As much as I waxed poetic about bike commuting in the previous post, I have to confess that it is not my primary means of transportation to work, nor will it be for the foreseeable future. I do not have access to a sufficiently safe bike route to my office, and I expect a lot of individuals who are hesitant to commute by bike have similar safety concerns. Transportation culture in our society needs to change substantially to encourage more biking as a form of transportation. This would have numerous benefits for the public.
New York City has made substantial progress in increasing the number of bike lanes around the city. Without that infrastructure, I would never have felt safe enough to ever attempt to bike in city streets. I still stick mainly to bike lanes, but I have had to face my fear of biking in streets without bike lanes out of necessity. As much as I applaud the city for developing more bike lanes, the infrastructure is unfortunately still inadequate to fully traverse New York City by bike– especially the outer boroughs– without leaving bike lanes. Moreover, bike lanes are not enough. The transportation culture in this city has still not fully embraced cycling as a mode of transport.
This is a shame because riding a bike in New York can be efficient, exhilarating, economical, and a great way to incorporate exercise into your day. It can also be terrifying. I am always aware that a negligent driver could kill me at any moment. Though I wrote about my biking triumphs the other day, I did not disclose that I had the scariest close call that I have had since I started biking in the city.
I entered the intersection on a green light with the intention of turning left. The car across from me had the green light as well, and I did not know whether he would drive straight into my bike’s path or turn left, so I tried to make eye contact with him to indicate that I would be turning left. The driver failed to look at the intersection and remained completely oblivious to me. He proceeded to turn directly in my path, still without looking, and nearly mowed me down. This all happened directly in front of a police car that was waiting at red. A bystander noted in shock, “Wow. That was a close one.” He looked from me to the police and added, “he almost hit her,” seeming to expect the police to do something. They did nothing.
The second worst part after confronting the terrifying prospect that I could have been killed was the idea that if I had, the police likely would have placed the blame on me even though the driver was clearly at fault, as the New York City Police Department (NYPD) has done recently. That is what makes biking in New York City harrowing– despite all that the city has done in increasing bike lanes, overall the transportation culture in the city is still one that does not appreciate the value of bikers nor fully understand the dangers bikers face.
The biggest threat to bike safety, in my eyes, are the drivers who do not want to share the road with bikers. The times I have had to “take the lane” because no bike lane existed (which bikers are legally entitled to do in New York), I suffered the wrath of car drivers for simply daring to stake out my spot on the road. The drivers honked at me aggressively, passed me at a very close range almost clipping me in order to intimidate me, and tried to sideswipe me into adjacent walls. Mind you, they did this when there were multiple other lanes for them to drive in on that same road. This was not frustration at me slowing them down (not that that would be an excuse for risking someone’s life); they could have easily avoided me by taking another lane. No, their actions were aimed at putting me in my place, letting me know that I did not belong on their roads. These drivers to me are even worse than the negligent ones because they have already shown themselves to be willing to intentionally risk my life for the sake of intimidating me. It is easy to think that they would go further and definitively harm me if they were enraged enough. You know your transportation culture is dysfunctional when the drivers are willing to risk other people’s lives just to avoid having to share the road.
The city, especially the police, are not doing enough to stop this dysfunctional transportation culture. Every time the police ignore a driver negligently swerving into a biker, they are saying that cyclists’ lives do not matter. When they fail to hold accountable the driver who killed a cyclist (or pedestrian for that matter) and place the blame on the victim, they are signaling to drivers that they can act with impunity, that the cost of killing someone on the road is merely a little bureaucratic paperwork. Choosing to ticket bikers after a driver kills a cyclist sends the message that bikers are culpable for their own deaths if they choose to exercise their right to be on the road. And when the NYPD themselves obstruct bike lanes, they are showing the community that the safety of bikers is unimportant. It is city officials who set the tone for the city. If the city appears willing to disregard biker safety in any way, it shows drivers that they can do the same.
Societal Problems Demand A Movement-Positive Transportation Culture
This is not a niche issue, or at least it shouldn’t be. There is an urgent need for Americans to engage in more physical activity. As the New York City Department of Health notes, “more than half of adult New Yorkers are overweight (34%) or obese (22%)” and that being overweight increases “risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, arthritis, and cancer.” New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli observed in 2012 that obesity-related health expenditures cost New York State $12 billion dollars a year, and I imagine that the number has increased since then. Moreover, despite official recommendations for Americans to get 75 to 150 minutes of exercise a week, less than half of New Yorkers meet this goal.
