A few years ago, New York City decided to get its act together on bicycle infrastructure and is already reaping the net public benefits.
By Ryan McGreal
Published January 10, 2012
There are always plenty of excuses not to do something. Nothing is easier than to shoot down an idea by detailing all the reasons it can't possibly work. Every great program we enjoy today exists despite the best efforts of squelchers and naysayers to drown it in cold water when it was first proposed and promoted.
So it's always inspiring to watch a good idea brought to life by champions who have the courage to stand up to the bullying and mockery of its detractors.
New York City Ciclovia (Image Credit: Skyscraperpage)
Back in 1997, New York launched an ambitious plan to build a 2,900 km bike lane network. However, progress was slow and after a decade, the network was only 750 km. Even so, cycling had doubled between 2000 and 2007.
That year, Mayor Mike Bloomberg appointed Janette Sadik-Khan as the NYC Department of Transportation commissioner on a strong mandate to re-balance the city's transportation system away from automobiles. Over the next four years, she added another 350 km of bike lanes and doubled the number of commuter cyclists again.
While the number of cyclists has been going up, the number of cycling injuries has not. Overall, the risk of injury on a bike has fallen by 75% since 2000 while the number of cyclists has quadrupled.
Of course, New York's cycling system is still a work in progress. This year, the city will launch a bicycle share with 10,000 vehicles at over 600 stations, while at the same time replacing 6,000 parking meters with new bike racks.
Meanwhile, the New York Police Department is frequently accused of targeting cyclists with tickets for "disrupting traffic" and other violations. Last spring, an NYPD officer apparently harangued a female Dutch tourist for "distracting the cars" because she was cycling in a skirt.
The gender ratio of cyclists is another important indicator of a city's bicycle-friendliness. Bike-friendly cities are fairly gender balanced, but in NYC, male cyclists still outnumber female cyclists three to one.
However, that rate has been falling as the number of new female cyclists increases faster than the number of new male cyclists. Only a decade ago, the ratio of male to female cyclists was six to one.
According to comparative research, the most effective way to attract more female cyclists is to physically separate bike lanes from automobile lanes. NYC DOT under Sadik-Khan seems to understand this, as their priority since 2007 has been to build physically separated bike lanes and greenways rather than mere painted lines.
Of course, not everyone in New York celebrates the steady increase in cycling. Bike lanes are more popular among 18-34 year olds than they are among the over-65 set.
Last March, a well-connected group of Brooklyn residents calling themselves "Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes" sued the city to remove a protected two-way bike lane along Prospect Park. The suit was supported by former NYC DOT commissioner Iris Weinshall and her husband, Democratic US Senator Chuck Schumer.
The suit was thrown out in August on procedural grounds, though NBBL is appealing the decision.
The real issue, despite the group's claim to support "better bike lanes", is that adding bike lanes in this case means removing automobile lanes. However, this ignores the many net public benefits of increased cycling that even accrue to drivers.
First, a cyclist takes up significantly less space on the road than a motorist. Since traffic congestion is what happens when too much road space is taken up by vehicles, traffic congestion actually goes down when more people ride bicycles.
Yet people who oppose bike lanes complain that bicycles "cause" congestion - as opposed to all those motor vehicles.
Second, a cyclist weighs at least ten times less than a motorist - around 90 kg (200 lbs) instead of 1,000 kg for a sub-compact car to as high as 2,500 kg for a full-size SUV. That means an order of magnitude less wear and tear on the road.
Yet again, people who oppose bike lanes say the city should instead spend its money fixing roads that have been damaged by all the vehicular traffic on them.
Third, not only does increased cycling reduce the risk of injury for cyclists, but it also reduces the risk of injury for motorists. A research article by Wesley E. Marshall and Norman W. Garrick titled, "Evidence on Why Bike-Friendly Cities Are Safer for All Road Users" explains that streets designed to accommodate a variety of modes also result in lower vehicle speeds.
Lower speeds, in turn, accomplish two goals: they reduce the number of crashes and collisions, and also reduce the severity of injuries in the crashes and collisions that do occur.
Again, there is a conflict between the desire to make streets safer for all users and the desire to make streets faster for drivers. Like an increasing number of cities, New York has decided that the former is more important than the latter, and is already reaping the benefits of that decision.
What will Hamilton decide?
First published in the January 2012 issue of Urbanicity.