A Hard Look in the Mirror

Biking Rules Sets a New Cycling Standard

We hate to say it, but NYC cyclists have a public relations problem. Scroll down to the bottom of any blog post about bicycling, and you'll see a handful of screeds that make it clear as day––likely spelled out with some four-letter words––that cyclists are the real problem on city streets. It's not just that New York's driving minority takes issue with giving space to cyclists: reordering roads isn't painless, and in this zero-sum game, backlash is inevitable. What's surprising is the rift between those who walk, and those who bike.

What is it about bicycling that gets so many of our biped brethren worked up, and what can be done about it?

A House Divided?

T.A. has long recognized bicyclists and pedestrians as members of the same family, and the occasional friction between them as a symptom of streets that force brothers and sisters into competition for the same marginal space. Since our beginning, we've suggested that the same set of design principles that make a street safe for cyclists can also be used to enhance the pedestrian environment, and countless urban planners agree. Still, for many walking New Yorkers, there is a strong antipathy between bikers and pedestrians.

In his book Waterfront, A Walk Around Manhattan, author and flâneur Philip Lopate meditates on the chasm between pedestrians and cyclists, "I have to say there's nothing so unpleasant as that slight breeze behind your ear of a biker... overtaking you: you have no warning, and then you flinch, and feel like a fool for being so terrified. It's assumed, incorrectly, that bikeway[s]... are also congenial to walkers; in fact, we are class enemies."

Citing bicyclists riding against traffic, failing to yield or biking on the sidewalk, pedestrians rightly offer a long list of grievances. No matter that motor vehicles are the unequivocal danger on New York City streets; bicycling is a growing phenomenon, and it stands out in the minds of many who walk as a danger—one that ends up echoed in the media and at community forums where important bike lanes are up for discussion, sometimes with detrimental consequences for those projects.

Although in some respects the notion of bike-pedestrian conflict is a false dichotomy–– everyone who rides a bike is also a frequent pedestrian, after all––standing on a street corner in Midtown can present a frustrating set of interactions. It isn't the same daily carnage wrought by motor vehicles, but the chaos of red-light-running bikers mixed with jay-walking pedestrians and everything else that makes this city never sleep can be wild enough to rattle the most stone-faced city dweller.

Where Design Doesn't Reach

Of course, this is hardly a new debate. When T.A. developed the 1993 Bicycle Blueprint—the bible of NYC cycling and the forerunner of the City's own Bicycle Master Plan—these same issues were on the table. The Blueprint's authors attempted to honestly explain the behavioral impact of traffic laws that treated bikes the same as motor vehicles and streets that did little to acknowledge the existence of cyclists.

It is based on that philosophy and research that T.A.'s bicycling advocacy campaigns have primarily focused on improving street design, specifically winning new and safer bike lanes. And it has worked. Commuter cycling has grown 50% in the past two years, thanks in large part to the 200 new miles of bike lanes that the DOT installed over that time. And good designs favorably impact behavior; after the Ninth Avenue cycle-track was installed in 2007, the DOT measured sidewalk cycling, and found that it dropped from 5 percent of cyclists before installation to less than 1 percent after.

But even when our streets finally catch up to who is using them, the culture of everyone on the road will still be years behind. Behaviors learned in life-and-limb struggles are hard to shed and new cyclists follow the example of longtime riders. With these challenges in mind, T.A. has launched a campaign that articulates a new burden of responsibility for NYC cyclists and a roadmap for making cyclists fully-wrought members of the transportation system.

Biking Rules: From Changing Streets to Changing Minds

On May 15th, National Bike to Work Day, T.A. unveiled the Biking Rules campaign. With more cyclists than ever before making their commutes, T.A. staff and volunteers took to the East River Bridges, Madison Square and the Hudson River Greenway to distribute the first 5,000 Biking Rules commuter handbooks. Now in its second printing––10,000 this time around––the handbook details everything from rules of the road, to maps of key bridge-connections, to post-crash procedures. At its core is the belief that the same social consciousness that leads many New Yorkers to bike in the first place can be harnessed to encourage more civic-minded riding that puts pedestrian safety first.

