Bike salmon: omen or harbinger?

Last summer, I got a new bike, much easier to ride and much zippier than the hand-me-down I’d been using. A little high on my new confidence, I was for about twenty-four hours a somewhat aggressive, even reckless biker. I don't remember my sins very clearly, but I probably sailed through red lights, rode on and off the sidewalk, and cruised down one-way streets the wrong way.

It didn't last, because I discovered that I didn't like the experience of seeing my life flash before my eyes. I reformed abruptly and rigorously. My principle became, roughly speaking, bike in such a way that even relatively inattentive drivers can be expected to see you and know what you’re going to do next. Also: don't be annoying to pedestrians. I began halting at red lights and stop signs. (Later I relaxed this somewhat, almost to Idaho rules.) I made sure to bike in the bike lane, if there was one (or on the outer edge of it, if biking inside it was going to put me within swinging distance of the opening doors of parked cars). I stayed off sidewalks. And I never, ever biked the wrong way down a one-way street.

Gradually I became hoity-toity about my righteous biking. I glared at cyclists who came at me the wrong way down a one-way street and began to refer to such transgressors by a moniker that blogger Bike Snob NYC invented for them: "bike salmon." I shook my head at cyclists who insisted on riding on the side of the street opposite the bike lane. I clucked my tongue at cyclists who didn't even bother to slow down at busy intersections.

I was therefore interested, and a little chastened, to read in Jeff Mapes's Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities, that moral indignation about the adherence of bicyclists to traffic laws is absent from the Netherlands, the utopia of cycling, which has, Mapes reports, "the lowest per-capita vehicle death rate in Europe," about a third that of the United States. Except for the requirement that bicycles on the road at night have lights, Dutch police do not enforce traffic laws on cyclists. Explains Mapes:

The Dutch don't see much sense in going after cyclists and walkers when the only people they are putting at risk are themselves. "It's their choice," shrugged [Amsterdam top traffic-safety official Jack] Wolters. . . . The statistics seem to bear him out. . . . One influential 2003 study, by researchers John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra, found American cyclists were at least three times as likely to get killed as Dutch cyclists, while American pedestrians faced at least six times the danger of dying.

Such laissez-faire will probably not arrive in America. For one thing, there’s no question that it’s dangerous to ride a bike lawlessly. According to Mapes, a 1996 study by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center found that "as many as a third of all bike accidents involved simply riding against the flow of traffic," and a 2003–2004 Orlando, Florida, study found that "nearly two-thirds [of bike accidents] involved riding on the sidewalk or another unsafe choice by the cyclist." But the Dutch attitude has nonetheless thrown a monkey wrench in my moralism.

To look at the problem through the most rose-colored glasses possible, might bike salmon merely be a sign that biking is on the rise? What if most bike salmon are like me on my first day with my spiffy new bike? If so, and if they survive, they'll eventually settle into abiding by the law. Moreover, when you first start biking in a city as byzantine as New York, the street patterns are novel to you (streets good to bike on do not often coincide with streets good to drive on) and highly confusing, and a newbie sometimes finds himself following a series of well-marked bike lanes into a virtual dead end, the only exit from which is by the bad choice of bike-salmoning (Bergen Street ending at Court Street, when the cyclist wants to reach one of the bridges over the East River—I'm looking at you here). As a cyclist learns the map, he becomes less likely to repeat such errors. If bike salmon are by and large newbies, they will in all likelihood reform with time, the way I did.

But to try out the Dutch way of regarding it, why should I care if they don't? I might care, magnanimously, because I don't want them to die, and I might care, a little more abstractly, because, as a commenter to my previous post noted, lawless bikers could spoil the good name of bicyclists generally, and contribute to a political backlash. But am I responsible for the anger that motorists might feel? It seems unfair for me, as a cyclist, to have to adopt motorists' displeasure as my own, simply because I fear it as a political force, especially when the motorists might be mistaken in their anger. The Dutch facts suggest that irregular cyclists, by making the streets less predictable, force motorists to pay more attention, and when motorists habitually pay more attention, the streets become safer—for motorists, as well as everybody else. Of course lawless bikers offer this (perhaps hypothetical) public benefit at enormous cost to themselves—at the potential cost of death, in fact, which I can't recommend.

