Cyclists and Pedestrians: Fighting Over the Scraps

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Cyclists and pedestrians somehow managing to get along with each other in Copenhagen.

"Gridlock" Sam Schwartz’s op/ed piece in the Times City section yesterday is generating lots of discussion in the cycling community. Weirdly headlined, "Rolling Thunder," the editorial briefly examines the conflict between cyclists and pedestrians on New York City streets, acknowledges the antipathy that many walkers feel towards people riding bikes, and proposes physically-separated bike lanes and a reduction in the city’s motor vehicle traffic as solutions to the problem.

Below is my breakdown of the story accompanied by some photos I recently snapped in two truly great biking cities, Copenhagen and Utrecht. (We already have some excellent discussion abut the article underway in the Comments section of Today’s Headlines):

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In Copenhagen a helmetless woman rides in a lane that would be reserved for parked cars in NYC

EVEN my own daughter, Deena, complains to me: "Dad, I know you’re a big fan of bikes but you’ve got to do something about them. I almost got run over by a woman on Second Avenue!"

Schwartz approaches the issue from the perspective of the-typical-New-Yorker-annoyed-by-cyclists. While this angle naturally makes bike advocates uncomfortable, Sam is preaching to the unconverted and I see a lot of value in starting the conversation this way. 

What is it about the conflict between bike riders and pedestrians that’s got so many people riled up and what can be done about it? It’s important to look at this historically.

Gridlock Sam’s historic anecdotes are always great but I think he somewhat misses the boat on this one. The answer to his question can be found by simply taking a look at any New York City street. While drivers are a minority in New York, the vast majority of the city’s public spaces — our streets — have been given away for the movement and storage of people’s private motor vehicles.

Pedestrians and cyclists are crammed into the margins fighting over the scraps of public space that have been left to them. The real problem are the rows of parked cars hogging up street space throughout the city. One of the things that jumped out at me during my recent visits to Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Utrecht (below), was the way in which these cities frequently give curbside street space to buses, bikes, and café tables rather than parked cars.

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Utrecht, Holland: People don’t bother to drive cars downtown when parking has been replaced by biking.

This means bikers must yield to pedestrians — even errant ones. Biking is a superb form of transport we should encourage. Drivers must yield to bike riders — even errant ones.

You can’t argue with any of that. Yet, having spent a little time in a number of great biking cities, I really think that if you want cyclists to start adhering to the rules of the road then you’ve got to give cyclists their own right-of-way and their own infrastructure. As long as cyclists are treated as marginal street users they are going to make up their own rules and do what they think is best for their own safety and transportation needs.

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Copenhagen: A safe, pleasant bike lane between the sidewalk and parked cars. Why not try this in NYC?

The Police Department has so far written 40,000 summonses to bike riders in 2006;

This is a staggeringly large number. And New York City says that it wants to encourage cycling? Puh-lease. Ray Kelly’s police department is out of control when it comes to bike enforcement. When will Michael Bloomberg step in and do something?

No one I’ve spoken to has noticed better behavior. Instead, let’s focus on what really matters – making sure bicyclists respect the right of way of pedestrians

Sigh. While it makes sense for this op/ed piece to be written from the perspective of pedestrians angry at cyclist recklessness, this still makes me a bit nauseous. New York City pedestrians frequently fail to respect the right-of-way of bikes creating extraordinarily dangerous situations for cyclists. Perhaps we all have to be more mindful of each other in an increasingly crowded city. And, again, this fight between peds and bikes is a distraction from the real issue: We are all being squeezed into the margins by the city’s increasing volume of motor vehicle traffic and the Bloomberg Administration’s continuing failure to do anything about it.

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A neighborhood shopping street in Copenhagen. Lack of car parking does not mean lack of shopping.

Car traffic must be reduced and more room made for pedestrians and bike lanes. London and Stockholm understand this — that’s why they introduced congestion pricing and sharply reduced car traffic.

Amen. Though, as many of the above photos illustrate, the city could make huge strides forward simply by replacing on-street parking with dedicated bus and bike lanes. We don’t necessarily need to go through the huge political hassle of congestion charging to make progress here.