Four principles for respectful biking in NYC

Lindsay Abrams
Dec 13, 2016 · 4 min read

Suggestions from cyclists, to cyclists

As of this posting, 90 cyclists across all five boroughs of New York wrote in with their opinions and experiences about riding in the city; this list is based on common trends in what they reported and the insights they shared. Have something to add? Please leave a comment below or share your own story.

1.

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The most common infraction witnessed by cyclists is one that’s been given its own name: “salmoning,” a.k.a. riding against the flow on a one-way bike lane or street.

Many if not most of the cyclists who participated in this survey are actively involved in street safety movement. And salmoning is one type of behavior — unlike, say, running red lights and stop signs — that respondents called out in others without once claiming to have engaged in themselves. As several pointed out, aggressive or “clueless” cyclists riding the wrong way in bike lanes (“usually while texting and with headphones in at the same time”) are less predictable, and they force those going the right way into traffic. And at that point, they become just as much of a problem as a car in a bike lane.

2.

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“It’s…ironic that we as bikers ask for leniency and awareness from cars because they have the potential to harm us, but we don’t extend the same courtesy to pedestrians,” wrote Brooklyn cyclist Max Dismore. “I hear more complaints from pedestrians than cars about how dangerous or arrogant bikers are.”

Pedestrians would be mistaken to think that bikes are their biggest threat to safety, as motor vehicles cause far more harm to both pedestrians and cyclists. But pedestrians are still at the bottom of the streets food chain, and courteous behavior on the part of cyclists is the best defense against cranky editorials that obfuscate the bigger problem. Some tips:

  • On New York’s streets, the right of way always goes to pedestrians, something that cyclists say their peers don’t always respect.
  • That means not weaving through pedestrians as they’re attempting to cross the street.
  • It especially means not yelling “Get out of the way!” while doing so.
  • With good reason, cyclists often try to get ahead of traffic at intersections. They also try to get ahead of each other, a phenomenon known as shoaling. When this results in a blocked crosswalk, pedestrians lose.
  • Pedestrians shouldn’t step into bike lanes or cross the street without looking. But sometimes they do — and some of the cyclists who’ve ended up crashing in to them have admitted it’s a good idea to stay aware of this possibility, and to be prepared to stop.
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Salmoning and shoaling are just two of the ways cyclists say their fellow commuters make things difficult for them. Other, less aquatic-sounding but just as troublesome behaviors that came up:

  • Cutting each other off,
  • Riding dangerously fast on bridges,
  • Passing too close,
  • Not using hand signals to announce turns,
  • Not looking where they’re going,
  • Not making themselves visible at night,
  • Just plain being rude.
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Cyclists are incredibly enthusiastic about the possibility of changing our existing traffic laws to permit certain behaviors that, while currently illegal, they argue will help them protect themselves on the road.

They are less enthusiastic about obeying the law in the meantime. Some chalk this up to necessary civil disobedience: “Breaking traffic laws and engaging in unsafe behavior are two very different things,” argued cyclist and activist William Farrell. “Most cyclists break traffic laws in order to keep themselves safer.”

Others argue that following laws that were designed for cars just isn’t practical. As one cyclist, who prefers to remain anonymous, wrote in about her willingness to run lights and stop signs when there’s no oncoming traffic: “I have places to be and people to see.”

It’d be irresponsible to encourage cyclists to break the law, or to suggest in any way that they’re “allowed” to do so. But if you know the rules, are aware of the potential consequences, and choose to do it anyway, it’s important to still do everything possible to keep yourself and others safe. That means remembering everything mentioned above, and also:

  • Don’t blow through intersections without looking first.
  • Don’t cut off cars or pedestrians when they have the right of way.
  • Don’t ride on crowded sidewalks —and if the street/bike lane is obstructed, still be aware that sidewalks are pedestrian-first.

Again, the most important thing is to know what’s expected of you. These two pamphlets — Biking Rules! from Transportation Alternatives and Bike Smart from the NYC Department of Transportation — are a great place to start.

The New Rules of the Road

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