Envisioning the New World

Most of my blog posts are prompted by Streetsblog comments. Something written down catches my eye and I start cogitating on it. Once in a while I can extract a new post from the thinking I do; often times it just reduces down to one of the messages I’ve already identified. I see no need to write a new post about the same thing every time it catches my eye.

Several regular commenters this week have been discussing transportation mode share (the proportion of trips made by car, transit, bike, or foot), and how to change New York City’s mode share to increase bike and foot traffic. I support this goal and read posts and comments on the subject eagerly. The advantage of mode share over other frequently discussed goals is that mode share is quantitative; it can be measured. Setting quantitative goals is, I feel, a positive, because I see the drawback of qualitative goals to be in their expansion citywide. Many people, I have indicated, suffer from subjective worldview, where they are chiefly concerned with their own circumstances or their own ride to work. It’s not debilitating, but it does make open discussion difficult as the subjective worldview holder cannot compromise on goals; progress out of sight is not progress to these advocates. So choosing as a goal to increase bike-walk mode share has the benefit of being widely desirable without prescriptively suggesting which interventions go where.

The discussion about mode share (and here) soon starts to drift away from the goal and instead boomerangs back to the qualitative style, where advocates tout their favorite interventions and their likelihood to increase bike-walk mode share.

My takeaway from the discussion is this: our contribution as internet commenters is pretty much limited to a laundry list of interventions that should, one hopes, result in the desired change. But the interventions are more tangible and more desirable than the change itself. We all have one-track minds, racing from the present to a future cycling nirvana along a predetermined course.

But if I have one goal in this series of bicycle-related posts, it’s to herald that there is more than one way to get to nirvana, and concomitantly, to suggest that slavishly copying what works in other places may not be the best way to get to nirvana here. New York today is nothing like Amsterdam 50 years ago, so it’s unlikely that New Yorkers doing what was done in Amsterdam 50 years ago would naturally win for us the Amsterdam of 2016 as our future of 2066. And additionally, who knows tomorrow? Is the Amsterdam cycling boom of today actually durable, or in 2066 will it be the Dutch who are copping ideas on bicycle urbanism from the New York of the teens?

For this reason I appreciate Steven Fleming and his Velotopia, which serves as a convenient outer bound to scoping efforts in service of a better world for bicycling. If we really wanted to make New York a bicycling city, I like to say, we would fill in the East River. I don’t actually anticipate this happening, which is helpful, as conceding that a certain goal is unattainable is the first step to generating actually attainable goals.

So here are some questions: would common-and-garden urbanist interventions improve bike-walk mode share, are these interventions actually attainable, and are there other interventions that might also improve bike-walk mode share?

It’s a truth about statistics that bringing up the lagging indicators makes the biggest change to the overall figure. Conversely, improving the areas where indicators are most positive makes little difference. This fact suggests addressing the least-urban parts of New York City first, before trying to improve the most urban. It also suggests that if the most urban parts of New York (Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn, the Bronx south of Fordham Road) were judged separately from the suburban parts, the bike-walk mode share would be quite impressive. And most importantly of all, it’s the built environment that determines how people get around it.

My direct experience with suburban New York City is in northeastern Queens (Whitestone and Bayside), a suburban landscape with single family homes on small lots. Business districts are low-rise and stretch only a block or two. Downtown Flushing, however, is more built up, with newly erected 10+ story towers dominating the landscape. In Whitestone and Bayside, I see parents driving their kids to the bus stop and multiple cars parked in front of the houses. If families are looking for good schools, easy commutes to Long Island, Westchester and Connecticut, and yard space, Bayside and Whitestone seem like good options. The urbanist plan would be to develop more densely around the train stations, with multifamily apartment buildings, but this concept is not keyed into increasing bike-walk mode share, as that part of Queens is more than 10 miles away from midtown Manhattan, a little far to bike. It’s a good concept, but it is not going to increase bike-walk mode share.

