Yesterday, for the second time, I was hit and knocked off my bike by a bicyclist riding on the wrong side of a street in New York City.
The first time was last summer, when I was struck head-on by a someone riding west on the eastbound side of Grand St. near Bushwick Ave. And yesterday I was hit broadside by someone riding south (and through a red light) on the northbound side of Woodhaven Blvd. at the intersection with Jamaica Ave.
Both times I was lucky: I wasn't hurt either time, suffering only bruises on my hand and on my ribs in this latest fall. And the damage to my bike was minimal, with a severed brake cable as a result of the first collision, and nothing from the second one.
But these incidents made me very angry and very sad. I am angry because the people who hit me sped away both times. In the first collision, the other person was also knocked off his bike, and he scrambled to it and rode off. In yesterday's crash, the other person didn't fall from his bike; he was speeding through the light after it had changed, and he clipped my front wheel as I was beginning through the intersection eastward.
I am sad because these people who hit me epitomise the public's perception of bicyclists: dangerous, lawless, and arrogant. Several times a week, I am treated to complaints from people I know who are aware that I am a bicyclist, who take the opportunity to vent to me about the bad behaviour that they witness from other bicyclists. While these people sometimes complain about actual danger to pedestrians, they most often express their disgust about the rampant law-breaking on the part of bicyclists.
I wish I could say that these people are wrong. But, during my daily rides, I see very few other bicyclists stopping at red lights; and I see plenty riding the wrong way on one-way streets and on the wrong side of two-way streets. This paints a terrible picture of bicyclists to a hostile general public, giving us all a very bad name. Every blown red light will surely result in multiple dinner-table conversations about "those arrogant bicyclists". This hurts our cause tremendously; when we in New York lose our bike lanes, it will be on account of the bad publicity that we create for ourselves by virtue of this constant law-breaking.
It's tempting to make the argument that such behaviour, while illegal, is often not dangerous. But doing so would miss the point: the problem is generally not one of bicyclists doing physical harm to others, but one of bicyclists doing political harm to ourselves. It is true that traffic laws which are written with cars in mind often cannot be sensibly applied to bikes, and that we need separate laws which take into account the realities of bicycling. However, we'll never get there if we squander the gains that have already been made.
I will admit that, for the first 30+ years of my life, I paid no attention to traffic laws while riding. There was no reason to do so, as I had nothing to lose. But as Mayor Bloomberg, through DOT Commissioner Sadik-Khan, began to drastically improve the City for bicyclists, I became aware that we now have a tremendous stake in the game, and, therefore, that I and all bicyclists have a responsibility to protect the gains in bicycling infrastructure. So following the traffic laws became an ethical duty, something that's in our long-term interest.
I've been riding in this City since long before I ever saw a bike lane. I rode on the 59th St. Bridge before there was a dedicated bike/pedestrian path on the north side, when the two service roads were, on an ad hoc basis, sometimes open for bicyclists and sometimes closed to us. And I was once almost killed once when I was directed by a traffic cop to cross to Manhattan on the south service road, but then that road was opened to Queens-bound traffic as I was halfway across.
In comparison to those days, New York is now nothing short of a bike wonderland. But, every morning after I cross the Williamsburg Bridge on my commute to work, as I watch bicyclists ignore two huge "WRONG WAY" signs in order to enter and travel west on the one-way eastbound bike lane in the centre of Delancey St., and then watch them swerve onto westbound Delancey on the left side of the fast-moving traffic lanes, I realise that I am seeing the end of our golden age of biking in New York.
It is important to remember, of course, that drivers who behave illegally are a far greater threat to safety than are bicyclists who behave illegally. Hell, even drivers who behave legally are a greater threat to safety than are bicyclists who behave illegally. Driving is by its nature a dangerous, filthy, and deeply anti-social practice. The main physical threat to bicyclists, to pedestrians, and to drivers themselves comes from cars, without any question.
But, we bicyclists have the power to control our public perception. And, by and large, we are blowing it. Or, to be more precise: we have blown it.
We're at the end of three terms of the most bike-friendly mayoral administration in the City's history, a period in which the bike infrastructure has expanded to a degree that would have been unimaginable before. And the bicyclists who ignore the laws are effectively waging a highly visible public campaign for the removal of our bike infrastructure, thereby spitting in the eye of the activists whose decades-long work to make bicycling mainstream made it all possible.
The next mayor will surely remove much of the existing bike infrastructure; the only question is how much. And for that we can to some degree thank the type of people who hit me, those stupid little rat-boys who ride bikes that are too small for them and who routinely ride fast and in large groups against traffic, intentionally creating havoc.
And to some degree we can thank those macho daredevil fools who ride recklessly between the traffic lanes on the Manhattan avenues.
But, mainly, we can thank the otherwise-intelligent adults who blithely ride as though they think that traffic laws don't apply to them.
Due to the actions to these sorts of people, the general public sees bicyclists not as people practising a legitimate form of transport and exercise, but as a group of people who are dangerous, lawless, and arrogant, and who need to be put back in their place.
The backlash is coming; and we have brought it on ourselves.