The 15 Unwritten Rules of NYC Bike Riding You're Probably Breaking
More people are riding bikes in New York City than ever before. This is partly a result of our expanding bike-lane network and the prevalence of Citi Bike, but it’s also due to the city’s inherent bikeability. Your bike will take you to work without subjecting you to transit delays, or to the beach on the weekend without traffic, tolls, and timetables. It’s practicality, recreation, and freedom all in one simple machine.
The hard part is getting a feel for the intangibles, as riding a bike means interacting with your fellow New Yorkers in a new and unfamiliar way. As a cyclist, you occupy sort of a middle ground between pedestrians and drivers, and as such you're both vulnerable and dangerous at the same time. And because the cycling landscape in New York City is still evolving, it's not always obvious what you should be doing on the bike.
Over the years I’ve raced, messengered, commuted, and child-schlepped my way all over the city by bike. I’m also behind the popular blog Bike Snob NYC, and have written four books on biking, including The Ultimate Bicycle Owner’s Manual. These are the unwritten rules I’ve learned about riding a bike in NYC.
1. Pedestrians always come first
New York is, first and foremost, a pedestrian city. This is why our unofficial motto is "Hey, I'm walkin' here!" And you're a rube if you expect everybody to follow the rules. Which leads us to the next point...
2. Always be cognizant of how pedestrians move through the city
Know how people behave around transit hubs and tourist spots. Recognize patterns and how pedestrian behavior varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. Anticipate smartphone-induced sleepwalking. And instead of getting pissy and self-righteous towards pedestrians who don't do what they're "supposed" to, accept it, slow down, and move through it.
Sure, it can be frustrating when someone steps out into the bike lane with a phone in their face, or when herds of commuters take over the intersection as they stampede towards the 5:23 to Hicksville -- but as a savvy cyclist and city dweller it is your responsibility to account for this bovine behavior.
Years ago, I hit a pedestrian while riding on Hudson Street, just south of Canal, during the morning rush hour. She ran out from behind a parked car into the street to hail a cab, I had no time to stop or swerve, and I knocked her down. (She was fine, and she got her cab.) While technically it “wasn’t my fault,” looking back at it now I should have anticipated this typical New York City behavior, and I should have been riding slower. It was an extremely busy intersection awash in the chaos of the Holland Tunnel floodplain, and a place where people behave unpredictably and pedestrians can be difficult to spot.
Point is: You know that feeling of terror and rage when a driver blithely cuts you off and nearly takes your life? Don't pass that down to someone else.
3. The biker doesn’t always own the bike lane
Any motorist parked in a bike lane deserves to have their car catapulted over the Hudson and into Jersey. However, things get a little more complicated when it comes to pedestrians. Today’s protected bike lanes also have crossings for pedestrians that are controlled by traffic lights. One example is on Chrystie Street at Rivington Street. Just the other day, I watched as it turned red, people started crossing, and a group of oncoming cyclists kept right on going, stopping the pedestrians dead in their tracks. One of the riders even barked at a pedestrian, “Get off your phone!”
Just because it’s a car-free intersection doesn’t mean you get to run the light. If the light is red and people need to cross, you must stop completely. And just because the riders in front of you keep going doesn’t mean you should keep going, too. Remember what your mother said? “If your friends all jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge... ” You know the rest.
4. Bikers must surrender the Brooklyn Bridge
Cyclists hate few things more than obstructed bike lanes, and thanks to the hordes of tourists, few bike lanes are more obstructed than the one on the Brooklyn Bridge. As a result, riders crossing it are wont to ring their bells, shout "Bike lane, bike lane!," and even sing the theme from Star Wars at the top of their lungs in an effort to clear the way.
These riders are idiots.
While it sucks that visitors don’t respect our bike lane, it's also completely unreasonable to expect people visiting one of the most famous landmarks in the world to notice some white painted lines while they're agog over the view. What kind of schmuck rides a bike right into the middle of a tourist attraction, anyway? That's like going to the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Times Square and complaining about the wait for a table.
This isn't to say you shouldn't ride over the Brooklyn Bridge. But, if you do, you should at least be polite and reconcile yourself to going slowly. Otherwise, see that other bridge right next door? It's called the Manhattan Bridge. Use it.
5. Actively protect yourself from getting doored
One of the biggest threats city cyclists face is heedless drivers and passengers flinging open their car doors right in your path. Think of the city as a giant pinball table: The doors are the paddles, you're the ball, and the game is being played by a kid who wants you dead.
To avoid getting doored, remember the following:
1) Avoid riding in the "door zone" whenever possible;
2) Taxis, car services, Ubers, etc. are the biggest dooring hazards;
3) Notwithstanding the above, consider any stationary car a coiled cobra waiting to strike;
4) Always ride on the left side of a one-way street, as you're less likely to encounter an open door. All cars have drivers (for now), but not all cars have passengers.
6. Don't fall victim to a turning driver
Even more dangerous than getting doored is getting right-hooked (or left-hooked) by a turning driver. This happens when you approach an intersection and an overtaking driver turns into your path.
When nearing an intersection, even if you've got the green and the coast is clear, check around you and make sure. You never know when someone is going to gun it from behind and tear around the corner. And if you're behind a driver, never pass them at an intersection. You may think they're going straight, but very few drivers actually bother to signal.
