Bicycle safety when touring in US cities

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Touring a city on a rental bicycle is a great way to see its sights. Using them, sightseers can move quickly from place to place with little hassle and expense, and have a great view of everything in between.

In Paris, Amsterdam and many other cities in Europe, renting a bicycle is a breeze, and riding a bike in Europe is generally safe and easy. Bicyclists and motorists there have mutual respect. Renting a bicycle in many US cities, such as Philadelphia and New York, is also easy, but riding a bicycle in them can be dangerous. In the US, the tension between bicyclists and motorists seems to be palpable.

While traveling in Amsterdam and Paris, in particular, I have seen how bicyclists, motorists and pedestrians interact. They have respect for the law and the rules of the road — and for each other. That doesn’t mean that hurried cyclists never run a red light and no delivery trucks are ever parked in a bike lane.

It does mean, for the most part, that cyclists ride in the direction of traffic, stop at red lights and use bicycle paths, if available. They also stay off sidewalks. It means that most cars and trucks stop at red lights, yield for bicycles and pedestrians when they have the right of way and don’t drive in bicycle lanes. It means that pedestrians don’t walk in bike lanes when the sidewalks are busy and they wait for the light to change before crossing.

Unfortunately, I don’t see much of the same in many US cities.

Last week, while driving toward an intersection with a steady green light in my direction, I almost killed a man on a bicycle who blew through his red light, crossing in front of me. I left rubber on the road to avoid him.

A few years ago, while riding on the right on my 10–speed, a speeding motorist literally ran me off the road into a parked car and sped off.

Unfortunately, these aren’t isolated events. They’re every day occurrences, in my opinion and that of many others. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2012, the last year for which statistics are currently available, 726 cyclists were killed and an additional 49,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes, with 69 percent of those crashes occurring in urban areas.

During my travel in the US, I’ve observed bicyclists, motorists and pedestrians regularly ignoring the rules of the road and the laws which govern them.

On US city streets and sidewalks, far too many cyclists, motorists and pedestrians show a lack of respect for the other groups; they show they’re each only interested in themselves.

By personal observance, I note the following about road behavior in the US:

• Most bicyclists ride in the direction of traffic, but too many go the wrong way on one-way streets.

• Far too many bicyclists go through red lights and don’t bother to slow down at stop signs.

• Too many cyclists don’t use bike lanes when available, and instead ride in traffic.

• Too many cyclists ride on sidewalks when travel on roads slows.

• Too many cyclists weave in and out in traffic.

• Too many motorists drive in well-marked bike lanes.

• Too many cars and delivery trucks park temporarily in bike lanes rather than take a few extra minutes to find a legitimate parking or loading place.

• Too many motorists don’t stop and look for bicyclists and pedestrians when turning, especially when it’s a turn on red.

• Too many motorists drive too close to cyclists, even when there is plenty of room to give them a wide berth.

• Too many pedestrians stand in bike lanes while waiting for traffic lights to change, blocking the bikes from using the bike lane.

• Too many pedestrians cross the street virtually anywhere, walking directly in the path of oncoming vehicles and bikes.

• Too many cyclists, motorists and pedestrians see each other as traffic enemies, lack respect for each other on the street and refuse to cooperate.

I agree with automobile and trucker associations, bicycle coalitions and those representing pedestrians in the US, that education of all is essential. But that will take considerable time. A solution is needed today. Too many are being injured and killed on America’s roads.

A solution already exists which can begin immediately to curb the problems of bicycles, motor vehicles and pedestrians sharing the road. Local police departments in the US need to work out a way to enforce traffic regulations for everyone, particularly cyclists and motorists, and pedestrians can’t be left out of the picture entirely. While it may be difficult to enforce traffic regulations for cyclists, it can’t be used as an excuse to not try.

If enforcement is lax, and as more and more bicycles share the road with motor vehicles, the problem will only get worse.

Should police enforce traffic laws equally for bicyclists and drivers alike?

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  • VELS14

    I’m with you Ned. Where I live they rent bikes out all the time to tourists. It’s a great way to see my home city, but the roads here aren’t safe for bicyclists, and it’s largely because of the of the home grown cyclists’ behavior. They run the red lights, don’t even slow down at stop signs, go the wrong way on one way streets and often ignore the bike lane many blocks from where they will turn toward the opposite side from the bike lane. That behavior begets disdain and road rage against bicyclists by drivers. It’s gotten to a chicken and egg thing where neither side is ready to budge until the other side does. We need the police to do their job and ticket bicyclists who ignore driving laws and ticket drivers who ignore bike lanes and drive dangerously in the vicinity of bicyclists.

  • emanon256

    You really hit the nail on the head. I ride my bike to work now that I am not flying every week. There are a large number of cyclists who have no regard for the law and really make cars hate cyclists, and then there are many cars that also ignore the rules and don’t look out for cyclists, some are even aggressive towards cyclists. Its a no win, I agree, cities need to start enforcing the laws and trying to educated people. We are not enemies, we should be sharing the road in a way that’s save for everyone.

