Special Report: Cycling

How New York Decided to Become a Bicycle-Friendly City

A few years ago, New York City decided to get its act together on bicycle infrastructure and is already reaping the net public benefits.

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 10, 2012

There are always plenty of excuses not to do something. Nothing is easier than to shoot down an idea by detailing all the reasons it can't possibly work. Every great program we enjoy today exists despite the best efforts of squelchers and naysayers to drown it in cold water when it was first proposed and promoted.

So it's always inspiring to watch a good idea brought to life by champions who have the courage to stand up to the bullying and mockery of its detractors.

New York City Ciclovia (Image Credit: Skyscraperpage)
New York City Ciclovia (Image Credit: Skyscraperpage)

Back in 1997, New York launched an ambitious plan to build a 2,900 km bike lane network. However, progress was slow and after a decade, the network was only 750 km. Even so, cycling had doubled between 2000 and 2007.

That year, Mayor Mike Bloomberg appointed Janette Sadik-Khan as the NYC Department of Transportation commissioner on a strong mandate to re-balance the city's transportation system away from automobiles. Over the next four years, she added another 350 km of bike lanes and doubled the number of commuter cyclists again.

While the number of cyclists has been going up, the number of cycling injuries has not. Overall, the risk of injury on a bike has fallen by 75% since 2000 while the number of cyclists has quadrupled.

A Work in Progress

Of course, New York's cycling system is still a work in progress. This year, the city will launch a bicycle share with 10,000 vehicles at over 600 stations, while at the same time replacing 6,000 parking meters with new bike racks.

Meanwhile, the New York Police Department is frequently accused of targeting cyclists with tickets for "disrupting traffic" and other violations. Last spring, an NYPD officer apparently harangued a female Dutch tourist for "distracting the cars" because she was cycling in a skirt.

The gender ratio of cyclists is another important indicator of a city's bicycle-friendliness. Bike-friendly cities are fairly gender balanced, but in NYC, male cyclists still outnumber female cyclists three to one.

However, that rate has been falling as the number of new female cyclists increases faster than the number of new male cyclists. Only a decade ago, the ratio of male to female cyclists was six to one.

According to comparative research, the most effective way to attract more female cyclists is to physically separate bike lanes from automobile lanes. NYC DOT under Sadik-Khan seems to understand this, as their priority since 2007 has been to build physically separated bike lanes and greenways rather than mere painted lines.

Lingering Opposition

Of course, not everyone in New York celebrates the steady increase in cycling. Bike lanes are more popular among 18-34 year olds than they are among the over-65 set.

Last March, a well-connected group of Brooklyn residents calling themselves "Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes" sued the city to remove a protected two-way bike lane along Prospect Park. The suit was supported by former NYC DOT commissioner Iris Weinshall and her husband, Democratic US Senator Chuck Schumer.

The suit was thrown out in August on procedural grounds, though NBBL is appealing the decision.

The real issue, despite the group's claim to support "better bike lanes", is that adding bike lanes in this case means removing automobile lanes. However, this ignores the many net public benefits of increased cycling that even accrue to drivers.

Net Benefits

First, a cyclist takes up significantly less space on the road than a motorist. Since traffic congestion is what happens when too much road space is taken up by vehicles, traffic congestion actually goes down when more people ride bicycles.

Yet people who oppose bike lanes complain that bicycles "cause" congestion - as opposed to all those motor vehicles.

Second, a cyclist weighs at least ten times less than a motorist - around 90 kg (200 lbs) instead of 1,000 kg for a sub-compact car to as high as 2,500 kg for a full-size SUV. That means an order of magnitude less wear and tear on the road.

Yet again, people who oppose bike lanes say the city should instead spend its money fixing roads that have been damaged by all the vehicular traffic on them.

Third, not only does increased cycling reduce the risk of injury for cyclists, but it also reduces the risk of injury for motorists. A research article by Wesley E. Marshall and Norman W. Garrick titled, "Evidence on Why Bike-Friendly Cities Are Safer for All Road Users" explains that streets designed to accommodate a variety of modes also result in lower vehicle speeds.

Lower speeds, in turn, accomplish two goals: they reduce the number of crashes and collisions, and also reduce the severity of injuries in the crashes and collisions that do occur.

Setting Priorities

Again, there is a conflict between the desire to make streets safer for all users and the desire to make streets faster for drivers. Like an increasing number of cities, New York has decided that the former is more important than the latter, and is already reaping the benefits of that decision.

