04 May 2008

NYC Bike City? Not Quite

In theory New York City should be one of the best places in America to be a bike rider. No unduly severe hills, because of the population density things tend to be close enough together to make bike commuting realistic for most people, there are bridges with dedicated bike paths connecting most of the boroughs, and you can take your bike on trains and ferries when there aren't.

There are two big factors mitigating against the city being a biker's paradise, however, the first being the weather, which makes bicycling downright unpleasant if not completely impractical for several months of the year, and the second being the ungodly car traffic, bad enough in its own right, but even worse when frustrated drivers react to the constant snarl-ups by bending, breaking and shattering not only the highway code but the basic premises of civilized decorum.

Despite New York's much-vaunted and mostly merited reputation as one of the most pleasant and polite cities of its size, most of this civility goes straight out the window when people get behind the wheels of their cars and try to navigate them through streets that were already overcrowded back in the days of horses and buggies. It's always puzzled me why Giuliani's zero-tolerance campaign was never extended to include automobile drivers, who are among the most anti-social and dangerous offenders still at large in this city.

But it wasn't, and while a culture of tolerance and patience has in large measure replaced the culture of aggression and hostility that used to characterize pedestrian and public transit life, the culture of the horn-honking, corner-cutting, red light-ignoring motorist seems as strong as ever. True, cars usually will wait for pedestrians if they have the right of way - albeit grudgingly and IF they see them - whereas they used to aim for them, but even that measure of patience vanishes when it comes to bicyclists.

It's sometimes hard to have sympathy for bicyclists, since their own arrogant disregard for traffic laws or even common sense often makes them as big a threat to pedestrians as cars are, but based on the few times I've ridden in Manhattan and the many times in Brooklyn, I understand why bicyclists might have a mindset so defensive that it threatens to spill over into the offensive at times. This NY Times article illustrates just one of the problems; another, that keeps me constantly in terror when riding busy streets, is that of parked drivers obliviously opening car doors, leaving me the choice of crashing headlong into them or veering wildly into the traffic lane without having had the opportunity to check whether it's already occupied.

The ideal solution would of course be dedicated bicycle lanes all over the city, separated Dutch-style by barriers that keep cars from impinging on them. And given my feelings about cars in the city, I wouldn't mind closing off all sorts of streets to cars altogether and putting in a round-the-clock congestion charge that would REALLY discourage suburbanite/outer borough people from needlessly driving into town.

But the unfortunate reality is that because of the weather, bike lanes, no matter how well and safely constructed, would be woefully under-utilized during the winter months, and I could hardly blame car drivers for being angry and frustrated at the sight of so much concrete going to waste while they sit in horrendous traffic. I suppose the only equitable solution would involve removable barriers that could allow cars to use the bike lanes during the winter or a dome over the city that would provide us with perfect bike-riding weather all year round. Personally, I'd vote for the latter, and if any of you have the ear of the Mayor, I'd appreciate you giving this plan a mention.

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