One of the nicest things about a New York City summer is the ease with which one can dash about town on a bicycle. Dedicated bike lanes, street signage and even traffic lights seem more and more to be designed with a two-wheeled commuter in mind.
With the launch of the new Citi Bike share programme in late May it seemed this fair city shifted its gears toward a democratic bicycle future. Organisers say that riders logged more than a million miles during the programme’s first month. Now hordes of people – otherwise usually on foot – are taking to the streets, paths and greenways of Manhattan and Brooklyn on flashy new bikes. At every intersection hipsters, business people and fleets of German tourists wait for the lights to change. If they pedal too soon it could mean certain death from a distracted lorry driver; if they pedal too late those behind them in the queue might grow angry, setting off a chorus of bike bells.
It is at these intersections where the truest of paradoxes rears its head. New York and its fast, impatient temper must come to terms with slow-minded, unpractised cyclists as they traverse some of the most treacherous roads in North America on brand new bicycles.
On a recent ride from the Lower East Side to Midtown I was stuck behind a few Citi Bike riders. They didn’t seem to understand the basic rules of passing and lane sharing. What’s more, they thought it appropriate to ring their bike bells as if merely to say, “Hey, I'm riding a bike!” Most of the chimes had little to do with impending danger or making sure an unaware pedestrian or cyclist knew he or she might be on a collision course. My fear is simple: if you ring that bell too much it might end up meaning that no one will take you seriously. It’s a bit like the boy who cried wolf.
While Citi Bike has made bikes accessible to everyone, the concepts of bike safety and etiquette still seem to be less democratically distributed. Don’t get me wrong: I think bikes for all is a great idea but I fear a baseline level of bicycle knowledge has yet to be imparted on many of the newcomers.
The numbers don’t lie. A recent survey of areas where Citi Bike kiosks are located found that in the past few months traffic police issued 7 per cent more bike tickets in Manhattan and a whopping 81 per cent more in Brooklyn compared to the same period last year. While the police commissioner simply cites “increased volume”, it’s clear that more people need to better understand what their responsibilities are on the bike path.
So, Citi Bike, I ask because I care: might there be a better way to show this city how to get moving? Let’s keep the bikes but what about a few fun billboards with easy-to-follow steps toward a safer ride? That way we can all ride more safely and happily.
Tristan McAllister is Monocle’s transport editor.