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.

  • Josef Szende

    Why doesn’t this say “By Ellen McDermott”?

  • To be honest, this kind of rhetoric about the scary New York streets doesn’t help in bicycle advocacy.

    Of course we want bike lanes wherever we can get them. In a perfect world, they’d be on every street. But we do not live in a perfect world; in this highly imperfect world, we will never have bike lanes on every street. Therefore, every bike trip will necessarily involve riding on some streets that have no bike lanes; in other words: riding a bike inherently involves doing some degree of mixing with cars.

    Leaders and advocates should be talking in terms of the good that bike lanes do in the aggregate. Each bike lane makes the street that it is on better; but the benefit of bike lanes extends to all streets, because bike lanes in the aggregate serve as a reminder to drivers that we bicyclists exist. Speaking as someone who first rode in Manhattan in 1981, I can say that conditions in New York City’s most crowded borough are much better now. Manhattan, which back then was a jungle and a very intimidating place to ride, has become my very favourite place to ride.

    It is definitely true that women face additional issues in the form of constant sexualised street harassment, and that this can serve as a disincentive to ride. But the question of arriving at a destination (presumably one’s job) in a sweaty state should not even be mentioned. The simple fix is to carry a change of clothes. Anyone of any gender can make a quick change upon arrival at the office.

    Most fundamentally, the message to the public should never be that biking in New York is terrible and scary. The message should be that biking in New York is wonderful, in fact the best it has ever been, but that it must continue to get better.

  • Zach Katz

    > in this highly imperfect world, we will never have bike lanes on every street.

    What you see as realism, I see as cynicism that’s holding us back.

  • Joe R.

    A better message might be that biking in Manhattan, versus most of Queens, is simply less pleasant, the presence of the bike lanes on the avenues notwithstanding. That’s the reality. Generally, congestion forces cars to fairly low speeds in Manhattan for much of the day. They’re less a danger to cyclists than they might be on a Queens arterial where traffic is moving at 45 mph. But the crowded conditions in Manhattan, the need to constantly scan for obstacles, plus the traffic signals every 250 feet, make for extremely slow, unpleasant riding. The way to fix both is to reduce the levels of motor traffic there drastically. Bike lanes are at best a bandaid.

    In a perfect world motor traffic would be so light we wouldn’t even need separate bike lanes.

  • Well, I’d certainly love to see bike lanes on every single Manhattan street. I just cannot imagine it; and I think it’s better to push for as many bike lanes as possible, while also becoming comfortable with riding on non-bike-laned streets.

  • Joe R.

    Major arterials are where bike lanes do the most good. Those are often the most direct routes but at the same time the most dangerous for cyclists. I’d also like to see every limited access highway in NYC paralleled by a similar non-stop bikeway. However, we don’t need bike lanes on every little shitty side street. I’d rather we expend the political capital getting bike infrastructure where it does the most good. Even in the Netherlands the majority of the bike network is low-speed streets shared with motorists.

  • hshiau

    they’re ticketing bicyclists on 55th and Broadway and on 33rd and Eighth. it seems that the police tend to, more often than not, ticket on streets with protected bike lanes. this actually disincentivizes bicyclists from using those protected bike lanes

  • Dulcie Canton

    “The simple fix is to carry a change of clothes. Anyone of any gender can make a quick change upon arrival at the office”

    Women and men are treated very differently in the workforce when it comes to our appearances. I’m a Black woman who bikes 90% of the year and I wear my hair natural and cut short, I carry a pick with me at all times, take my helmet off, pick my hair out and I’m done. I’m privileged to be able to work in a business casual work environment that accommodates me. Some Black women work in professions where the dress code is stricter perhaps they chemically straighten their hair SO in addition to a change of wardrobe special care must be taken to sort out their hair after biking to work, bike commuting may not be an option they would consider.Thankfully, when I first went to ride with Black Girls Do Bike, our ride lead gave pointers and tips to help with helmet hair. At one point I had two helmets, one for when I wore a little afro and another to accomodate big box braids.