At the end of the day, then, I still do wish that all cyclists went the right way down one-way streets, but maybe I won’t tsk-tsk the bike salmon any more. (Can I ask something, though? If you’re a bike salmon, and you and I are headed for a collision, would you mind being the one to swerve into the car lane? Because I didn’t sign up for that.) It would, after all, be swell if motorists paid more attention to the road. The trouble is that motorists hate to have to pay more attention.
Their disgust has to do, I think, with the asymmetrical nature of the warfare between cyclists and motorists. As I vaguely recall from high-school physics, the damage that a moving object can do is proportional to its momentum—its mass times its speed. A 5000-pound SUV going 35 miles an hour is therefore about 81 times as dangerous as a 150-pound cyclist on a 30-pound bike going 12 miles per hour.* The worst thing a motorist can do to a cyclist is kill him, and the worst thing a cyclist is likely to be able to do to a motorist is saddle him with the guilt of having killed. But guilt enrages in a way that fear doesn't, maybe because people are softies underneath, and would rather run the risk of being killed than of killing. (Between the certainty of one or the other, the choice might be different, naturally.) The only way a motorist could level the playing field would be to drive 81* times more prudently than the average bicyclist, and that may not be humanly possible.

* Correction, July 27: My memory of high-school physics is even hazier than I knew. As several commenters below have pointed out, the damage that a moving object is capable of is proportional not to its momentum but to its kinetic energy—its mass times the square of its velocity. So the SUV in my example is not 81 times but 236 times more dangerous than the bicycle.

20 thoughts on “Bike salmon: omen or harbinger?”

  1. The trouble with this high-school physics reasoning is the trouble with all high-school physics – it assumes that the two bodies are meeting each other in a vacuum.

    In reality, all of that force in either direction WON'T just blindly collide – there are few things more dangerous on a small street than a motorist swerving to avoid a cyclist going the wrong way. All those "third bodies" – other cars, pedestrians, cyclists who obey the law – all could easily find themselves at the receiving end of all that torque.

    Traffic laws aren't about single combat. They're actually a fairly fragile system that allows everybody, everybody to coordinate their movements across the city together. One person breaking the rules, whether it's a pedestrian wandering in the street, a cyclist going the wrong way, or a motorist who turns without looking for bike or foot traffic, can throw off the whole system.

  2. The Dutch system works, in part, because there are a lot of cyclists. Cyclists are safer where there are more of them, because then drivers expect them. It's the same with pedestrians — much safer to be a pedestrian in the great flow of a major city's downtown than a pedestrian out in the suburbs where nobody is expecting one.

  3. a big part of the problem here, is that very few drivers appear to understand the rules of the road as regards bicycles. (ferinstance, many non-cycling motorists actually think that the gutter of the street is the bike-lane.) which is a part of what makes zbicyclist, above, sooo correct.

    much of safety in general depends upon expectations.

  4. Perhaps American drivers are slightly lazier, as unlike most Europeans, they drive Automatic cars?

    I've no way of confirming this thought, but it strikes me as reasonable to suppose that as driving a manual requires more attention to getting gears and clutch control right, it could also make you pay more attention to how you are driving generally. You're aware of what's going on rather than dozily following the tail-lights of the driver in front of you.

  5. "The Dutch facts suggest that irregular cyclists, by making the streets less predictable, force motorists to pay more attention, and when motorists habitually pay more attention, the streets become safer—for motorists, as well as everybody else."

    Getting more cyclists on the road, at their own risk, is the official policy of the Department of Transportation. It is the DOT's feeling that more cyclists will contribute to driver's awareness of cyclists.

    That this policy is extremely dangerous to cyclists seems to escape the DOT's notice.

    Absent enhanced enforcement of traffic safety laws and barrier lanes for cyclists, I will continue to drive.

  6. In my experience, the most egregious offenders of bike laws are the most experienced bikers, not the least experienced ones. I live and bike in Boston, where the roads are crazy and the drivers crazier, and the fear of chaos keeps most new bikers obeying traffic laws.

    Experienced bikers – like bike messengers and the ones who have long commutes to work – tend to think that they're good enough to zip through busy intersections and down one-ways without disrupting traffic in any way, thus seeing no harm in the maneuvers.

    Sadly, seeing more bike salmon on the road to me means one of two things: 1. there are fewer new bikers on the road, or 2. most bikers eventually become bike salmon. Both seem like they need to be addressed in some systematic sort of way, but then again, this is Boston, and I've still yet to see a bike do something crazier than I've seen with a car.

