Wednesday, 20 April 2016

An angry driver on 8th St, two tragedies - and why New York cyclists aren't meant to be really there

It wasn’t a surprise but it was a disappointment. As I rode my bike on Saturday, fast, down 8th Street in Park Slope, a driver, coming up from behind me, thought she knew better than I where in the street I should be riding. She started – as happens very frequently when one rides down these streets, correctly, in the middle of the road - trying to honk me out of her way.

I’d ridden down 8th St because neighbouring, busier 9th St’s bike lane – sandwiched in the dangerous door zone for parked cars – is invariably clogged with double-parked cars. It’s far more dangerous and stressful than its narrower, one-way neighbours.
8th St: not New York's narrowest street - but would you want a
car passing you at 30mph as you barreled down here?
But, when she caught up with me at the next intersection, the woman explained why she thought she had the right to breeze past as if I weren’t there.

“You shouldn’t be in the middle of the road,” the woman told me.

“I was stopping you from overtaking me until I could let you past safely,” I said.

“You don’t belong in the middle of the road,” she said.

“Yes I do,” I answered.

Then, inevitably, as I rode off, a bystander shouted after me.

“Hey, you need to be on a street with a bike lane! You should be on Ninth Street!”

The exchange illustrated, in part, people’s automatic, infuriating assumption that they are clever and sophisticated and cyclists are uninformed simpletons making stupid decisions for unfathomable reasons.
A cyclist dodges round a car parked in the 9th St bike lane:
this is the idyll one bystander recommended I use
instead of 8th St.
But it also shed light on a problem facing cyclists in many cities making half-hearted attempts at accommodating cyclists. I was struck, as I rode on, by how cycling had been shoe-horned into New York City in a way that’s meant to avoid inconveniencing anyone else. No-one had ever told this woman that, yes, she might occasionally have to wait a few seconds to get past a cyclist. The builders (more accurately, painters) of the 9th St bike lane had sought to make it barely impinge on drivers.

The designs betray a profound confusion in public policy. There’s a vague instinct that cyclists can’t be entirely denied better facilities. But that goes hand in hand with cowardice about the idea that promoting cycling is a public good. There’s no sense that sacrifices to encourage cycling might be worth everybody’s while. The unspoken sense is that cyclists should take up no space, have no momentum and cause no-one else to modify any part of their behaviour.

The inevitable result is that cyclists are forced into making the compromises that others get to avoid. As I rode down 8th St, I faced a choice between being harassed for riding down the middle of the street or taking the risk of being hit by an inattentive driver’s opening door and knocked into the path of a driver passing me at 30mph. Had I chosen instead to ride down 9th St, I’d have faced a combination of both dangers. I’d have had to ride in the parked cars’ door zone then pull out round the parked vehicles, being tailgated by drivers who thought I should somehow not be out of the bike lane.
The Jay St "bike lane" in downtown Brooklyn:
evidence on its own of why New York's bike commuting rate
is so low.

It’s no surprise under these circumstances that cycling in New York remains a fringe activity, confined to a relative handful of us who think the personal benefits of getting about by bike outweigh the costs. It’s a situation mirrored in the many cities across North America and some parts of Europe.

The current circumstances practically guarantee that the benefits the planners were seeking from cycling – cleaner air, safer streets, better use of road space – won’t materialise. The dominant surviving forms of cycling – fast riding by the young and fit, coupled with widespread rule-breaking by riders fleeing dangerous drivers – are used as evidence that promoting cycling is a Bad Thing. It’s time for such cities either to get serious about cycling provision or to stop the current dangerous and stressful pretence.

Not, I’m sure, that any of this  would make sense from the perspective of the Angry BMW Driver of 8th St. It must, I accept, seem odd when driving a large vehicle down a street to see a cyclist, a single person on a  narrow vehicle, taking up the centre of the lane. It must, in certain circumstances, feel like a theft of the road space.
My bike computer after one run-in with
an angry driver being held up:
unacceptably slow in a city with
a 25mph speed limit.
I don’t ride down the middle of the road to make some abstruse point, however. As I use these streets, my bike computer often tells me I’m going well over 20mph. As a large man on a heavy bike with luggage, I have significant momentum. If a driver opened a door into my path or pulled out of a parking space without looking, I would be sent flying over my handlebars. These aren’t marginal, theoretical risks. Only a few weeks ago on 8th St, I had to swerve at high speed after a driver pulled out, fast, from a parking space into my path. Had I been riding where the Angry Woman thought I should, I could easily have been killed.

Nor was I in any real sense inconveniencing the woman. Like other narrow Park Slope streets, 8th Street is regularly clogged by double-parkers. The next block downhill features two speed bumps, which I can take without slowing down and drivers can’t.