  • Joe R.

    Not wearing a helmet is an even better option. That’s exactly what they do in the great cycling countries. If we want to mainstream cycling, it should be seen as an everyday activity for which no special equipment beyond the bike is required.

    And for full disclosure, I don’t wear a helmet myself, and never have in over 40 years of riding.

  • Joe R.

    That’s actually the reason I wouldn’t even consider riding in Manhattan, or nearby areas like LIC, for now.

  • Zach Katz

    I can imagine a bike lane on every street in Manhattan

    Your imagination is the limit

  • Elizabeth F

    Why does she deal with an extra 14 blocks of Second Ave, instead of accessing the East River Greenway at 34th St (where I have accessed it a zillion times), or even 37th St (according to the map)? 39th and 40th St. are designated crosstown bike routes to get to 2nd and 1st Ave, Lexington Ave offers nothing for bikes.

    This makes me wonder whether people don’t feel safe biking because they aren’t aware of the best bike routes to get where they need to go. Google Maps isn’t that hard to use, is it?

    That said, we still need to fill the gap on 2nd Ave; and extend its protected bike lane uptown to match with 1st Ave.

    Another approach to these issues is to actively promote the use of electric bicycles. They allow even novice bikers to easily travel at or above the speed of Manhattan traffic. And they address the “arrive sweaty at work” issue as well.

    > “The simple fix is to carry a change of clothes. Anyone of any gender can make a quick change upon arrival at the office”

    If the director of Transportation Alternatives feels she cannot arrive sweaty at work, or change clothes, then what hope do we have? Bike advocacy organizations should be on the forefront of the cultural change that’s needed here.

  • Thank you for mentioning the point about the hair. That is an issue that white men do not face in general (and that I do not face at all).

    But the article mentioned sweaty clothes; and I think my point stands about the changing. No one is expected to work in sweaty bike clothes.

  • I strongly suggest that no one follow this advice.

  • Boro Biker

    Good thing NYC has a focused new bike advocacy organization coming online under the leadership of Jon Orcutt. Seems like T.A. has kind of given up.

  • Joe R.

    In your lengthy post earlier you’re rightly chiding the rhetoric in this article which suggests riding is too dangerous. The idea that a helmet is needed to ride a bike in NYC sends exactly the same message, even if you’re too blind to see it. Tell me this, if helmets are really necessary for safety then why isn’t the death rate for cycling in the Netherlands some multiple of that in the states? After all, more than 99% of the riders there don’t wear helmets. And also tell me why we suggest helmets only for cycling when you’re statistically 1 to 2 times more likely to incur a head injury while walking?

    I’ve studied all sorts of PPEs (personal protective equipment). To justify the use of a PPE, you need two criteria. One, the type of injury it’s protecting against needs to be likely enough to occur to justify the expense and any possible other downsides of using the PPE. Head injury, in fact any injury beyond minor scrapes and bruises, is highly unlikely while cyclist. It’s certainly no more likely than when walking, an activity for which we deem helmets unnecessary. Therefore, bike helmets fail at test one. Two, the PPE needs to actually be effective against the type of injury you’re protecting against. The design of bike helmets precludes their effectiveness for anything beyond falling off a stationary bicycle. Even then, the results are at best inconclusive. Therefore, test two fails also.

    Of course, we here in the states think we know better than those in the great cycling countries. Your view of bicycle helmets is typical American exceptionalism.

  • Come on, now. You seriously expect to have bike lanes on every street?

    I mean, that’s how it should be. But if a person refuses to ride until this lofty goal is achieved, well, the result is going to be that that person is going to lose a lot of time waiting for this ideal state to come about. It’s better to develop the skills to deal with real-world conditions. Please note that this in no way precludes the advocacy for more and better bike lanes!