  • Ton

    “While traveling in Amsterdam and Paris, in particular, I have seen how
    bicyclists, motorists and pedestrians interact. They have respect for
    the law and the rules of the road — and for each other.” really, as a dutch citizen i have to say, that is a bit of a, well i guess compared to the usa probably correct but in no way there is respect for the law and the rules for the road.

    bicycles nor or less ignore most rules most of the time, the curb becomes an extra bicycle lane, crossings are a place were moving roadblocks (ie pedestrians) need to get out of the way and going against traffic is normal. Red lights are at best seen as suggestions

    the simple fact is that motorist treat bicyclists with respect because the law says that no matter who makes the mistake or how much the bicyclist is breaking the rules, its the motorist who is deemed to be the innocent one

    so if a bicycle runs a red light and you crash into him, you are liable and its your insurance will have to pay

    my sister ended her trip in the hospital because a girl on a bicycle thought it was fun to swerve from left to right in the lane, she tried to avoid her with her vespa, which caused her to crash and badly break her arm

    no chance

  • NedLevi

    Ton, I saw almost no bicyclists swerving in and out of traffic, or
    running through red lights when last in Amsterdam and Delft, when either
    riding a bike myself, or as a pedestrian. I didn’t drive a car there at all there.
    I did take trains and street cars at times. Living there you’ll see more than I will on my trips to your country..

    Here in the US, I
    was shocked when yesterday, I saw two women who stopped completely at
    red lights, waited for the cars in the other direction, then went
    through the red light. I hadn’t seen any cyclists stop, even for a
    second at a red light, in a couple of weeks, and here were two who at
    least stopped temporarily.

    Here in the States, it’s really a “free for all.”

    I was aware of the Dutch law where the motorist is at fault for any accident involving a bicycle. I understand why the law was written that way, but don’t support it due to fairness. While I’d like to see enforcement of the law here in the US and everywhere where there is a problem on the road with bicycles and motor vehicles, I still want there to be fairness and equity within the law.

    Case in point. Last month in New York City, I watched a taxi proceed through a “standing” green light at an intersection, and get smashed into by a messenger on a bike who had run through the red light in the other direction and hit the back right fender of the taxi. The way I understand it, in Amsterdam, the taxi would have been considered at fault, even though it was the cyclist at fault. To me, that kind of law is inherently wrong, even though it was created with the best of intentions.

    I hope your sister is alright now.

  • NedLevi

    I totally agree.

  • NedLevi

    Yesterday, I had to stop in the middle of a block with parking on both sides of me, because a cyclist was riding down a one way street the wrong way, and to give him room while driving the right way down the street, I would have likely hit the cars to my right.

    I was sitting in the car and shaking my head in disbelief as he passed by. He took exception to me shaking my head and being upset with his conduct, so he spit at my car.

    Also yesterday I drove for about 15 blocks on a road beside a bike lane, in the morning, and counted 15 delivery trucks and 10 cars parked in the bike lane, some right across from an empty parking space.

  • TRK

    I am both a motorist and cyclist. Where I live and work the main 2 problems are motorists that don’t know that bicycles a vehicles too. (I was once ‘told’ that I should ride on the sidewalk where I belonged) Second that the few cyclists here have a poor attitude, especially the club riders. They seem to think riding 3 abreast at 10 miles/hour on a single lane road is OK. They act so arrogent that even I have trouble showing any respect.

  • MeanMeosh

    Funny, we have a bit of a debate going on in Dallas now about what should be done to make the city more friendly for pedestrians and bicycles. Unfortunately, the comments section in the DMN almost always devolves into a shouting match between the cycling/walkable cities activists, who won’t accept anything less than tearing out freeways and converting lanes on major thoroughfares to bike lanes, and their opponents, who denounce any mention of bicycles or walking as socialism and a government takeover of your commute. I’m afraid that pretty well describes the “this is war” attitude on both sides of the issue right now, which leads to much of the bad behavior we see out there.

    Personally, what I think would help would be if the broader cycling community would reign in what I call the “Lance Armstrong Wannabes”, who are the real menace out there and that generate 98% of the public’s ire towards cyclists. You know the type – the ones who blast through stop signs and red lights at full speed, bully pedestrians trying to use multi-use trails, and ride in packs of 10+ on one lane streets blocking the entire road in the process. As far as the police cracking down on badly behaving cyclists, don’t bet on it. Unfortunately, the Mini Lances also tend to be the most active and vocal, and will be sure to take to the press denouncing a city’s “war on cycling” if there were such a crackdown on cyclists breaking traffic laws. Since pretty much every big city wants to be seen as “bike friendly” these days, you can bet they would cave quickly to any pressure.

  • emanon256

    That reminds me of the person who yelled to me, “You are not a car!” when I was in a left turn lane at a light. Where I live in Colorado bikes and cars have to follow the same rules on the road and bikes are considered vehicles in the same manner as a car. Using this left turn lane is the only way for me to get from home to work, and it’s on an official bike route.