The woman’s inability to pass me was clearly, however, an affront to her sense of her rights. Her lack of human sympathy for me as a fellow road-user seemed to have bled over into a wider resentment at my having any physical presence at all.

It’s a feeling I encounter surprisingly frequently, from both drivers and pedestrians. I’ve recounted before a run-in with a pedestrian who insisted on obstructing the Grand St bike lane in Manhattan. The Saturday before my dispute with the angry woman on 8th Street, I was yelled at by a tourist who insisted that, because he wanted to walk on the Brooklyn Bridge’s bike lane, I too should walk, not ride, over the bridge. I’ve come to understand taxi drivers’ tendency to pull out of parking places into my path as more a mark of their sense that cyclists can and should yield to them at will, more than a mere symptom of inattention.
The Brooklyn Bridge, complete with the bike lane
one recent critic told me no cyclist should expect to use.
The misunderstanding extends to those meant to enforce New York’s traffic rules. There has been understandable outrage after it emerged that a right-turning police officer knocked a cyclist off his bike on 9th St in Gowanus, very near my apartment, then had a fellow-officer write that his turn had been perfectly legal. My sense is that the incident might partly reflect police officers’ genuine conviction that it’s a cyclist’s job to avoid traffic turning across his or her path, not a driver’s job to yield.

I used to encounter similar attitudes when I cycled in London – and I can’t imagine they’ll have disappeared entirely when I return there later this year.

But London has at least started groping towards an answer to the kinds of incidents I keep encountering. After the disaster of the initial, blue-painted Cycle Superhighways, Transport for London has finally been shamed into providing some decent, segregated cycle paths on some of its busiest streets. Even when I lived there, London was already far better than New York at providing calming on side streets like 8th St to avoid incidents like the one I suffered on Saturday. There’s tragically no sign at all that anyone in New York feels under pressure to provide anything like that on this side of the Atlantic.

Yet New York’s continuing state of cycling limbo isn’t a merely theoretical problem. Cyclists truly can’t screech instantly to a halt of float harmlessly away from vehicles that menace them. The day before my row with the Angry Driver, a driver a couple of miles away had killed a cyclist riding to work in Clinton Hill. This morning, a huge truck, driving on a street where it wasn’t permitted, killed a man on his bike in Park Slope only 15 blocks or so from where I had my row.

Pedestrians walk down a temporary bike lane on 8th Avenue -
in a city that tells you cyclists don't really matter,
why wouldn't you?
The police’s instinct in both cases was immediately to blame the cyclists, essentially, for being where they were. They claimed – improbably, given what is known about her – that Lauren Davis, the victim in Clinton Hill, had been riding against traffic. They have focused, still more improbably, in the Park Slope crash on the theory that James Gregg, the victim, was hanging onto the truck that killed him to hitch a ride. I have never seen a cyclist in New York City do such a thing.

The instinct to exonerate the truck driver is all the more extraordinary given that it is clear he was breaking the law just by driving down that street. Both victims seem to me to have died from the grubby compromises forced on cyclists by cowardly road designers and politicians.

I am fortunate indeed that I have so far derived only physical benefits and no serious harm from my New York cycling. Yet, just hours after the Park Slope tragedy, I encountered the kind of contemptuous attitude that makes such tragedies  all too common. Riding through Fort Greene and needing to turn left, I looked over my shoulder to see the driver in the next lane absorbed in his phone, rather than his driving. Fearful that he wouldn’t spot me as I pulled across, I rode for a second or two staring at him while signalling.

That turned out to be an indignity too far. He sped up for a second or two, to block my turn. Then, when I’d successfully pulled left and turned out of his way, he yelled abuse. He was furious that I’d made him momentarily take his mind off his text.


  1. Your experience must be the same all over the world except perhaps where cycling is accepted such as in some European countries. I live in the Philippines and get the same treatment from drivers.

    1. Resty,

      Thanks for your comment. I think this is currently a pretty common experience for urban cyclists in many countries. The Netherlands, Denmark and a few other places are, sadly, the exception, rather than the rule.

      All the best,


  2. New York cycle activists should do what London cyclists did, and focus attention on every cyclist death - with demonstrations etc - to ensure they hit the news. And then make the case that these deaths are unacceptable, as they are absolutely preventable with good design..

    1. Fred,

      Thanks for your comment. I think this is a good idea. It hasn't happened, I think, because a lot of cyclist deaths in New York tend to happen in distant areas a long way from where the most activist-y cyclists live. But there was a memorial ride this past Sunday for the two riders killed in Park Slope and Clinton Hill, so this movement may be starting.

      All the best,


  3. If you're referring to London's Quietways specifically, they exist as Bike Boulevards in some US cities mostly in the West (Portland, OR calls them Neighborhood Greenways).

