Throughout the summer of 2015, people on Manhattan’s Upper East Side debated the pros and cons of First Avenue’s protected bike lane. Wherever cyclists gathered, they raised high fives to this infrastructure improvement. But, in June, after a hit-and-run cyclist crashed into pedestrian Mary Grace Belfi near E. 86th Street, several local papers featured articles where a few residents suggested that bike lanes themselves constituted a safety problem. They argued that pedestrians were actually more secure before the redesign of the street, claiming the bike lane brought people who disobeyed traffic rules into the neighborhood.
The police must track down and society punish hit-and-run cyclists, just like their motorized counterparts. But crashes between cyclists and pedestrians account for almost none of the collisions that seriously injure Manhattan’s pedestrians. The overwhelming number of crashes occur when drivers of motorized vehicles speed or fail to yield to pedestrians in an intersection. For this reason alone, the way to increase pedestrian safety on the Upper East Side cannot be a return to the pre-bike-lane days, when cyclists had no designated space in which to ride. The way to create the safest possible environment is to reconfigure street layout so that both cyclists and pedestrians have sufficient space dedicated to their needs.
For cyclists on the Upper East Side, this strategy means completing a grid of protected bike lanes. First Avenue’s protected lane is a boon to cyclists, particularly those who are new to this way of getting around (a group set to grow with the introduction of CitiBike to the Upper East Side). But cyclists need more than one protected lane per neighborhood. Most cycling trips require riders to go east and west as well as north-south along one avenue.
For cyclists to feel safe on the Upper East Side, the next step is for the Department of Transportation to inaugurate protected crosstown lanes, perhaps one in the east 60s and one in the east 80s. Note that for such lanes to actually increase cyclist safety, they cannot constitute space demarcated by a single line (which is easy for cars to cross) but rather space demarcated by barriers such as parked cars or a CitiBike installation.
In addition to inaugurating crosstown bike lanes, the Department of Transportation should also take steps to secure more car-free space for pedestrians. One key requirement is reconfiguring traffic lights so that walkers and motorized vehicles cross intersections at different times. Such traffic light reconfiguration would provide walkers with the same amenity bike lanes offer cyclists — space free from worries over encounters with errant drivers.
Some of the articles that appeared after Mary Grace Belfi’s collision imagined that cyclists and pedestrians are antagonists in the campaign to re-allocate street space. In actuality, cyclists and pedestrians form one camp seeking safe space from collisions with drivers of motor vehicles. Because savvy walkers and bike riders know that almost all serious crashes involve cars, they advocate for policies that would address the major safety problem, rather than focusing on one or two outlier crashes.
Savvy pedestrians want protected crosstown bike lanes on the Upper East Side for the same reason that savvy cyclists call for pedestrian-only crossing time at intersections. Both groups know that the key to minimizing crashes is giving people who use every mode of transport access to space in which they can feel safe. In the campaign for protected crosstown bike lanes, cyclists and pedestrians are natural allies.
Hindy Lauer Schachter, whose husband was struck and killed by a cyclist in Central Park last year, is a member of Families for Safe Streets