By Kieran Loughney
The threat is stealthy, silent, spine-tingling, and all too real. Our strolls through the West Village had delighted us before the danger emerged. But things changed. Moving along sidewalks warily, we gently chided the culprits as they whizzed by. “Careful there, please,” we’d say. As the risk intensified, and our patience wore thin, we then scolded them for their recklessness. “Hey, get off the sidewalk, you’re a hazard,” we complained. Our outrage continued to grow as encounters with these gormless miscreants increased in frequency. We shouted, made rude gestures, cursed. My fiancé Patti uncharacteristically screamed a slang term for a female reproductive organ at one fast-moving woman cycling within inches of us as we used a crosswalk. Patti’s fury shocked me as much as it appealed to my sense of justice. I took to bellowing at them, “It’s illegal!” My voice would echo off surrounding brownstones, startling our fellow pedestrians who often then exclaimed, “You’re right!” The offenders, on bicycles, e-bikes, scooters, and skateboards, either responded vehemently with “F*** you,” or, unable to hear us through earbuds, continued unperturbed on their hazardous trajectories. We keenly understood that a sudden turn, or God forbid a stumble, could place us in the path of a speeding conveyance and result in a sprain, broken bone, head trauma, or worse.
According to New York City’s Department of Transportation, there are 1,375 miles of bike lanes traversing the five boroughs. By the end of this year 80 more miles will be added. The city is on track to open 75 additional miles of bike lanes before the end of 2022. The department estimates nearly 800,000 New Yorkers ride bikes regularly. About 530,00 bike trips are made each day in the city. Across the boroughs, the use of bicycles increased by an average of 26 percent from 2014 to 2020. Midtown Manhattan ridership rose 61 percent during that period. Further increase in bike ridership is assured.
So, why the burgeoning number of cyclists on sidewalks, traveling in bike lanes in the wrong direction, ignoring traffic lights, buzzing crosswalks, violating city laws? Thanks for your small carbon footprint, cyclists. You’re advancing a cause that we share through our support of several environmental groups. But must bike tires treading on pedestrians’ comfort and safety, and in some cases literally on pedestrians’ bodies, be the price for a greener city? Are the riders simply lazy, avoiding traffic, trying to save time? Do they relish frightening pedestrians? When an upset pedestrian complains, why do they respond defensively? Do they make a leap of logic that goes something like: “I’m saving the planet by using a bike, so everyone should yield to me…?”
While heedless cyclists pose a risk to others, they compromise their own safety too. A recent scene captured a trifecta of recklessness. A man with a young child perched on his handlebars rode south on a crowded sidewalk on Eighth Avenue. Swerving among pedestrians, cellphone in his right hand, he carried on a loud conversation. Neither he nor the precariously positioned child wore helmets.
Information about bicycle/pedestrian crash statistics, and enforcement of bike safety laws, can be hard to come by. After speaking with staff at the mayor’s office, the NYC Department of Transportation, and the Sixth Precinct of the NYPD, I was directed to submit questions by email, and in response was sent links to web pages containing some statistical data—much of it outdated, difficult to access, or of little relevance.
The laws regarding the use of bicycles in the city, however, are straightforward. Cyclists over the age of 12 may not ride on sidewalks, must stop at red lights and stop signs, and are subject to all rules governing motorized vehicles. Bicycles must be equipped with lights and bells. Riders are required to report any accident involving injury or property damage to police, and share contact and any insurance information with the victim. Hundreds of injuries have resulted from pedestrian/bike crashes, one uptown incident resulting in the death of an actress. Filing a report of a bike accident involves completing a form downloadable from the NYCDOT. Cycling violations are reportable on the city’s 311 website. Both resources require the use of a computer or smartphone, devices which many senior citizens and others lack.
Nevertheless, glimmers of hope have emerged amid the chaos. A man rode his bike on the sidewalk near Hudson River Park some weeks ago. Patti was using a cane that day and we walked arm in arm as he approached us. We complained and he immediately dismounted the bike, apologized, and seemed to choke back tears as he told us, “I’ve been frustrated by bikers on sidewalks myself. I realize now I’m part of the problem.” Just today we encountered a cyclist on the same sidewalk. When we pointed out his mistake, he also became contrite and began walking his bike, apologizing profusely. Earlier this week, before we stepped from a curb on Eighth Avenue, a cyclist passed us southbound in a northbound bike lane. I shouted, “It’s one way, jackass!” A small woman following close behind him was also cycling the wrong way. She wore a black coat and equestrian style helmet. As she approached, I heard her say, “You are absolutely correct.” She quickly turned off onto a nearby street. This validation of our rights came as a welcome comfort.
Jane Jacobs’ childhood home was two doors away from where I lived in Scranton, Pennsylvania before I moved to New York. Just blocks from our present home in the West Village, an historical plaque on 555 Hudson Street marks the building where Jacobs, author of The Life and Death of the American City, also lived. What would the visionary urban planner make of the risks pedestrians face today on the sidewalks of her beloved West Village?