Our Town: Bike Wars
By Allen Houston
February 2, 2011
Simmering Bike Resentment
East Siders may have grown used to delivery guys on bicycles hopping sidewalks and dangerously whizzing in and out of pedestrians as they rush to drop off Chinese food or pizza. But they seem to have finally reached a breaking point. The debate over whether to restrict bicyclists may not only be about these riders and alleged misdemeanors; rather, it could be part of a growing hostility toward the increasingly bike-friendly city that New York is becoming.
Two disparate East Side scenes recently painted different pictures of the ongoing bike debate. At a Jan. 16 Community Board 8 meeting, members overwhelmingly passed a resolution to require electric bikes (mainly used by delivery drivers) to be categorized as motorized vehicles, and require their drivers to carry a license as well as tag on the back of their bike.
These bikes, which use a combo of pedal power and batteries, have proliferated greatly on the East Side in the last year, according to police. In some cases, these e-bikes are souped up so that they don’t have to be pedaled and are reconfigured so that they can go in excess of 20 miles per hour. Currently, these bikes fall into a gray zone where they are not classified as bicycles or motor vehicles.
“There has been a pretty fast proliferation of electric bikes, mostly among delivery people who use them,” Deputy Inspector Matthew Whelan of the 19th Precinct said at the meeting.
There were 166 summonses handed to bike riders during the first week of January, according to Deputy Inspector Whelan. Precinct 19 is consistently one of the top three districts in ticketing bike violators in the city.
Jonathan Horn, co-chair of the CB8 Transportation Committee, said that while the issue of negligent delivery drivers has been a problem for a long time, the danger of electric bikes has only popped up recently.
“They fall into this unregulated area and somebody has to draw a line in the sand,” he said. “Electric bikes are more dangerous than regular bikes.” (It should be noted that Manhattan Media, Our Town’s parent company, is currently planning a bike expo for the spring that will benefit Transportation Alternatives.)
Horn admits, however, that the issue is not solely related to electric bikes—that there are plenty of people on the Upper East Side and Community Board 8 who believe that all cyclists should have to carry a license and tag.
“There is a belief among some members that if you bike, you should have to carry a license,” he said. “Not a majority, but a substantial number.”
This came about, he says, because many cyclists disobey traffic laws, ride on sidewalks and go the wrong way down one-way streets, flying pell-mell by pedestrians without taking note of their surrounding environment.
In a conversation after the meeting, one member of CB8 said that she didn’t think the proposition went far enough.
“It’s not that I’m against electric bikes,” said the member, who didn’t want her name used. “I’m against all bikes.”
Barry Schneider, a Community Board 8 member and former co-chair of the transportation committee, said that the debate about registering all cyclists has cropped up in the past and that several members are in favor of it.
“We feel that people are being jeopardized by reckless riders,” he said.
While the vast majority of CB8 members at the meeting voted for the proposition, some thought that its wording went too far.
“Some people are using this as a crack to try and license and register all bikes,” Michael Auerbach, president of Upper Green Side and a CB8 member, said after the meeting. He voted against the resolution.
Delivery Drivers Drive Anger, Pols Respond
East Side Council Member Jessica Lappin and State Senator Liz Krueger said the issue of delivery drivers is one of the top constituent concerns in their districts.
Lappin introduced a bill in January 2006 that called for business owners to be fined for reckless driving instead of delivery drivers, because drivers weren’t paying the fines and the tickets weren’t detouring local business owner’s behavior.
“This issue is consistently one of the biggest quality of life issues on the Upper East Side,” she said.
Krueger and Assemblyman Brian Kavanaugh recently reintroduced a bill in the State Senate that passed last session before faltering in the assembly that would require business owners and drivers to share responsibility for reckless riding.
“The system that we have isn’t working,” Krueger said. “I believe this law would have a significant impact on all delivery drivers and the businesses that they work for.”
Krueger also believes that electric bikes need to be regulated.
“They are an evolving technology,” she said. “When you electrify a bike it acts differently. They put pedestrians and other bike riders in danger because they go three times the speed.”
As to the animosity between pedestrians and bike riders, she chalks that up to fitting a huge number of people “on the head of a pin.”
“You name a topic of importance in Manhattan and at its heart it’s an issue of land use,” Krueger said. “We have an incredibly dense population who live on top of each other and uses the sidewalks and roads. How that space is used is always going to engender heated discussion.”
Kavanaugh, who co-sponsored the bill, believes that the culture is changing but that many people are still angry at reckless riders.
“There are a significant number of people in New York who are generally concerned about the increase in biking. They don’t like it,” he said.
He believes that education and talking about the many benefits of biking from the environmental impact to how it would ease congestion is one way to turn around people’s opinions about cyclists.
New Vision For East Side
One week after the CB8 meeting, the East Side Coalition (an arm of the non-profit Transportation Alternatives) unveiled its “East Side Action Plan” at St. Mark’s Church to a standing-room-only audience.
The East Side Action Plan collected the opinions of more than 600 East Side residents as part of its goal to reduce pedestrian and bicyclist injuries and fatalities on the East Side by 50 percent over the next 10 years.
From the 600 respondents who took the survey, the following concerns were ranked as severe in the neighborhood: speeding vehicles, not enough bicyclist space on roads, pollution from traffic congestion and not enough street trees and green spaces.
The group has brought in Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, and a leader in Bus Rapid Transit implementation, a system that is similar to Select Bus Service, to help with the initiative. To a cheering crowd he talked about making the East Side more pedestrian and bike friendly.
“When anything is done in New York it becomes an example for the rest of the world,” he said.
Sandra McKee, a member of the transportation committee for CB6, said that there was some resistance among people who don’t like bikes on her board, but that members of the coalition were speaking to their committee at their next meeting to help educate the committee and possibly change minds.
“Change is always difficult but you have to start somewhere,” she said.
Meanwhile, Horn of CB8 agrees that educating riders, especially in school, would help teach them about proper biking rules.
He said that it’s not a one-way street where pedestrians give everything over to bikers. Cyclists need to change their attitudes as well.
“They are still living in an environment of us against them,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”
Steve Vaccaro, an UES resident, who spoke at the East Side Action Plan launch, said that there had been six deaths by vehicles striking pedestrians in the last six months.
“There is something wrong when people think that cyclists are what threatens safety on the East Side,” he said.