New York looks to Europe to solve urban cycling nightmare

NYC's infamous reputation for traffic undermined by new bike policy

by Tom Henry   June 2, 2009  

NYC cycling.jpg

If you think that cycling in London, Glasgow or Birmingham is akin to taking your life in your hands, riding around the UK's big cities might seem like a stroll in the park compared to a two-wheeled cruise at rush-hour down Fifth Avenue, New York City.

For years, NYC cyclists have had to put up with some of the densest traffic – and the angriest, horn-hammering drivers – in the world. But those days could be numbered thanks to the city’s Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) which has experimented with cycle lane schemes pinched directly from the most cycling-friendly cities in Europe.

And, against the odds, the strategy seems to be working. Last year, NYC had an extraordinary 35 per cent increase in commuter cycling as once-nervous citizens took to their bikes and explored around 600 miles of bike lanes, paths and trails.

The city’s famous ‘grid’ road system lent itself to some unique problems for NYCDOT.

“There are different kinds of streets and the design guidelines don’t give you any help,” said Joshua Benson, Acting Director of Bicycle & Pedestrian Programmes.

“In Manhattan, where there are a lot of one way streets with five or six lanes of intense traffic levels, it’s not possible to bike safely with a striped roadway, especially with high demand for kerbside access for deliveries, loading and parking.”

Instead, the planners looked at cities like Copenhagen and created buffered bike lanes that separate cyclists from traffic, constructed shared lanes and bike boxes.

On-street bike paths, green coloured bike lanes that make paths more visible to motorists, and wider parking lanes were established to make cycling more enjoyable and safer for commuters.

Nine out of ten NYC cyclist fatalities occur in intersections. But new left-turn bays and intersection markings have reduced cycling accidents by telling cyclists where they should be as they proceed through an intersection as well as alerting motorists when a cyclist will be making a left-turn or advancing through a crossway.

The biggest headache facing cyclists in the newly cycle-friendly Manhattan is intrusion into bike lanes by delivery vehicles and pedestrians, forcing cyclists to weave into a traffic lane.

In Copenhagen, bike lanes are raised up three or four inches from the roadway to help prevent such difficulties.

Benson said the unfamiliar road configurations “freaked people out” at first. Paving marking signs and islands were reconfigured at a rate of one block per week. There were also problems with motorist compliance. People were driving into the bike path, but that resolved itself over time.

Some cyclists have resorted to inventive means to discourage the incursions. Recently, nine men and women rode their bikes through the West Village on an outing intended to make the lanes more prominent.

At a bike lane on Hudson Street near Christopher Street, one rider placed a cardboard stencil on the pavement, and others covered it with white spray paint. When they lifted the stencil an image of a car bisected by a diagonal line was left behind.

“I want to remind drivers that it is not all right to be in bike lanes,” said Barbara Ross, 44, a human resources manager who lives on the Lower East Side and has been a volunteer for Times Up!, an environmental group that promotes green transportation. “A lot of drivers don’t think twice about parking in a bike lane because no one tells them not to.”

Despite the boom in bike facilities, the number of people who commute by cycle is still only one per cent, rising to just four per cent in some of the denser neighbourhoods of the city.

Even so, while talk of bike lanes might seem a recent development, New York was home to the America’s first bike path, in 1894 — along Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn connecting Prospect Park and Coney Island.