Welcome to New Bike City

The camera attached to the front rack of Paul Vogel’s bicycle has captured a lot since he strapped it on in 2014. There’s the miles of fresh green paint, hundreds of bollards and tree beds protecting new bike lanes, and the thousands of novice Citi Bikers who totter a bit as he rides by. There are also cavernous potholes, jutting construction plates, and enough cars parked in the bike lane to inspire a Twitter account (@D00rZ0ne) dedicated to documenting the infractions and infrastructure failures.

This is the duality of New York City cycling in its teenage years: aspirational and awkward, confident and kind of a mess, packed with bike lanes that are innovative and imperfect.

This is the duality of New York City cycling in its teenage years: aspirational and awkward, confident and kind of a mess, packed with bike lanes that are innovative and imperfect.

With the help of activists like Paul Vogel, we are getting a clearer picture of how to build a more perfect bike lane. Meanwhile, Transportation Alternatives is keeping up the everyday fight for basic safety, accessibility and interconnectedness. Advocacy will guarantee bicycling’s tomorrow — and it’s backed by a bold vision for citywide bike share, side streets so calm you can ride down the middle, and a connected network of low-stress cycling routes that are easy to access.

As for the future, bicycling’s next age is predicted to be much more mature, free of tabloid hysteria, bike wars and maybe even red lights. There may not be hoverboards or flying bicycles, but we can see some advancements on the horizon that would make even George Jetson ditch his flying car.

Will New York’s most fantastical bike future come to pass? Our crystal ball shows a hearty yes, in part because the safer streets that TransAlt is fighting for today are driving some truly innovative ideas for the future.

Mo’ Progress, Mo’ Problems

In a recent article, Vox reported that no one in the United States has died using bike share, even though systems have been launched in a whopping 94 cities since 2007. In New York, the average number of cyclist injuries and fatalities appears to be holding steady, despite the number of New Yorkers who ride a bike growing apace with hundreds of new bike share stations and miles of new protected bike lanes. Today, well over half a million of us hop on our bicycles several times a month and the number of daily bicycle commuters has doubled since the City of New York began installing protected bike lanes in 2008.

Remarkably, this period of unprecedented growth coexists alongside an endless number of imperfections (a.k.a. the trash bags, construction workers and police cars in your bike lane), and is inspiring an unrelenting pace of research and development. Consider the machine alone: in 2016, companies are expected to release thousands of new bicycle models, including those that (1) can collapse to the size of an umbrella, (2) are constructed entirely of cardboard, and (3) fold into a self-contained bike lock. The end of the bike wars, it appears, is a boom time, too.

Clear the Path

Riding in New York can seem like a stop-and-go enterprise where your brakes get more exercise than your thighs, but a growing field of traffic technologists are looking to give cyclists the green light, and the next one, and the one after that, based on the simple premise that if bicycling is more efficient, more people will ride.

Retiming signals to give cyclists the greenwave is just one possible future. Another is a technology used on rural roads that could easily be tucked into urban bike lanes: demand-actuated lights are triggered by a detector embedded in the asphalt, which responds to conductive materials — a steel car, sure, but your aluminum bicycle rim will work, too — and tells the traffic signal that someone is ready and waiting at the red.

Transportation Alternatives also sees cameras, which New York City already employs to enforce bus lane, red light and speed violations, as a perfect future tool to clear a path for cyclists. Bike lane enforcement cameras aren’t in use anywhere in the U.S. yet, but the technology could someday dissuade drivers from using the bike lane like a parking lot.

“As the number of dedicated bike lanes grows, the scope of the problem becomes more apparent, and there is every reason to believe that technology will one day be a valuable tool to protect bicyclists,” explains Charles Territo, Vice President of American Traffic Solutions, which supplies the city’s current camera enforcement programs. “Plus, cameras provide data, in this case about how bike lanes are used, and how effective they really are.”

Go Vroom?

The single fastest-growing age group in New York City is people over 65, with the population of senior citizens expected to reach 1.84 million by 2030 — and these are just some of the New Yorkers who may lack the oomph required to get a bicycle started. Those older New Yorkers, along with residents of hilly neighborhoods and millions more, may soon be able to take a cue from eco-conscious car drivers. The adoption of electric bicycles is going to make cycling a more affordable, accessible, and realistic replacement for automobiles, offering mobility and freedom despite age, terrain, or physical ability.

Electric bikes have two wheels, a small electric motor and top speeds of 20 mph, which federal laws regulate in the same category as human-powered bicycles. However, e-bikes are currently illegal in New York City, a fact that Marco Conner, TransAlt’s Legislative Director, is working to change during the 2016 legislative session.

“There is a bill currently in committee that would distinguish between safe electric bicycles and high-speed motorcycles and scooters, and bring New York State in line with federal law,” explained Conner. “By clarifying a little bit of language in the law, we can make it possible for so many more people to ride bikes.”

Bicycle builders are putting big design dollars into taking e-bikes beyond the simple models on the road today. Expect future e-bikes to feature sensors, lights and GPS built into the frame; even pace metrics and data could come right out of your bike. Solar companies are looking at space-efficient ways to power it all. Roadways built from photovoltaic cells are anticipated in the near future, taking advantage of wide open road space — like, say, the Sheridan Expressway — to generate electricity, which e-bikes could use to keep moving.

If Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs Had a Baby

For many New Yorkers, commuting by bicycle can take twice as long as driving or taking the subway. It’s not just that New York City is vast; highways and train lines save time by traveling over or under surface congestion to trace the most direct route between places. That efficiency doesn’t transfer to the street grid that cyclists get stuck on. Until now.

Introducing the bicycle speedway.

A bicycle speedway is like a highway for bikes, providing a clear path between common places so cyclists can travel exactly as fast as they can pedal. In Germany, a dedicated bicycle speedway 60 miles long will soon mirror the autobahn, connecting 10 cities. London also announced it would build one to fight congestion inside city limits.

Sarah Lawrence College Professor Amanda Schachter recently asked students in her urban design course to apply the bicycle speedway concept to some currently impossible New York City bicycle commutes, piggybacking their designs on existing infrastructure. One student routed bicyclists to Manhattan from Co-op City, with a few miles of bike paths built into the Cross Bronx Expressway and Pelham Bay Parkway. Another took riders into Manhattan from Far Rockaway along the tracks of the Long Island Rail Road.

“A lot of old infrastructure, like elevated subways and highways, was overdesigned. Why not use those lines and extra bits of right of way to make bike highways?” said Schachter. “If there was space for bicycles that was separate but followed the same route, there would be the possibility of bicycling from much more far-flung places.”

Rolling Forward

Transportation Alternatives thinks these big ideas and messy conditions are linked; forward-looking concepts are the magic ingredient for fixing the imperfect bike lanes and other discomforts of bicycling today. Issues like sloppy construction or drivers parked in the bike lane are deeply local, and often the fight for one block is a place where progress gets mired. But a focus on big ideas for cycling’s citywide future can drive the pace of fixing the small stuff.

For decades, the advocates for bicycling in New York were pothole-obsessed. Even the earliest incarnations of cycling clubs organized themselves to petition for better paved roads. Today, as we grow out of cycling’s teenage years, we at Transportation Alternatives are keeping our sights on a broader horizon, pushing for innovative new ways to put more people on two wheels. And thanks to Paul Vogel, and thousands of TransAlt activists like him, we’re keeping an eye on the local ballet of the sidewalk, and streets, too. This is how we roll forward — on our bicycles, of course.

Photos by Konstantin Sergeyev.

Article by Jessie Gray Singer.

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