There Needs to be a Major Shift in Opinion About NYC Bikers


(Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News via MCT)
(Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News via MCT)

In June, during the race for the Democratic nomination for Mayor, I attended a rally for Bill Thompson where he gave a prepackaged speech and promptly opened the floor up for questions. There were no takers at first, until a stodgy old man raised his hand. “So, what are you going to do about the bike lanes?” the man asked in a contentious tone, revealing his hatred of the citywide initiative. Disturbingly, the question garnered the man chuckles and cheers of agreement from the above-40 crowd.

I grimaced.

I have consistently biked since spring of this year. Every weekday, I bike from my apartment in East Bushwick to Lincoln Center for school, then to work near the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), and then back to Brooklyn. Miles wise, it’s a lot. However, it saves me about thirty to fifty dollars a week, it’s a great way to stay fit, and it saves the environment the CO2 emissions of one person’s transportation (which adds up!). I often get to class dripping in sweat and have to bring an extra shirt with me wherever I go, but the pros definitely outweigh the cons. My ability to bike was made possible by the efforts of the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) to add bike lanes under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Without these lanes, there would be no room for riders to enjoy these many and varied benefits of biking.

It has only been in the past decade that the implementation of bike lanes has paved the way for a dedicated portion of commuters to bike consistently. Throughout the 1980s, oscillating public opinion on the subject swayed decisions by then-Mayor Ed Koch to add many lanes in 1980 only to tear them out in 1987. Since then, bike lanes have been reintroduced, but there is the possibility that we will lose them again because of the public’s negative opinion.

The man at the Bill Thompson rally said it all: “Many bike lanes are just stupid, the streets are not wide enough to have them, and traffic is stopped whenever a taxi or truck has to use the lane to unload something.”   Although some bike lanes are easier to ride on and share with vehicles than others, I did not find this common critique applicable to bike lanes as a whole.

And this critique still doesn’t explain the anger that bikers are consistently subjected to. Riding in a poorly implemented lane is an unpleasant experience for bikers, too. Sharing a road with greedy drivers swerving in between double-parked delivery trucks is unquestionably the worst part of biking in the city. As a biker, I agree we need to involve the community more when laying down these bike lanes, but I want to insist that bikers—even though they are only passing through—are very much a part of every community in New York, and even if we curse at you for cutting us off, we don’t scapegoat all drivers in the city for a few poorly laid out roads or freeways. Certain poorly placed lanes are the problem, not bike lanes at large.

I think a major solution to this issue—besides patiently waiting for a radical change in public opinion—is to encourage more people to bike. Right now, the number of New Yorkers who bike is almost exactly 1%. This is a sorry number compared to other cities with worse biking accommodations: Portland leads the pack with 6%, Washington D.C.’s number is over 4%, San Francisco is just under 4%, Boston and even Philadelphia have twice as many citizens by percentage biking than we do at 2% each. Portland’s substantial lead over these other cities was recently achieved thanks to a large-scale effort to add more bike lanes in a sensible way—a not-so-radical change that NYC could easily implement. According to a bicycle advocacy group based in Missouri, the increase in the number of bikers in Portland with the amount spent on bike lanes was “almost perfectly correlated.” It is clear that more bike lanes mean more bikers, and more bikers mean a fitter city, less subway congestion and less room to hold generalized negative opinions about bikers as a whole.

I glowered at the man at Thompson’s rally, but I have hope. Recently elected New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has the goal of increasing the percentage of New Yorkers biking everyday from 1% of the city to an impressive 6% by 2020. We need to stand up to the baseless, negative opinions on the subject and encourage New Yorkers to take a break from the subway and bike to work every now and then. After all, it’s good for you!