Instead of Whining About People Who Walk and Bike Breaking the Law, How About Fixing the Problem?

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ New York bike lane

Everybody follows "desire lines" and does what feels natural. But our cities aren't designed for that.

Whenever there is an article about e-bikes in New York, there are a million complaints that the delivery people on them (and a lot of cyclists) always are salmoning (riding against one-way traffic) or riding on the sidewalk. When I recently wrote about the clarification of the rules on e-bikes, it occurred to me that perhaps part of the problem was the design of the city with all of its one-way streets and avenues.

As I noted, the streets are really long, so a driver wanting to go just a block or two might have to go all the way to the next avenue and just to legally travel with traffic in the right direction. This is a very strong disincentive to doing the right thing.

Google map

Google map of new york delivery route/CC BY 2.0

Here is an example; if a delivery guy wants to get from, say, the Pure Thai Cookhouse on 9th to a customer just three blocks north, he has to travel a total of 8 blocks north and south on avenues and two very long blocks on streets. Instead of riding 801 feet north, he has to go a total of 3619 feet.

He wants to go north, because that is what is called the "desire line". But unfortunately, after the Second World War they they made all the avenues one-way so that cars and taxis could race up and down Manhattan, and didn't think about bikes. Who does?

When I mentioned this the tweets started going, complaining that bikes have to follow the rules, that bikes have to act like cars. And in North America, most people think that bikes should follow all the rules as if they are cars, right down to the stop signs on every block. In parts of Europe it is different; Mikael Colville-Andersen tells Fast Company that in Copenhagen, they are treated as "faster pedestrians." A few years ago he also described the problem to Sarah Goodyear of CityLab.

He argues that urban streets need to be refashioned with a humanistic, design-oriented sensibility, not traffic-engineering standards fueled by algorithms that fail to account for human preference and habit. By observing human behavior, following the “desire lines” that people trace in their cities, we can build places that truly serve human needs.

This is not the first time we have had this discussion. I recently noted that people try to avoid pedestrian overpasses designed to keep roads flowing freely for cars, quoting architect Victor Dover:

As transportation planner Jim Charlier once quipped, “The real benefit of pedestrian bridges is to provide shade for the pedestrians that still insist on crossing below them, at ground level.”

Or that Elaine Herzberg was in the road where she was killed by an Uber car because she was following a bike path that ended with a sign saying don't cross here. All these situations are pretty much the same: they are set up to expedite cars and to fail pedestrians and cyclists.

Fifth Avenue with two way traffic

Ephemeral New York: Two way traffic on Fifth Avenue/via

Perhaps, instead of yelling at delivery people and cyclists on the sidewalk, New York City could get rid of the one-way avenues and return them to the way they were 60 years ago; this is being done in a lot of cities now and really improves the street for pedestrians and cyclists alike.

Contraflow bike lane

Bicycle Coalition/ Contraflow bike lane/via

Or they could emulate Montreal, which also is full of one-way streets. They installed contra-flow lanes that go against traffic, because as journalist Christopher DeWolf noted, “Montreal has a lot of one way streets where cyclists ride against the traffic all the time, so this really just legalizes it.”

This isn't a legal problem, it is a design problem.

No. This is not a legal issue, it is fundamentally about bad design. Cyclists don't go through stop signs or ride the wrong way because they are evil law-breakers; neither are most drivers who go over the speed limit. Drivers do it because the roads are designed for cars to go fast, so they go fast. Cyclists go through stop signs because they are there to make cars go slow, not to stop bikes. Delivery people and cyclists salmon or go on the sidewalk because having to go four times as far around 10 blocks is ridiculous.

They do it because these systems were designed for cars. Fix the design so that it works for people and you won't have these problems or these deaths and injuries.