    We have a lot of official “Bike Routes”. These are roads designed for bikes, with fewer signals and stops, wider streets, special sections in boulevards to assist bicycle crossings, etc. When I do drive a car, I take a 1-way high speed roads with timed lights, which is one block over form the bike route. It annoys me to know end how many cyclists I see in the highs speed one-ways going 10-15 MPH, often 2 or 3 abreast in the lane, congesting the traffic for blocks, when they are 1 block away from a bike route. There are signs almost every block stating “Bike Route, That Way”. Legally they can ride on the high-speed one-way road, but why would they when they are one block from a bike route? Legally they do have to ride single file.

  • emanon256

    We had a recent article in our local paper about more bikes routes begin created and new bike lanes being added down town and almost all of the comments geared heavily towards “Socialism” and “Government Takeover” and there were lots of comments about how people pay taxes for those roads and bicycles should not be allowed on them. It was insane!!! There were not many comments form cyclists which surprised me.

    I totally agree with you on the “Lance Armstrong Wannabees”. They drive me nuts and piss me off both as a cyclist and a driver, no wonder people hate cyclists so much. I think if we cracked down on them, it really would improve the relationship as awhile. While some cars are bad, I think those cyclists are even worse.

  • NedLevi

    I feel the same pain. Lately I seem to get angry at bicyclists when I drive, and drivers when I ride. Things would be much easier if both sides listened to each other, and much better, in my opinion, if the police enforced the law when either group violates it.

  • NedLevi

    I see that all the time where I live, including cyclists riding on the left of a street which has a bike lane on the right side of the street. It’s crazy.

  • NedLevi

    Really well put MM. Thanks very much for joining the discussion.

  • emanon256

    I even get angry at other cyclists when I ride. I was crossing a very busy divided boulevard and they set up a special path in the middle to help cyclists cross. I finally got a break in traffic and started when I almost got hit by a cyclists going the wrong way down one side of the boulevard.

  • Ton

    will be a long recovery, double break, not clear, muscles were damaged, she is facing 6m of therapy

    you are correct about the law, it’s not just that its just the unfair part it is the ,c hammer like attitude it has caused.

    don’t get me wrong, dutch cities are ideal for bikes and even longer distances with the new electric bikes and there are few places safer to ride a bike. We are probably the only country where you can get into a traffic jam made up form bikes. There are some other places you would enjoy many of the more rural areas of belgium and germany are ideal to explore on bikes. Having said that i never got a bigger suprise then when a lynx bus in orlando stopped and the guy put his bike on the rack on the front, that is the best i ever saw

  • MeanMeosh

    I was going to say in my earlier comment, I really don’t get why some cyclists seem to enjoy getting buzzed by cars going 45 mph on a 6-lane thoroughfare, when they could literally have an entire street to themselves a block or two away. Heck, they could probably ride 2 or 3 abreast and nobody would even notice because there’s no traffic to get in the way. I don’t find bike riding particularly fun so I don’t do it, but if it were me, I’d personally find it much more relaxing to use the empty street.

    (The other example you cite is equally unfortunate, though – I cringe whenever I see a car driver being rude to a cyclist, as long as the cyclist is also being respectful of the rules.)

  • NedLevi

    I’m very sorry to hear that. It sounds like after knee surgery. I wish for your sister a full recovery. I’ve been through similar physical recovery/therapy.

    Here in Philadelphia, SEPTA is our public transportation company. They run the subway, elevated light rail, trollies, regional (heavy) rail, trackless trollies, buses, and small paratransit buses/vans.

    The front of every SEPTA bus and trackless trolley is equipped with a bicycle rack. Each rack can hold two bicycles. Bicycles are permitted on bus and trackless trolley racks at all times without restrictions.

    Philadelphia is working hard to be bicycle friendly, but the police are holding us back because they don’t enforce bicycle/motorist laws.

  • Ton

    the big issues is separation, most of the problems come from interaction. This is difficult in cities where nothing has ever been done, where in the netherlands in most cities bikelanes are part of every plan, Done badly it can actually be a problem, i know some places, the hague city center or outside antwerp central station where big bikelanes are barely marked, a thin line a slightly different color pavement, the times i have seen groups of people not notice, stand in the middle and bikes swerving trough.
    the issue we are dealing with is storage, the number of bikes exploded and they were being tied to every tree, pole etc. sometimes making passing through the street difficult, garbagecans unreachable etc. in fact the new rotterdam central station has an underground parking space for more than 5000 bikes.
    the lack of these things make it difficult for cities to reach critical mass, allthough the rent a bike schemes like in london do help

  • VELS14

    I very much agree with you. As long as the empty road doesn’t cause me to ride very far out of my way to get where I want to go, I much rather get away from busy streets. Also, if there is a bike path or trail going my way, I’ll take it rather than city streets.