For cyclists to be safe, they need to be seen — and that’s not always in their control

Lindsay Abrams
Dec 5, 2016 · 4 min read
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A combination of learned behavior and improved infrastructure is needed for NYC bikers to stop being an afterthought.

Some 750,000 New Yorkers say they regularly ride bikes, taking advantage of a bike network that’s grown to over a thousand total miles.

So why do they still so often feel invisible?

Three-quarters of the 80-some cyclists who wrote in about their experiences on the streets of NYC said they’ve been involved in crashes — with pedestrians, and with each other, but most often with motor vehicles. And while the details varied, these crashes, in the cyclists’ telling, nearly always came to the same problem: the person driving the car either didn’t see them, or acted as if they weren’t there.

There’s the cyclist who was hit on her left side by a driver who “claimed ‘he didn’t see me’ while making a spontaneous/unplanned decision to turn instead of proceeding straight”; another who said she’s twice been “(gently) hit by drivers who didn’t check their mirrors before turning or merging into the path of the bike lane”; one who’d been clipped by the mirror of a minivan that passed too closely; and another who was hit from behind while riding in the bike lane.

And in a related category of crash, respondents reported over 20 incidences of being “doored” by drivers or passengers who didn’t look first — in some instances, they swung their doors open directly into bike lanes.

(There were also the cyclists who attracted too much attention after spitting on a car, in one case, and kicking an opening car door, in the other. Both reported being subsequently chased down by the enraged drivers.)

The obvious solutions, on cyclists’ part, aren’t always the most likely to be effective. The NYC Department of Transportation’s guide to safe biking, for example, recommends that cyclists keep at least three feet away from parked cars to avoid being doored. But that doesn’t help when taxis let out passengers without pulling over to the side of the road, a situation that more than one cyclist cited as causing them to crash.

Similarly, all the bright clothing in the world isn’t going to help a cyclist be visible if the driver simply isn’t looking. That was the case for Nick, a Bronx cyclists who was hit by a taxi pulling out of a parking spot. “I was wearing reflective gear and lights,” he pointed out.

One anonymous cyclist in Manhattan, who says he’s been both cut off and doored, admitted, “in both situations I could have avoided a collision by riding slower and/or more defensively.”

But Brooklyn cyclist Shawn Onsgard countered that every crash he’s been in has involved a driver entering the bike lane without looking first. “It wasn’t because I was going so fast that I came up behind them or something,” he wrote. “I ride very cautiously and give people space, but sometimes drivers just don’t look first.”

The obvious solution for drivers is to remember to look, but that one isn’t always very effective, either. Bike infrastructure — signs, road markings, bike lanes painted bright green — are intended to alert drivers of cyclists’ presence. That’s pretty much the only function of “sharrows” (share + arrow), which let drivers know they’re supposed to share the lane. But it’s not clear everyone’s getting the message.

Among the more creative solutions is a recently circulating idea known as the “Dutch reach”: drivers are supposed to train themselves to open their car doors using their right arms, a position that forces them to look over their shoulders and thus have a better chance of spotting oncoming cyclists. To be effective, such behavior would have to be normalized — particularly among the drivers who still haven’t learned not to park in those bright green lanes with bikes painted in them.

More promising are the structural solutions that enhance the visibility of actual cyclists. Bike boxes, for example, allow cyclists to place themselves directly in front of traffic at intersections, and then get a bit of a head start when the light turns green.

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Even better: Brooklyn’s City Council is considering a bill that would allow cyclists to use “leading pedestrian intervals” — walk signals that appear before the light turns green at certain intersections, allowing pedestrians to get out ahead of cars. In 2015, the city installed over 400 LPIs as part of its Vision Zero efforts; although right now it’s illegal, many cyclists already use them.

The other advantage of better infrastructure is that increases in marked bike lanes are correlated with more cyclists taking to the streets, as a 2016 report from the National Association of City Transportation Officials found, and both, in turn, are correlated with decreased risk.

And the more cyclists’ numbers grow, the harder it seems it will be for drivers to claim they “just didn’t see” them.

Do you bike or drive in New York City? Have a better suggestion for how everyone can share the roads? Submit your responses below; the best will be published in a future post.

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