IT'S THE ATTACK OF THE TWO WHEELED MONSTERS! As you surely know, an impassioned wardebate about bicycles has consumed New Yorkers over the past couple of years. Are they taking over NYC with their ubiquitous lanes and their reckless behavior? Or are they the key to alleviating traffic and turning New York into a sustainable, 21st century city? The incredible cycling boom over the past decade has certainly polarized New Yorkers, as drivers, pedestrians and cyclists cope with the dramatic changes brought by the DOT to our traffic-clogged streets. And in the heart of the debate you'll find Paul Steely White, the Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives, a group that has worked closely with the DOT to improve the cycling, pedestrian, and mass transit infrastructure. Yesterday we caught up with White, who had just finished a meeting with City Councilman Eric Ulrich, who plans to introduce legislation requiring all adult cyclists to get licenses and registration.

Let's start with the bike licensing and registration. Have you been in touch with Councilman Ulrich? We had a meeting this morning in fact.

And how was that? I think it was productive. The Councilman told us quite frankly that he doesn't expect the bill to go anywhere, which came as a surprise to us, because I guess we learned in civics class that elected officials are supposed to introduce legislation that will have an impact and also have some chance of passing, and apparently he doesn't believe that. [Ed.: Ulrich tells us, "My comments meant to underline the fact that I doubt it will be taken up during the remaining session, given how close we are to the budget season."] Clearly he's trying to call attention to what he perceives as the number one public safety problem: bad cycling behavior. So we started the meeting by talking about what we believe are the top safety concerns in his district and this city, which is of course reckless driving.

He agreed that that's a problem, and we talked about some ways to address that, and then we got right down to business on his proposal and asked him how licensing might improve bike behavior, because we don't understand how that would work. We left the meeting completely unconvinced by his argument that it would reduce bike and run situations, where a biker runs into a pedestrian—and no one really knows how often that happens—but he's basing his proposal off one anecdote where an elderly woman was brushed by a cyclist and the cyclist kept going. So we talked about some ways we think would be smarter ways to address bike behavior.

But on the matter of bike licensing somehow improving bike behavior, he seems to think that it would be a deterrent, that cyclists would be more likely to stay at the scene in the event that they brush or strike a pedestrian on a bike, than not. If someone is inclined to bike and run, my guess is they're not going to be bothered to get their bike licensed, so if you think a few moves ahead, it seems to me that he's just trying to deter cycling and strike fear into the hearts of anyone who might get on a bike. So it does seem like a very punitive measure, clearly one that has not been well thought through.

We looked at other cities around the country and world, where bike licensing exists and really the only purpose it seems to serve, mostly in small towns—we're unaware of big cities that have done it, but Toronto had it then they discontinued bike licensing because of administrative hassle. But in small towns it really is a way to guard against bike theft, if someone's bike is stolen. There really is no link between licensing and behavior, so the conversation then moved to education and enforcement, and I think we achieved some common ground on those two points, that there is a lot the NYPD can do to enforce the worst types of bike lawlessness, like riding on the sidewalk, for example.

As you know we're in the midst of bike crackdown from the NYPD. They seem to be ticketing anything that moves with two wheels, what I think what we agreed on today is that we need more consistent, effective and targeted enforcement on the worst kinds of bike infractions, not just ticketing cyclists for not having the right color of reflector on their bicycle.

About the licensing issue, I was surprised that a friend of mine who is a regular cyclist is actually for it. She's had many brushes with death from cars, as most cyclists have had to one degree or another, and she feels if cyclists had little license plates and registered, drivers might treat them with more respect, as an equal vehicle of the road. What do you think of that? That sounds dubious to me. I don't see licensing or registering engendering any kind of respect, at least in New York. I mean, I think respect is hard won in New York, and we have reports of families riding with their kids not being respected on the road. So with a license plate I don't see that changing. What I do see changing the problem of respect is better bike infrastructure. We know that quality bike lanes not only give cycling legitimacy in the minds of motorist, I think, but more to the point reduce lawless bicycling on streets, like with 9th Avenue in Manhattan, where we have a good quality protected bike lane. Sidewalk cycling, riding the wrong way and all these types of bad bike behavior have reduced remarkably—as much as 80%—on these streets with good quality bike infrastructure. So we know that the surefire way to improve bike behavior—every New Yorker has their own idea about how this can be addressed—but I think we need to look at what actually works and those two things are better infrastructure and more targeted, consistent and fair enforcement.

