Toward responsible cycling

By Jack Brown

Cycling in New York City is no longer regarded as something exclusively good and “green.” Many people are “mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore.” This refers, on the one hand, to the scofflaw riding and attitude on the part of rogue working, commuting and recreational cyclists. On the other hand, there is the hubris and fabrication of those who function like lobbyists and exert influence on the implementation of bicycle amenities. This is allegedly being done for our own good whether we like it or not. There is, we are informed, a morally and pragmatically superior approach at work here.

People are taking to the streets — not simply to ride for the sake of health and the environment, but to protest. At the First Annual Downtown Upright Bike Ride two weeks ago, The HUB’s proprietor, the pedicab visionary George Bliss, and actor Matthew Modine led the “upright” faction, which advocates a responsible, sensible, kinder, gentler approach to cycling. This group also hopes to ward off what it views as draconian measures resulting from a possibly anti-biking backlash.

Leslie Sicklick is organizing a demonstration on Fri., Oct. 15, at the corner of 14th St. and First Ave. The event’s purpose is to express dissatisfaction with a raft of bike culture phenomena, including rogue riding, bike lanes and reduced motor vehicle lanes.

On Sun., Sept. 19, The New York Times “Spokes” column, written by David Goodman, presented the point of view of those who advocate a more balanced approach to a responsible bike culture. This was a first. The New York Post — with a number of angry and bike-injured staffers — has produced a steady drumbeat of articles critical of the current style of management.

CBS News’s Tony Aiello produced a five-part series called “Bike Bedlam.” Aiello’s reporting presented a graphic picture of the often-anarchic practices of cyclists and the problems related to the bike lanes. Bedlam culminated with an acknowledgement by Department of Transportation spokesman Seth Solomonow that statistics ballyhooed in a “landmark” study of pedestrian safety in mid-August were inaccurate or fabricated. D.O.T. also apologized to reporter Aiello for accusing him of “inaccurate and irresponsible reporting.”

Clearly, there is turmoil in the streets and on the sidewalks. What then can be done to provide a balm in Gotham? What can be done to make the ride toward a responsible bike culture more reasonable and genuinely noble?

It is clear that this problem has been around for decades. It is also clear that it has been allowed to fester until it has become a public-safety crisis.

In 2003 the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service conducted a study, “Pedestrian and Bicycle Standards and Innovation in Central Cities.” This was done in conjunction with NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials). The study was inconclusive save one point: It concluded that a successful resolution to the problem would require a cooperative approach.

This concept can be translated into a task force. It would, at the core, bring together the Police Department, D.O.T., legislators, educators and possibly representatives of advocacy groups.

This group would meet to devise a strategy to achieve a responsible bike culture and meet as needed to see it through. It would be useful to have a respected transportation professional head the task force. Perhaps a George Mitchell type with negotiator skills.

It will take time to devise the necessary, balanced and comprehensive legislation and time to pass it in Albany and the City Council. Effective enforcement is the bottom line. There are some aggressive riders that will not otherwise comply with common sense and common decency. When the rules of the road fail, responsible enforcement promotes responsible cycling.

A more reliable method of gathering statistics on bike/pedestrian accidents needs to be devised. A functional 311 system could provide part of this. The use of aided reports by the Police Department would complement this. Hunter College is partnering with The Gruskin Family Foundation to gather hospital emergency room reports. This would add a third leg.

This writer recommends a shakeup in the Department of Transportation. Two deputy mayors have been assigned to supervise the wayward agency. D.O.T. both ignores hard data, such as Hunter College’s “Biking Behavior in Midtown,” and fabricates statistics to suit its own agenda. Replacing D.O.T. Commissioner Sadik-Khan with a seasoned transportation professional who is willing to listen to and take into consideration the expertise of other city departments and the needs of various communities would work to restore a sense of optimism and enthusiasm for a responsible bike culture.

The model cities for what is being done here now — Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Berlin — are less dense and often have wider streets. It takes time, cooperation and consistency to establish a responsible bike culture. If Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz can be paraphrased, New York City has been subjected to an exercise in zealotry. It’s time to slow down, calm down and use cooperation to work toward the public safety of pedestrians, cyclists and motorists alike.

Brown is the former owner of the Hi Ho Cyclery store, 165 Avenue A, and spokesperson, Coalition Against Rogue Riding