My travels to the US have just finished, but let’s go back to where I spent last weekend – in New York. The same magazine that rated Washington DC in the top five best cycle-friendly US cities had (somewhat controversially) put New York at Number 1.
I say “controversial” because, in terms of facilities on the ground and take-up by riders, NY is well behind many other cities (at 2% of commuters, it’s not even in the top 25 of bike-commuting cities). But they were honoured mostly for the dramatic change in less than a decade where they have rolled out hundreds of miles of bike lanes, introduced a “Citi-Bike” public bike share scheme, and as a result doubled their cycling numbers.
So does the hype match the reality? Eh, kind of… There are a number of fairly handy cycle facilities around downtown (I was mostly in Manhattan during my stay), both separated bikeways and just painted cycle lanes, and I saw quite a bit of use of the Citi-Bike bikeshare (more than I saw in DC). But I think it would be a stretch to say that the city is bike-friendly for the “interested but concerned”. The relatively poor maintenance of many of the markings and surfaces didn’t inspire confidence either.
The main flagship improvements in the past few years have been the introduction of on-street cycleways separated from traffic by either posts or car parking. Typically these have been introduced by reducing one of the traffic lanes; perhaps not a big deal when there are 4-5 lanes on some streets (e.g. 8th and 9th Aves), but potentially more difficult when there are only a couple (e.g. Broadway).
Broadway is perhaps more noted for its widespread reallocation of roadway space for both walking and cycling. By using simple tools like giant planters, seating and textured/coloured surfacing, the city was able to quickly transform roadways into new places to walk and bike. And if things don’t quite work as planned, it’s fairly quick to undo or change it. The results were impressive in terms of both improved numbers and safety for active modes along this popular thoroughfare.
Intersections are a mixture of treatments. For many, cycleway users are expected to just mingle with turning traffic with no specific protection there. But for some of the busier intersections, separate traffic signals hold back the turning traffic to let the bikes go first. Then the bikes are stopped while the turning traffic gets a green signal.
Away from the roads, New York has a nice cycling path right around the Manhattan waterfront. Plus in Central Park you have an extensive set of cycleways, by and large separated from walking and driving routes.
New York has also generally provided a range of options to connect between the boroughs across the waterways via the many bridges. The facilities are often not too fancy (or wide), and I could imagine in summer they might be rather over-subscribed. But at least (unlike the Auckland Harbour Bridge for example), you have the option to make the journey.
I also noticed a number of quite nice on-street covered bike parking areas around the city. Rather like the Adshel bus-stops here, a private vendor has constructed these with a NY bike map and other biking info on one end and some advertising panels to help cover costs. I remember having discussions with Adshel about a decade ago to provide something similar in NZ; they seemed quite keen, but nothing came of it. Maybe it’s time to try again?
Perhaps one of the most recent developments in New York could become the most significant for cycling. Last November, New York lowered its default urban speed limit from 30mph (48km/h) to 25mph (40km/h). While there are still some roads with exceptions to that rule, in general it could make the mean streets of New York a nicer (and safer) place for walking and cycling. The challenge will of course be to get motorists to comply with the new lower limit; my observations of US traffic (and discussions on this topic in Washington DC) indicate that they have more of a challenge than us to get traffic speeds down. But it’s slowly happening; on introducing automated speed cameras in NY city, there was a fourfold increase in tickets issued compared with the previous manual system (and even then, you have to be travelling at >10mph above the limit to get snapped).
In my final post from the US, I’ll be looking at what Boston has to offer for cycling, as well as some thoughts on the US overall. Stay tuned!
What do you think about New York’s cycling offerings?