New York's Cyclists Are Getting Better at Following the Rules

A new study suggests that the way people ride is changing – for the better.

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More New Yorkers are riding bicycles than ever before, on an ever-expanding network of bike lanes. The city's new bike-share system has had phenomenal early success, logging 40,000 trips daily on peak days in good weather, and even averaging nearly 9,600 in the cold and snowy month of January. But it's not just the number of riders that is different from the past. A new study suggests that the way New Yorkers ride is changing – for the better.

According to the research, conducted by Peter Tuckel and William Milczarski of Hunter College at the City University of New York, New Yorkers on bikes are measurably more law-abiding than they were just four years ago. They are also proportionally more female.

The study, "Bike Lanes + Bike Share = Bike Safety" [PDF], looked at the behavior of 4,316 bicyclists at 98 different locations in central and lower Manhattan. The researchers compared the resulting data to what they found in a similar, although not identical, survey in 2009. Since that year, the city has installed more than 200 more miles of bike lanes, for a total of 537 miles; launched a bike-share system with 6,000 bikes (in May 2013); and seen a pronounced increase in general ridership.

What has changed, with so many more people on two wheels? “There has been a significant improvement in bike safety,” says Tuckel. More riders are stopping, or at least pausing, at red lights; riding in bike lanes; and wearing helmets. Fewer riders are pedaling against traffic.

This, despite predictions that the launch of the city’s bike-share program last May would mean chaos, as inexperienced riders hit the city's notoriously contested streets. “Everybody had predicted with the Citi Bike riders that there would be a spike in the number of accidents,” says Tuckel. “I think it was the same people that predicted that the Broncos were going to win the Super Bowl. It didn’t materialize.” In fact, the study found that Citi Bike riders were exceptionally law-abiding, and there have been relatively few, mostly minor injuries in the first few months of the program.

Here are a few of the findings that Tuckel and Milczarski gleaned from their research:

  • The proportion of women pedaling on the city’s streets is still low, just 21.1 percent. But compared to the 2009 study, the proportion of female riders to male has doubled. Women made up 31.1 percent of Citi Bike riders observed.
  • Women tend to be much more law-abiding than men in every way, but male bike-share riders stop fully at red lights at a rate significantly higher than male general cyclists or male delivery cyclists.
  • In the recent study, 34 percent of riders were observed going through red lights without pausing or stopping, down about 10 percentage points from 2009.
  • Just 4.2 percent of cyclists were observed riding against traffic in the street and 3.2 percent were riding against traffic in the bike lane, for a combined total of 7.4 percent – well below the 13.2 percent recorded in 2009.
  • Helmet use rose from 29.9 percent to 49.8 percent, with much of that being driven by an increase in use by male commercial cyclists (the city passed a law in 2007 that requires businesses to provide their delivery riders with helmets), who wore them at a rate of 72.7 percent. Among general male cyclists, helmet use also went up dramatically, from 32.2 percent to 47.8 percent.
  • Citi Bike riders in general are more compliant with traffic laws and ride in bike lanes at a higher rate than other riders. As for helmets, 31.1 percent of male Citi Bike riders and 36.2 percent of female Citi Bike riders were wearing them.

“They’re taking advantage of the infrastructure,” says Tuckel of the bike-share user. “That’s important from a policy standpoint.” Not only did the presence of more bike infrastructure literally pave the way for the bike-share program in New York, he says, the lanes have made a place for a more diversified ridership. Women and Citi Bike riders of both sexes are more likely to use bike lanes when they are available.

Tuckel says that the most recent data reflects an evolving street culture in New York, one in which drivers no longer have a monopoly on the roadway and all users are adjusting to new infrastructure.

“I think what is happening now in New York City is that drivers realize that even though they have had a dominant position on the road, the roads now have to be shared,” says Tuckel. “Drivers are becoming more aware of cyclists, and cyclists are becoming more aware of drivers. It’s going to result in safer habits for drivers and cyclists.”

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.