As the weather gets warmer, many New Yorkers will likely stop paying those surging Uber prices and take a break from crowded subways and instead opt to bike to their destination. However, sharing the streets with reckless drivers can be treacherous; there were 17 cyclist fatalities in 2022. Epicenter spoke with Clarence Eckerson, a filmmaker who specializes in films about biking and transit for Street Films and Jon Orcutt, director of advocacy at Bike NYC, who shared tips on how to stay safe while biking in the city.
Cyclists can stay safe by following the rules of the road as they ride bikes this season.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Epicenter-NYC: What are some standard rules of the road that bikers should know?
Eckerson: First of all, I’d let people know that there are an extensive amount of bike lanes in New York City — not all of them are wonderfully safe, but they are remarkably better than they were 25 years ago. People should be riding in the direction of traffic or whatever the bike line tells you, in some cases, there are two-bike lanes. They should never ride on the sidewalk and of course they need to obey red lights. They should also know that some rules are different for bicyclists such as you are allowed to go on the pedestrian signal. When the pedestrian signal turns white, the light may stay red for cars but bikes are allowed to cross.
Orcutt: The best thing to know when you are on anything with wheels is to always yield to pedestrians. Even if the pedestrian messes up by looking at their phones or eating lunch, you must get used to yielding to pedestrians because that is the key to safety in the city. The best way to be a cyclist is to slow down and follow the rules.
Epicenter-NYC: How can bikers stay safe when sharing the road with cars?
Orcutt: One of the biggest safety issues in New York City is that people drive too close to parked cars. The way drivers park, oftentimes the drivers are facing away from the cyclist. If the cyclist is riding along the street a driver may not see you when they open their door on the left side of the car. We have a lot of what we call “dooring crashes.” When people ride they are often afraid of moving cars but they don’t think about what could happen with a parked car. We’ve had people killed because they got hit by a door. Always make sure to keep at least three feet of distance from parked cars. Some of the city’s bike lanes are within the door zone and that can be a problem so we advise you to ride on the far side of the bike line or even on the white stripe itself. Make sure to assert the fact that you are there.
Epicenter-NYC: What about when it comes to sharing the road with cars, are there any rules that both cars and cyclists need to remember?
Eckerson: When you ride in New York City, assume that every driver is not going to obey traffic laws. Which is a very common thing especially at intersections. Sometimes I’ll see cars go through the red light and it’s gotten so much worse over the past few years. I always look both ways even when I have the green light. Drivers are mad, bicyclists are mad, taxi drivers get angry. It’s very frustrating to ride, especially when in Manhattan. We must be careful, it can be scary.
Epicenter-NYC: What are some rules pedestrians tend to need to remember?
Orcutt: The main thing is to just look right and left and get your head out of your phone. Cell phones haven’t always been the problem. In the 1990s many people were killed on the streets in the city before there were smart phones. So the main thing is to always look right, especially because of how chaotic the streets have become. You cannot expect everybody to do the right thing at any time. Look both ways for bikes, even if it is a one way street. If there is a delivery truck sitting on the end of a two-way street, it means there are cars coming head on at each other trying to get around the truck. It can be hard to see. Just look and think about where things may be coming from.
Epicenter-NYC: What is something that bikers want cars or pedestrians to know while they are cycling around the city?
Eckerson: That they are vulnerable. There are times when a cyclist is coming up to an intersection, they have the light and are in the bike lane but a pedestrian might decide to cross the street. They will look right at them and step in front of them as if they are almost invisible. People need to realize that when you are riding a bicycle you are in a vulnerable position. Even someone stepping out into the street can cause someone to flinch, hit a cyclist next to them, lose attention or even get hit by a car. The one thing is: make sure you realize that if you step in front of a bicyclist it’s not just the pedestrian at risk it’s also the bicyclist they are trying to pass in front of.
Epicenter-NYC: What are some common concerns bicyclists have?
Eckerson: Bicyclists want to have their right to the road and they want to have it safe. There are still a majority of the roads in New York City that don’t have bike lanes. There are times when we hear that there will be a bike lane and we are happy to hear the plans but when it gets installed we encounter double parked vehicles blocking the lane or all kinds of obstructions. We’d like to have more power to get people out of the bike lanes.
Epicenter-NYC: What should bikers do when there are no bike lanes?
Orcutt: They should ride on the street and they should take as much of the travel lane as they need to stay out of the door zone. On the travel lane, the people driving behind you can see you, the people opening doors cannot. Remember, if you ride next to parked cars you’re at risk of something random happening.
Epicenter-NYC: What is one tip that you want bikers to know?
Eckerson: One tip I would give is to always assume that every driver is going to break the law — it can save your life. I always assume that cars will do the worst case scenario whenever I approach an intersection. I am always on high alert looking around. It shouldn’t have to be that way. But that is one way to ride around for a long time in New York City while not having many incidents happen. You must have a heightened awareness that anything can happen at any time.
Orcutt: The main thing I see a lot, especially from people riding Citi Bikes, is that people drive too close to parked cars. I want people to know that is not safe, it’s safer to be out in traffic where drivers can see you.
Epicenter-NYC: What are some of the best paths to ride a bicycle in the city?
Orcutt: Completely separated greenways are the best places to ride your bicycle. For example on the West Side of Manhattan, there are more of those kinds of bike lanes along the waterfront and in Brooklyn. There is a really good system of these greenways in Eastern Queens. If you go from Flushing Meadow Park to Alley Pond, there are a set of pathways that link up; some are on the waterfront too, for example, on the Long Island Sound. We need a construction program to build more of that and we need the streets to be safer than they are.
Get extra help and tips:
- Check out Eckerson’s films on transit and biking for more education.
- Check out Bike NYC for classes on how to stay safe while riding.