This post is a bit of a departure from what I’ve been writing about lately. It involves a post-pandemic quality-of-life issue that I suspect is not unique to New York City. But those of us who live in the city may be experiencing it more extremely. The issue is the chaos caused by the sudden explosion in the use of bicycles. Anyone who walks around the city these days has most likely been subject to nearly being hit by a bicycle running through a red light and/or speeding through an intersection. Sadly, this is just one small example of a larger problem.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have been bicycling around the city ever since I first moved here in 1975. I frequently go on 10–20-mile rides around Manhattan. I am a huge supporter of urban biking and have always felt that turning big cities into havens from the automobile could be the solution to many ills, not the least of which is the environmental impact of automobile traffic. I’ve also been very supportive of the creation of bicycle lanes, which theoretically keep bicyclists safe from the threat of heavier vehicles.
However, the efforts to turn New York into a bicycle-friendly city, while admirable, never went far enough in thinking through how to safely share the streets among bicycles, motor vehicles and pedestrians.
And then came the pandemic. The emergence of an entirely new layer of delivery services exponentially increased the number of bicycles on the streets, at the same moment that people started to avoid rapid transit. Worse yet, many of those bicycles are now motorized, presenting an even greater threat—both to the riders and to pedestrians. Many delivery folks are riding vehicles that hardly qualify as bicycles; we are talking about motorized scooters, dune buggies, and others—some of which are capable of speeds higher than 40 mph.
The underlying issue is that there are no regulations to tame this chaos, and even if there were, as things stand, there would be no way to enforce them. For context, keep in mind that around 100 years ago, when city streets were being overtaken by horseless carriages (aka automobiles), the same sort of chaos reigned. Universal traffic laws, licenses and registrations were ultimately adopted and now we don’t think twice about having those kinds of regulations in our lives. Something similar needs to be done now.
So, with all humility, here are some suggestions to chew on…
1. Any motorized vehicle that can go more than 10 miles per hour should need to be registered and licensed. These vehicles should not be allowed in bike lanes or in parks or on sidewalks. In actuality, the rules already exist and are posted, but without a license plate number or any other way of tracking down the driver, there is no way to enforce it.
2. Any business that uses bicycle-delivery people should be required to register the bicycles or e-bikes that are being used for such purposes. For each delivery vehicle, businesses (local merchants or larger delivery services) would have to pay a $75 annual fee for each, which would get them an official plate that would be hung from the rear of the bicycle seat. Like a license plate, it would have an identifying number, but also the name of the employer. It would be the employer’s responsibility to make sure that anyone who rides one of these vehicles obeys any and all traffic laws—riding the correct way down one-way streets, stopping at red lights—all the obvious things that bicyclists are currently not doing.
3. The city should supply pamphlets with each of these licenses, laying out the laws, and making the point that skirting these laws puts them in jeopardy of killing someone (or themselves). It should emphasize to the delivery people that safety has to come before speed, and that infractions will cost their employers money.
4. If such a system were put in place, pedestrians could potentially become the enforcement mechanism. There could be an app that would allow people to report delivery people who did not abide by the laws, and they would be able to upload photos of the bicycle ID plates as part of the report. Additionally, traffic cameras could be added to bicycle lanes and park paths, just like those that already exist on many streets for cars.
5. For every 3 reports of a particular bicycle plate, there would be a $150 fine, which would be the responsibility of the business to pay, not the delivery person. This would certainly incentivize businesses to educate their delivery folks. It would also incentivize them to put less emphasis on “fast” deliveries. And I promise you that if the delivery folks starting obeying traffic laws, it would create a culture of adherence that would spread to more casual bike riders.
6. Meanwhile, motorists need to be kept out of bike lanes. That includes police cars, moving vans and all manner of delivery trucks. If a bike lane gets obstructed by Con Ed or by road repair or by construction crews, they should be required to create a well-marked, alternate path that doesn’t throw bicyclists right into the middle of traffic. This should be true even if these obstructions are only for short periods of time.
7. Google maps and other such apps need to hone their bicycle turn-by-turn instructions to account for the safest routes, pointing them to streets with bike lanes, and toward adherence to one-way bike lanes and streets. Also, the city must create more bike lanes to make more such routes available. In particular, there need to be more bike routes crosstown through Central Park.
8. The city needs to install more speed bumps in places where bicycles and pedestrians share the pathways. This is particularly true in parks. The shared paths in Riverside Park (for example) are treated by motorized vehicles (which should not be there to begin with) like the Indianapolis 500. I’ve seen frightened seniors standing frozen while trying to cross a path filled with cycles of all sorts rounding corners at high speed. Speed bumps would force them to slow down.
9. One thing I’ve notice when I’m bicycling is that pedestrians cross the street with their ears, rather than their eyes. Bicycles are silent, so people obliviously walk into the bike lanes without looking. At intersections with bike lanes, there should be stencils on the street by the curb that warn pedestrians to look for bicycles before crossing. These would be much like the ones in the UK that warn us non-English to “Look Right.”
10. Finally, kudos to Senator Schumer, who has procured Federal funding for the creation of storefront resting places and charging stations for bicycle messengers. Giving them this kind of dedicated space will hopefully help to unclutter the sidewalks.
These ideas are just a first volley to create a discussion that needs to happen. I’m all in favor of having bicycles be a permanent part of New York City’s future, but in its present state, the situation is a hazard for just about everyone. Please feel free to come up with better ideas if you have them.