Note also that traditional dei-ex-machina solutions to increasing bike-walk mode share, e.g. sudden rise in oil prices, end of subsidies for motoring, have the effect of lowering house prices in suburban neighborhoods, which then makes them more desirable for people who can’t bike, walk, or subway to work and need places to store motor vehicles.

Comments Worth Saving: Manhattan Walkability and the Obstacle of Central Park

I left this comment a couple weeks ago on Streetsblog, discussing the possibility of developing bicycle routes across Central Park:

The park itself is the problem. Who decided it would be a good idea to separate the East and West Sides with an imitation landscape? As Dr. Bones points out, crossing the darn thing on bicycle involves long detours or inconvenient walking or both.

Even on foot, there are really only seven transverse routes: W 63 to E 60, along the north side of Hecksher PG and south of the zoo; W 67 to E 69, along the north side of Sheep Meadow and crossing south of Rumsey Playfield; 72d St; W 81 to E 79, past the Delacorte, along the south side of the Great Lawn, and out south of the Met; W 85 to E 84, along the north side of the Great Lawn, and north of the Met; 96th along the path marked for bikes, or 97th by the tennis courts and bathrooms (on opposite sides of the transverse road); and 102d via the shortcut road.

The four routes south of the reservoir are indirect and winding, usually very crowded with people on foot, and poorly marked as cross-park routes. I did use to go around the north end of the Great Lawn after dark back 10 years ago and that was never a problem, but perhaps it has gotten busier now.

The notion that the transverses could be made tolerable for bicycling is seductive, but who wants to ride in a jersey-barriered lane in a ditch? It lacks appeal as anything more than an expedient shortcut.

It seems to me that in a contest between maintaining the park according to the Olmstead-Vaux vision and using parkland to create bicycle facilities, the architects’ vision must take precedence. A three-block-wide green zone in the middle of Manhattan is of course going to impede people getting from one side to the other, no matter how much bicycle infrastructure you build. If Olmstead and Vaux wanted to make bicycling between East and West Sides easy, they wouldn’t have built the park.

Moving on to another aspect of Manhattan’s walkability versus bikeability, I came down firmly on the side of Manhattan being the epitome of walkability, with negative consequences for bikeability, in a short BikePortland comment,

As a Manhattan resident and daily bicyclist, I can attest to the truth of this statement. On my block (no crossing streets), I have day care, flower stand, restaurant, convenience store, pharmacy, fish restaurant, pizza parlor, subway entrance, newsstand, and supermarket. Everything I need, and too close to make bicycling worthwhile. The farmers’ market is about the farthest unique thing away, and that’s only a 20-minute walk.

Interviewing the Elves

Figuring out why people who choose not to do something don’t in fact do it is like attempting to interview the elves who live inside your refrigerator but come out only when the light is off. People already working for a company might tell you what makes them unhappy. But these complaints won’t necessarily pinpoint the factors that keep women and minorities away from studying computer science in the first place.

Eileen Pollack, “What Really Keeps Women Out Of Tech,” New York Times, Sunday Review, page 3, 10/11/2015

Pollack’s metaphor is a trailer-load of apt when applied to the perennial question of bicycle advocates, “How do we get more people in the saddle?” One problem I see advocates having is that their own good fortune (or commodious circumstances) blinds them to the struggles that people at present considering whether to ride a bike actually face. This is an error that I have previously noted and categorized as a kind of fundamental attribution error, but I think it’s actually deeper than that. I see fundamental attribution error when I see bicycle advocates dismiss other people’s apparent reasons for not riding a bicycle as laziness or unfamiliarity. But the error that Pollack identifies is made on a different level.