What will Hamilton decide?

First published in the January 2012 issue of Urbanicity.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Sigma Cub (anonymous) | Posted January 10, 2012 at 12:20:47

So... all we need is an autocratic mayor.

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By JM (registered) | Posted January 10, 2012 at 14:10:04

...but this is Hamilton!!

(sorry i had to before the nay-sayers got to it lol expected response)

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By Beery (anonymous) | Posted January 10, 2012 at 14:32:04

I have no idea what Chuck Schumer's real motives were in trying to remove that bike lane, but the fact is, not all bicycle infrastructure is good, and the vast majority is poorly implemented and ends up being more dangerous than a standard traffic lane.

While it's clear that a cyclist takes up significantly less space on the road than a motorist, this is only the case if the cyclist is cycling in the traffic lane. Bike lanes take up more space than any number of cyclists because they take a lane of traffic and make it essentially unusable for other road users - and totally uselessly, because cyclists can travel quite safely in the traffic lane. In fact, in nine out of ten studies done over the last 20 years in both Europe and North America, the traffic lane has been found to be safer for cyclists than bike lanes because bike lanes increase the chance of collisions, both at intersections (due to right crosses and left hooks) and between them (due to doorings because bike lanes are almost always in the door zone of parked cars).

I think the problem here is that too many people who fear riding in traffic are far too willing to assume that bike facilities are safe. They are not. They can be made safe, but only with huge expense, for example by leaving 4ft between parked cars and the bike lane and by implementing underpasses or overpasses for cyclists at each intersection so that the problem of turning conflicts is solved. Until such bike facilities exist, bicycle infrastructure will never be safer than an unmarked road.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 11, 2012 at 11:32:46 in reply to Comment 72923

I used to feel the same way about bike lanes. Then I spent some time cycling in cities where they had bike lanes everywhere and my entire perception changed. Even though a car would have to cross a bike lane to turn, everything was SO MUCH BETTER because the connected bike lane network translated to a far greater number of cyclists.

While bike lanes may create some danger zones particularly at intersections, the net effect of a proper bike lane network is positive for every road user.

First of all, bike lanes move the most timid cyclists off of sidewalks and onto the roads. This alone is worth the slight increased intersection risks for bike lane users because it removes the HUGE risk currently undertaken by anyone riding on sidewalks.

Secondly, the lanes motivate more people to cycle than otherwise would have, causing increased awareness of cyclists. It has been statistically proven that the best way to improve cyclist safety is to increase the number of cyclists.

Thirdly, the lanes send signals to drivers that bikes have a space on the road and that they must watch for cyclists. This reduces aggression toward cyclists and increases the chances that motorists will look to where cyclists might be before making turns etc.

And finally, the lanes move bikes out of the car travel lanes, so motorists can more easily pass. This can improve flow and reduce frustrations.

The key here is that we can't just plunk a bike lane here and another one there... We can't limit bike lanes to small stretches where we have lots of space, or where we perceive greater danger. The lanes need to be connected to each other - in other words, the bike route map needs to be designed at a high level, to allow cyclists to actually get easily where they need to without being dumped into a car lane without notice. Essentially, we need to design the bike transportation system the way we do for cars.

The safety benefits of a complete bike route system vastly outweigh the micro risks at individual intersections.

ANd in Hamilton, we are really lucky because WE HAVE THE SPACE TO DO IT. The huge road allowances that have created an unlivable core could be converted virtually overnight to a proper through-city bike network with negligible effect on traffic even during rush hour.

Look at King right now - the left lane out of commission at Hess and the right lane is reserved for parking at that spot. Further up the street, the right lane is out of commission for construction. King has essentially been taken down from four lanes into two. And what happens at rush hour? Business as usual for cars. The sky is still hanging in there!

We could put bollards in and create a two way separated bike lane on King from James to Westdale tomorrow and drivers would not have to lose a single minute of travel time.

SO what is the hold up?

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By Beery (anonymous) | Posted January 10, 2012 at 14:38:19

I am, by the way, all for lower vehicle speeds. But lower speed limits have to come first - we won't get them by laying down miles of bike lanes that only annoy motorists and encourage them to drive even faster (because there are no cyclists slowing traffic to a safe limit).

Personally, I think all roads other than freeways ought to be limited to 20mph. Britain has a campaign called "20 is Plenty", but it only focuses on residential areas, probably because getting legislators (who are mostly drivers) to pass reduced speed limits is like pulling teeth.

