TransAlt Leader: I Don’t Bike To Work Because I Don’t Feel Safe Out There

An incomplete bike network is why people don't ride, says Ellen McDermott.

Ellen McDermott — the early years. Photo: McDermott family achives
Ellen McDermott — the early years. Photo: McDermott family achives
Ellen McDermott
Ellen McDermott

I’m a full-time safe streets advocate, and I almost never bike to work.

I’ve worked at Transportation Alternatives, where I’m now serving as interim co-executive director, for more than four years. I grew up riding around Queens with my dad. I live in Midtown Manhattan, four miles from TransAlt’s office in the Financial District. That’s a perfect length for a bike commute, and I love to ride. So why don’t I?

The easiest route includes a three-mile stretch along the East River Greenway, which I access at 20th Street, about ¾-mile south of where I live. In order to get there, I walk my bike several blocks on the sidewalk down Lexington Ave to 32nd St, then ride east to the protected bike lane on Second Avenue. The ride on 32nd is a busy couple of blocks, but manageable with a lot of head turns and watching for people opening car doors.

Once I’m on Second Avenue, the ride is fantastic — in between left-turn corners, that is. Many of those have “mixing zones,” meaning spots where cars and trucks can turn into your path. Some of the intersections have a split phase, where bikes can proceed while left-turning cars have to wait. Others, inexplicably, don’t.

Another eastward turn on 20th Street and we’re almost at the greenway. There’s a striped bike lane on 20th between First Avenue and Avenue C, followed by complicated intersection across two-way traffic — and then voilà! Freedom! Once you get past the (insanely narrow) section adjacent to the Con Ed facility at 13th Street, the ride is awesome. The path is wide, the East River and three of its magnificent bridges are in view, and typically the only four-wheeled vehicles present are Parks Department golf carts and battery-powered skateboards … for about a mile.

Then the path narrows and weaves through some Department of Sanitation parking lots — keep a look out for inattentive truck drivers here — and then the final stretch under the FDR viaduct into the Financial District. When I arrive, I’m often shaky, but from vigilance-induced adrenaline instead of the actual exercise.

I am not alone. TransAlt’s own research, the BikeNYC 2020 report, found that more than two-thirds of less frequent riders said that the most important thing the city could do to get them riding more would be to build more protected bike lanes. More than 90 percent of people who used to ride said that would get them back on their bikes. Men still outnumber women two-to-one as regular bike riders. Among my colleagues, I have many female “roll” models, who inspire me. The women who don’t ride cite a few reasons: street harassment; NYPD bike stings; not wanting to arrive at their destination covered in sweat—a condition particularly frowned upon for women — but mostly it’s because they don’t feel safe riding in mixed traffic with multi-ton vehicles.

So what can we do? We need to pass congestion pricing this year in Albany. Once we do, we must invest the “spatial dividend” we get from removing cars from the streets in wider sidewalks, shorter crosswalks, dedicated bus lanes (with camera enforcement, so they remain that way), and yes, many more miles of wide and protected bike lanes. And not just in Manhattan: “Boulevards of Death” like Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and Northern Boulevard in Queens would benefit from a bike-and-pedestrian-centric redesign. Congestion pricing — which, yes, can help fix the subway — represents our best chance to make our streets radically safer and expand the protected bike lane network in a sweeping way.

If you’re not a confident rider, there are many bike organizations where you can find fellowship and advice, like WE Bike NYC, Black Girls Do Bike, and the Five Borough Bike Club. If you’re already a regular cyclist, you could do worse than follow my colleague Chelsea Yamada’s lead—she has offered to swing by my house to coach me on the ride to work. The Queens activists who planned last year’s inaugural Women’s Ride (including my TransAlt colleague Claudia Corcino) are meeting soon to plan a ride for this year. Maybe you and I can join them.

Ellen McDermott is the interim co-executive director of Transportation Alternatives. Follow her @HeyNell on Twitter.

  • MadCyclistNYC

    I rode over 4,000 miles in NYC last year and I’m an athletic bike-type dude who rides pretty much every day. If you aren’t scared 90% of the time you just aren’t paying attention. Belive me, anyone I talk to in the “public” feels the same way and most people ask me how I deal with NYC traffic and that they’d be too scared to do it themselves. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, IT MIGHT BE A DUCK. Making safer streets with ACTUAL enforcement will change this, not messenging some happy horseshit about how safe it is. Because it just isn’t.

  • Scott Voolker

    Regardless of one’s views on the matter, we are definitely having an intelligent discussion here! I even saved this thread so I can refer to it later. I think this whole helmet issue is a perfect example of how U.S. public policy is so messed up. Like you said, American policymakers will virtually ignore the untold thousands who die each year from a lack of exercise, while constantly pushing for the use of an annoying product that saves at most ten lives a year. The same thing happens with automotive safety: airbags are now mandatory (and maybe that is a good thing) while reckless driving, which results in tens of thousands of faltities annually, is not only tolerated but in most cases not even considered to be a problem by the police.

  • I typically ride close to 6000 miles a year, though last year it was only about 3500 miles due to an injury, and also to my waning resolve to deal with winter mornings.

