COMMENTARY: Bike Safety: Engineering, Education and Enforcement

Ross Sandler, Center for New York City Law Director

The City aggressively attacks unsafe conditions for bike riders on the City’s streets and avenues, but less successfully attacks unsafe behaviors of bike riders. Unsafe conditions can mostly be engineered away, but unsafe behaviors require changes of a cultural nature. The City in 2019 experienced 28 bike rider deaths and more than 4,000 bike injuries. So far 2020 has experienced more bike injuries than in 2019. To make the City safer for bike riders, the City should aggressively enforce the traffic laws against vehicles, but also aggressively enforce the rules against bike riders who ride against traffic, ignore traffic signals, speed, or text and talk on phones while riding.

The classic formulation for achieving traffic safety is engineering, education and enforcement. So far the City with respect to bike safety has been most aggressive on engineering and education, but less so on enforcement.

The City began aggressively engineering safer spaces for bike riders decades ago by installing sewer grates designed with smaller openings to avoid trapping bike tires. Most recently the City created 126 miles of protected bike lanes. These extraordinary protected bike lanes required taking a lane of traffic away from vehicles, effectively engineering away confrontations between cars and bikes. The City, in response to the increased deaths and injuries in 2019, committed to doubling the available protected bike lanes.

On enforcement, the City in 2019 issued some 35,000 tickets to bike riders. This number of tickets elicited angry articles and attacks by bike advocates who claimed that bike riders were being unfairly targeted. Bike riders argued that they were victims, not violators, and that the City should concentrate on ticketing trucks and other vehicles. Greater bike safety, however, requires that bike riders, bike advocates and the biking culture accept their own responsibility for obeying traffic laws.

The City and many bike advocacy organizations urge good manners and sensible bike riding safety rules. But these educational efforts, along with the City’s engineering solutions, have not produced a bike riding culture that fully accepts its own responsibility for street safety.  Expanded and aggressive enforcement that augments these substantial engineering and educational efforts would reduce unsafe behavior, and in turn produce safer streets for all.

By: Ross Sandler, Professor and Director of the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School


4 thoughts on “COMMENTARY: Bike Safety: Engineering, Education and Enforcement

  1. An argument that is long overdue. I feel that it is remarkable, however, that there seems to be no attention to the danger bike riders pose to pedestrians. Cross walks are no longer safe for pedestrians when bike riders ignore red lights, stop signs and ride the wrong way on one-way streets. As the motorized bikes become prevalent, this danger has become magnified. Clearly enforcement is necessary to change the lawless and entitled ethos of bike riders who ignore their responsibility to keep the streets safe for pedestrians as well.

  2. Ross excellent commentary. In Copenhagen where there are many more bicycle per person, people follow the rules. If we do not do here we will not be able to expand bike use the way we should.

  3. Cyclists should be required to register themselves, carry a ID card and show proof-of-insurance (e.g. most rental policies have a $300,000 liability provision) so that when someone is injured they can sue for payment of medical expenses.

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