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The Knickerbiker Mailbag: Fear of getting doored

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Knickerbiker Credit: Max J. Dickstein

Since the debut of amNewYork's new bike column, The Knickerbiker, last Tuesday, I've been pleased to hear from a number of readers. Here is a sampling of the e-mails I received, along with my responses (this feature, which I hope to publish online regularly, is unapologetically formatted exactly like Jon Wertheim's Tennis Mailbag on SI.com.)

You sensibly urged cyclists to "Keep three feet away from parked cars or idling cabs," but then seemed to undercut that by saying, "For a city cyclist, the fear of getting doored by a heedless motorist is akin to a pedestrian’s dread of falling through a sidewalk grate. Both are rare, avoidable and potentially fatal. You know what? Let’s just move on." I honestly don't get which point you're making: that dooring is potentially fatal (so let's keep a safe distance), or it's a crippling but unjustified fear so fuhgeddaboutit. Which? (My premise, which I can easily support, is that falling through sidewalk grates is extraordinarily rare, whereas fatal dooring, alas, isn't.)
-- Charles K.

• To clarify: I have a mortal fear of getting doored. By "Let's just move on," I meant to say, "Discussing this is giving me goose bumps." In fact, as you indicate, there probably is no adequate pedestrian analogy for the danger a biker faces getting doored. The possibility of it arises throughout the average bike ride, but its consequences can be devastating. You know what? Let's just move on!

Encouraging riders (of all levels presumably since it is not specified) to "ride fast" is quite irresponsible don't you think? Commuters, not roadies or messengers, should simply stick to the right or left and travel at a pace that they can handle and be a defensive rider (roadies and messengers as well). Accidents happen when people try to beat the lights, traffic or pedestrians (or perhaps all three at once!). Keep in mind cars stop much quicker and are much more stable while slamming on the brakes. Bikes are the opposite.
-- Crosby O.

• For me, riding fast is safer. I wouldn't want my words to be misconstrued as encouragement to cover ground as quickly as possible regardless of the enviroment. I only meant that in situations where interactions with cars are inevitable (e.g., roads without bike lanes), it helps to ride at a speed that drivers must respect. On the other hand, pumping at all costs and then slamming on the breaks if necessary is clearly inadvisable.

Here are my thoughts on bicycle reform:
1. License all adult type bicycles (fee just to cover costs) to be carried by bicyclists.
2. Police then can issue summons — enforcing the law — particularly riding in
the wrong direction.
3. Helmets for cyclists.
4. Lights required after dark.
5. Commercial cyclists carry visible IDs of business.
-- David L.

• Those are interesting proposals, but compliance to them would be difficult to enforce. There has been a crackdown recently on city cyclists, with police allegedly going to great lengths to reach summons quotas. I think a hit to the wallet, though city fines for Reckless Use of a Bicycle, will awaken some sense of responsibility among the worst of us. But I fear that creating a bike licensing bureaucracy will not improve real street safety. 

Bicyclists in NYC primarily in the mid and downtown areas are a menace. Why not write something about what the average pedestrian has to go through with these demons on the streets? At least one to three times a week, I have to avoid these rude, non-following-the-rules-of-the-road assassins. I know of three different people that have been run over by cyclists. Often, you don't have time to react because of the speed at which 99 and three-quarters of them travel. A red light means nothing to them; the only thing is getting to their destinations. I'm sick of them and I pray that I never have an encounter with them.
-- Sharon R.

• I'm sorry for your acquaintances who were victims of rude cyclists. They give us a bad name. Bikers have nearly the speed of a motorist, and nearly the vulnerability of a pedestrian. By choosing to ride the city, cyclists take on a great deal of responsibility — they must make every effort to be exceptionally aware of their surroundings, taking into account unpredictable movements by cars, pedestrians and other cyclists.

While, admittedly, it would be pretty sweet to zip in and out of traffic, conserve energy and have access to free parking, the lack of a motor vehicle should not give bikers a free pass to mow over pedestrians, pets and the like. I’ve both witnessed and fallen victim of bike "incidents" where the cyclist darted out from around a car, had obstructed vision due to excessive clothing (goggles, wind-whipped kilts or dresses, headgear), or decided to adopt the personality of Batman and ride stealthily along shadow-lined alleys only to bust out of nowhere onto a street corner and take down an innocent vendor or mascot. In the hierarchy of transportation, yes, I see how you bicyclists would be wary of New York’s concrete jungle laden with sleepy, grumpy, impatient and sometimes violent drivers. However, your reign of power lies somewhere between a Harley and a kid on a Razor scooter, so on behalf of the wheel-less, please proceed with caution, we’re walkin’ here! And, good luck with those cabbies.
-- Elizabeth K.

• Your depiction of cyclists as strange and dangerous urban creatures is vivid, but I think you're describing a minority of us. While I am a fast-pedaling bike commuter, I've never struck a pedestrian (or a mascot, for that matter). Up until the accident I described above, the handful of car/bike collisions I had endured were decidedly the fault of a driver who simply wasn't looking. What's more — while I should have looked over my shoulder — the origin of the recent incident was my effort to avoid a pedestrian who was overanticipating a signal change. One good habit (I think) is verbally excusing myself as I try to squeeze by pedestrians.

To me, red lights need to be treated with caution — first and foremost for the biker's own safety — but it's my unstated view that cutting down traffic and not polluting the air by riding a bike affords one the flexibility to treat these more as stop signs than red lights. I do wish you would have made reference to not going the wrong way down the bike lanes ("salmoning"), which is a danger to pedestrians and other bikers alike.
-- Michael T.

• Well said about red lights. While it's not realistic expect bikers to wait out every red light, neither can they treated with anything less than caution. "Salmoning": what a great term!

You forgot the number one rule: OBEY the rules of the road! One way streets are one way streets. Ride with traffic. Signal before changing lanes, which includes moving out of the bike lane. As a pedestrian and motorist I am sick of being cussed out by law-breaking, holier-than-thou bicyclists.
-- Lea R.

• My tips weren't the ones you'd find on a city-issued pamphlet; they reflect a more realistic look at the challenge of riding in the city.

While you take "some" responsibility, your article pretty much tells mimics the sentiment of many cyclists, much to the ire of pedestrians and motorists alike — you always are furious thinking you are always right, when more often, you are not. Others may respect cyclists more once you start behaving accordingly and treat others as you'd be treated — which also includes not scratching up our cars because of your reckless and careless riding.
-- S.B.

• You've done a pretty good job of capturing the mentality of the cyclist, and you're right to point out those other basic safety rules. Cyclists do have a kind of adversarial approach to our presence on the road. However, when that attitude is moderated by a respect for safety, you end up with a responsibly assertive — not a reckless — biker. After all, we have to look out for ourselves the same way pedestrians and motorists do.

In the past 8 weeks I've had my seat stolen, lights stolen and then my frame and rear tire stolen in front of my office building. Another good article might be tracking all the improvements that need to be made. I've called 311 a number of times on:
1. Need for a bike lane on 2nd Ave. to connect the perimeter Manhattan trail — low 50s to 34th St.
2. Need for new lane paint on 7th Avenue
3. Need to have clear lane thru Times Square.
Keep at it! Push on!
-- Michael C.

• Theft prevention and city bike-lane improvements are certainly good topics. Sorry for your experience. When someone stole my pedals a few months ago — nearly worthless plastic ones — I realized that it's almost impossibly to safely secure your bike in this city. I carry three locks with me these days.

Max J. Dickstein (mdickstein [at] am-ny.com and @Knickerbiker) is amNewYork’s bike columnist.

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