Friday, August 31, 2012

How to make something gold stay -- bicycling education for the 21st century

Recently, Wired magazine declared that we live in a golden age of cycling. And it certainly felt that way to Minna and I as we enjoyed the bike paths and lanes of New York City as part of our vacation this summer -- especially using the walkways, some of which had been closed or in serious disrepair for decades, over the East River bridges. But will it last? And are we facing up to the really tough questions we need to if we want to preserve  it?

The biggest threat to cycling in New York is the backlash from drivers and some pedestrians -- most prominently evident in the constant stream of stories and editorials in the NY Daily News and Post that condemn cyclists as dangerous transgressors of both traffic laws and common sense. The Daily News recently, for example, sent reporters out with radar guns to clock supposedly speeding cyclists in Central Park.

What’s interesting, and terribly mistaken, about most of these articles is that they lump all cyclists -- whether they’re commuters, restaurant-delivery men or just people out for some exercise -- together. Even bicycling advocates tend to make this same mistake -- declaring all use of bicycles to be universally good.

But not all cyclists are the same. And not all cyclists violate traffic laws -- and basic etiquette -- with the same frequency. The most dangerous, although common, cyclist violation is what David Byrne calls salmon cycling -- riding against the direction of traffic and thus surprising pedestrians and others who rightfully expect traffic to be moving in only the legal direction when they step out into the street. Close behind in the practices-of-shame is riding on the sidewalk. Based on my anecdotal experience of walking through the area around NYU the last few years, both practices are especially common among people delivering restaurant food.

Now I know that the delivery people -- especially the middle-aged, immigrant men who are extending their working opportunities by using electric bicycles -- are just trying to me make an honest living. But I also know that efforts at public education have to start somewhere, and that the restaurants that employ these delivery people are already in the business of having to comply with municipal regulations like the health laws that put letter-grades on their windows. What if their delivery people were required to take a basic bike safety course, and what if their employers were penalized if their employees violated laws? Could that be an important part of starting us on a path towards safer streets?

The thing is that I’m not just a cyclist. In fact, more often, I’m a pedestrian. So a part of me understands the backlash. If we’re going to keep things moving in the right direction -- with a municipal government that continues to support accommodation for  cyclists -- we’re going to have to convince pedestrians that cyclists are safe to live with.

So far -- witness a NY Times study that found 66 percent of New Yorkers think bike lanes are a good idea -- bicyclists seem to be doing an ok job of that. But it may not be good enough going forward.

Education about safe bicycling practices is an important part of ensuring that the golden age of cycling does not come to a crashing end. Bicycle advocacy groups, in particular, need to shift their focus from just pushing for legislation to also create increasing opportunities for education. And we need to recognize that not all cyclists are the same, so that we can best focus educational and law enforcement efforts.

But, whatever happens, I’m so grateful to have been able to witness some of the blossoming of cycling in New York. It’s especially heartwarming to see how cycling in New York has moved beyond just being for a hardened core of messengers and spandex-wearing athletes to normal people wearing normal clothes -- Williamsburg, in particular, is a spectacular place to witness all kinds of people (yes, including, hipsters!) getting around on bicycles. And kudos, especially, to efforts like this one called WeBike, to move cycling beyond being a male-only endeavor. I won’t have as much chance to be in New York over the coming months  as I did this summer -- I’ll miss the cycling there!

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