    And it’s not like we’re suffering here! Our City has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past decade and a half. We have more than a thousand miles’ worth of bike lanes, the majority in Manhattan. A cyclist can get anywhere in Manhattan, and be in bike-laned comfort for a good portion of the trip. If someone had told me this on my first trip to Manhattan in 1981, I absolutely would not have believed it.

    The fact is that New York City has become one of the very best bike cities in the country. Of course, is not yet up to the standard of Dutch cities. So let’s fight to bring it up to that Dutch standard. But let’s not fail to enjoy the wonderful conditions that we currently have.

  • Zach Katz

    >You seriously expect to have bike lanes on every street?

    YES! On EVERY SINGLE major street, and MOST minor streets.

  • I understand the sweating thing but you can always slow down your pedaling. Also gearing (which admittedly is somewhat out of fashion on bikes these days) helps you to use less effort–not just on hills but accelerating from a dead stop.

    Also I have sweated plenty of times while riding the subway, even in the winter. Have also sweated while walking in a hurry. I always prefer the bike over walking. Not because I am so progressive or whatever, but because I am lazy! I thought that biking (at a moderate speed) required less energy. Maybe I am just more laid back than most bicycle riders (I am almost never out of the saddle). Or maybe I just don’t understand physics properly. See I always thought that the bicycle uses more mechanical advantage, or some shit like that.

  • Good observation. Other than having to cross that extremely dark pedestrian underpass at the FDR where all the homeless people campout, 36th st. is a pretty nice way to get over to the greenway.

  • Joe R.

    Also, you have a cooling breeze that you don’t have while walking, which means less sweating for any given power output. I’ve found on really hot days I sweat more walking than I do riding at any speed less than about 15 mph (I consider that a “laid back” speed). Of course, I can work up to speeds where I come home soaked, despite the air flow to cool me, but that’s purely because I’m getting a work out. If I had some place to be where I needed to arrive as non-sweaty as possible, I would keep my speed under 15 mph on the hottest days.

    For at least 7 to 8 months of the year in NYC sweating is a non-issue anyway.

  • “This makes me wonder whether people don’t feel safe biking because they aren’t aware of the best bike routes to get where they need to go.”

    If New York wants to be truly bike friendly, it can’t rely on people needing to know where the best bike routes are or count on them to use Google maps. As many streets as possible simply have to be comfortable for riding so that people can do it and THEN pick the routes that work best for them. Anytime I’ve traveled in a bike-friendly city, I’ve always felt as if I could just ride and then stop along the way to figure out where I wanted to go. New York should aim for that.

  • MatthewEH

    My first trip to Munich was an eye-opener in that regard, yes.

    “Oh, there isn’t really a special bike map for the city, no. Just use the road that gets you where you want to go.”

  • My general sense is that if riding a bike in your city depends on people having experience, prior knowledge of where the “good” bike lanes are, or an attitude that “cyclists can just” (as in, “Cyclists can just go over two blocks and take the real bike lane that’s more direct”) then your city is doing it wrong.

    DOT falls victim to this mindset sometimes. When there’s a bike lane closure or a repaving, they leave no signs or suggestions for alternate routes. I guess they assume “cyclists can just” figure it out. Not great for people who aren’t like you, me, or I’d imagine most of the commenters on Streetsblog!

  • Scott Voolker

    As someone who also doesn’t usually wear a helmet, I find your comment interesting. My view has been that while wearing a helmet might be slightly safer overall since helmets can protect one’s head in certain types of collisions, the reduction in risk is quite small. Most people do not have the capability to make a holistic evaluation of all of the different types of risks that they take on in all of the varied activities that they engage in. Can you tell us more about the studies that you have done?

  • Joe R.

    I didn’t do any studies but I’ve looked at lots of studies. The best site for unbiased information on helmets is

    Back in 2013 I was among several people who wrote letters to the CDC which resulted in the removal of their claim for 85% effectiveness of bike helmets. One metastudy which was used to refute this is Publication bias and time-trend bias in meta-analysis of bicycle helmet efficacy: A re-analysis of Attewell, Glase and McFadden, 2001 .

