Summer 2001, p.17

Bike Lanes - Encouraging, Not Punishing

A sure sign of warm weather in New York City is the increase in the number of cops on bicycles. Cops patrolling on bicycles, rather than in cars, are a positive statement about bicycles in the city. Bicycle cops offer personal contact with communities, are more mobile than officers on foot or in cars, and help legitimize the bicycle as useful transportation.

Unfortunately, each year around this time cops on bikes set up sting operations that specifically target cyclists riding on streets with bike lanes. These ticketing blitzes are annoying, and do nothing to encourage cycling. Bike lanes are great at encouraging people to cycle, promoting cycling, and legitimizing the bicycle as a form of transportation. Punishing cyclists with tickets for riding outside of bike lanes nullifies the positive aspects of streets with bike lanes, and in fact discourages cycling. A better solution would be a public education campaign that would tackle bad cyclist behavior in addition to larger problems like parking in bike lanes, speeding, and aggressive driving - all of which are rampant on New York City streets.

Wrongly Accused Cyclists
T.A. receives phone calls all the time from angry people who have been ticketed for riding outside the bike lane. New York City law states that one must use the bike lane if it exists, but the law specifically states exceptions to this rule (see box). The two exceptions are when one is preparing for a turn at an intersection, and the other is for when it is reasonably necessary to avoid conditions that make it unsafe to use the bike lane. In every case reported to T.A., one or both of these things was happening and the cyclists were behaving legally. It is interesting how far apart the daily experience of bike cops seems to be from the everyday cyclists. The police must be aware of the double-parked cars and pedestrians that are frequently blocking New York City bike lanes making them unsafe to use. If a cyclist is acting dangerously and maliciously breaking laws, they deserve tickets. Cycling legally and safely, in or out of bike lanes should be encouraged, not punished. Below is a list of locations where people have been wrongly ticketed for riding outside the bike lane:

  • 6th Ave. and 42nd St.
  • 5th Ave. and 19th St.
  • Broadway in the 20's, 30's, and 50's

Positive Outreach
T.A.'s Give Respect/Get Respect events are a good example of outreach to all road users (i.e. sidewalk riding, parking in bike lanes, standing in bike lanes). At Give Respect/Get Respect events T.A. works with the police and hands out tri-lingual flyers asking cyclists to ride in the direction of traffic and walk their bikes on sidewalks. At the same time mock summonses are handed out to drivers illegally parked in bike lanes. This kind of encouragement is well received and people generally want to hear what is being said. The cooperation between T.A. and the police shows that both sides - enforcement and encouragement - are concerned about, and want to help improve the conditions on the streets. In Toronto, cooperation between the City of Toronto Cycling Committee and the Toronto Police has worked reasonably well with the two groups working together to develop positive solutions to common problems (although Toronto Police are not without their own poor enforcement tactics). Simple things like publishing a tips for good cycling and driving brochure, working with local cycling groups or messenger companies, and generally being more positive about cycling would go a long way to achieving safer streets. New York City Police Department could do more for road safety by encouraging cycling, and deliver a positive and preventative education and enforcement campaign.

Craig Barnes is a Cycling Ambassador, CAN-BIKE instructor, and bike messenger from Toronto, Canada.

A Bit About Bike Lanes

Generally speaking, bike lanes are best to ride in when cycling at a slow pace. They offer slower cyclists encouragement as well as added safety and comfort. For faster cyclists, bike lanes can be problematic. It is often safer for fast cyclists to move out of the bike lane into a lane with faster traffic. This makes for better traffic flow and is safer for everyone. Bike lanes can be thought of like the slow lane on highways - useful sometimes, but not others. Because of this many experienced and courteous cyclists choose to ride outside of the bike lane and exercise their right to occupy an entire lane of traffic, a right that is not respected in New York City.

New York City Laws

Bicycle riders to use bicycle lanes. Wherever a usable path or lane for bicycles has been provided, bicycle riders shall use path or lane only except under any of the following situations:

  • When preparing for a turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway.
  • When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, motor vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, pushcarts, animals, surface hazards) that make it unsafe to continue within such bicycle path or lane.

Driving on or across bicycle lanes prohibited. No person shall drive a vehicle on or across a designated bicycle lane, except when it is reasonable and necessary:

  • to enter or leave a driveway; or
  • to enter or leave a legal curbside parking space; or
  • to cross an intersection; or
  • to make a turn within an intersection; or
  • to comply with the direction of any law enforcement officer or other person
    authorized to enforce this rule; or
  • to avoid an obstacle which leaves fewer than ten feet available for the free movement of vehicular traffic. Notwithstanding any other rule, no person shall drive a vehicle on or across a designated bicycle lane in such manner as to interfere with the safety and passage of persons operating bicycles thereon.

Read the latest news on this subject.