Breaking the Law! Riding in Manhattan.
This weekend twenty seven Midnight Ridazz (2, 3) made the epic trip from Americas second largest metropolis to it’s largest, mostly to experience the action at Bike Kill 666 (2, 3), but also to experience New York City in all it’s epicness. Wow – this place is crazy!
In LA, I pretty much follow the traffic laws – only running reds late at night when they won’t change for me, or on certain rides. But, as soon as I got off the plane in JFK, I became an outlaw – running reds routinely, dodging between cabs and buses and just generally riding like a maniac.
I’m not the only one. It seems like the only ones obeying the law (or 90% of them) in NYC are the motorists. Cabs and buses and limos wait dutifully at green lights while pedestrians walk right in front of them against the light. Pedestrians will walk right in front of anything moving fast – me, other cyclists, cabs, trucks, garbage trucks, or Godzilla – and if it hesitates they go. Cyclists ride the right way only about twice as often as they ride the wrong way. And if you, a cyclist, come to a light, and it’s not a big street, you’re taking a look and you’re running it – that’s just how everyone rides.
Why is that? Well – NYC does it to you, particularly Manhattan. It’s not like LA where the city blocks are 150 yds to a quarter mile in length. Blocks here are sometimes as numerous as 20 in a mile. That means you’re have to stop frequently – waaay more often than in LA. As well, things are just confusing here. The first time I broke the law in NYC was when I came to a bizarre intersection. There were like five streets coming together, all at weird angles, and some of them were one-way. On top of all that it was underneath an elevated train. I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do, there was diddly for signage, so I did the logical thing and pedaled across when there were no cars that could hit me.
That seems to be the general NY attitude about non-motorized traffic: do what you want, or what you must, and be intelligent about it. Midnight Ridazz co-founder Roadblock explained “NYC is this place where you can break the law as much as you want, and no one cares, but if you do something stupid they’ll berate you for it.” That’s it in a nut shell – NYC seems to thrive on a healthy respect for the natural law: act intelligently and defensively, or get run over.
It works. Why? For one, in Manhattan, the vehicle speeds are much lower than even Downtown LA. There are more lights and the streets are narrower. Furthermore, even if pedestrians and cyclists weren’t consistently breaking the law, there are tight corners, many more people crossing the street legally, delivery trucks parked everywhere, and a lot of cabs changing lanes unexpectedly – so motorists must drive more cautiously, slower, and with greater awareness.
The other reason it works is because everyone expects it. Everyone on the street knows that pedestrians are going to jaywalk and cyclists are going to run lights or ride the wrong way with a degree of abandon. Everyone knows that cabs are going to accelerate maniacally and change lanes out of nowhere – I mean, they have reinforced bumpers, so you know to give them space. Since everyone understands that these things are going to happen, they anticipate them happening, and that’s how collissions are avoided. In essence, though it may not feel like it, there is a lot of cooperation between road users.
Several times I’ve rolled up to a light where the traffic was thick enough that I felt it would be madness to run. In some of those cases drivers and pedestrians actually stopped to make space for me, anticipating that I would run the light. Sometimes I took advantage of it, as any decent New Yorker would do, and other times I set my foot down, enjoying the perplexed looks when I didn’t run the light.
It’s actually very reasonable. Traffic laws are conventions we agree upon so that we can travel about safely and not smush each other. Los Angelinos often seem to think that if they follow the law, it doesn’t matter if they are unsafe road users. New Yorkers flip it, not really caring what you do, as long as you behave intelligently and safely. I think this more practical attitude is the reason that NYC can function, and remain a safe place to live.
Except for cyclists. Despite all that cooperation, Manhattan isn’t actually a safe place for cyclists, and Brooklyn is sketchy as well. As I’ll explain in a later post, you shouldn’t ride in Manhattan unless you are very skilled at handling traffic. And unfortunately, I can’t imagine a realistic route from the state of things now in Manhattan, to a bike friendly Manhattan.