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The Herald Square, Manhattan
bike lane, March, 1986:
"Getting across" or just
getting by?

John S. Allen, (and I thank
John Schubert for helping to
focus the discussion)

I observed and photographed the Herald Square bike lane on a gray day in March, 1986. I was walking crosstown from Penn Station to a meeting with my editor at Crown Publishers on Park Avenue when I found myself in the middle of the scenes you will see below.

Before I go into detail, let me first summarize the points I would like to make here.

  1. There are different categories of cyclists.

  2. The barrier bike lane imposes additional delays on all cyclists, but especially the faster ones, and inherently creates a hazard by hiding pedestrians from turning motorists.

  3. The New York mandatory inline skate-and-bike lane law also ghettoizes bicyclists. Although this law clearly allows cyclists to leave a striped bike lane to overtake others, it also quite clearly does not allow them to leave a barrier bike lane, which is "usable" even if you must slow from 20 mph to 7 mph to follow a delivery tricycle or inline skater.

  4. These problems encourage lawlessness, disrespect for law and hazardous maneuvers.

  5. In order to encourage adherence to law, laws and special facilities treatments must treat cyclists equitably rather than to ghettoize cyclists.

  6. Traffic engineers are likely not to understand this. They go overboard, and pedestrianize bicyclists.

  7. One feature of the Herald Square treatment does more or less get things right: the advanced red for bicyclists crossing Broadway.

  8. A better treatment for the intersection would be to retain and improve that feature and ditch the barrier bike lane.


I was pleased to have the opportunity to observe Herald Square, because I had recently read an item in a New York City bicycling advocacy newsletter expressing pride in the accomplishment of the advocacy organization, Transportation Alternatives, and the city, in finding a way to "get bicyclists across" Herald Square.

The words "get bicyclists across" generally carry the assumption that bicyclists aren't capable of getting themselves from one place to another without some kind of special assistance -- that is, bicyclists can not and should not have to operate in the normal traffic flow as operators of vehicles. As we'll see here, that assumption underlies part of the design for Herald Square. But on the other hand, there is indeed an unusual traffic flow control problem in Herald Square. Broadway crosses the Avenue of the Americas diagonally at a small angle. The travel distance across the square is very long.

This problem is worsened for bicyclists by the New York practice of placing bike lanes on the left side of one-way avenues. The driver's seat is on the left side of motor vehicles in the U.S. Left-side bike lane placement was intended to make bicyclists more visible to motorists, and to reduce the number of conflicts with opening car doors.

On a one-way street, a left-side lane probably is better than a right-side lane or makes no important difference under most conditions. But in a signalized intersection with a one-way cross street going from left to right, a bicyclist riding on the left side is closer to the traffic which enters from the left. Bicyclists traveling slower than motor traffic can benefit from an early warning, in order clear the intersection before the light changes. The advantage of the special signal is greatest in a diagonal intersection such as Herald Square.

In fact, a special traffic signal has been installed to provide this warning. However, another special traffic signal has been installed which creates more trouble than it avoids.

In the map below, black arrows indicate lawful traffic flow in the normal travel lanes, green arrows indicate lawful traffic flow in and from the bike lane, and magenta arrows indicate lawful pedestrian traffic flow. Conflicts occur where the arrows cross. As we shall see, special traffic signal phases avoid conflict between traffic in the bike lane and other traffic, as long as everyone obeys the signals.

Click on the controls (right) to step through the sequence of lawful traffic movements in the diagram (right, below)

<<Previous   Next >>

Sequence of traffic movements (Javascript-enabled images)I was standing on the raised barrier between the bike lane and the other lanes -- at the location of the orange " X" in the map -- as I took the photos below. The end of the barrier is visible at the bottom of the photo, just to the left of the man who is walking from right to left.

The extension of the bike lane is just behind the walking man in the photo. A man pedaling a delivery tricycle is in the bike lane. Notice that there are special signals for the bike lane crossings of 33rd Street and again, at Broadway. The bike lane signals for the 33rd Street crossing are green in the photo.

At the top left on the map and at the left side of the photo, there is a special contraflow lane next to the bike lane to allow motor traffic from Broadway to turn right onto 33rd Street.