  7. Agree with the article 100%.
    Also, a friendly piece of advice to many a cyclist: lose the attitude.
    You're not entitled to morally judge me because I'm driving.
    You are not a superhero saving the planet, especially when you speed through that Stop All Way sign that I'm legally entitled to pass after having waited.
    I come from a third-world background and I would prefer cities to be swarming with bikes, which would have roughly the expected effect (but not everywhere… I'm thinking Texas).
    Meanwhile, I do walk or take public transit unless there is no choice for me but to drive; when I do drive, I follow the rules of the road and expect others to do otherwise. I truly hate jaywalkers and righteous salmons who would turn me into a killer, because of the guilt mechanism described.

  8. As both a cyclist and a driver, depends on the weather, the "salmon" endanger all cyclists by enraging drivers – who then might take it out on the rest of us.

    And there really is no excuse. I'm a 60+ year old guy who manages to bike 7 miles to work each way, stopping fully at every stop sign and obeying all the traffic lights. (Full gamut from dirt country road through suburban intersections and then downtown traffic.) If I can do it, anyone can, everything else is just childish excuses.

    10 years ago, as I was driving my bike to work, I saw a cyclist run a red light without a helmet and be struck by a totally innocent motorist (high school kid at lunch). He died in my arms as I was trying to provide first aid.

    If I had talked with him before he was killed, he would have been totally convinced that it was none of my business whether or not he had on a helmet or ran a red light.

    He would have been wrong.

  9. And I forgot this…
    Actually the damage is proportional to the kinetic energy of the object, which is 0.5 times mass times the square of velocity.
    Thus, the actual ratio is not 81: it's 700.
    It's actually worse, since damage to the body is not linear with impact energy: you can withstand being hit in the head by your average bar brawler, but just add 40% to the force of any blow and you are in Mike Tyson territory: concussion or even death.

  10. To bring an another point of view to the discussion, I drive a Vespa in NYC. It can be ridiculous nerve wracking – taxis, especially, have no regard for other cars, let alone anything with two wheels. While I haven't gotten into an accident (yet), most of my close calls have been because someone else does something stupid (usually swerving into my lane without looking).

    Anyway, I have no problem with cyclists in general, but the "bike salmon" have my life at risk a few times. I'll be riding up 3rd Ave, for instance, and suddenly a delivery guy on a bike will turn off from a side street and start going south on 3rd in my lane at full speed. Usually I can swerve around them safely, but there have been a few times when there's traffic and I don't really have a lot of room to move.

    So… bike salmon everywhere, please remember that you are not just sharing the road with other cyclists and with drivers safe and sound in their cars – there are also those of us on motorcycles and scooters who can easily be killed if you force us to swerve suddenly to save your life.

  11. I'm an American living in the Netherlands. I commute by bike in Amsterdam. I have friends in New York who bike, so I've been watching the NY biking scene with interest.

    The thing is, comparing bike cultures between the Netherlands and New York–between the Old Amsterdam and the New–is like comparing apples and howler monkeys. There are so many differences that you can't make a minimal pair.

    One huge difference is the proportion of bike ownership here. There are more bikes than people in the Netherlands, and they're pretty evenly distributed. I know no one here above the age of five who does not cycle. (I know people who don't like to cycle, but they do it.)

    This means that pretty much every driver on the road is also a cyclist. And not only is the average driver a cyclist, but everyone they love is as well. It's harder for drivers to treat bike riders as the Other, as opponents in the Road Wars, under those circumstances.

    Also, drivers who are cyclists read the road as cyclists. They know by eye when the bike lane isn't adequate. They expect that when it runs out, the cyclist will swerve into traffic. They check for bikes before they open doors and when they make right turns.

    Another aspect that makes a difference is the legal liability laws. If a driver and a bike collide, it is held to be the driver's fault. It's like rear-ending a car in (many parts of) the US.

    But the biggest difference, I think, is that the Dutch have very different attitudes toward the rule of law. I'm going to struggle to explain this, because I'm only just getting the hang of it after a couple of years here. But basically, if the Dutch think a law is stupid or useless, they will break it. Not defiantly, not to make a statement, but just because it's not a law they choose to obey. (There are other reasons that the Netherlands does not descend into anarchy.)

    New Yorkers, from what I gather, have a similarly…complex…relationship with the rule of law, but NYPD may not share the Dutch police's pragmatic approach about its effect on bike culture.

