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New York Times: How to Make Bike Lanes Work Better

By Erica C. Barnett December 23, 2010

Over at the New  York Times, five writers are debating whether New York's huge new system of bike lanes---installed at the behest of Mayor Michael Bloomberg without much discussion or input from citizens, i.e. exactly the opposite of the way we do things in Seattle---is working. (Since adding more than 250 miles of bike lanes, Bloomberg has come under intense pressure from drivers to remove them.)

Refreshingly (and also unlike Seattle), the discussion focuses more on how to make the lanes work better than on whether they should exist at all. One writer argues that New Yorkers need to be patient and give people time to get used to the lanes: "Did people really think that New York would become Copenhagen overnight?" Another points out that the number of law-breaking cyclists---the ones who run lights and buzz pedestrians---are far outnumbered by those who play by the rules.

And a third---Governing magazine writer Alex Marshall---suggests some concrete ways New York's whole transportation system could be made safer for everyone. In addition to starting a bike-sharing program, turning one-way streets into two-way streets, and promoting biking on all streets, not just busy thoroughfares with bike lanes, Marshall suggests changing the law so that drivers are expected to look out for cyclists, not the other way around:
Change the legal relationship between pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. In boating, the slowest, smallest vessel has priority, generally speaking. Thus the motorboater looks out first for the sailboater, not the other way around.

If drivers knew their insurance rates would go up if they hit a cyclist, they would be more cautious.

Something similar should happen here. Although the passage of “Elle’s law” helped, right now, when a driver hits a cyclist or a pedestrian, there is still no presumption of fault, even if just for liability purposes.

That should change. If drivers knew their insurance companies would raise their rates or cancel their policies if they hit a cyclist or pedestrian, they would be more cautious when turning onto a crosswalk or opening a car door. Right now, more people don’t bicycle because it’s simply still too dangerous, even with bike lanes. From my studies of the Netherlands and other bike-saturated places, it is the proper arrangement of these legal lines that is even more important than the painted lines on the streets marking a bike lane.

It's a great idea---and, sadly, a novel one. As long as drivers who don't bike outnumber cyclists, it's hard to imagine such a dramatic reversal of accountability.
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