Statistically speaking, cyclists are responsible for far, far fewer deaths and injuries than people behind the wheel of cars, and so the amount of vitriol and rage and contempt directed at cyclists these days seems wildly disproportionate. Why is there this seemingly huge backlash against bicycles now? Why all the bike hysteria, why all the disproportionate response, considering that the NYPD has historically not even tracked bike-on-pedestrian injuries because frankly it's been so low, and continues to be low? We do recognize however, since bicycling is growing so rapidly, people are becoming more aware of cyclists and a few people have been brushed by cyclists who are less than respectful, and that is a problem. And we need to address that with enforcement and education.

What it comes down to really is this: New Yorkers have very precise patterns. We live in a very dense city and people evolve particular patterns of dealing with density and we protect our personal space very carefully. I think bicycling is growing very rapidly and growing pains are to be expected. I think what we also have is a history of entitlement for driving in New York, where a very suburban transportation mode and planning policy has been shoehorned into a dense city environment. So whenever a single parking space is taken or there are a few more bicycles on the street than people are used to, then people are on edge because it's already very difficult to drive in New York City.

And people who drive in New York City are people who routinely are definitely angry, because frankly it's very hard to drive in a dense environment. That's why our organization fights very hard to make the alternatives to driving very attractive. So I think that there is just a lot of innate frustration that has to do with driving in the city and there is a perception that bicycles are adding to that. The data however shows that bicycles are actually making the streets safer and giving people an increasingly safe alternative for short trips that people make. About 22% of the driving trips that people make in New York are a mile or less in length, so the better our walking environment becomes, the better our cycling environment becomes, the easier it'll be for people to take those modes of transportation.

There have been recent reports of the NYPD issuing $270 tickets to cyclists running red lights in Central Park. What's your opinion is about cyclists and red lights? What do you think about what cyclists should do at red lights, and do you think this is something police should be enforcing strictly? The number one improvement to New York City cycling behavior should be to yield to pedestrians at all costs. Even when a pedestrian is crossing against the light, it is imperative that cyclists steer clear, stop, go behind a pedestrian and not in front of a pedestrian, instead of focusing on what cyclists should do in Central Park, which is frankly a very difficult situation because the Park has multiple functions for New Yorkers. For many it is a place to walk and see birds, for others it is a place they can train safely for an upcoming marathon or triathlon, so it is a very difficult task to figure out what the right solution is for Central Park.

It is really unfortunate that the NYPD, apparently to meet some quota for ticketing cyclists, is going and really cherry picking essentially, and going where the cyclists are instead of executing a more consistent and uniform enforcement policy that would yield what everyone wants, which is better cycling behavior. We're working with the Central Park Conservancy and the NYPD precinct over, the 33rd, to find a sensible policy that won't deter cycling in the park, because it really is the only safe place to ride and for kids to learn how to ride a bike, especially when cars are not in the park.

And the long term solution for Central Park with the red lights is of course, is to make the park completely car free, because right now the Park is serving a duel purpose as a motorway and a recreational asset. It is just increasingly inconsistent. So if the park were car free, you could do a lot of creative things not just with the signaling and changing that but also the way roads are portioned. Now cyclists and pedestrians are shunted over to that cramped and narrow space. When you are out in the road now, the first thing to be sure you are doing is yielding to pedestrians. Staying off the sidewalk is probably the second most important practice that all New York cyclists should keep in mind. One cyclist riding on the sidewalk engenders tons of ill will and strikes fear into the hearts of the elderly, who I think are more acutely aware of street danger and are already beset by motor vehicle hazards, so when cyclists are added to that mix that just puts some people over the edge.

