Cyclists, Pedestrians and Motorists Clash Over COVID Street Changes
During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, cities including Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles installed dedicated bus lanes within a matter of months.
To aid struggling restaurants, many cities eliminated parking spaces to allow curbside pickup zones for takeout and delivery. Communities closed off lanes or even whole streets to make space for pedestrian-only zones and for outdoor restaurant seating. Even before the pandemic, some cities were relaxing requirements that developers include parking with new construction.
Overall, the measures resulted in residents walking and cycling more. Combined with increased remote work and fewer people driving into cities, that curbed traffic congestion and the tailpipe emissions that contribute to climate change.
But even as traffic has returned to pre-pandemic levels in many places, some cities are keeping the changes in place, stoking the long-running feud among motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians over control of public rights of way.
“There’s a recognition that our transportation system needs to work for all people. It shouldn’t be all car culture,” said Ken McLeod, policy director for the League of American Bicyclists, a national bicycling advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “It’s not about punishing people in cars. It’s providing safe transportation for everyone.”
Some drivers see it differently.
“It’s like they’re demonizing the motorist,” said Shelia Dunn, spokesperson for the National Motorists Association, a drivers’ rights group. “There’s this idea that we can have a society without vehicles on the road in major cities. It’s just not true.”
In recent years, the clash between motorists and bicyclists has intensified. Drivers complain of cyclists who weave in and out of traffic, run red lights and ignore car horns because they’re wearing headsets or earbuds.
Bicyclists complain of a spike in speeding, aggressive motorists and distracted driving, often caused by drivers texting or talking on cellphones. In 2020, the latest year for which data is available, 938 bicyclists were killed and nearly 39,000 were injured in traffic crashes, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found.
It's also dangerous for pedestrians. An estimated 7,485 were struck and killed by vehicles in 2021, the largest number in four decades, according to an analysis by the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit that represents state highway safety offices.
Dunn said it was understandable that cities made adjustments during the pandemic. Now that the emergency is receding, she said, some cities are keeping the changes to advance urban planners’ larger, long-standing goal of discouraging driving.
One of the changes they’re keen on, Dunn said, is reducing car lanes to make more room for cyclists, pedestrians and buses, which makes it tougher for drivers to navigate the roads.
“The biggest frustration is when the busiest streets are taken from four lanes to two lanes so cities can put in bike or bus lanes on both sides. It’s like trying to drive in a parking lot,” Dunn said. “Instead of 20 minutes, it can take an hour to get to work or downtown.”
Critics also say that by making it more difficult to drive, many cities are hurting those who can’t hop on a bike or walk to work or don’t live near public transit.
“The ironic thing is that very few people actually commute by bicycle. Some walk to work, but not many,” said Baruch Feigenbaum, senior managing director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. “Transit ridership is down since the pandemic. Cities are making it harder to drive at a time when other modes like public transit are not a realistic option.”
And while some affluent city dwellers live close enough to their jobs to bike or walk, he said, many other people do not.
Dunn also argued that making it harder to drive and park in cities just impedes truckers, delivery workers and tradespeople.
She pointed to New York City, which is set to become the first U.S. city to use congestion pricing, which charges more in tolls or fees to enter specific areas, especially during peak hours. The goal is to decrease gridlock and pollution.
New York City’s politically explosive plan, which was approved by the state legislature but still would need federal approval, would charge motorists as much as $23 to drive into Manhattan’s central business district. Other cities also are considering congestion pricing.
“It’s a way to discourage commuters from driving in, but there are always people who are going to have to get in,” Dunn said.
McLeod, of the cyclists group, praised the changes, saying that cities should dedicate more space to those who walk and bike — but do it effectively. That means, for example, cities shouldn’t just paint “bike lane” on a street, but should create protected lanes on busy roads that separate cyclists from cars by using barriers, such as concrete devices, steel bollards and planters, he said.
Overall, cities need to slow traffic speed and provide safer places where people can feel comfortable biking or walking, McLeod said.
“If there is no bike lane, it’s more likely bicyclists will be weaving between vehicles,” he said. “If we provide the space, we can reduce those behaviors that drivers are complaining about.”
Some cities also are discussing beefing up enforcement and cracking down on drivers who use or park in bike lanes.
In New York, state legislators are considering a measure that would allow New York City to install cameras in bike lanes to target and fine motorists who obstruct the lanes. Chicago officials are considering a similar strategy, and in Washington, D.C., Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser wants to expand automated traffic enforcement to add more cameras that target drivers who illegally use bike and bus lanes.
Austin, Texas, may go even further.
In June, the city’s Urban Transportation Commission, an advisory group appointed by the city council, unanimously recommended that the city institute a so-called bike bounty program. Under the proposal, people could report vehicles parked or idled in bike lanes and get 25% of the revenue from the citation.
“It is a very common problem here. I ride my bike a lot, but I don’t want to confront people,” said commission Chair Mario Champion, who came up with the idea. “Crowdsourcing it makes easy sense to me. The people most affected tend to have phones and cameras.”
Champion said he modeled the proposal on New York City’s idling truck bounty program, which pays people a reward for reporting trucks and buses that idle on a street for longer than three minutes, which officials say contributes to air pollution and health problems.
The Austin proposal was motivated by safety concerns for cyclists, Champion said, because riders put themselves at great risk when they have to swerve around vehicles improperly idled or parked in bike lanes.
“It’s scary and it’s unsafe because you’re now driving in traffic with people who won’t be expecting you, because they think you’re in the bike lane but you’re not,” he said.
He pointed to a June incident in Chicago in which a 3-year-old riding in a child carrier on her mother’s bike was thrown off and killed by a semitractor-trailer after the woman had to squeeze around a utility truck illegally parked in a bike lane.
McLeod said some in the biking community strongly believe that using cameras, bounties and enforcement in bike lanes will help improve safety and establish new norms around driver behavior.
But McLeod said he would prefer that cities spend their time and resources building bike lanes with barriers designed to separate bikers from vehicles.
“The idea of a bike bounty program is very emotionally rewarding, but it is not a full solution,” McLeod said. “The ultimate goal for most bike advocates is building better infrastructure that provides safe places to bike.”
Despite their differences, advocates representing both bicyclists and motorists agree on one thing: The roads could be safer.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that nearly 43,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes last year, a 10.5% increase over 2020.
“Motorists should not be driving aggressively or looking at their phone when they’re driving. They should be focused on the road,” said Dunn, of the motorists group. “And bicyclists shouldn’t be listening to a podcast on their headphones or breezing through a red light.”
McLeod agrees that both motorists and cyclists should follow the rules of the road.
“It’s not just the drivers at fault,” he said. “The answer is to create a safer place where there are slower speeds and clear places for people to bike and walk. We want a functional transportation system that doesn’t kill tens of thousands of people a year. We’re all in this together.”