Simply put, someone already bicycling sees his or her perceived choke points and difficulties as pervasive. The best example of this is the missing Second Avenue bike lane. Between 59th St and 34th St, there is no Second Avenue bike lane; there are signs along the leftmost traffic lane that say, “Bicyclists May Take Full Lane,” but not green paint or even a reserved door-zone lane. Commenters, some of whom are actual real-life bicycle advocates, are complaining on Streetsblog all the time about this, even hijacking posts about bike lanes in other parts of the city to do so. “Why are the authorities painting these subpar bike lanes in Washington Heights when the Second Avenue bike lane is still missing,” for instance.

From a wide-angle perspective, it’s clear that a New Yorker’s decision whether to bike or not to bike on any day is probably very little influenced by those 25 blocks without a bike lane. Plenty of people, after all, are not bicycling into midtown Manhattan at all, let alone the East Side. Here’s where Pollack’s insight comes in. While we can fairly easily attribute ridership to the presence of a bike lane on a certain street, it is more difficult to attribute the lack of ridership in the city overall to the absence of a bike lane on a certain street. The Second Avenue advocates’ argument is that better bicycle infrastructure on those 25 blocks will have some kind of domino effect, the riders irresistibly drawn by the lane’s presence channeling like a spring tide along all other bicycle infrastructure in Manhattan, thus by safety-in-numbers creating more and more bicyclists until all 8.3 million of us New Yorkers are hastening to and fro on two wheels.

This argument blithely assumes that there are no other constraints on bicycling in midtown, that nobody is hunting in vain for a bike share bicycle, or unable to find a safe place to park, or obliged to leave work after dark (or leave home before dawn). It recalls the old chestnut, the reserve army of bicyclists, in this case waiting in their midtown offices with padded shorts on for the Second Avenue bike lane to be opened.

I fully agree that the lack of the Second Avenue bike lane does make bicycling to Brooklyn from midtown more hairy and fretful than it needs to be. But this effect is only noticeable if you are already bicycling to Brooklyn from midtown (like, I expect, most of the advocates). Bicycling advocates have already worked through all the other difficult aspects of commuting by bicycle (finding the parking space, packing the clean shirt) and the implementation of the full Second Avenue bike lane is the one thing that would make their commute easier. Pollack’s insight is that the one thing for the advocate is likely not the one thing for someone ready to get in the saddle.



Shortcomings of Bicycle Infrastructure

Here are three things to keep in mind about bicycle infrastructure as it relates to advocacy efforts. I am not complaining about bike lanes and bridge crossings. I am not complaining even about shared lanes and onstreet bike lanes. However I believe that blogs and bicycle news sources, like Streetsblog, are biased toward infrastructure and away from ordinary people. Partly this is because infrastructure is generally publicly funded and has a set of news hooks (meetings, installation, openings) associated with it; partly this is because it is seen as universally applicable and therefore interesting to people who live far away and won’t use it. I fear that news organizations’ natural emphasis on paint and concrete leads people to believe that infrastructure is what will get people on bicycles.

The first thing to remember about infrastructure is that the only group who can install bike infrastructure is the authorities. Ordinary people and advocates for people on bicycles can’t install bike infrastructure. When advocates set infrastructure as their number one priority, that means that their number one priority is to petition the authorities, not to get more people on bicycles. I believe that the most effective way to get people on bicycles is to show them people like themselves on bicycles (this is the reason why Cycle Chic was an effective form of bicycle advocacy; it made bicycling an aspirational activity for a certain group of stylish people).

For someone like me who enjoys bicycling, Adonia Lugo’s report on diversity in bicycle advocacy is so welcome because it shows what individual people are doing to spread the word about bicycling. I appreciate reading about how other enthusiastic people create real opportunities to support people who bike and share their enthusiasm. I confess that my own personal path of bicycle advocacy has wound through many boring community meetings, and that I doubt my effectiveness as an advocate.