Looking north, toward the intersection

21Cart in bikelane.jpg (46231 bytes)

The next photo begins a time sequence of photos. We'll first turn around and look to the south down the Avenue of the Americas. In the photo, the traffic light at 32nd Street is red, and pedestrians are crossing the avenue. There is a young man walking in the bike lane and eating a croissant.

Sequence photo 1: looking south

17Barrier bikelane.jpg (43692 bytes)

In the next photo, looking north, the gray car near the left side is turning from the contraflow lane onto 33rd Street. A man in a black trench coat and a woman with a large purple herald1.gif (3325 bytes)handbag are lawfully crossing the Avenue of the Americas in the crosswalk. Our friend with the croissant is also about to cross the Avenue, and now we understand why he had chosen to jaywalk in the bike lane: it was a short cut for him.

In the drawing at the right, only the movements for which arrows are shown are lawful at the time the photo below was taken.

Behind the woman with the purple handbag is a bicyclist identifiable as a courier by the bag he carries. He chose not to ride in the bike lane or to obey the traffic signals. Also, there is a woman jaywalking at the right side of the photo.

Sequence photo 2: looking north

18Bicyclist cutting across.jpg (37591 bytes)

In the next photo, we are again looking south, down the Avenue of the Americas. The traffic signals have changed, and the traffic has started to move on the Avenue. Three cyclists are visible in the photo.

On the left in the photo is a bicycle courier who has chosen to use the normal travel lane. For him, time is money. He rides every day and is physically fit. He is riding an efficient multispeed bicycle. He has two logical reasons to avoid the bike lane:

  • Where has chosen to ride, he can proceed on a green light, but if he had used the bike lane, the signal would have been red for him and his path would have been blocked by turning herald5.gif (3385 bytes)vehicles at 33rd Street.

  • The bike lane is narrow, and partially blocked by a trash barrel. He would have had to slow down to make his way past the cyclists in the bike lane.

The barrier-separated bike lane extends only as far south as 32nd Street. Behind the man pedaling a delivery tricycle and the other on a single-speed "cruiser" bicycle, you can see a "door zone" bike lane typical of most bike lanes on avenues in Manhattan.

At the time I took the photo below, the lawful traffic flow was as in the map at the right.

Sequence photo 3: looking south

19Cart in bikelane.jpg (41273 bytes)

If you look carefully, you can find the same concrete mixer truck at the left side of the photo above, and the right side of the photo below, which herald3.gif (3136 bytes)I took about 30 seconds later. In the photo below, the courier is no longer visible. He may have turned left onto 33rd street -- with the traffic light, unlike the other courier -- or he may be concealed by other traffic on the Avenue.

The traffic lights at 33rd Street have just turned red, and pedestrians are beginning to cross the Avenue. Both sets of special bicycle signals are red. The man on the cruiser bicycle (right, under traffic light) has passed the man on the delivery tricycle, run the red light at 33rd Street, and ridden across the entrance to the bike lane north of 33rd Street. The man on the delivery tricycle is waiting for the signal at 33rd Street (behind pedestrians, lower left).

Sequence photo 4: looking north

20Cart in bikelane.jpg (45827 bytes)

I have drawn arrows pointing at the cyclists in the next photo, so you can find them more easily. The signal for the contraflow lane has turned green, and vehicles in that lane are turning right into 33rd Street. The traffic signal for the bike lane crossing of 33rd Street has also turned herald4a.gif (3434 bytes)green, and the man on the delivery tricycle (light green arrow) has crossed 33rd Street into the bike lane channel that leads to Broadway.

Lawful traffic movements are shown by solid arrows in the map at the right. The route taken by the man on the cruiser bicycle is indicated by the dashed blue arrow. His intention may have been to get past the earlier red in the bike lane by riding around the traffic island. Now he is stranded in the middle of Broadway between two flows of oncoming traffic. The dashed blue arrow in the photo points at him.

The photo is the same one used at the start of this article, because it most clearly shows the elements of the intersection.

Sequence photo 5: looking north

21a Cart in bikelane.jpg (43138 bytes)

In the next photo, the delivery tricyclist has proceeded from the bike lane and is headed north up the Avenue of the Americas (light green arrow in photo). Another bicyclist has proceeded from the bike lane across 33rd Street against a red light.