Biking Rules isn't about asking New York City cyclists to act like saints or to accept the blame for all the problems on our congested streets. But the campaign does ask cyclists to take an honest look at their own behavior, and recognize the things we do day after day that inadvertently perpetuate the survival-of-the-biggest atmosphere that most of us wish would change. By looking at the way cyclists treat pedestrians and pedestrian space, Biking Rules challenges New York City cyclists to set in motion a new Street Code where the most vulnerable users on our streets are given the most respect and deference—something that can ultimately come full circle to benefit cyclists themselves.

The basic suggestions Biking Rules makes to cyclists are simple ones: always yield to pedestrians, don't block the crosswalk while waiting for a light, cross behind (not in front of) a walker, always ride with traffic, stay off the sidewalks. Cyclists, as the fastest growing commuter group in NYC, are the most obvious ambassadors for calmer and more livable streets. Cyclists often know, in painful detail, the fear and havoc that automobiles can bring to our streets. The Biking Rules Street Code suggests that cyclists need not pose a similar threat to pedestrians in the walking capital of the world. Instead, pedestrians and cyclists working together through more eye contact and better interactions can set a positive tone that will put the walking and biking majority firmly on the same side of the livable streets movement.

Anyone who wants to see more civic-minded cycling on NYC streets can make use of Biking Rules. T.A. is already fielding outreach requests from community boards eager to pair the campaign with new bike lanes installed in their neighborhoods, and T.A.'s new Bike Shop Outreach Coordinator is stocking shops across the city with commuter handbooks. When Summer Streets draws thousands of cyclists to a car-free Park Avenue, T.A. staff and volunteers will be on hand to distribute thousands more guides and Biking Rules tips for safe cycling will be featured in the City's official Summer Streets Guide.

The 50-page handbook is only part of the effort. Biking Rules is a multimedia campaign, centered on an interactive website: BikingRules.org. Visitors can make use of the "Ride the City" mapping tool, integrated directly into the site, to find the safest route between any two points in NYC by bike and to save and share favorite bike routes with friends. An expanding number of Twitter feeds provide cyclists with up-to-the-minute information on detours, bridge conditions and community meetings where bike lanes and bike safety are on the agenda. If you become a Biking Rules "user," you can also upload photos, videos and events directly to the site.

In June, T.A. announced the Biking Rules Public Service Announcement (PSA) Film and Photo competition (see back cover). The competition will activate the Biking Rules campaign through the voices of creative artists, photographers and filmmakers. Entrants are asked to convey the Biking Rules Street Code to the general public through positive media that will encourage greater public support for bicycling and greater public investment in cycling infrastructure. The top videos and photos will be screened at the Biking Rules Film Festival this fall where a jury of luminaries from the cycling community will select winners. Up to $4,000 and a selection of prizes, including a free bike and video camera, will be awarded for winning video and photo entries that convey the most compelling and iconic representations of cycling in NYC through a Biking Rules lens. The competition is open through August 31st.

It Only Starts with Cyclists

Years ago, when cyclists were few and far between, it would have been virtually impossible for a change in bike behavior to scratch the surface of New York City's Wild West traffic culture. But with 185,000 cyclists hitting the road daily, and many new cyclists choosing to try two wheels every week, the collective footprint of bicycles is finally large enough that the small choices we each make can add up to something significant.

Dramatic design changes, stricter laws and stronger enforcement are all needed before drivers accord the proper respect to vulnerable users like bicyclists and pedestrians, and the driving public participates in our idea of a Street Code. Dangerous driving, by far, remains the biggest hurdle to livable streets in New York City, and T.A. is working hard on all fronts to rein it in. Disentangling the fraught relationship among human-powered street users will translate into a more united front for those future battles, while also forging a new and more positive image of cycling in New York City. The massive transformation envisioned by Biking Rules certainly doesn't end with cyclists; but cyclists are now a strong enough force on New York City streets to set it all in motion.