cops who are on the road, on the bike.

  • redbike

    Thanks for providing historic context and insight.

    It’s an excellent example of the flawed admonition: “Don’t let Perfect be the enemy of Good”. When we’re advocating for something and what we get is a craptacular fail, well, it’s a craptacular fail. The 8th Av bike lane is a craptacular fail.

  • MatthewEH

    With apologies to Yogi Berra, about half the time 10th Avenue is 90% decent. (Though best to pick up somewhere north of 30th Street due to ongoing Hudson Yards construction.) 11th Avenue isn’t bad either, though it’s an option northbound only from 45th Street up.

  • I know – it was so early in the bike lanes saga ,people still had the sense that anything is better than nothing . big mistake .

  • Nathan C Rhodes

    The sidewalks in this video are not that crowded, there’s plenty of space for the people walking in the bike lane, but they want a less obstructed space where they can walk at full speed. The elephant in the room is the 6 lanes for vehicles (including parking), as the article mentions. Still, here as along many other busy bicycle routes (Hudson River Greenway), it strikes me that the people on foot act much more rashly and selfishly than those on bikes (except for the people training at 25 MPH, mostly in spandex). Clearly, this space and people on bikes are new to people who have been walking in Manhattan for a long time, and the general on-foot reaction (taking up this new space and generalized over-reaction to what should be the banality of bicycles) is to be expected. This guy’s reaction was nuts and–surprise, surprise–NYPD doesn’t want to even consider filing charges against someone who knocked a guy off his bike. Another clear example, on many fronts, of how people on bikes are at the bottom of the transportation totem pole in this city, despite biking being the biggest opportunity to make NYC streets safer, more efficient and more pleasant.

  • Nathan C Rhodes

    The amount of people who still jog, walk or lollygaggle on the HRG bike path despite the concrete barriers and signs, instead of on the adjacent running path, drives me nuts.

  • Nathan C Rhodes

    I bike and walk around Manhattan frequently, and while biking I find that pedestrians invade my space or act idiotically much more so than the occasional person on bike. In fact, besides the ocasional spandex-clad, tour-de-france trainer, people on bikes almost never bother me, whether I’m biking or on foot. Bikes are the new creature in the urban jungle, and people are still reluctant to accept them or slow to adapt to their presence. Of course, City Hall, NYPD and DOT exacerbate this by pretending bike traffic should be subject to the same traffic rules as car traffic (this is just absolutely absurd, cities and countries all over the world have different traffic codes for these disparate “vehicles”) that cyclists only need proper infrastructure in some places and that on-street parking should be a perk paid for by all but used by far less than half of New Yorkers.

    As Mr. Walker and Mr. Biker–long story short–I find pedestrians much worse and much more oblivious than cyclists.

  • Brian

    I can agree with you on some of this. The tour-de-france trainers are the worst. My biggest issues are when they fly through crowded crosswalks against the light (because they’re not cars) and down the wrong way of one way streets where pedestrians aren’t looking. In Europe its much better, they have traffic lights for the bikes and they follow the rules

  • MatthewEH

    Minor counterpoint – it’s perfectly safe to ride 20-25 mph on greenway if it’s empty enough. Just maintain awareness of your surroundings and slow down if the situation now warrants it.

  • Atom C

    the person who elbowed him did it on purpose for sure.. i used to ride that lane every day for 2 years and it happened to me 3 times. for some reason pedestrians think they have the right of way to walk the opposite direction in the street. its also incredibly common for people to just step in the bike lane without looking. or even on their cellphone.

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