Second, infrastructure is expensive to authorities, and therefore its placement is not value-free. Infrastructure–whether bus lines, subways, highways and interchanges, or protected bicycle lanes–comes at a cost. Paid workers have to drive the thermoplast truck or pour the concrete. This means that infrastructure will go where authorities want it, not necessarily where local residents want it. Authorities must comply with larger-scale regulations and goals and can’t just replace automobile parking with a bike lane, or widen an intersection to place a roundabout.

In addition, the fact that bicycle infrastructure costs money means that it is subject to a “rollout” model; each block of protected lane or thermoplast stripe costs additional money. Cash-constrained authorities will put the infrastructure where they think it is best placed, or where there is dedicated funding to pay for it.

Third, what makes the bicycle a remarkable machine is how little infrastructure it needs. People on bicycles don’t need rails on the streets, they don’t need elaborate traffic control systems, they don’t need merge ramps, they don’t need parking structures. They don’t even need elevated ways. What we call bicycle infrastructure is not there to encourage bicycling, it’s there to keep motorists from discouraging bicycling. This insight contradicts the idea that bicycle infrastructure should measure up to some form of “cost-benefit” analysis. The costs of bicycle infrastructure are the costs of allowing motor vehicles to travel without hindrance from bicycles; the benefits go to the same motor vehicles.

Points two and three together remind us that as authorities embrace the concept of requiring bicycles to have their own infrastructure, they will install that infrastructure to reinforce the biases of planners and other shadowy, unaccountable officials. My neighbors and I, though we inhabit a gridded paradise at the northern end of Manhattan, are unable to effect a comprehensive bicycle infrastructure plan that would allow people on bikes to travel easily and conveniently in all cardinal directions and access the bridges to the Bronx and New Jersey without difficulty. Instead, we have a half-hearted implementation of a Bicycle Master Plan that dates back to the 20th century. We get the infrastructure that we are told we should have, an infrastructure which takes for granted the primacy of motor vehicle traffic and is therefore inefficient for bicycles.

I confess that what I hear about the Dutch system of bicycle infrastructure doesn’t make me feel much better. They have a book of standards there that is better suited for bicycling, yes. But in everything I read about how the Dutch authorities implement those standards, there is no discussion of public participation. I enjoy bicycling, yes, and I value the chance to ride my bicycle safely, but I also value the opportunity to discuss my neighborhood and potential improvements to it with my neighbors.

There is no venue for discussion of the relative values of bicycling and motoring for getting around in our dense neighborhood, or of the justice of our neighborhood being the de facto doorstep for people driving to midtown Manhattan or New Jersey. I don’t think there can be such a venue unless groups like the ones Ms. Lugo profiles take root among my neighbors.

Bike Counters and Social Justice

Here are several comments to the Echo in the City blog and to Streetsblog, on the subject of bike counters and research methods. Bicycle infrastructure should support bicyclists who are bicycling now. More infrastructure can of course inspire people to bicycle, but we ought to respect people who are using the bicycle to travel already. Changing the population of bicyclists through provision of infrastructure and police crackdowns on helmets or riders is not necessarily a positive act.

The advantage of the bicycle is that it offers mobility to people without requiring a large investment. People who have already figured this out should not be marginalized and penalized for not meeting bicycling standards set by authorities without democratic consent.

Thinking through the Strava data My response:

Can you point me to the part of your argument where you disproved the null hypothesis? The null hypothesis being that for planning purposes, the Strava-user database does not differ from other tools used to assemble data on cyclist behavior?

I agree strongly with the sentiments expressed in the “research-0013.jpg” cartoon, but I can envision a number of different methods that share the same problems. In New York City, the authorities do “screenline” counts, where counters are positioned along certain high-traffic bike routes leading to midtown Manhattan. This is great for finding out how many people are traveling to midtown, but in my opinion it is unlikely to lead to improvements to bicycle infrastructure along routes that do not lead to midtown Manhattan. My point being, the city authorities didn’t need to buy a Strava data pack to get data that would have similar biases. If the goal of cycling promotion is to get people onto bikes, the overall problem with all types of collection of cyclist data trips is that they only measure trips taken by people who are actually cycling during the study period.