    I agree most people can’t make a holistic evaluation of risks and that’s fine. That’s why I think cycling advocacy organizations and governments should remain neutral on helmet use. I never tell people to not wear a helmet because I don’t. I explain what I know, and let them decide. If wearing a helmet is the only thing which makes someone comfortable enough to ride a bike, that’s fine with me. I just want more people riding, helmeted or not. That will increase bike safety though safety in numbers and building the advocacy base for better bicycle infrastructure, which in the end is the only proven way to dramatically increase safety.

    The results of a 1996 Australian study on the relative risk of head injury are as follows:

    Risk of head injury per million hours traveled
    Cyclist: 0.41
    Pedestrian: 0.80
    Motor vehicle occupant: 0.46
    Motorcyclist: 7.66

    I’ve seen other studies which put the relative head injury risk of cycling and walking at roughly the same.

    This is a good link on brain injury for Dutch cyclists:

    The most important takaway from the article is “To summarize, deaths due to head injuries while cycling are not a major public health issue and should not be treated as such. Helmets are not the answer to cyclist deaths. Good infrastructure is what makes cycling safer.”

  • macartney

    I love this piece, Ellen! It’s a reminder that our work should be focused on re-making streets for everyone–not just for cars and not just for super confident Mamils. Second Avenue mixing zones are the bane of my existence–and I’m a confident rider! The work continues… and I’m glad to have you alongside all of us.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    The East River Greenway is pretty bad and everything north of Riverfront Plaza is very far from a low-stress bike facility.

    The cultural change that’s needed here is making it so everyone can cycle without stress and without having to rush. Dissemination of tips for riding in today’s poor circumstances are good but are never going to lead to a large increase in cycling mode share.

  • Daphna

    Zach is right. There could be a bike lane on every single street. There could even be a curbside protected bike land on every single street. Streets citywide could be re-designed with completely different priorities starting with wider sidewalks, curbside bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes, commercial loading/unloading, expensive paid parking. Many streets would be commercial vehicles only; we would not have any streets that are private vehicles only (as we now have many of). No parking placards for anyone. Everyone who wants curbside parking pays for it and that is enforced. Bus lanes would be separated from regular traffic and enforced. It could be done. It just takes political leadership and will.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    If you expect Jon Orcutt to pretend that everyone should feel comfortable riding on our existing bike network I think you’re going to be disappointed.

  • Daphna

    Advocacy needs to be positive. It needs to make people want to get involved. It needs to continually highlight the good aspects of cycling. The Biking Rules campaign that Carolyn Samponaro dreamed up while she was at Transportation Alternatives was TERRIBLE; it focused on tearing the cycling community apart and pointing fingers at each other and scolding each other. As a result of poor campaigns, TA in 10 years during a huge cycling boon only grew their membership from 8,000 to 11,000. TA should never have waded into the discussion of cyclist behavior because that was never the true reason why there was pushback against cycling and cycling infrastructure. The advocacy should have simply continually promoted the good aspects of cycling that exist that benefit both the rider and everyone in the city around them.

  • It seems to be true that the bicycle is the most efficient machine ever made. I ride slowly during the summer to preserve my energy and hydration, using granny gears (not ashamed!) and coasting as much as possible. Still makes shopping by bike easier than walking and transit. I even read once that, essentially, it’s multiples more efficient to keep a bike in motion than to accelerate every time you have to stop for, say, a red light.

    Can’t pinpoint all the reasons people want to ride faster though, or whether that’s even just an assumption of mine, honestly. A notion out there like “cycling takes a lot of physical effort!” I mean I like to ride fast sometimes, just because it’s satisfying. But there’s also the constant pressure coming from behind when riding with traffic. And trying to beat the yellow light in a system designed for motor vehicles.

  • What I’m getting from this is: if cyclists make decisions not everyone agrees with, should the focus be on why they’re doing so and what is missing to allow them to do the same the best way possible, rather than show them what they’re supposed to do in the current system (which isn’t really designed for them in the first place)?