This photo also shows the one unresolved herald5.gif (3371 bytes)traffic conflict in the intersection. Pedestrians may now cross 33rd Street, but the left turn onto 33rd Street from the Avenue is also permitted. The lawful movements at the time the photo was taken are shown in the map at the right.

Through traffic on the Avenue may now proceed, while through traffic in the bike lane is required to stop at 33rd Street. As traffic has just started to move through the system of synchronized signals, this is the most likely time for a bicyclist to arrive. A bicyclist who arrives at 33rd Street in the bike lane at this time and obeys the signals will have to wait through an entire light cycle before crossing Broadway.

Photo 6: looking north

22Cart in bikelane.jpg (47207 bytes)

In the next and final photograph, the last bicyclist is still visible as he continues on up the Avenue. In the foreground, herald6.gif (3579 bytes)the red truck has turned across the bike lane and into 33rd Street, across the crosswalk whose signal is still in the "walk" phase. The conflict between turning traffic and pedestrians is usual in New York, but it is worsened by the presence of the bike lane. Because the bike lane shields pedestrians from motor traffic on the Avenue, they step out across it so they will have a shorter walk across the Avenue once they get the "walk" signal. These pedestrians can obscure motorists' view of other pedestrians who may be in the north-south crosswalk.

In this photo as in an earlier one, a pedestrian is walking in the bike lane.

Photo 7: looking north

23Cart in bikelane.jpg (44761 bytes)

What can we learn from this sequence of photographs?

Although the five bicyclists seen in the photo are too small a number to allow any statistically valid conclusions, there is clearly a significant amount of bicycle traffic here, despite congested traffic conditions. The cyclists split into two categories, well known in the bicycling community:

  • those who value speed -- here, the couriers -- and who are relatively skilled and confident with riding in the motor traffic.

  • those who are slower and/or less confident, and ride in the bike lane.

Again, the five bicyclists in the photos don't allow statistical conclusions, but it is notable that there are examples of traffic signal violations, and of riding according to the traffic rules, in both groups.

I regard the traffic signal for the Broadway crossing as a success, though it might be modified as I suggest below. As I have already indicated, this signal serves a useful and important purpose.

The problem is with the bike lane and the special traffic signal at 33rd Street. These result in additional delay to all categories of road users, but especially to the cyclists who use the bike lane. And this situation is at the root of a problem. As one bicycling advocate has stated:

Nobody has ever been able to develop a method of operation for bicyclists that is safer than following the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles. (Not even that of operating on side paths according to pedestrian rules. The problem of operating by pedestrian rules is that side path cyclists refuse to be limited to such rules, and thereby incur an even greater accident rate than if they had been riding on the roadway. To make side-path cycling safe, one must, as in Holland, produce facilities that force cyclists to operate slowly by pedestrian rules.) (John Forester, in an e-mail message on April 12, 2001)

The design of this intersection is strictly "by the book", Dutch style: the bike lane has been placed outside the left turn lane, like a sidewalk, and then turning and crossing conflicts between bicyclists and other traffic have been eliminated by providing a special signal phase for the bike lane, pedestrian-style. But two of the three users of the bike lane chose to ignore the signal, and one of these two improvised his own, unusual route through the intersection.

One of the two bicyclists who did not ride in the bike lane also chose to ignore the signals. So it's a valid question about both groups of cyclists: what is going to promote predictable and lawful behavior?

Can we force American bicyclists to operate by pedestrian rules? Well, we can establish the pedestrian rules, as at this intersection. But, lacking stringent enforcement, bicyclists will ignore them. There is no widespread call for such enforcement. Nor is there one for enforcement against bicyclists who violate vehicular rules.

It's a tough problem, but in my opinion Forester is right. American bicyclists are not going to comply better with the law by creating conditions that are more restrictive for them. Attempting to encourage bicycling by building facilities which hold out the promise of safety in return for long waits and slow travel is a recipe for chaotic behavior, and so for decreased rather than increased safety.