    I'd love to be able to clone Dutch bike culture and transplant it to New York. I've loved cycling since I first managed to balance without training wheels, and this place is paradise.

    But I think New York is going to have to make its own compromises.

  12. Thanks for all these comments, which seem to me exceptionally thoughtful and well phrased. I especially appreciate the pointers on Dutch law and culture, not to mention the corrections to my hazily remembered high-school physics!

  13. The energy of a collision is proportional to the mass multiplied by the velocity squared….so the SUV carries about 250-fold more energy than the cyclist. Plus, few cycles have seat belts/air bags or 2 tons of metal to absorb the crash.
    Nolo contendre!!

  14. I have to agree with the above commenter re: differences between US and Dutch cycling culture. Dutch cyclists are "everyone". They are a lot less intense about it than US cyclists. As a data point — women will ride wearing skirts…which is rare indeed in US. This makes for a lot less adversarial driving/cycling relationship in Holland. What I mean is, the intensity of many US cyclists makes for anger when drivers don't pay attention, yield when they should, etc.

    When I visited, I actually found the bike lanes in Amsterdam quite a pain sometimes, because I was used to US cycling customs, and I wanted to ride at a faster pace and with more focused attention. Of course the novelty more than made up for this pique.

    If you don't know it, you might want to read Forester's Effective Cycling book (used to be published by MIT press), in which he argues that bicycles are vehicles and should, where reasonable, "take the lane", etc., and explores the consequences of being "vehicles", at length. Of course this entails following traffic rules. But as another data point, Forester does not like bike lanes, because (for reasons he goes into) they don't allow bicycles to be effective vehicles.

    IMHO anyone who is a serious commuting cyclist should follow the rules, but there are passionate differences on this point.

  15. I'm a proud "bike salmon," but would gladly reconsider if cars were two-wheeled, people-powered vehicles instead of rolling death machines made of steel and glass. In fact, I would be more sympathetic to the idea that you should ride your bike like you drive your car…if the two were anything at all alike.

  16. @Michael Turmon:

    As a data point — women will ride wearing skirts…which is rare indeed in US.

    I did, indeed, ride to work this morning in a skirt. I usually do, because my wardrobe tends toward dresses and skirts. (I wear bike shorts underneath, because it's a windy country.) A more general statement would be that the Dutch cycle in whatever they're wearing anyway. Only the speed bikers wear spandex and helmets.

    I think your observation about intensity is a good one. Part of it is that for Americans, cycling is a Thing: a hobby, an obsession, a cause. In the Netherlands, it's as ubiquitous as water, and just about as innocuous.

  17. I live in a city (Frankfurt, Germany) in which bicyclists are allowed to drive both ways on one-way streets.

    This was introduced a few years ago, first as an experiment, then as a widespread measure. It was found that accidents involving bikes were actually reduced after this measure was introduced.

    The reasons: car drivers became more alert; bikers now stay off the main roads; the travel speed for bikers increased, thus more people bike = car drivers are more accustomed to seeing bikers.

    I used to drive through town by Vespa but now, having found that bicycling is generally quicker and more convenient, will probably sell the scooter.

    The general rule is: the more convenient it is to bike, the more people will bike, and the safer biking becomes.

  18. @Martin Schwoerer:
    the more convenient it is to bike, the more people will bike, and the safer biking becomes.

    I like this formulation, because it gets us out of the Catch-22 of "if you make biking safer, more people will bike; if more people bike, biking becomes safer."

    Here in the Netherlands, the infrastructure for biking is deeply established. It's the little things that make the difference, like how the eaves over the bike racks at my local supermarket are deep enough that I can stay dry while putting my shopping into my panniers.

    But I hear NY is creating bike lanes pretty quickly. I really hope it tilts the balance.

  19. I've noticed a huge jump in the number of NYC bike salmon this year, and it irks me most on streets where there's a perfectly good bike lane on the next parallel block (Dean vs. Bergen, for example). It's hard enough negotiating a barely-wide-enough bike lane when I hear a bus approaching behind me, but add an approaching salmon into the equation and all bets are off. I'm working on my zen approach to the situation… think I need more practice…

  20. It is possible for the driver to be 81 (or 236) times more careful then the cyclist only if the cyclist is extremely careless. This is way I'm careless when cycling, to help drivers feel better.

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