Welcome to the Jungle

or how to survive in New York City on a bike

The jungle is scary but it is also a lot of fun. And riding a bike is probably the fastest way to get around.

Meet the other animals

  • Taxis: The big danger here is getting doored. When you see a taxi stop, that means that the passenger is lying in wait to kick the door open with his feet. Taxi doors are wide and passengers almost never look to the rear before opening them.

    People also get out of taxis at red lights. In general it is OK to pass between cars standing in traffic. Taxis are a different matter. Use extreme caution.

    Another interesting pattern of behavior exhibited by taxis is pulling into open parking spaces with no warning to drop off or pick up passengers. This is deadly when you happen to be riding in their blind spot.

  • SUVs: SUVs love terrorizing other animals. Shaded windows, neon lights on the bottom, and blaring rap music are generally a bad sign. In confrontation they cause more serious injuries than other vehicles because they hit you higher up. Run for cover.

  • Buses: Buses are some of the more sluggish and predictable creatures out there. Hence, they are relatively benign. You can see from a mile away which way their front wheels point, and that's the direction they move in. The main danger is getting squeezed between two buses or a bus and a truck [ref]. The back of the bus can't move sideways, but you need to know how far up the side it is safe to stalk a bus.

  • Large trucks: It is unhealthy to have one of these monsters roll over you. It is actually a common mechanism of fatal accidents, despite the fact that these behemoths are usually quite slow [ref]. Private garbage trucks are particularly scary with a staggering bike/pedestrian fatality rate of 24 per 100 million miles for 1994-1997 [ref].

  • Pedestrians: Pedestrians are notable for their highly developed sense of morality. When they know they are in the wrong (e.g., crossing in the red) and they sense danger, they become suicidal and walk backwards, regardless of where the threat is coming from. Aim for just in front of jaywalkers, not just behind them.

  • Children and dogs: When in danger, children and dogs run to their parent/owner. Don't cross the invisible line between them.

  • Squirrels: To minimize attacks by birds, squirrels have evolved to cross open spaces by taking a big breath and running as fast as they can without looking anywhere [ref]. Over many millions of years they have also perfected their asphalt-colored camouflage.

  • Rats: In the the evenings rats come down to the river to drink, have sex, and generally enjoy life in the city. They are impossible to avoid.

The hazards

  • Getting doored: Far and away the most common source of serious injury. Experienced cyclists keep a door's worth of distance from parked cars, even if that means riding in the midst of moving traffic. Assert your right to a lane when you need it. Don't let agressive cars push you into the deadly door-zone. Sometimes this means riding right in the middle of their lane. Remember, you are a vehicle, just like they are. Unless there is a bike lane provided, you have the right to occupy a lane just as much as cars do.

  • Blind spots: When you are behind the line of the driver and closer than 4 or 5 feet on the side, assume that you are invisible. For this reason, I always fall behind when riding abreast of a car and there is an intersection coming up. You never know which way it's going to decide to turn.

  • Potholes, sinkholes and sewer grates: It is widely believed that hell is actually located beneath the streets of New York City. In most cities potholes are just little bumps in the road. In New York they are gaping holes with no bottom in sight (technically, these are called sinkholes). Wheels, bikes, and bicyclists have been lost to the world below. In the summer, bike-sinks spring up randomly overnight. Please report dangerous potholes and sinkholes to 311 immediately and save a fellow cyclist.

  • Metal plates: Construction workers use large metal plates to cover up temporary entrances to the underworld. The plates have sharp edges, are fixed with huge nails, and often there is are gaping slits in the asphalt right at their edges. Your bike's wheel can get stuck between two plates with predictable consequences. In wet weather, the plates are like ice. Don't even think about changing direction when riding over them. Recently, a cyclist got killed just this way [ref].

  • Road markings, oil, sand, discarded food, and cobblestones: In the rain, pedestrian crossings and cobblestoned patches of road become frighteningly slippery. This also applies to the markings and pretty detailing on the bikepath by the West Side Highway. Ride across these straight and at a lower speed. Oil is of course a killer. There are specific spots by the river where sand washes up creating another hazard. Finally dropped food has also been a cause of accidents.

How to not get killed

  • Wear a helmet. The majority of bike fatalities as well as a large fraction of serious injuries are a result of head trauma [ref]. Wearing a helmet doesn't eliminate this mode of injury, but it reduces the risk. This is a no-brainer.

  • Don't ride against traffic. I don't know why people do this. It is actually a major source of accidents.

  • Behave as a "normal" vehicle. There is a whole theory of "vehicular cycling" advocated by John Forester [link] based on the premise that if you behave like a respectable vehicle, other vehicles are going to treat you as such (in other words, if you can't beat them, join them). I think the theory is about half valid. In general, behaving assertively but predictably and respecting traffic laws just as you expect cars to respect them does help. On the other hand, the whole point of cycling is that you can do things that cars can't do, like slip through between rows of standing traffic, [editor's note: more exciting bits removed from here]. The trick is to know when to switch between the two types of behavior: the serious no-nonsense vehicle and the stealthy but lithe creature slipping through the night (well, almost).

  • Use lights, even on the front. The city is well-lit, but it's full of visual distractions. It is easy to miss a cyclist. A powerful flashing light really helps to draw attention to you and your bike. The front light is essential to avoiding the "left turn without yielding to oncoming bike" type of accident. Side reflectors mounted on the wheels are important in intersections. reflectors and lights are also mandated by law, which means that if you ever get into a night accident they are going to make the world of difference in court irrespective of how stupid the driver who hit you was. In erms of actual safety, a high visibility vest with large retroreflective surfaces might make even more of a difference.

  • Know your rights and know what to do in an accident. Take a look at this brilliant little book [link]. Also read what to do in case you get doored [link].


Transportation Alternatives --- the NYC cycling advocacy group [link]
Time's Up --- not just advocacy but activism here! [link]
The New York Bike Messenger Association [link]

The official NYC cycling map [front] [back]
The Manhattan Waterfront Greenway map [front] [back]
NYC bike path mashup [link]

Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute [link]
NYC pedestrian and bike crash maps [link]
The official NYC bike fatalities report (1996-2005) [pdf]


Cycling on the streets of Manhattan [youtube] [72M .mov file]