  • qrt145

    We could, but why? Not every street needs a bike lane. Look at the Netherlands where some streets don’t even have a sidewalks and work well! A bike lane is just a tool, and is justified when traffic volumes and speeds reach a certain level. Does this street need a bike lane?

  • To be fair, it’s not exactly about the bike lanes. At the root, bike lanes are simply a way for people to participate in a car-centric system on their bikes. To zoom out to the bigger picture, car-dependency, and land uses that make driving the most attractive option, are the real monsters to tackle.

    Back to the point, sure, some streets work without bike lanes. Cyclists safely mix with drivers on well-designed low-volume streets; others are pedestrianized such that it isn’t even a through-route for cyclists. We just haven’t learned how to properly apply these yet.

    Ultimately, the real goal here is not specifically that every street should have a bike lane, but that any person should have easy and safe access to the entire city, should they want to use a bicycle. (I would add “walking” as well; nothing better than not depending on anything other than your feet to get to a myriad of resources that are nearby.)

  • Joe R.

    The numbers for staying in motion versus stopping and accelerating are interesting. For example, it might take 125 watts to keep a bike in motion at 15 mph. If we assume the bike plus rider weighs 200 pounds, the kinetic energy at 15 mph is ~800 joules, or the equivalent of riding for ~6.5 seconds at 15 mph. Or put in layman’s terms, having to start and stop once is equivalent to riding about 50 yards if your cruising speed is 15 mph. If you’re compelled to stop every 3 blocks because of poor traffic signal timing, that’s like riding an extra 1000 feet every mile.

    And then there’s several additional factors. Each time you stop and wait, that means you hit more red lights than you would just trying to stay in motion. In a situation where riding legally might compel you to stop and wait every 3 blocks, if you do Idaho stops you might only need to slow down for red lights every 5 or 6 blocks, perhaps more. There are also the physiological issues. Any cyclist uses more effort while accelerating than while cruising. How much more depends upon how rapidly they want to get back up to speed. Poor light timing compels you to jackrabbit after every red light as you’ll hit fewer lights riding like that. Unfortunately, these full-power bursts are taxing to muscles. You can develop leg cramps from repeated starts and stops, or even worse get long-term injuries. In terms of effect on your body, each stop is actually far worse than the 50 yard penalty mentioned earlier. I find if I have to do frequent stops, that essentially cuts my range in half.

    So yes, there are lots of reasons people tend to ride faster, but often trying make lights is one big factor. In a world where bike routes had few or no traffic signals, a person could ride at whatever speed they find comfortable.

  • I want you to take a moment to think about what you’re asking for.

    At the root, bike lanes are simply a way for people to participate in a car-centric system on their bikes. Do you want everyone confined to eight feet strips on every single street? During an ongoing debate about to whom the streets belong to?

    Streets aren’t one-size-fits-all, either. Some streets work without bike lanes. Cyclists safely mix with drivers on well-designed very low-volume streets; others are pedestrianized such that it isn’t even a through-route for cyclists. We just haven’t learned how to properly apply these yet. Obviously this doesn’t apply to arterials.

    Ultimately — I guess I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but the real ask is: every person should have easy and safe access to the entire city, should they want to use a bicycle. (I would add “walking” as well; nothing better than not depending on anything other than your feet to get to a myriad of resources that are nearby.) That doesn’t necessarily mean every street has to have a bike lane. It could mean restricting cars so drivers and cyclists can coexist without bike lanes, or banning cars entirely so people on and off bikes can coexist.

    To zoom out to the bigger picture, car-dependency, and land uses that make driving the most attractive option, are the real monsters to tackle. How ’bout a city that is practical for cycling and walking, where driving is not the best option? It would then be a limit to my imagination to stop at bike lanes.

  • Joe R.

