CityViews: Fear and Loathing on New York’s Bike Lanes

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On the Tuesday after Labor Day, for the first time in a year, I rode my bike to work. It rained on the morning commute, and in the evening there was a sustained headwind, the last remnant of Tropical Storm Hermine. But the physical challenges paled next to the mental one – the effort not to flinch every time I saw a car.

There’s a reason for my fear of cars, the same reason I hadn’t been on a bike in a year. On September 1, 2015, on my way home from work, I got doored by a cab. I was in a bike lane. The impact of the car door sent me flying. I have no memory between the split second of terror when I realized I was about to be hit and then lying there on the pavement. I had bruises and cuts on both knees, a big bruise on the inside of my thigh, scratches on my left arm and one on my right cheek. But it was my hands that really hurt.

“Are you OK? Are you OK?” the people around me were asking.

“I don’t know,” I said testily. I was still on my back, trying to figure it out.

The woman who had opened the cab door kept saying, “I’m so sorry.” She gave me 16 bucks to take a cab home – a different cab. The cab that had hit me drove off soon after the crash. The ride home cost $21.

It was the first of many additional expenses. I could not use either hand. There was the visit to the urgent care center. Then the hand specialist. MRIs. Surgery. Occupational therapy. Somewhere in April, the insurance cut me off and stopped covering the therapy. I was far from healed. I’m still not fully recovered.

The wonders of professional-grade voice recognition software enabled me to keep working, but pretty much everything else in my life – and my spouse’s – was upended. For months, Carol had to do all the food shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundry. After the surgery, I needed her help to take a shower. For six weeks, she tied and untied my shoelaces every day.

Going to the gym was out of the question. So was riding a bike. A core part of my identity, as a recreational athlete, was sidelined along with my fitness. I gained weight.

In the spring the occupational therapist gave me the green light to try biking again. “10 minutes,” he said, “do not ride your bike to work!” So I went around the block a few times; using the brakes hurt.

It hurt less as the weeks went on. By mid-summer I deemed my hands able to handle my full 12-mile commute.

My mind, however, was a whole other matter. I was terrified of cars. I was hyper-aware of them as lethal machines – big boxes of tons of steel, moving at deadly speeds, operated by people with varying degrees of paying attention. Every car door I saw was a potential force that could bat me out into traffic, where I could get run over by another car.

These fears are not entirely unreasonable, as anyone with passing familiarity with NYC traffic knows. But my anxiety as I faced traffic this summer was a disproportionate if understandable response, and I knew that that was a safety risk as well. So I resolved to slowly re-acclimate myself to cars. I started a series of mental rehab training rides on Broadway between Dyckman and 165th.

Some rides were easier than others. Over time, I think it got a little easier. I think. But by Labor Day I was still afraid I’d be killed every time I got on the bike, and I finally came to the conclusion that it was just time to do it and ride to work.

So on September 6 I wove my way from 215th Street in Inwood down to my office at Bleecker and Broadway, and back again 10 hours later. My body remembered the route from years of habit – I call it the I Love NY ride: down the Harlem River, Frederick Douglas Blvd., past the Apollo Theatre, through Central Park, past the New York Public Library, through Union Square – but it had been so long that some of the details were forgotten. Like exactly how fast to go as I rolled across 155th Street in order to hit a green light when I reached 145th and Edgecomb. Or what gear I used for each of the hills in Central Park.

I noticed that the basketball-sized sinkhole was still there on Central Park West between 107th and 108th… but now it had some lovely weeds growing in it. And on the way home, I also noticed the new protected bike lane on 6th Avenue.

When I got home I felt triumphant but tired. It took all of my mental discipline to keep my fear tamped down enough to ride safely, focusing on the real conditions and threats rather than freaking out.

I love New York City. I love riding in the city. I even love (a little) some of the crazy that comes with it – the fact that I have to stop for geese sometimes on the Harlem River bike path, film crews shooting the latest episode of Law & Order SVU, the horse manure slalom in Central Park, athletes of every stripe and ability training in the park, people sitting out on the library steps eating lunch. It’s Walt Whitman’s New York – “The blab of the pave…. the tires of carts and sluff of bootsoles and talk of the promenaders” – alive with people on the streets, in the streets.

But why does it take a heroic effort to be able to commute by bike? Why, when our capitalist-driven consumption is choking the planet to death, do zero-emission cyclists have to take their lives in their hands dodging CO2-spewing cars?

Giving in to fear cures nothing. I know I have to fight through my fears and claim my space on the city streets.

I also know that we have to raise our voices collectively and protest and demand improvement. The week after that first ride back to work, I joined hundreds of others at a mass bike ride to protest the rise in cyclist deaths in 2016 and to demand that the City do more to make Vision Zero a reality.

Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative has a lot of good ideas in it, and the city is to be commended for the parts of it that have been implemented. But there is a long way to go. Consistent, predictable (non-racist!) enforcement of speeding and failure-to-yield violations – the biggest threats to cyclists and pedestrians – is needed but currently lacking.

We also need more protected bike lanes, and equally importantly, respect for the bike lanes we already have. That new bike lane on 6th Avenue is useless half the evenings I’m riding home because I have to swing back out into the traffic lanes to avoid parked cars, delivery trucks, or pedestrians using it as an expanded sidewalk.