012111lane6.jpg
Zoe Schlanger/Gothamist

I think we saw that in Park Slope, where senior citizens were mobilized to protest the new bike lane. You know I think back to your other question, without a doubt there is a surplus of anti-bike bias and I think the roots of that are probably very asinine. Everything from the culture we have here in America—that if you're not in a motor vehicle you somehow don't rate, to just the urban form we have here, where clearly motor vehicles get the lion's share of our precious public space. Motorists are rarely ticketed for the routine infractions, from motorists not yielding at the crosswalk to speeding, which is rampant. Anything that even begins to slightly curtail that kind of entitlement is going to engender a disproportionate response. That's what we're seeing now.

What we're also seeing is a lot of people coming around to the realization that when our streets are reapportioned—no one is talking about kicking cars to curb completely—but there is definitely a better balance to be struck, especially on streets like Prospect Park West, where there is a high demand for walking and biking. Other streets where cars have ruled the roads for 50 years, now it's time to strike a better balance and give New Yorkers what they want, which is a more livable environment, where they can live an active healthy life and that's what's attractive the new economy right now. It's not parking availability as much as people having the kinds of amenities and access to walking and bike lanes that is safe and accessible. That's where it's going and we applaud the efforts or our DOT commission to continue with the kinds of successes that we're seeing in Times Square and PPW and, most recently, the Select Bus Service on the East side. That had more to do with buses than bikes, but that project last year engendering a lot of support from across the East side. You know there were a fair share of skeptics who didn't see how reapportioning lanes to buses would work and predicted it would completely stall traffic, but the only thing that's happened is buses are faster and the majority of people there are enjoying a more efficient commute.

Speaking of the East side, is there any news on extending the bike lanes further north? We haven't received word yet, but we hope that we will soon. Later, actually next week, we're hosting a big community forum to release a collaboratively produced plan for the East side that includes community partners from Chinatown to Harlem. We hope that helps convince Mayor Bloomberg that it is a project worth extending, northward in particular. But no word on that, but we hope to receive word soon.

Is there anything else you wanted to address? At the meeting today, I think there were a few grains of hope. Councilman Ulrich wasn't aware of some of the efforts we're making and the city is making to better educate cyclists on the rules of the road: our biking rules program, the city's cycle smart brochure. We invited him on a bike ride; he said he rides a bike, and we invited him to ride with us during bike month coming up in May, so hopefully he'll take us up on that, but really in the next few weeks we really hope to bring him around to some of these more sensible ways to not just improve bike behavior but also making bicycling more accessible and safer for all New Yorkers, and we're still holding out hope he'll come around.

Did you actually get a look at any of his plan in writing? Did you see the actual proposed legislation?
No, and we did ask. Right now, it just seems to be an idea, napkin idea, and he seems to be backing off, as I mentioned at the outset. There's really, I think, no hope of this passing, and we're going to be working to make certain that's the case. We're confident that we can partner with the Council Member and the council at large to improve enforcement and continue to make bicycling safe with the roll out of new bike lanes. And I think also it is possible that in the next couple of years the city can start a formal city-sponsored bike education program. They have this in London, and other cities. It used to be compulsory for kids around the country in the '50s and '60s to get bike education in school. Bike New York does a great job, they have a bike education program that is somewhat limited, that I think would be great to expand, but I think a lot of New Yorkers are curious about biking and would love to get the skills to try it out, so if there is anything the city can do to facilitate that happening would be much more sensible than something that's punitive, that is going to reduce cycling.

We also talked about safety in numbers with the Council Member, and I think that was new to him too; anything that potentially deters cycling makes it more dangerous by definition, because we know from around the world whenever the cycling rate has tripled the crash rate has halved. And it is actually more than that in New York, where as cycling has skyrocketed we've seen the crash rate go down by more than that power relationship, though I don't have that exact number at my fingertips. But even the absolute number of crashes has gone down as cycling has gone up in New York. It bodes well for the future, provided we don't deter the wonderful blossoming of cycling we're experiencing now.