    There is a tremendous difference between being aware of dangers and being scared. I am always conscious of my surroundings and aware of the potential dangers. But, if I were scared even 10% of the time, I just wouldn’t ride.

    I, too, sometimes hear from people who say that they are too afraid to ride in Manhattan. These people simply do not appreciate how transformative the bike lanes have been. The Manhattan of today is nothing like the Manhattan that formed a person’s perceptions when that person was a kid. Today’s Manhattan is, in U.S. terms, a bicycling wonderland.

    Of course, Manhattan and the rest of New York has a long way to go to qualify for that title by Dutch standards. Some of our bike lanes have serious flaws, and others suffer from lack of maintenance. Also, as you allude to, the utility of many bike lanes is compromised by the absence of enforcement against law-breaking drivers who stop and even park in our lanes.

    I ride in Manhattan because it is pleasant and fun, and because it is the best way to immerse myself in the most interesting parts of the greatest city in the world. An experienced and confident cyclist has the entire island at his or her fingertips. And even beginner cyclists can find plenty of places in Manhattan where they can ride in safety and comfort.

  • Joe R.

    Yes, I wish all helmet discussions were as rational as this one, on both sides. For example, even though Simon is pro-helmet personally, a position I respect, he realizes the potential limitations of helmets, and also that they’re pretty low on the totem pole of things which make cycling safer.

    Interesting that you mentioned airbags. While they’re not a panacea, nor an excuse to ignore reckless driving, at least they fall into the category of personal protection equipment which is somewhat effective and has few or no downsides. The end user doesn’t have to put it on, carry it around, deal with any discomfort it causes, etc. Seat belts for example have two of those three downsides. If we were talking about a PPE built into bikes which was somewhat effective and invisible to the end user until it deployed I likely would have no issues with it. A good example might be the so-called lawyer lips on some bikes. They don’t detract from riding at all and they serve a safety function, albeit one which is only needed if the person putting a wheel back on is incompetent. Unfortunately, no safety device for bikes exists which provides comprehensive crash protection. Given the disparity in mass between bikes and other road vehicles, I don’t such a thing can ever exist.

    That brings us full circle to reckless driving. It seems we tackle problems not in order of importance, but in order of political expedience. It’s easy to push helmets because cyclists are a marginalized group to start with. It’s also a back door way to make cycling seem more dangerous than it is, which in the end benefits motorists if the end result is fewer cyclists on the road. In fact, it’s no coincidence a lot these helmet campaigns can be traced to motorist organizations.

  • Scott Voolker

    There is no question that we tackle in issues in order of political expediency, with absolutely disastrous results. For example, PolitiFact has reported that according to a detailed study of FBI crime statistics, 928 female homicide victims were “wives or intimate acquaintances of their killers” in 2015. By comparison, in 2017, 10,697 females died in traffic fatalities, which is over ten times the number of women who were murdered in domestic violence situations. So if feminists and our policymakers prioritized threats based how much of a risk they represent to the lives of women, they would spend ten times as much effort combating traffic violence as they do fighting intimate partner violence. In reality, traffic deaths are almost completely ignored while even minor incidents of household disturbances are blown way out of proportion.

  • MadCyclistNYC

    I don’t disagree with most of this although maybe our interpretation of what being scared is differs. When someone turns their car into my lane fast enough that the only way to keep them from hitting me is yelling “REAR VIEW” at the top of my lungs and there’s a pretty good chance that same driver will get pissed at me and want to “do something” the appropriate feeling would be to be a little scared, but since it happens multiple times EVERY time I ride I guess I’d be exaggerating if I said it actually scares me each time. I’m more just sick of it and now I ride with my girlfriend so I get scared for her since she has much less experience. And it isn’t just cars, it’s pedestrians and people riding teh wrong way and on scooters and mopeds and wheelchairs the whole city is just chaotic, and honestly I love it too! But if I have to scream at my GF to “TAKE THE LANE” in teh middle of 125 because EVERY asshole is double-parked and it is ALAWYS this way it’s hard to see this as a “wonderland”. It is better than the 80’s when I started riding here. But this city right now is still Mad Max. And I get off on it, so maybe “scared” is wrong. But let’s not lie to the others reading this: it is like this EACH & EVERY time we go out. I almost got clipped YESTERDAY by a COP running a red light. And i KNEW he was gonna do it too. That qualifies as a cycling wonderland? I need a new dictionary.

    I do see all of the city and I love it. But pretending this is safe does nobody any good IMHO.

    Peace from the MadCyclist!

  • Reginald Powe

    Another thing we can do is to utilize fully the lane infrastructure that we have, much of which has inexplicably turned into commercial and private parking zones

  • strangemonkey

    One possible explanation is that more people walk than cycle, I’d venture many magnitudes more of walkers … therefore among them there are more head injuries, especially since they are much, much less likely to be wearing helmets, where most cyclists know it’s kind of a good idea to wear a helmet … I think this could be an example where statistics can mean whatever you want them to mean. Don’t let Joe R. be your role model, if you have any common sense, use it.


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