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By grahamm (registered) | Posted January 11, 2012 at 14:29:43 in reply to Comment 72924

What is going to cause slower traffic? Posting signs? I think we can agree that that won't work. The street design needs to change to affect 'natural' traffic speed. I say natural because the street section will affect the speed a driver is comfortable driving. 120kph feels very different on a 2 lane country road. The same way that 80kph on Main St isn't the same on Locke. The counter-intuitive step of reducing the size of the lanes, adding additional 'distractions' (ie, bike lanes), will naturally reduce the speed that cars travel.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted January 10, 2012 at 14:56:25 in reply to Comment 72924

Drivers tend to ignore speed limit signs and drive at speeds that they consider to be comfortable. Do some research into 85th percentile speed limits and you'll see it.

That being said, adding bike lanes and reducing driving lanes make things less comfortable for drivers and thus slow them down.

There will always be outliers who ignore all rules so you can't regulate based on them, but the vast majority of people don't fall into that category.

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By michaelcumming (registered) - website | Posted January 12, 2012 at 18:01:19

Bike lanes in some places are a joke, but in others they are heavenly. It's all in how they are designed.

I believe that one of the best ways to make Hamilton appear innovative and progressive is to institute bike and pedestrian-friendly policies. Hamilton obviously has a long way to go, but I think the turnaround can happen relatively quickly (say, over a decade). We need leadership at the top (as well as at the bottom).

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By old guy (anonymous) | Posted January 13, 2012 at 18:39:48

I cycled to work for three years back in the 70's, which kinda makes me a pioneer. I gave up for all the usual reasons, but mostly because I was promoted and needed a car to visit customers who, sadly, refused to move within biking distance of our office.

But now I'm an old guy. Still a decade away from retirement age, but still old enough that the idea of climbing on a bike to commute to work for even the reasonable distance that I did as a 20 year-old scares me, and should scare anyone else who might be on the road or bike path that I'd be colliding with them on.

That's on a good day. I, and every other employed Hamiltonian, simply wouldn't consider getting on a bike for one minute in today's snowy weather.

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By billn (registered) | Posted January 13, 2012 at 23:37:40 in reply to Comment 73023

Me too. Did a 50 mile round trip commute in the 70s. Went to Buffalo to buy a "Skid Lid" after being brained by a trailer mirror because you couldn't buy a helmet in Canada back then. But I've always found a way to keep a bike in my commute in the years since. Now-a-days I GO to a job in Oakville, but keep a beater bike chained up at the Oakville station for the final leg. Sanctimonious environmentalist? Nope. It's just cheaper, easier and faster than any of the other options, and with 3 or 4 days exception, do-able year round. And I have the blood pressure readings that I did 30 years ago!

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted January 13, 2012 at 21:50:22 in reply to Comment 73023

simply wouldn't consider getting on a bike for one minute in today's snowy weather.

But why? I ask earnestly, not rhetorically.

This morning, I had to walk my bike half a block from my sidest-of-side streets to Newton Ave (a mere side street), but then I was able to bike along Newton, King and Sterling and they were fine: the salt and traffic had left them merely wet and a bit slushy by 9:00 am. And on Longwood, Aberdeen, Dundurn and King West while running errands at lunch I had to deal with nothing worse than a bit of spray.

Which is typical of a snowy winter day unless it's coming down heavily.

And I should note that the only special equipment required for biking today was a pair of light sunglasses, to keep the snow from driving into my eyes. Otherwise, just normal clothes: jeans, shirt, tie, sport coat, overcoat, leather gloves.

Comment edited by moylek on 2012-01-13 21:51:58

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By another old guy (anonymous) | Posted January 14, 2012 at 14:25:12 in reply to Comment 73025

For me its about staying warm, dry and avoiding getting sick. I can handle the cold, but the splashing of slushy roads means I'm going to get wet. I'd rather ride on a -20 sunny day than a wet day with temperatures 10 to -5 because I can dress for the cold but its nearly impossible to stay dry and warm when the roads are wet and slushy or when its raining or wet snow is falling. At best a small minority of riders are going to brave the cold and that number decreases as the road conditions worsen or staying dry becomes problematic

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted January 14, 2012 at 17:23:35 in reply to Comment 73032

At best a small minority of riders are going to brave the cold and that number decreases as the road conditions worsen or staying dry becomes problematic

That needn't be true. Most of us already have what we need brave the cold: scarves, boots, gloves, toques, coats.

