By Henrik Krogius
Are bicycles an answer to traffic congestion, or just another problem? On this page a week ago my colleague Raanan Geberer raised concern about the city’s push to encourage cycling, suggesting that “putting bike lanes everywhere and anywhere may not be a good idea.” He mentioned that his building fronts on a wide avenue that has a new bike lane, and he worried about bikers trying to “brave city traffic, with its trucks, buses, speeding cars, pedestrians crossing in front of you, horns honking and, worst of all, traffic lights.”
Granting that bicycles are environmentally friendly, Geberer argued that more emphasis be put on electric and hybrid cars, which are also environmentally friendly. True enough, but the basic problem of traffic congestion is the overall shortage of space. Even an electric car takes up about four times the space of a bicycle. The city needs to find a way to allow a maximum number of people moving through its limited street space. To that end it needs to discourage single-occupancy vehicles, even electric cars, in favor of buses and, as Geberer recommended, a return to streetcars on rails, both of which carry many more travelers per vehicular square foot than do single-occupancy cars. Bicycles are likewise economical of space.
The problem isn’t bicycles sharing busy street space, but rather one of total traffic discipline. Neither drivers nor cyclists — nor, for that matter, a lot of pedestrians — are quite ready to accept the need for following traffic rules. American drivers, as the Australian traffic engineer William Rahmann pointed out a generation ago, cause more tieups than do Japanese drivers because of failure to curb impatience. The Japanese have learned to drive smoothly at slow speeds, where Americans speed up at every opportunity. “One driver gets too close to another and has to brake, as does the driver behind, as does the driver behind him,” a New York Times Magazine item this past Sunday echoed Rahmann’s observation, “— pretty soon, the first driver has sent a shock wave down the entire highway.” The Times piece foresaw adaptive cruise control (ACC), which keeps a set distance between a car and the one in front, as a hope for easing congestion, reporting on simulations that showed travel time dropping by 37.5 percent when just one quarter of the vehicles had ACC.
ACC works by imposing an outside restraint on drivers, as against the socially interrnalized control of the Japanese — or, by another name, discipline. A major objection to the growth of bicycling in the city comes from the fact that too many cyclists assume they have freedom to ride however and wherever they will, ignoring stoplights and one-way traffic directions. Just as the automobile in its early days promised a “freedom of mobility” that was sharply limited after there got to be too many automobiles, so the cyclists need to be educated that they are in fact operating vehicles, and the rules of vehicular traffic apply to them.
I recall from my childhood in Finland that bicycles there had to be licensed and had to be equipped with headlights (powered by small generators connected to the front wheel). Bicycle traffic was regulated. In Guangzhou (formerly Canton), China, I observed in 1989 heavy bicycle traffic moving at a steady, measured pace within lanes set off from car traffic by railings. Again, the sense of regulation, of discipline, was evident. I haven’t been back to see how the growth in automobile traffic in China since then may have affected the pattern. Still, the principles of smooth traffic flow apply as much to the growing commutation by bicycle as it does to automobiles.
As it happened, to get out of town last Thursday I was picked up by my wife from a Manhattan appointment at Second Avenue and 72nd Street at 2:10 p.m. Driving our (yes, hybrid) car the 13 blocks from there down to the Queensboro Bridge entrance took 30 minutes. Simply heavy traffic — cars and trucks coming in from side streets and blocking intersections despite the best efforts of traffic cops at every intersection. Second Avenue is used by very few cyclists, so they weren’t part of the problem. There just was not the space for everything trying to move.
Years ago I read a remark by a woman who was part traffic engineer, part sociologist — I regret I can’t remember her name or find the quote — that the need to travel is a measure of the dysfunction of a society. If we could work where we live, we wouldn’t have a commutation problem. Perhaps in our digital future we’ll have no need to go anywhere. We’ll have all our scenery and sunsets, along with social interactions and jobs, accomplished remotely. However, we’ll still need to eat — virtual nourishment won’t do — and the food will have to get to us somehow. Who knows, we may even want to get to a baseball game or a theater. A world entirely without travel is hard to imagine. Meanwhile, a bicycle, disciplined in its use, is more solution than problem.
Henrik Krogius is the editor of the Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News