    I've long said that limiting some side streets (eventually all side streets) to local traffic only while allowing people walking or cycling to proceed through is the ideal solution for New York, not only because local shared-use streets are the bulk of the street network in Dutch cities but because we will almost never remove parking for cycling under any circumstances, not even on Jay Street or Chrystie St.

    I got doored in early February, ironically by a passenger door on a street with a curbside bike lane (the vehicle was parked in that lane). It's the harassment and stress I've faced since for avoiding the door-zone that has really made me angry at our low-quality cycling provision. Often I've had drivers point at the "cycling provision" and then had to explain to them why I wasn't using it. For instance, I get beeped at and tailgated on Vanderbilt:

    While sharrows do not belong along busy routes (they belong on bike boulevards!), at least in most of the US these are placed in the center of the lane, showing where someone cycling should be!

    You know Kent St in Brooklyn. Look at how the cycleway gives up at dead ends and driveways (Prospect Park West does this as well) rather than continuing the green pavement. These are our best designs and are comfortable infra, but in better cycling cities they sometimes use green paint on protected lanes ONLY at the junctions (indeed, why waste all that paint behind parked cars?).

    Our standard bike lanes are 5' here. Better cycling cities in the US generally at least use 6' lanes (big difference in terms of the ability to stay out of the door zone), and often paint them green nowadays, but even those are falling out of favor for protected lanes along the main roads where they have generally been used. The problem is, in much of New York every road is a main road. We haven't done anything to reduce through-traffic on side streets. Instead, we have the people who are supposed to be our advocates begging for more door-zone bike lanes on these side streets!

    1. In my city here in the UK, the average width of a painted-on-the-road cycle lane is 2-3 feet. I kid you not. The record is one which has been painted about a foot beyond the double yellow no-parking lines, so a total of maybe eighteen inches from the kerb.

    2. BBnet3000,

      I wasn't referring specifically to the Quietways, although I used in London to make a lot of use of the London Cycling Network, which was similarly conceived to the Quietways. It was a network of routes on back streets, which one rather had to learn. The more recent, more useful initiative is to put in a series of high-quality, two-way paths - known as Cycle Superhighways - next to main roads. These are superseding the old Cycle Superhighways, which weren't only for bikes, weren't super and weren't highways.

      You're right, nevertheless, that it's a challenge in New York that there really aren't any quiet side streets. It's an artifact (I think) of the grid system. Some filtered permeability and blocking-off of roads except to cyclists and local traffic could help to produce some of this.

      I completely understand your frustration, meanwhile, about getting grief for riding outside the doorzone. I can't tell you the number of people who've told me I need to get back in the bike lane. I sometimes tell them, "It's meant to be a haven, not a prison".

      All the best,


    3. Anonymous,

      Most painted bike lanes in New York are no more than three feet wide.

      All the best,


  4. Are bicyclists in NYC some sort of "unfavored" species, much like the "homeless", social outcasts and minorities?

    Those drivers you describe are behaving like bonafide "trophy pricks" and "trophy cunts". You know, "trust fund" offspring now all-grown-up (physically, not psychologically, of course).

    1. Tal,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I've suggested before that people feel a kind of reflexive dislike of cyclists similar to what they feel for some other out-groups.

      The difference, of course, is that those of us who are white and not obviously members of some other out-group can lock up our bicycles, walk away, and suffer no more discrimination.

      All the best,


    2. I have to be honest.
      As a full-time pedestrian and part-time bus rider my animosity can be towards BOTH motorists and bicyclists. I easily feel "crowded out" by both routinely.
      It's like something i read: When I'm driving I hate bicyclists and pedestrians. When I'm on my bicycle I hate motorists and pedestrians. When I'm walking around I hate motorists and bicycles.
      It's that domineering attitude so many people have of "having to 'take over'" wherever they're at. And such types can be engaging in most ANY mode of transportation at the time.
      I even have other pedestrians "force" me onto the grass or onto the curb or into the side of a building.

  5. I've been riding a bike in NYC for more than 40 years. I drove a cab for almost 20 years. I walk most places when I'm not riding my bike. I take my bike to work as much as i can. I do group rides on the weekends. I think this give me a different perspective that most bikers. Virtually every close call I have had as a biker or pedestrian has been, to some extent, MY FAULT - I did something stupid, I vegged out for a moment or something.

    I noticed a couple of things in your post - you were "barreling" down the street and you were in the middle of the street. If you are going down a city street consistently at 20 mph, of course you're going to have a problem when the unexpected occurs - try slowing down a little, it's not a race.