    One thing we should ask is does adding a bike lane make things better or worse for cyclists? The answer is “it depends”. On a lot of major arterials, if the choice is mixing it up with cars versus riding in a 4 or 5 foot strip along the gutter, I’ll take the former. A good protected bike lane should serve ALL cyclists. That includes those riding up to the speed limit, whatever that limit is. A protected lane which isn’t safe to use over 10 or 15 mph is a downgrade for cyclists, not an improvement, even if some in the livable streets movement see the forced slower speeds as a “feature” instead of a bug. Unfortunately, until fairly recently DOT seemed to think safety was the only thing important for cyclists. There was an article here a few weeks ago where a cyclist mentioned to DOT that he took a different, but more dangerous route, because it was faster. This seemed to take them by surprise. And yet in the Netherlands travel time is second only to safety when designing bike routes. They’ve even gone so far as to systematically remove traffic signals from bike routes (except those used to give priority to cyclists), and installed expensive overpasses/underpasses to bypass busy intersections with long wait times. NYC DOT has to start thinking this way, also. In a lot of cases the better solution on a lot of low traffic streets is no bike lane, but systematically removing traffic signals and stop signs.

  • On my way to Manhattan, I don’t use Skillman Avenue. I stay on Queens Boulevard. It’s more direct and there’s a downhill; I can more easily keep up with traffic. Undoubtedly faster for me. 😛

  • Joe R.

    Funny you mentioned that because I’ve done the same the rare times I’ve ridden to LIC. That part of Queens Boulevard is actually fun. With the downhill I’m usually going around 25 mph, more with a tailwind. That lets me keep up with both the traffic and the signal timing.

  • Daphna

    Every street needs to be looked at for what is needed. Some streets need wider sidewalks, some need bike lanes, some need bus lanes, some need commercial loading zones, some need to be pedestrianized. What I am saying is that all of these priorities should come ahead of travel lanes for private cars, ahead of free/cheap on street car storage, and ahead of allowing space for double parking. The streets could be radically changed instead of incrementally changed.

  • Maggie

    This piece captures REALLY well how I feel about biking on NYC’s unsafe streets. It’s just not worth the stress sometimes. And it’s tough to watch the glacial, ultra-cautious pace of building momentum for new bike lane segments inch by inch, and then consider that against the actual pace that our planet’s glaciers are melting. We need to do much more to shift trips out of SOVs. While some good progress has happened over the last ten years, if we don’t see a step-change in urgency, we are fucked. Ydanis Rodriguez is definitely on the right track with his bold goals.

  • Simon Phearson

    The problem with your argument here is that, while it might indeed be sound to de-emphasize helmet-wearing as a matter of policy – instead favoring better street designs and increasing modeshare as key ways to improve cycling safety – on an individual level, the statistics are largely meaningless.

    I mean – you state that “head injury … is highly unlikely while cycling.” Yet I’ve had two serious crashes on my bike that were serious precisely because I hit some part of my head. And in two of the major crashes I’ve been in, I can cite the involvement of my helmet as possibly the reason I wasn’t more seriously injured, and in one of them, the lack of a helmet was probably part of the reason I was seriously injured.

    Am I exceptional? I may well be. But I always wear a helmet, nowadays. Especially while the streets continue to be a jungle. If I take a spill while descending the QB bridge path, I might break a shoulder, an arm, maybe even a leg. A helmet won’t protect me from a concussion at those speeds. But it may prevent, say, my nasal bone from impaling my brain.

  • Simon Phearson

    Here’s an heuristic: a street needs a sidewalk, it needs a bike lane.

  • Simon Phearson

    Gosh, I’m shocked that the DOT’s suggested routing for people biking into the city from the Queens Boulevard lanes – detouring up to Skillman – doesn’t seem to actually be appealing…

    The Skillman lane, if it serves anyone well, is probably more for Jackson Heights commuters than anyone coming up Queens Boulevard. Because their only real alternative to the bridge is Northern, which… yeah.

  • Joe R.