Also, regardless of where you are on the street, be especially vigilant of car services and taxis, who are known to pounce on a potential fare at any moment. If you see people near the curb with raised hands or wearing that "Is that my Uber?" face, know that somewhere nearby there's a driver about to swoop.
That goes double for an empty parking space. A typical SUV driver will cut across three lanes of traffic and run over their own mother to get one of those.
7. Always pass decisively
You may hear high-intensity house music and your SoulCycle instructor imploring you to "Go for it!" every time you throw a leg over a Citi Bike, and there's certainly nothing wrong with feeling the burn as you ascend the Manhattan Bridge, but don't rope anyone else into your fantasy and/or delusion.
If you're going to pass someone on an incline, do it because you need to, not because you want to. Is the rider ahead of you slowing you down? Then by all means pass when it's safe to do so. But don't attempt to pass the rider ahead of you just because, only to blow up as soon as you do and in turn force them to go around you.
8. Always think about how much space you’re taking up before you park
Yes, locking up your bike is essential. However, theft prevention isn't all there is to parking your bike. There's also the matter of etiquette.
When locking up at a bike rack, take note of its design and orientation. Are you positioning your bike in such a way that you're taking up more than one spot? Are you inadvertently blocking access to another bike that's already there? Are you blocking the sidewalk or a doorway? And please, please, please, make sure you’re not accidentally locking your bike to someone else’s.
9. Never lock your bike up to a bus stop sign or a tree
You know those pole boxes at bus stops that contain route maps and other information? People actually look at those. If your bike's in the way, that makes it extremely difficult for bus riders -- who are more likely to be elderly or more mobility challenged than other transit users and thus unable to contort themselves around your stupid bicycle.
Also, don't lock up to trees. Not only is it bad for the tree, but thieves have been known to cut them down to get to your bike, which is really bad for the tree. It's also a great way to make sure a dog pees on your bike.
Finally, when locking to a street sign, opt for the sidewalk side rather than the curb side whenever possible -- this makes it slightly less likely that an inept parallel parker will back into your bike.
10. Remember that it’s not a race
Riding a bicycle in New York City can be exhilarating, so much so that you may be tempted to race your fellow commuters over the bridge or on the greenway.
Racing other riders combines the rudeness factor of reading someone's Facebook timeline over their shoulder on the subway with the danger factor of tailgating another driver on the LIE. Sure, you may feel stealthy as you overtake the rider in front of you, but to them your huffing and puffing makes them feel like they're being stalked by a public masturbator. Also, cycling in the city can occasionally require evasive action or quick stops, and the last thing any cyclist worries about is taking out the rider behind them as they swerve to avoid a car door or brake for the pedestrian who's leapt into traffic to hail a cab.
11. Know when it makes sense to obey the law
I'm not going to tell you to follow the letter of the law 100% of the time. Not only would that be naive on my part, but it would also be irresponsible, as our streets and laws are still heavily car-centric and in some cases, mindlessly obeying them can be downright dangerous. For example, there are times when it’s way safer to follow the pedestrian signal than the traffic signal, as doing the former can give you a head start on the traffic bearing down on you. Also, you should obviously never ride on the sidewalk, but if you find yourself in, say, eastern Queens on a busy boulevard with no shoulder and a pedestrian-free sidewalk and you feel your life is in danger, you gotta do what you gotta do.
Even so, while there are plenty of situations where, say, running a red light won't put you in danger, you may still be violating a pedestrian's right of way, and that's reason enough not to do it.
12. But also be aware that the NYPD can and will ticket you
In fact, it's usually the seemingly benign infractions that will net you a ticket, since the NYPD likes to set up at T-intersections and the like, where it's easy to pick off cyclists one-by-one.
And as all longtime cyclists know, if a cyclist has been killed recently, you can pretty much count on an NYPD cyclist crackdown in the area immediately afterward. They're punishing you in order to save you. Or something.
13. Always observe proper red light etiquette
DON'T: Wait in the middle of the crosswalk forcing foot traffic around you;
DON'T: Line up in front of the cyclist ahead of you to in order to get a jump on them (this is called "shoaling");
DON'T: Ride around in circles because you don't feel like putting a foot down;
DO: Be patient. When you're on a bike there's not a lot to slow you down, so you can spare a couple of minutes waiting for the light. Also, crosswalks offer some of the best people-watching in the city.
14. Chill out when you’re riding in the park
Central and Prospect Parks may offer cyclists a respite from traffic, but that's not your cue to put your head down, assume the time-trial position, and go for your personal best. The park is also full of other people seeking a refuge from the endless procession of motorcars, many of whom happen to be children. Hammering in the park is basically like using the subway pole as a chin-up bar: Not only is it inconsiderate, it also makes you look like an idiot.
If you're looking to ride fast, head out of the city and onto the open road, or register for an actual bike race. There are plenty in the parks all summer long.
15. Keep your mouth shut always
It's tempting to yell at the driver who just tried to kill you, but keep in mind that no exchange in the history of driver-cyclist altercations has ever turned out favorably. The very best you'll ever get is the sort of half-assed apology that makes you even angrier, and the worst-case scenario is that the driver who just tried to kill you decides to finish the job.
Ask yourself: Is the person who just used their car as a deadly weapon someone who's going to listen to reason? Almost certainly not.
One of the hardest things about cycling is just riding away and consoling yourself with the knowledge that the asshole you just encountered probably leads a miserable life, but that's almost always your best course of action.
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