The goals of reducing obesity and its associated healthcare costs will remain illusory as long as movement is divorced from necessary life activities and treated as an optional lifestyle choice. We cannot simply keep asking overburdened citizens to find more hours in their already packed days to exercise. We need to incorporate physical activity into our existing schedules, and the ubiquitous commute to work is the best place to do so since it is intrinsically about human locomotion.
Encouraging bike commuting would be the most effective way the city and state could tackle obesity and its ensuing health problems, rising health care costs, congestion on an overcrowded public transit system, and environmental pollution (the decrease of which would also reduce health care costs). These are cultural problems, and the way to solve them is to change the culture. It is time that our politicians recognize that biking is not a fringe activity, but a realistic solution to many societal ills.
Recommendations to Make a Positive Transportation Culture for All
There are many ways the government can foster a safer, movement-positive transportation culture and thereby encourage more people to commute by bike. In addition to creating a comprehensive bike lane infrastructure:
1. Police officers on bikes. When I was in Boston recently, I was pleasantly surprised by what a vibrant biking culture they have. I suspect that, among other things, having police officers on bike duty helps. Drivers are not going to treat an officer on a bike the way they treat ordinary cyclists. But if they were to drive in a reckless or confrontational manner, the police officer would have the power to ticket them. Either way, the result would be that drivers would quickly learn to modify their behavior to treat cyclists with more respect.
2. Law enforcement, including prosecutors, should hold drivers accountable. Similarly, whether on bikes or not, police officers can and should cite drivers for their aggressive and reckless behavior towards bikers. Especially in cases in which a driver strikes a cyclist (or a pedestrian) and is at fault, the police should hold the driver accountable. Further, prosecutors need to prosecute reckless drivers who endanger the lives of others and cause grievous injury or death. Everyday people drive recklessly, and they do it because they can. It is not shocking that these individuals often end up causing harm to others. It is shocking that we have a transportation culture that permits such cheapening of human life.
3. Add a biking component to driving test to increase empathy and awareness. I realize this will never be politically expedient, but I am keeping it on the list anyway. If every driver had to experience what it is like to bike in traffic, there would be so much more empathy towards bikers and an awareness that would suffuse drivers’ driving. That firsthand knowledge would also allow them to better understand and predict the behavior of the cyclists with whom they share the road.
4. Create more options for bike parking, including more bike racks and sheds and incentives for property owners and employers to add bike parking facilities on their properties. Bike lane utility is
severely limited if there is no place to put your bike upon arrival at your destination. And the parking needs to be fairly secure for serious commuting. A person needs to be sure that his bike will still be there to take him home at the end of the work day or at the end of a movie or play. It would also be preferable for the bike to have shelter from the elements. Consequently, it would be ideal to have some bike parking options indoors and on private property. The government could easily incentivize private property owners and businesses to create their own private bike parking options in addition to publicly available street-side bike parking.
5. Bike and park transit options for longer commuters. Another wonderful option I saw when I visited Boston was the “Pedal and Park.” At the commuter rail station in Salem, there was a secure, enclosed room dedicated solely to bike storage. This allows individuals who work too far from home to bike for a portion of their commute and take the train the rest of the way.
6. Tax incentives. In addition to incentivizing property owners, businesses, and employers to provide bike parking, tax incentives can also be used to encourage private individuals to commute by bike. If enough individuals are encouraged to bike regularly, the public health benefits would likely be substantial and result in reduced health care costs to the state. Additionally, more bikers on the road normalizes biking behavior, which will encourage more people to bike. The more people who bike, the bigger the benefit to the public health and safety via improved health conditions and a safer transportation culture for all.
7. Safe options for traversing bridges between boroughs. This is fairly self-explanatory, but since many people commute between boroughs, it is essential to make the bridges between boroughs safe for bikers.
If you have any recommendations for bike infrastructure or policies that you think would contribute to a safer, more movement-positive transportation culture, please share them in the comments below.