    I’m really leaning on the side of saying you’re exceptional here because of all the people I know who have ridden, only one person hit their head in a fall. That same person claims their helmet prevented the hit from being more serious, but without duplicating the incident that’s impossible to answer.

    When this subject comes up I’ve mentioned how to fall properly a number of times. I’ve often been countered with “but what if something just happens which you don’t see coming?”. Oddly enough, exactly that happened last October. That was my first fall in over 22 years. My front wheel got stuck in a crack in a concrete bus stop. Unfortunately, between the size of the crack, and the lighting, I just didn’t see it. In retrospect I should have just ridden on the asphalt, not knowing what condition the bus stop was in. Asphalt can have defects, of course, but those which can send you down tend to be large enough to notice, even at night. Anyway, one second I’m riding, next I’m going down. And despite having zero warning, I still hit the ground with my arms outstretched to protect my head. The actual injuries were road rash/bruising on my left knee, and a hurt right wrist. I’d say it took 2 or 3 weeks to fully recover, although nothing was even remotely incapacitating. No idea how close my head came to the ground, but it’s remotely possible if I had been wearing a helmet the helmet may have hit the ground, and the friction could have caused neck injuries (nnd there are documented cases of a helmet turning what would have been minor abrasions at worst into a broken neck). This is all the more likely given the fairly low speed (~11 mph) I had been riding before the crash because it was the end of an upgrade. There would have been more “stiction” between the helmet and the ground, as opposed to at higher speeds where sliding would occur. So here there was no upside to having a helmet, but possibly a lot of downside.

    A helmet won’t protect me from a concussion at those speeds. But it may prevent, say, my nasal bone from impaling my brain.

    Here’s what the pros have to say on this, and they’re the ones who get involved in crashes often enough to know what helps and what doesn’t. Basically, they wear helmets for three reasons, in order of importance. One, the UCI says they have to (and there’s a movement to overturn that rule). Two, better aerodynamics, especially time trial helmets. Three, the helmet will mitigate serious head abrasions in a fall and enable them to get back on the bike without major medical attention. No pro thinks helmets can prevent life-changing injury or death, especially at race speeds. In a high-speed crash where you hit you head, there will likely be multiple hits. The first hit will probably shatter the helmet, thus making it worthless for subsequent hits. If you’re lucky enough to only have one hit, maybe a helmet will prevent your nasal bone from impaling your brain but by design that’s unlikely. Remember the only thing absorbing that type of impact is the little bit of helmet overhanging your forehead. That’s not enough to significantly retard a face-first impact. Bike helmets are designed for endovers, where the top of your head is what hits the pavement (or a stationary object on the street). That’s why crashes where they’re effective are exceedingly rare.

    I’ve said a number of times crash prevention via better infrastructure and bike designs is the only thing which can really prevent injuries. Sadly, there is no effective protection for cyclists in the types of crashes most likely to kill or injure them. That said, I really wish recumbent bikes had become mainstream. It’s just an inherently safer design. Put a shell and roll cage around one, as in a velomobile, and it’s safer still.

  • Simon Phearson

    Ah, so – discount the reports of people who have hit their head, exaggerate the relevance of high-end pro cyclists. Seeing what you did there.

    I appreciate your advice to “fall better,” but this isn’t any less silly, from the perspective of policy, than trying to get helmets on all cyclists. I’ll straightforwardly acknowledge that two of my major crashes were the product of user error, notwithstanding my years and miles of experience.

    As it happens, the crash that may have killed me was an “endover,” where I went over the handlebars of my bike and faceplanted into the ground. I suspect the helmet saved me from a more serious brain injury because (i) the front of the helmet was shorn off by the crash and (ii) the ENT, looking at the x-ray of my broken nose, thought that a little more force might have shoved the nasal bone into my brain. Feel free to dismiss the speculative value of this anecdotal evidence. It’s clear you’re not going to be dissuaded from your ends-oriented reasoning.