How might the intersection have been designed to give bicyclists their advanced warning, but without causing extra delay? My suggestion is in the heraldnew.gif (3882 bytes)map at the right. Bicyclists could merge before reaching the intersection. It is entirely practical even for novice bicyclists to do this. As shown in sequence photo 1 above, taken at a time of heavy traffic flow, there is a long period in each traffic signal sequence when the block south of 33rd Street is entirely clear of traffic. The "kiddie bike" assumption that bicyclists have to operate essentially as pedestrians, never merging across motor traffic, is even more pointless than usual here. New York City does not provide any special, protected signal phase for bicyclists at the other, similar crosstown streets along the Avenue of the Americas. In fact, 33rd Street poses less difficulty in merging than the other streets, because the left lane of the Avenue here is a left turn only lane. The volume of traffic that turns into 33rd street -- one of many minor crosstown streets -- is low. No turning traffic is conflicting with the bicyclist in sequence photo 6 who entered the intersection against the light -- a much more hazardous maneuver than a merge. I had to wait to get the photo of the red truck in sequence photo 7.

With my design, bicyclists could still have a special signal before Broadway that turns yellow and then red earlier than for the motor traffic. The yellow might reflect the lowest speed of bicyclists, typically 8 miles per hour, and the red, the highest speed, typically 25 miles per hour. Also, the timing of the signal for motor traffic might reflect that actual speed of traffic. It is even conceivable that the motorists' red might have to be earlier than the bicyclists', if motor traffic is congested. Traffic signals which sense the speed of traffic are entirely practical using traffic sensing and computer control.

My proposed intersection design would eliminate significant delays to bicyclists, and would accommodate faster and slower bicyclists equally well. It would also provide a place of refuge for pedestrians near the middle of the intersection and which does not create the visibility problems of the present design. My design would not place bicyclists in the close proximity to head-on traffic which you can see in sequence photo 6.

How restrictive is the New York law? Very much so. Any bicyclist who does not ride in the barrier bike lane is violating New York State law. (Bike lanes are now defined as  "bicycle or in-line skate lane" -- a change in the statutes that has occurred since I took the photos). Dumping in-line skaters into the same category as bicyclists worsens the problem considerably for bicyclists, because in-line skaters are slow, and they are wide with their flailing arms and legs.

The lane merely has to be "usable" for its use to be mandatory. The word "usable" is open to interpretation, but it is rather more stringent in the barrier-separated lane where the bicyclist does not have the option to merge into the next lane to overtake an in-line skater or slower cyclist, and also must wait through the additional traffic signal cycle. On the New York State legislative Web site, you may find the applicable law (or search on "1234" here to see this in its frame), and the excerpt of interest reads as follows. If and when this law is enforced, it will seriously impede bicyclists who could go faster outside the bike lanes. Note also that the law assumes that bike lanes are on the right side of the street rather than on the left, like most on New York City's one-way avenues.

1234. Riding on roadways, shoulders, bicycle or in-line skate lanes and bicycle or in-line skate paths. (a) Upon all roadways, any bicycle or in-line skate shall be driven either on a usable bicycle or in-line skate lane or, if a usable bicycle or in-line skate lane has not been provided, near the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway or upon a usable right-hand shoulder in such a manner as to prevent undue interference with the flow of traffic except when preparing for a left turn or when reasonably necessary to avoid conditions that would make it unsafe to continue along near the right-hand curb or edge. Conditions to be taken into consideration include, but are not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, in-line skates, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards or traffic lanes too narrow for a bicycle or person on in-line skates and a vehicle to travel safely side-by-side within the lane. (b) Persons riding bicycles or skating or gliding on in-line skates upon a roadway shall not ride more than two abreast. Persons riding bicycles or skating or gliding on in-line skates upon a shoulder, bicycle or in-line skate lane, or bicycle or in-line skates path, intended for the use of bicycles or in-line skates may ride two or more abreast if sufficient space is available, except that when passing a vehicle, bicycle or person on in-line skates, or pedestrian, standing or proceeding along such shoulder, lane or path, persons riding bicycles or skating or gliding on in-line skates shall ride, skate, or glide single file. Persons riding bicycles or skating or gliding on in-line skates upon a roadway shall ride, skate, or glide single file when being overtaken by a vehicle. (c) Any person operating a bicycle or skating or gliding on in-line skates who is entering the roadway from a private road, driveway, alley or over a curb shall come to a full stop before entering the roadway. 

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Contents 2001, John S. Allen
Last modified 23 September 2003