Cycling in New York City Has Taken a Depressing Turn for the Worse

CC BY 2.0. A nice clean New York bike lane; at least this one is protected by the Police/ Lloyd Alter

This city used to be a model for the future of biking in North America. Now it is just a deadly mess.

Visiting New York City and riding a bike used to be a so exciting. It had real bike lanes! Citibikes! Janette Sadik-Kahn! Every time I visited, there was something new and wonderful.

This year, visiting for the North American Passive House Network conference, was a very different experience. There is a different feel to the city. The main reason is probably the sheer number of people killed while riding, two just while I was there and fifteen so far this year, compared to ten in all of 2018.

The most recent death (at time of writing) was a 28-year-old woman, hit by the driver of a ready mix concrete truck. The owner of the truck complains in the Daily News: “Too many bikes, too many bikes on the road.” He doesn't mention that his driver was not on a truck route.

Nobody mentions that the design of the Mack truck (see here in the Daily News) makes it almost impossible for the driver to see anyone in front, given the height of the truck and the length of the hood. Local residents do mention that the truck was going very fast, as drivers of concrete trucks are wont to do; they are on a tight schedule. Really, these kinds of trucks should not be allowed on urban streets, especially when there are safer alternatives.

What happens when 2nd Avenue bike lane turns to sharrows

What happens when 2nd Avenue bike lane turns to sharrows/ Google street view/Screen capture

So many of these deaths are due to bad design – of the roads, designed to carry a lot of cars as fast as possible, and of the vehicles, where the safety of people who walk or bike is an afterthought. Or even the bike lanes. Yesterday I rode in the so-called Second Avenue bike lane from 96th down to Delancey Street. I was forced out into traffic half a dozen times by parked cars, dumpsters and construction equipment. The lane would just stop and turn into killer "sharrows" and then disappear as two lanes of traffic would turn in front of me with no warning, nowhere to go. It is no wonder that people are afraid to ride bikes.

The Mayor of New York doesn't get this. Doug Gordon writes in the Daily News:

The mayor needs to get over his resistance to seeing cycling as a legitimate form of transportation on par with or even superior to driving, especially when reducing carbon emissions is a stated policy goal of his administration. Bicycles are the future of cities and, as such, smart city leaders need to embrace safe streets for cycling. How many more people should die before this inevitable reality arrives? Let’s hope the mayor agrees that the answer is zero.

But wait, after the latest death, he has finally said he is going to do something.

But then it is all about enforcement, not design, and the NYPD is notorious for going after cyclists, not drivers. As Patrick Redford noted in a long, thoughtful article in Deadspin, this is what happens after a death of a cyclist:

The police express nominal remorse, while reminding the public that the cyclist could still be alive if they had followed all the rules, if they had stayed in the bike lane, if they had protected themselves better. Sometimes, they follow that up with a brief, quixotic show of force by cracking down on all possible bicycling violations near the crash site. Better living through enforcement. Local politicians offer their condolences, and sometimes they even protect the lane where the rider died.

Yes, it usually takes a death or two to get a bike lane, although sometimes even that doesn't work, especially when they are historic parking spaces.

Like so many other North American cities (like Toronto, where I live), Vision Zero is worse than a joke. Drivers must not be inconvenienced, lanes must not be removed, parking is sacred. Bike lanes, when we get them, quickly become Fedex and UPS and I-am-just-running-in-for-a-moment short term parking lanes. A few dead cyclists appear to be little more than a cost of doing business.

Meanwhile, and of far less importance, when I fired up my Citibike app and rented a bike for my journey downtown, the seat was so high that I couldn't reach the pedals, and the cam holding it jammed so tightly that I could not undo it. I put the bike back into the rack and pressed the broken bike button, and took another bike. Then I see that I got charged $3.27 for the broken bike as well as the one I took; even the Citibike system that I have so admired took my money and didn't deliver .

A few years ago, New York was where you came to see the future of urban cycling. Now, all you hear about are deaths and injuries, and all you see are blocked bike lanes and busted bikes. It is so depressing.