My wife was run over by a rollerblader going the wrong way on a bike path last Friday morning. She was slammed into a puddle and hurt, but fortunately did not suffer serious injury. A few hours later and a few blocks away, my father was wheeling my son in a stroller toward me when he noticed a biker riding the wrong way on a different path. He was able to avoid an accident.
These are obviously the reasons I’m writing about bike and street safety—except they aren’t. I had already decided to write about this the night before, at a neighborhood meeting a few blocks away from the site of both incidents.
The meeting, organized by a political club in Chelsea, was called “Pedestrians & Bikers: Do They Have to Collide?”
It’s not an easy question to answer. You see, I have biked these streets on and off for about 20 years. I’m like many New York City riders: I often don’t wait for green lights. I have also been walking in the city since I learned how and I’m now like many city pedestrians: I often don’t wait for green lights.
I also drive from time to time, and I always wait for green lights. The city would be terrifying if drivers violated the rules of the road as often as bikers and pedestrians do.
It’s scary enough. About 150 city pedestrians a year are killed in auto accidents, as Paul Steely White, executive director of the cycling advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, told the meeting’s attendees, mostly senior citizens. Bike-related pedestrian deaths rarely happen, about once every two or three years, White added.
“Someone with a two-ton SUV might have more responsibility than a bicyclist,” White said. “That’s not to say a bicyclist doesn’t also have responsibility.”
The audience, though mostly civil, was not in a mood to shift their anger from bikers to drivers. “They’re a menace—they’re a pest,” said one of cyclists.
Many want to require bikers to register their vehicles like drivers. White thinks it’s problematic for many reasons: the NYPD does not want the added enforcement burden, bike license plates would be too small to have the desired deterrent effect and it would discourage people from starting to bike.
The explosion of bike lanes in the city has doubled the number of riders in10 years, White said, yet total cycling injuries have actually gone down, an indication that the lanes have encouraged bikers to ride safer.
Reported accidents with pedestrians, bikers and drivers have also been reduced on streets with bike lanes, according to the city. It could mean overall accidents are down, but it’s hard to know for sure. Many mishaps like my wife’s don’t get reported.
White, for his part, wants to see riders like me get ticketed. I’m sure anti-biker readers out there agree. They may never have gotten past my admission of violations.
Obeying the rules and riding safely are important, but it’s possible to do one without the other. Bikers are not required to slow down if they see a cluster of pedestrians on a sidewalk—it’s a good bet at least one walker will step in the street without looking—but it’s smart to slow down anyway. When I blow a light, I go very slowly and look every way to make sure it’s safe. I see many riders do the same thing.
In all my years of riding, I have hit pedestrians twice. Both times, they were jaywalkers crossing at midblock. One woman was dodging between stalled traffic on 34th Street when she stepped in front of me. The other time, a man was looking in the wrong direction when he stepped into a bike lane and me, knocking both of us to the ground. Fortunately, no one was hurt either time.
White acknowledges there is “rampant lawlessness” among bikers and pedestrians, but he doesn’t say they do it more often than city drivers, who often go faster than 30 miles per hour.
“Most New Yorkers don’t know what the speed limit is,” he said. “Can we start there?”
Josh Rogers, contributing editor at Manhattan Media, is a lifelong New Yorker.
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