Review and Comment: Bicyclists vs. Pedestrians

TRAFFIC SQUEEZE: In the bicycle lane but against one-way traffic, a cyclist on Clinton Street has to give way to a pedestrian of sorts pushing a hand cart, while automobile traffic needs to give both some room. With the city moving to have rental bikes easily available all around town, pedestrian life only gets more hazardous. The editorial at left offers thoughts on what to do about it. Photo by Henrik Krogius.

by Henrik Krogius

Do pedestrians have a chance? As our limited street space gets increasingly divided between car and bicycle lanes, the pedestrian is forced ever more to look out. Unlike cars, bicycles are silent, and they are apt to be traveling the wrong way on a one-way street. Yet it is altogether desirable that alternatives to cars be encouraged; our streets can hold only so many cars. Besides, bicycles are non-polluting, and they help their users stay trim and healthy, which can’t be said for cars.

Under the Bloomberg administration and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, bicycle initiatives – and pedestrian initiatives – have proliferated to a degree unimaginable in the Giuliani years (and seemingly been taken as an affront by Giuliani’s commissioner, Iris Weinshall, a party to suing the city to eliminate Prospect Park’s two-way bike lane). Last week the city chose a Portland, Oregon, company to run a bike-share operation; in this issue Raanan Geberer reports on its potential “bike stations” in Brooklyn, and the reactions in various Brooklyn neighborhoods to the sites being considered. Brooklyn Heights and other neighborhoods along the East River, like Greenpoint and Williamsburg, are highly receptive, but many inner and older neighborhoods apparently show little demand for the stations.

No doubt the easy availability of rental bikes will boost the already striking increase in bicycling. But will it mean a further cost to pedestrian safety? While the city has been setting aside a number of pedestrian zones, as in Times Square and here in Brooklyn at places like Willoughby Street and next to the Manhattan Bridge in DUMBO, these don’t address the problem found at lots of street corners, as well as on the Brooklyn Bridge where both cyclists and pedestrians frequently fail to keep to their own assigned lanes.

Surprisingly, as the September 14 New York Times reported, even that bicyclist’s paradise – Denmark – is having a problem with pedestrian safety. Despite a long tradition of bicycle use, with regulations for it, Copenhagen finds too many cyclists riding without regard for the pedestrians in their midst. An engineer who rides bikes himself, Mikael le Dous, was described as heading a still-small Danish Pedestrian Association aimed at trying to improve cyclists’ behavior.

This reminded me of an op-ed piece of mine that the Times published way back in 1980, headlined “New York Needs a ‘Bicycle Culture’.” In it I complained that the city had rejected the idea of bicycle registration, something I remembered from my childhood in Finland, where each bicycle had to have a license plate just like a car, and where the use of a bicycle headlight was mandatory after twilight (small generators that could be switched onto the front wheel powered the lights). I worried that the total lack of restraint of bicycle operation would lead to a hazardous chaos as their number grew. As I noted of my early years, “we grew up with the understanding that a bicycle was a vehicle – that it was licensed, that it traveled with the flow of vehicular traffic and not against it, that a bicyclist obeyed all traffic signals…”

As bicycles have proliferated, a blame game has grown, with automobile drivers complaining about bicyclists, the cyclists complaining about both drivers and pedestrians, and pedestrians complaining about both drivers and cyclists. Drivers often don’t respect bicycle lanes or stop signs, cyclists often stray out of their lanes (or use sidewalks) and act as if traffic signals don’t apply to them, and pedestrians jaywalk willy-nilly (though a carefully calculated jaywalk may sometimes be safer than crossing properly at an intersection).

Everybody’s behavior needs improving. More police enforcement would help, but, with economic pressures forcing a reduction in the force, more clearly criminal activity of necessity draws police attention away from traffic matters. The growing emphasis on cyclists’ rights has begun to tame the behavior of car drivers somewhat. The Transportation Alternatives organization, while promoting cycling, has at the same time been urging cyclists to obey traffic laws. However, more is needed. Though bicycle registration would undoubtedly provoke howls of protest, it could heighten the sense that bicycling carries with it a need for responsibility.

As I concluded in my 1980 piece: “In New York, bicycle culture has become a necessary condition to total street-traffic culture.”

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Filed under Brooklyn Heights, Editorial, Review and Comment, Transportation

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