    I will fundamentally agree that systemic fixes, and not helmets, are the empirically proven way to protect cyclists. But, again, just because the statistics don’t justify a bike helmet-wearing policy, this doesn’t mean any individual cyclist is better advised to go without. And your argument that they are better off without helmets is notably based on a lot of speculation and hand-waving about possible mechanisms of injury. Where’s your data?

  • Joe R.

    Just to be clear, my stance on helmets is neutral. I don’t think governments or advocacy groups should tell cyclists to wear helmets (or tell them to not wear them). I do much the same when asked about the subject. I just point people at the data, the injury mechanisms, the design of bike helmets, and tell them to make up their own minds. If wearing a helmet is the only thing which will get someone on a bike, I’m fine with that. But compulsory helmet laws, even for children, are something I will oppose vehemently. I won’t even argue that helmets won’t prevent some injuries, perhaps even save a few lives, particularly among children. However, you have to look at these things from a holistic perspective. Mandatory helmet laws discourage riding. When you look at the resulting long-term benefits of riding versus the benefits of helmet wearing, the former outweighs the latter by such a large factor it isn’t even funny. For example, if mandatory helmet laws discourage even 25% from riding, the resulting inactivity will kill a few orders of magnitude more people than the helmets will save in those who continue riding. That’s why wearing a helmet has to remain both non-compulsory and non-coercive.

    As for data, here’s a good read on the subject (I linked to it in another post but I’m reposting the link here in case you missed it):

    “To summarize, deaths due to head injuries while cycling are not a major public health issue and should not be treated as such. “

    That in a nutshell is exactly why I take the stance I do. Remember, head injuries per hour of exposure while walking are at least as common as while cycling, yet nobody suggests walking helmets. That’s the paradox which bothers me. If there’s a certain threshold above which you consider head injury likely enough to merit wearing protection, then you should consistently apply that protection no matter the activity. That would also mean helmets while riding in automobiles, given the numbers. And yet we single out cycling. Why is that? I haven’t yet heard a good answer from anyone. Even Ferdinand has repeatedly dodged that question whenever I bring it up.

    Here’s the data:

    Risk of head injury per million hours traveled
    Cyclist: 0.41
    Pedestrian: 0.80
    Motor vehicle occupant: 0.46
    Motorcyclist: 7.66

    To a layperson looking at this data, it’s obvious motorcyclists will benefit greatly from some protection as their risk is over an order of magnitude greater than other common activities. However, cycling is actually the lowest number on the list. There’s nothing here telling me we need to push helmets on cyclists. The societal stance should be the same as it is for walking or riding in automobiles, namely neutral. The individual stance can be different. An individual may have had more head injuries while cycling than doing anything else, and come to the conclusion wearing a helmet is worthwhile. That’s fine. I’m all for free choices.

  • To be fair, Skillman Avenue isn’t in the middle of nowhere. That’s where people live, who deserve a bikeway (and a calmed road) by their front doors. There’s also a few small businesses, a school, and a park. I definitely welcome the Skillman & 43rd bike lanes, and redundancies in the bikeway network is part of excellent infrastructure that gets people riding. Also, like you said, it serves Jackson Heights commuters.

    I just disagree with it being the definitive connection between Queens Blvd and Queens Plaza; it’s not direct. Plus, Queens Blvd itself is a retail corridor ? and a route to more schools.

  • Simon Phearson

    I don’t disagree at all. Not just Sunnysiders deserve calmer streets, but so does everyone else who commutes through that neighborhood. I’m just saying that it’s on the books as the link cyclists are expected to take when they come in from or go to Queens Boulevard, therefore obviating the need for any protections on Queen Boulevard between the bridge greenway and about 49th Street. We’re never going to see further work on that bit, now.

    My main complaint about the Skillman lanes are the mixing zones. The bit along the railyard is a significant improvement, but the parkers along the railyard are an issue – I have had a number of close calls with completely oblivious pedestrians walking from their cars to the pay machines, no matter how loud I am. I’m not sure how you fix that. Take out the parking?


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