My understanding of bicycling promotion market research is that transportation planners devote a great deal of attention to encouraging the “interested but concerned” folks who are not currently riding bikes because they feel it’s not safe. These people’s biking experiences are not going to be reflected in any kind of data collection project because they are not currently biking.

Do We Need Automated Bike Counts My response:

Great post. I like your Venn diagram. Looks to me though that the biggest problem with automated counters is that the level of detail of the information they provide is not likely to be required to prove the hypotheses that are being proposed.

If I tell you that 1531 people are bicycling through the intersection of West 86th St & Columbus Avenue in a southerly direction on an average summer Tuesday, what are you going to do with that information? Would you do something else if I told you the count was 3531? I presume any number greater than 0 could be used to justify some kind of bicycle infrastructure.

And in Streetsblog

Collecting data only on the number of people crossing between from borough to borough, but not counting “local” bicyclists, privileges people who are traveling longer distances, and the bike infrastructure necessary to encourage them, viz. better bridge crossings, greenways, and protected bike lanes along direct, arterial roadways.

Bicycles, however, are used for more than just traveling between areas. It is a canard that many car trips are just a mile or so and can be replaced by bicycle trips without having to confront issues of fatigue or fitness, thus reducing motor vehicle traffic in busy neighborhoods. This is the philosophy behind DOT-supported bike share, and the DOT neighborhood slow zone program, and it is therefore a little surprising that DOT researchers are still using screenline methods to collect data that does not inform the policy initiatives of the organization.

Another Insightful Streetsblog Comment

I looked this one up today so I could refer to it again; I don’t know if it’s really that insightful or whether I just keep rebutting the same guy with the same bland insight.

A true 21st century human-powered logistics system would still require extensive distribution and logistics facilities. The West Side docks closed because they didn’t have the fifty acres of back-pad necessary to offload and store the containers from the ships; I presume the same acreage is necessary for any kind of transfer facility, which leads to the question of where best to locate an 18-block logistics facility in midtown Manhattan.

This is a pretty good argument that the likelihood of a 21st-century human-powered logistics system developing in New York City is pretty slim, as land is so expensive it makes the return on the investment too small. Look at Chelsea Market, which is one single block, and how that adapted from a small-scale food distribution center to a high-end retail food center.

Another reason this is a good argument is that Greg, the cargo-trike guy on the West Side, suggests the creation of a distribution center, “like in Paris,” as a prerequisite for a human-powered delivery system.

Other more bicycle-specific reasons are these:

System max weight is 700 to 1000 lbs, using a tricycle chassis. System can probably carry about 10 big-size totes (22 inches long, 12 in deep, 15 in wide), each of which can hold 50 lbs of coffee. So you cube out before you weigh out. But really, the staff costs kill you, with the workers’ compensation insurance added on. Going more than a couple blocks at 5 mph increases the time spent traveling, and therefore the payroll (as well as helping bump up against the 8 hour limit, and the lunch hour…) over reasonable costs. Hiring more workers to cover slow travel means you need more bikes as well as a larger pool of potential workers. And if you are only going 5 mph with a cargo trike, you might as well go 3 mph with a hand cart and save on the workers’ comp and the salary.

One reason a tricycle is better than bicycle for really heavy loads because you can shift into a lower gear while standing still on a tricycle. In order to get going with a heavy load from a standstill on a bicycle, you need to be in the low gear when you stop. I remember with fondness the high crown of Avenue A at East 2d St, and trying with difficulty to get the bike with trailer into forward motion over that crowned roadway.

Streetsblog Comments Worth Saving

Here are a set of comments I made to Streetsblog back in 2011 that I thought were worth digging up again and saving for future reference. I was a little more engaged in the commercial cycling business at the time, as you can see.


