John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
“It makes me laugh every time,” says a Brooklyn cyclist who uses an assault-grade bike horn.
A couple years ago, Eugene D. was cycling on Manhattan’s First Avenue when an oblivious pedestrian hopped off the curb into the bike lane.
“My front wheel ended up hitting him in the inner thigh around 9 mph,” says Eugene, a mid-20s graphic designer living in South Brooklyn. “A bit more to the middle and it would’ve been ugly.”
The next collision occurred while Eugene was flying down a hill on Brooklyn’s Vanderbilt Avenue. “I had a green light and was going straight, and this dude making a left turn blocked my bike lane and I crashed into him going around 25 mph,” he recalls. “My front wheel was totaled.”
After that traumatic incident Eugene started recording his trips around New York, which last year saw an uptick in cyclist fatalities despite Vision Zero’s launch in 2014, and posting them on YouTube with titles like “Personal Space,” “New York Jaywalkers Made Me Snap,” and “The Struggle Continues.” His documentary-making has been good at sharing the danger and pain of biking in the city; however, it hasn’t done much to alleviate it.
“[The area north] from Prospect Park to just south of Central Park is an absolutely madhouse,” he says. “Laws don't apply, right of way doesn’t exist, and middle fingers are a greeting. Think: Mad Max.”
However, Eugene’s commute just got a little easier thanks to a device that, when mounted on a bike and given a button-push, emits a throaty, ear-walloping honk. It’s called a Loud Bicycle (something CityLab covered in its prototype form). It packs 125 decibels of power and sounds like the blare of a automotive horn. The gadget’s Boston-based designers, Jonathan and Andrew Lansey, sent it over gratis (it retails for $149) after Eugene’s online audience repeatedly suggested he get an air horn or some kind of louder bike-alert system.
“Our mission at Loud Bicycle is to make biking safer and raising awareness is a big part of that,” says Jonathan Lansey. “Eugene is doing good work sharing his experience on his YouTube channel, and we wanted to support him.”
The Loud Bicycle is designed to mimic the sound of an approaching auto as closely as possible, with the thinking being drivers and pedestrians alike are much more likely to pay attention to a car horn and its implicit danger than the merry tinkle of a bike bell. “When I unpacked it and used it for the first time, you can see in the video I got scared, [because] even that little beep in the closed room was intense,” Eugene says.
The beep is intense in the urban wild, too, as evident in his excellent footage of its forceful effects on the city’s inattentive masses.
There are a few options on the market for bicyclists looking for a more assertive audio presence. The UK-based Hornit packs 140 decibels and is billed as the world’s loudest bike horn; the elegant Oi, from Australia, promises to sound like “an angel playing a glockenspiel.” (You can also sing, as cyclist/viral phenom Noam Osband recently demonstrated.) But the Loud Bicycle folks emphasize that their device “speaks car,” allowing riders to more safely navigate the urban traffic scrum and grab the attention of pedestrians.
“Stepping off the curb looking into your phone is just insane in New York,” Eugene D. says. The horn cures all that—anytime Eugene activates it, it triggers a reaction in people like they just realized they’re walking into the path of a freight train. “It makes me laugh every time,” he says. Others, however, get super-pissed—note the man hollering around 1:45.
Eugene is unsympathetic. “It just hurts when you realize how unaware people are,” he says. “They think I’m the jerk for following the rules.”