Granted, heavy rain and really biting wind (say, when it gets below -20 with the wind chill) are a bit much and would require special clothing: a poncho; a balaclava. I'm not one for resorting to extraordinary clothing in order to ride my bike, so there are a very few days when the cold or rain keeps me off of my bike (maybe four days per year).

Now, I must confess that I'm being a little bit coy here. Riding one's bike in the winter does require special clothing if you ride a sport bike: you're exposed to road spray without fenders; extended arms expose your wrists; a hunched posture can expose your back and strain your seams; an upturned head interferes with some warm hats. But if you ride upright - think an old-style CCM or Raliegh or European city bike - then normal clothing works just fine.

TnT references my article from last year, Winter Cycling in Hamilton in One Easy Step, in which I discuss the simplicity of riding a normal bike in normal clothes over moderate distances (let's say up to about 8 km).

Comment edited by moylek on 2012-01-14 17:29:07

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted January 15, 2012 at 06:16:31 in reply to Comment 73038

That needn't be true. Most of us already have what we need brave the cold: scarves, boots, gloves, toques, coats.

I'll say up-front that I'm in agreement as to the benefits of cycling. For commuting, for fitness, and for the contribution to a more humane city. So please don't take my comment as that of a strict contrarian.

But the average person won't do what you're suggesting for some basic reasons...in much the same way that the average person won't take as much time to craft as informed a decision as to who to vote for as they do in planning their next entertainment purchase...or actually voting, period.

First off, we have an obesity pandemic underway. We have created a sedentary society rife with Type 2 Diabetes, arthritis, etc. The notion of walking to the store is anathema to them. So the leap to 'winter cycling' when 'good-weather cycling' isn't going to happen is- Well, a bit much.

Secondly, I'm a cyclist going back years. I used to be a bike mechanic. I used to commute to my various locations around the city, and even as far afield as Burlington and Erin Mills. When I lived in Collingwood, I'd cycle into work from town in all manner of inclement weather...along a rail-trail, not on the road.

Yes, we need more cyclists. Yes we need a better mix on the roads. Yes we need more transit, more options. And I'm glad there are people like you, and Undustrial out there as reference points for all.

But the reality is that it's simply too enormous a leap for a decaying population to consider cycling...especially winter cycling (which I wouldn't 'choose' to do myself, any I'm certainly hardy enough a soul)...when it won't even walk to the store.

I encourage any and all to promote cycling. I want what you want. But it's vital that we understand just how far gone we collectively are, and be mindful of those fights, because they're the more critical ones.

Comment edited by mystoneycreek on 2012-01-15 06:20:06

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By TnT (registered) | Posted January 14, 2012 at 13:26:50

I liked your earlier article, Moylek, about winter cycling on Dutch bikes.

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted January 14, 2012 at 17:48:16

NYC also has a great bus system, & an extensive subway & connecting rail system that goes far into the outskirts of Jersey, Far Rockaway Beach, & Queens.

It also has 1000's of Taxis, & ferries to Staten Island & Coney Island.
A Great city can be a bike friendly city, but it needs some other transit methods to get motor traffic off the streets to create it.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted January 15, 2012 at 20:43:10

First off, we have an obesity pandemic underway. We have created a sedentary society rife with Type 2 Diabetes, arthritis, etc. The notion of walking to the store is anathema to them. So the leap to 'winter cycling' when 'good-weather cycling' isn't going to happen is- Well, a bit much.

I maintain that if we were still riding 1970's style upright three-speeds cycling would be far less of a big deal: my mother biked to the store rain or shine in the 1970s and '80s, and she was (sorry, Mum) fat. It was only 2km, and it was easier the walking and we didn't have a second car. She could bike with in her normal clothes, without special equipment, without hunching over handlebars and with my baby sister in the child seat.

In the 1980s and 1990s, cycling became a sport instead of an activity or mode of transit. We can go back, and one of the first things we have to do is jettison the ideal of the sport bike: they are awkward, inconvenient and demand too many concessions of the fit and of the unfit.

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By D. Shields (registered) | Posted January 25, 2012 at 04:10:21

We have a Rail Trail. Why not put in a cycle path next to it? I'd rather bike there than on Main St. or King to get part way across town. (as a pedestrian, i would not like to share exactly the same path as high speed cyclists.)

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