    You also seem to have many "rows." Do you think part of the problem could be you? Something to keep in mind - it's easier for me to see the BIIIIGGGG bus/truck than it is for the BIIIIIG bus/truck to see me. Bikers complain about being invisible - well, we ARE, to a great extent, invisible. Other than a pedestrian, we are the smallest thing out there. I'm not going to depend on the car/bus/truck to see me; I'm not going to fight with the car/bus/truck for space.

    Much of what you say is true, but it doesn't matter if your headstone says "I was in the right, dammit"

    1. Hi Rick!

      I get a lot of comments on this blog but I'm bound to say yours might be the most patronising I've ever received. Congratulations!

      Do I realise it's not a race? Well, dagnabbit - I'll have to tear off my entry numbers now because I plum thought it was.

      Or maybe I descend these streets at 20mph because it's a hell of a lot easier to fend off chasing motor vehicles at that speed than at 12 mph, the kind of speed I more typically go.

      As for the whole blaming-myself-for-crashes thing, I'm sorry you've been to blame for things that went wrong. I'm not sure I have been to blame for all the bad things that happened to me. For example, in 2009 in London, a driver came from behind me then at the last minute turned across my path into a side street and knocked me off. Could I, theoretically, if I had been looking over my shoulder at the right moment and braked immediately, have avoided it? Yes, I suppose. Was it, nevertheless, entirely the fault of a stupid, inattentive driver? Yes, indeed. Is that what statistics tell us leads to the vast bulk of crashes between drivers and vulnerable road users? Yes again. Is there consequently good reason to go on about oh-it-was-all-my-fault-really in this spirit of false humility? Not that I can see.

      Finally, you ask if part of the problem is me for my getting into some arguments with drivers. The answer to that is no. I hope that helps.


    2. WalksBikesDrives22 April 2016 at 18:03

      I also have the ability to see things from all perspectives as a car owner who rides a bike for commuting and fun, and spends a lot of time walking around the neighborhood with my family. When I have an issue with a driver, as a cyclist, it is not my fault. I can keep a consistent speed of 20mph, not because I am racing, but because I am relatively fit enough to maintain that speed and I am still travelling under the speed limit. I am not riding along for a lazy ride - my bike is transportation. I typically take the lane when I ride because this is the safest, and legal, way to ride when there is no bike lane. And the same driver behavior that puts me at risk on my bike is also a risk while walking and even while I am driving. I am so sick of getting honked at while, in my car, I am sitting in an intersection waiting for the crosswalk to clear before I turn. Now my diligence as a cyclist and a peDestrehan has, so far, kept me from getting badly injured. But the fact if I lapse for a moment on my defensiveness as either a pedestrian or a cyclist, I cannot be blamed for a driver's bad behavior. That is called victim blaming. I am defensive because I have to be because other peoples' bad behavior forces me to be defensive. Otherwise, it is like telling a person who was just assaulted that it is his fault because he didn't put his hands up to block his face.

    3. the "getting honked at while waiting to make a left turn and waiting for pedestrians" thing is EVERYTHING. people who honk this way, in the main, know EXACTLY why they are being "forced" to wait. they just don't care. at all. i highly recommend speaking with every uber driver or cab driver with whom you ride and begging them to be thoughtful about these things. tell them not to honk on your behalf.

    4. Yes, this was a patronizing comment. And what about cyclists who are children? If death is the penalty for,

      "I did something stupid, I vegged out for a moment or something."

      Then what of children who by definition are immature, easily distracted and have low attention spans? Do they deserve to be put to death for the "crime" of being a normal child?

  6. Maybe not so related, but this Sunday I was riding in a bike lane past a farmer's market and a car of one of the vendors parked near the bike lane had its door opened wide blocking all but a couple of inches of the bike lane.

    I approached with my bike all the way up to the door (my passive aggressive approach to making people aware that they have done something wrong without shouting at them). Two women immediately came over and one apologized profusely for letting that happen. "I am a cyclists myself. I'm a New York City cyclists." She made sure I understand that she understands what she did wrong.

  7. Failure to yield is the single most dangerous and common of traffic violations in my experience, and I've never seen anyone ticketed for it, even flagrant violations immediately in front of officers, in this city. Traffic enforcement in needs a much larger investment by NYPD if they really want to "Protect and Serve".

    Randy Cohen has a couple of great columns (and presentation) a few years back addressing some of these issues and associated mis-perceptions: and I'd urge taking a look!

  8. motorists , or most motorists are not skilled drivers, they think they are entitled to use our roadways anyway they want, because the powers that be allow them to think this way, even the police are not getting it, the law has to be layed out for everyone about bicyclists and road rights . every time i ride i hear shit from motorists that think they know what they're doing , makes me want to drive my bike like a mad messenger thats having a real bad day.


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