richconroy.jpgRich Conroy is the Bicycle Education Program Director at Bike New York, a cycling safety and education group in New York City and the organizer of the 5 Boro Bike Tour (which occurred this past weekend). Rich and the people he works with are not bike advocates--they leave political action to others and focus on the practical safety of being a cyclist in the city. The group conducts clinics to teach kids to ride bikes, and how adults can deal with the challenges of urban biking--stopping short, avoiding potholes, and not getting doored.

How would you describe Bike NY, and how would you differentiate it from other NYC cycling organizations? We are a biking organization that puts on events and has an education program that offers free classes to people who want to start cycling or who want to improve their cycling skills. We also provide free training programs for parks, recreation, heath, and fitness professionals who may be working with youth in an educational or recreational setting. Our Bicycle Education Program reaches throughout New York State and New Jersey, and we are the only organization with this concerted educational focus. We are different from other cycling organizations in that we are not a membership organization, so we reach out to a broad variety of cyclists. We are not an advocacy organization either.

You're a full-time member of Bike NY's staff as a Bike Education Program Director. How long have you been with Bike NY and what is your role there? I started with Bike New York in the autumn of 2004. My main role has been to establish the strategy and direction of our bike ed program. I created the very popular “Learn to Ride” program for children and parents, and we have partnered with the great folks at New York City Parks and Recreation to get this program out into city parks. The Bike Ed program also partners closely with the League of American Bicyclists to bring their cycling curriculum and cycling instructor certification program to New York. In two years Bike New York has tripled the number of certified cycling instructors in New York City, and doubled the number of instructors (called LCIs, or League Cycling Instructors) across New York State. Our local instructors have helped us double the number of our very popular introductory bike skills class for adults called “Savvy Cyclist”.

Have you seen an upside to bike-riding in New York since you've joined Bike NY? Can you give us a sense of historical perspective regarding the sense of cycling in the city? There’s always an upside to bike riding. I’m a year round bike commuter, and my worst day on a bike is still better than the daily grind of being stuck in traffic. But nothing is ever risk free, and sometimes cyclists get killed in crashes unfortunately—as do pedestrians and drivers. But staying inside your living room watching TV or staying inside the car every day also has long term risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Driving a car is one of the most hazardous transportation choices there are, and yet people somehow focus a lot of fear on cycling. I’ve lived here for 15 years, and there’s definitely more cyclists out there, and more of a “buzz” about cycling in the city. There’s a number of things that have come together to make this a positive time for cyclists in New York City: the Mayor’s PlanNYC2030, and a new bike friendly DOT commissioner are serious about making cycling an integral part of New York City’s traffic mix. Gas is at $4.00/gallon, and people are finding that cycling is not only fun and healthy, but a faster way to get around while saving some gas money. Still, there’s a lot of fear in the air about cycling. People fear getting hurt in traffic crashes. So we encourage cycling newbies to take Bike New York’s Savvy Cyclist class, which is really kind of a “driver’s ed” for cyclists. We show how traffic works, how cyclists can fit in smoothly and confidently, and how to avoid crashes.

Your group seems to organize not so much on political advocacy than on actual skills to make bike riders safe--you conduct safe- and defensive-riding clinics. Can you share some salient tips to riders who would like to ride in city traffic safely? Focusing on cyclists’ skills and decisions is the other side of the coin of bike safety. It’s great that bike advocacy organizations are encouraging the city to do more to make the streets safer for cyclists, but that alone won’t prevent fatal crashes. It’s also important to encourage cyclists to take responsibility and power over their own safety. A lot of our Savvy Cyclist students are empowered to learn that they have a lot of control over the safety of their trips and how much they can do to avoid traffic crashes. [See what they have to say at http://www.bikenewyork.org/education/raves_media.html. My favorite recent quote: “I went out for my first ride since the class and it was great. . . . For the first time I really felt liked I belonged on the road.” It’s also important to get cyclists to be more courteous ambassadors for cycling. A lot of pedestrians and motorists are angered by scofflaw behavior, riding invisibly and unpredictably, frequently posing risks of collisions with others, who don’t appreciate such “close calls”. To the extent that cyclists can improve their public image, it makes the bike advocates’ job easier. In terms of the most important things cyclists can do to prevent crashes, I would list the following:

  • Ride at least 4 ft away from the door of any parked or double parked car, even if that means taking an entire traffic lane. Riding further out from parked vehicles makes cyclists more visible to drivers coming up from behind, and to drivers at intersections and driveways.
  • Never ride at night without a white front light and a red rear light, as well as plenty of reflective gear. Lights and reflective gear massively increase the chances that tired, distracted motorists will see you at night.
  • Ride predictably. Never ride against traffic, or against a one way street; pedestrians and drivers are unlikely to see wrong-way cyclists at intersections. Riding predictably means stopping at traffic lights and stop signs as well. Many cyclists think it’s OK to run red lights and stop signs, but it’s a habit that can catch up with you if you are having a distracted moment or a bad day. Finally, predictability means not weaving or swerving in fluid, moving traffic. Don’t duck into a gap between parked or double parked cars—someone is less like to see you when you come out of that gap.
  • Pass slower or stopped traffic on the left (assuming a 2 way road—on a multilane avenue like many in Manhattan, pass slower or stopped traffic using the inside lanes, don’t pass while adjacent to parked cars). Passing slower traffic on margins is a great way to get hooked by a turning vehicle at intersections, or to get doored by a stopped or parked vehicle.

Learning how to ride a bike is almost a universal right of passage for kids in the U.S. Do you have any thoughts on where parents should try to teach their kids in a safe environment and how to keep their kids safe once they're riding? Well, of course taking your child to one of the “Teach Your Child to Ride a Bike” clinics put on by Bike New York and New York City Parks Department is the best way to learn. We have more than a dozen of these sessions throughout the five boroughs during Bike Month. See www.BikeNewYork.org for the schedule. It’s a really fun, supportive atmosphere where people are cheering kids on as they learn. Also, the program has amazed parents by how simple it is, with no running behind a bike while leaning over to hold up an unbalanced cyclist. If people can’t make it to a “Learn to Ride event, our website has a short movie and a Power Point presentation which also show the simple method we use.

If you could make one change to NYC to make it more bike-friendly, what would it be? Some effective measure to reduce bike theft. Office buildings need to be way more bike friendly, but it would be great to see NYPD come up with an anti-bike theft strategy the way they cracked down on car theft. Besides fear of traffic, bike thievery is another big deterrent to cycling here.

Rich's Urban Cycling clinic's schedules are available here.