Atlantic Cities

The Rise of the Citizen Cyclist

The Rise of the Citizen Cyclist
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Next month, New York City will start rolling out a bike share program that will eventually add 10,000 bikes to the city’s streets. The time may finally have come to get over the idea that biking in New York is for outlaws and renegades.

That goes for the police. And it goes for bikers, too.

First, to the police: They seem to be busy with the annual ritual of bike ticket blitzes for things like not having a bell on your bike and riding on pedestrian paths in Central Park. These blitzes, as the Village Voice points out, are not announced ahead of time, unlike similar efforts that target drivers. Still can’t figure out the logic on that one.

That kind of inequity only reinforces the impression that bikes are marginal and cars are mainstream. Especially when the NYPD has a sad history of inadequate training for its officers in the finer points of bike law. Only 84 citations were issued for careless driving in 2011, a year in which 161 pedestrians and cyclists were killed by cars in the city. Those numbers don’t add up.

Next to the people on bikes: Thanks to bike share, bicycles will soon – at last! -- have the official imprimatur of the city as a legitimate mode of public transportation on a level with buses and subways. We can’t pretend any longer that it’s OK to flout the rules of the road because we aren’t recognized as legitimate users of the road.

The Wild West days are over. A bicyclist in New York will be, and should be, increasingly a domestic creature.

I’ve heard a lot of cyclists complaining about being tamed. They don’t like the fact that the new protected bike lanes make you ride more slowly. It used to be so much more exhilarating to pedal up First Avenue with a flock of cabs swooping and honking around you.

Too bad. What cyclists are giving up – death-defying thrills – is nothing compared to what we stand to gain, which is the right to bike in safety. A right that would be exercised by many people who right now are terrified to get on a bike in New York. I say this as someone who has many times ridden that First Avenue rodeo on an adrenaline high.

Being accepted as a legitimate member of society means learning better manners. Yes, I'm talking about stopping at red lights and stop signs and riding in the direction of traffic. Transportation Alternatives’ Biking Rules campaign, which emphasizes both bikers’ rights and their responsibilities, is a good place to start. I’m hoping, and expecting, that the bike share kiosks will have clear and comprehensive rules of the road posted in several languages.

But for cyclists to feel like it makes sense for them to behave, drivers need to be held to the same standard. A few months back, I  advocated for a "broken windows" approach to traffic enforcement, and I don’t have a problem with people on bikes getting tickets. But the approach has to apply to drivers as well as cyclists, even if cyclists might be easier for the cops to handle. Cries about the "crisis" of sidewalk delivery cyclists sound foolish and biased unless they are accompanied by routine prosecution of drivers who drive onto the sidewalk and kill pedestrians.

If the city is going to ticket-blitz cyclists for offenses like failing to have a bell on their bikes, cops should also enforce life-threatening crosswalk violations, as the city of Portland does on a regular basis.

In the past few years, New York has become a national leader in urban transportation policy by redesigning streets and taking back space for bikes and pedestrians. With the advent of the nation’s biggest bike share program, the city could radically change the way that Americans see bicycles as public transportation. But unless police and courts start treating drivers and bike riders equally, we’ll be going nowhere fast.

Top image: SVLuma/Shutterstock.com

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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