It’s illegal to stop or park in a bike lane, yet Mayor de Blasio himself recently signaled that stopping in a bike lane isn’t really that bad. A car that blocks a bike lane to “let someone off at an appointment or something like that, or just drop off kids at home or something quickly” is “different” than someone who leaves their car parked in a bike lane, he told Brian Lehrer.

Not to the cyclist who has to dodge the car and the kids it’s dropping off.

More fundamentally, if the mayor who initiated Vision Zero doesn’t get that a cyclist’s safety is more important than a motorist’s convenience, how will the other eight million New Yorkers?

Like the cab driver who drove away after his vehicle threw me to the side of the road. Or the woman who said she was sorry and gave me $16. Or – me. After all, I did not take the cab driver’s information, or report the crash. I took it for granted that getting doored occasionally is just the price you pay for commuting by bike in New York City.

Lesson learned: Respect, including self-respect, awareness, and education are foundational to establishing that cyclists have as much right as anyone to expect safe streets. Vision Zero policies and enforcement can be effective, but only with that foundation.

Dorothee Benz is an avid backpacker, bodybuilder, urban cyclist, and sandcastler. Follow her on Twitter @DrBenz3.

14 thoughts on “CityViews: Fear and Loathing on New York’s Bike Lanes

  1. Glad you are healing but anyone who rides a bike to work from 215 Street to Bleecker Street might be better off taking the subway. I live on S.I., drive a car, and ride a bike for exercise. I’m always careful around bikes and pedestrians but notice that the bike lanes on S.I. are virtually unused 7 years after their installation. The bike lanes are more appropriate where they are actively used, not in a car-dependent outer borough. Bicycle commuting is maybe o.k. for people in the Manhattan – Brownstone Brooklyn bubble but nor for anyone else. The bike path being laid out along the SI east coast is good example of how a bike path should work. BTW my car doesn’t spew out that much CO2.

    • Manhattan and Brooklyn are hardly a bubble, since they hold half the population of the city and most of the the jobs. If anything is a “bubble” in the context of NYC, it is Staten Island.

      • I should have been clearer, I meant geographic and lifestyle bubble, close enough to Manhattan to permit bicycle access.

    • I have to laugh every time I read a post that says, ‘bikes are ok somewhere else but not where I live.’ Who would have thought 20 years ago that people would say Manhattan and Brooklyn were good places to ride a bike? Yet here it is.

      Last I checked, Staten Island has a rail and bus system and plenty of people who don’t own cars. It is also pretty flat in lots of neighborhoods. If it had a network of protected bike lanes and not just a few disconnected ones, it would be a cycling paradise.

      You also should check out the subways in Manhattan during rush hour. The riders who watch 3 trains pass because they can’t squeeze on are thanking Benz for taking her bike to work.

      • The Staten Island Railway runs along the east shore and thus does not serve the entire island. Something like 85% of SI households own at least 1 vehicle, one of my neighbors owns 4. S.I. developed differently from the other boroughs. More spread out, just like eastern Queens. It will always be car dependent. The bus network is limited by the fact that S.I. has no flexible street grid like the other boroughs. The express bus network could use improvement. The MTA is studying the entire S.I. local and express bus network right now.

        • Staten Island is about as dense as Washington DC, a city with a higher bicycling mode share than NYC as a whole. SI is more spread out than the other boroughs, but it’s not a low density area by any measure.

          As a driver you should promote bicycling as a way to reduce congestion in your borough.

    • bike commuting from Port Richmond to downtown is great, my dad’s done it every day for decades. The problem is entitled motorists who consider it a birthright to drive on clear highways at all hours, corrupt police who have seized a car and a bike lane at the 120th precinct, and poor bike and pedestrian connectivity and lanes in general (e.g once 3, now all 4 bridges having no pedestrian access). The idea that SI will always be car dependent is laughable given that Staten Island is a petri dish for the suburban experiment on a densely populated island and the result is, as SIers never stop whining about, a traffic disaster. It’s a political decision. The street grid is erratic but that does not affect bikes differently than cars.

    • Better off taking the subway? That’s not much different than saying she might as well drive. If she wants to ride her bike to work, that is admirable. Not to be dissuaded.

    • The outer boroughs are not car dependent considering that most households do not have a registered automobile (Staten Island being an exception). Most trips in NYC are short, and bicycling should account for a much larger percentage of them.

      Even the island however is dense and geographically small enough to support an increase in bicycling and mass transportation use. Every person not in an automobile means less traffic. The bicycle lanes in SI do not increase congestion.

  2. I feel you. All of it. My commute to work is very short and still something happens every time. No directional signal, arbitrary door opening, in the summer and on the weekends there are less cars, but they’re amateurs, you can’t trust them. You can trust an Uber driver to not care about anything but their passenger. Thank you for sharing your story.

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  4. Beautifully stated. This sentence sums up the sad — and too often tragic — irony of biking in NYC: “Why, when our capitalist-driven consumption is choking the planet to death, do zero-emission cyclists have to take their lives in their hands dodging CO2-spewing cars?”

  5. Thank you for sharing this awful experience with us. I want to believe that the mayor is supportive of his own Vision Zero initiative, but inane comments like the ones he made on WNYC show over and over that he is truly clueless about good urbanism and transportation.

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