I can attest from personal experience that it is not easy or straightforward to shop for a liability policy for bicycles on the business level. Individuals may find it easier.

I believe that this problem is at least partially responsible for the poor cycling behavior of the delivery fleet. Riders are treated as independent contractors (with their own personal bicycles) because the restaurants can’t afford to pay a liability claim. More enforcement and more widely available insurance would make it reasonable for restaurants to put their riders on payroll and cover them directly under their own insurance policies. This would align safe and courteous riding behavior with what the boss wants. All the “bicycle-friendly business” campaigns won’t do a thing until business owners actively take responsibility for the behavior of their delivery fleet riders.

(I liked particularly the idea of the delivery fleet dressed as flight attendants and riding big Oma bikes. It’s a useful corrective.)


BicyclesOnly, thanks for sharing your thoughtful bicycling memoir and explanation for why you support TA’s policy. I agree with you, but have two caveats.

First and most obviously, the benefits to following the “Biking Rules” street code mostly accrue to other people. It’s not obvious that following Biking Rules will keep you, the rider, any more safe. One simple example: stopped at a red light next to automobiles. No cross traffic visible. Is it better to cross the intersection against the light and avoid turning autos or is it better to wait with the automobile and have them turn into your path? I prefer to cross against the light; call me a rebel!

Second, if it were true that “the small minority of cyclists who ride too aggressively” were all individual actors, than I would feel the same as you do; I would grudgingly accept that a behavior-modification campaign was the best way to win acceptance for cyclists.

However, if TA believes that “setting an example” is the way to change cyclists’ behavior, don’t they realize that the example is not being set by paid-up TA members with fluorescent clothing and front-and-rear lighting systems? For every Larry Littlefield in a blinking LED vest, there are a hundred cyclists in black nylon jackets riding without brakes. They are the ones setting the biking rules for everyone else.

In order to change their behavior, though, it makes more sense to coerce the businesses that employ them than to pressure the individual riders. Restaurants are reputation businesses, and should be held responsible for the behavior of their employees. It’s the job of the employer to make sure that employees are following the rules, not the job of random bicyclists on the streets.

Thought experiment: if restaurant delivery staff dressed like flight attendants, rode big heavy Dutch Oma bikes with GPS dynamo headlights and bright red taillights, and strictly obeyed the Biking Rules code, would that encourage or discourage other New Yorkers to ride a bike? I think the former.

The city heavily regulates the taxi fleet; why not the delivery fleet? Better regulation could improve service (bikes could have GPS built in, so customers could track their delivery online), improve safety (lights and reflectors), and reduce accidents (GPS-activated horn could beep when bike was being ridden on the sidewalk, and brake to a crawl when bike was going the wrong way), and enhance the image of cycling as a dignified and respectable way to get around, even with a couple take-out dinners in tow).

(From the same post)


My opinion is that the Biking Rules program reinforces the antibike narrative by creating an monochrome context in which many cyclists’ behavior is interpreted as “WRONG.” This prompts the antibike crowd to argue, very reasonably, that they are all for “RIGHT” biking, and that until all cyclists are “RIGHT,” “WRONG” cyclists shouldn’t be entitled to full use of the streets. Why build bike lanes when “WRONG” cyclists will just use them to maim innocent pedestrians, they say?

And even when articulate proponents of cycling infrastructure like yourself advocate for the benefits of extending more bike lanes so that people can be “RIGHT” cyclists, the dichotomy is stuck to you like a bear trap; opponents respond, ‘Yes, that would be great, but until we do something about “WRONG” cyclists endangering the lives of our uncles and aunts, we shouldn’t just give them more precious street space.’

It reminds me of the fight over needle-exchange programs. In that example, it was necessary to redefine and destigmatize junkies from offenders to victims before exchange programs were accepted as tools for harm reduction. As long as TA (and DOT) keep drawing lines with the majority of working cyclists on the outside, people riding bikes will never get the benefits that they deserve.