This weekend, the Yale Student Environmental Coalition and the Yale College Council launched a much-awaited bike share program, through which students will be able to borrow bikes for short amounts of time. Like its counterparts at universities and cities worldwide, this program has been touted for its benefits to student health and campus sustainability and for its ability to make places outside central campus more accessible. With this unveiling, however, people have been quick to ask whether it is wise to encourage more bicycling when there are so few bike lanes in New Haven.
The answer, emphatically, is yes. Even with few bike lanes, bicycling in New Haven is relatively safe and is a great way to get around.
I grew up in southwest Washington State, just north of Portland, Oregon and have pedaled around legendary, almost mythical cycling cities from Amsterdam to Copenhagen. Although it lacks the reputation of other places I have been, the small, but dense New Haven is ideal for getting around by bike.
I love the fact that I can hop on a bike and be just about anywhere in the city in less than 15 minutes. I ride my bike every day — to get to class, to run errands, to go to meetings or community events, and even just to get off campus and explore New Haven. Like the vast majority of the New Haven cycling community, I ride in the lane, with traffic, as if I were driving a car. As a result, I have had generally positive experiences with drivers and I almost never feel that I am in any real, physical danger.
I can recall a total of six collisions involving bicycles that have been serious enough to make the newspaper or come to my attention since I moved here at the beginning of my freshman year. Of the six, three were the result of people riding on the sidewalk and then coming into the path of a motor vehicle, and two were the result of kids riding down hills, straight into busy intersections. The final one happened when a lady blew through a stop sign, lost control of her car and skidded into oncoming traffic (which happened to consist of a guy on his bicycle).
My point is that it is actually very difficult to get hit by a car on a bicycle so long as you ride with traffic, as traffic.
Bicycling with traffic may sound scary, but, ultimately, it is the best way to stay safe. The key to safe bicycling is to ride in a manner that makes sense to the other users of the road.
Safety is achieved through non-verbal communication and mutual trust. If you bicycle on the sidewalk, run red lights or ride against traffic, it will be difficult for other users of the road to look out for your safety. It is also important to maintain a safe position on the roadway. This position is well away from car doors or the roadway edge; it is visible; and it permits you to go in the direction you want to go without colliding with other users of the road. It also allows you to avoid hazards — like turning cars, driveways, double-parked cars and delivery trucks, potholes and storm drains — on the sides of the road
Bike lanes and other road markings like shared lane markings (“sharrows”) or bike boxes make maintaining a safe position on the roadway simpler and more intuitive. Pavement markings also signal to drivers that bicycles have an equal right to the road.
Yet, adding bike lanes is not simply a matter of slapping some paint on the road. On many of New Haven’s streets, adding bike lanes would require the removal of on-street parking or the elimination of a travel lane. Because of the way improvements to transportation infrastructure are funded, they often require the approval of the state Department of Transportation. A little behind the times, Connecticut’s Department of Transportation tends to consider maintaining the flow of traffic to be its overriding responsibility.
As a result, New Haven has so far not succeeded in convincing the department to let it slim down roads with extra travel lanes such as Whitney Avenue. State engineers have also dismissed shared lane markings — another type of pavement marking used by many cities to assist bicyclists in maintaining a safe position on the roadway — as experimental and unproven.
A lack of bike planning expertise at the state level has delayed widespread implementation of on-street bicycle accommodations in New Haven. This is unfortunate, and we should pressure the Connecticut Department of Transportation to adopt the latest thinking with regard to bike infrastructure. In the meantime, however, we should not let the slow progress stop us from enjoying the joys and benefits of bicycle transportation.
Brian Tang is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College.