By now you may know that I am one of those contemptible NYC cyclists—a confirmed, unrepentant member of the nefarious five-borough “Bike Wing Conspiracy” (whoever came up with that term is a genius)—and I support the city’s expanded network of bike paths and the whole wild bike boom in general, and I think that if any of the above infuriates you, an ideal solution is chilling out and getting on a bike yourself. It works every time.
The relationship between cyclists and the city remains imperfect, still dangerous in parts and too often confrontational, but it’s changing for the better, to the point where riding a bike in the city feels less like death-wish mayhem, and more like something you need to do to properly experience New York. In fact, if you manage to get through another city spring and summer without turning over a pair of bike pedals, you might as well seal yourself up in bubble wrap and move into a storage container on the FDR.
But over the past couple years, I’ve noticed a troubling cycling trend, a selfish behavior that seems to be increasing, as more and more people feel secure and hop on bikes. No, I’m not talking about stopping at red lights, though that absolutely needs to happen, too, because running reds undermines every biker on the road, and is mega-treacherous. No, my complaint concerns a different cyclist misbehavior, one that’s maybe just as hazardous, and really has to end.
Here’s my humble plea: MY FELLOW RIDERS, PLEASE TAKE OFF THE EARBUDS AND HEADPHONES!!
I say it loud because they cannot hear. They are listening to Mastodon or Madonna or Manilow or who-knows-what and they are slicing through the wind, impaired and inhabiting another world. They are everywhere—in Central and Prospect parks, on the West Side bike path, on the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, First Ave., Sixth Ave., Riverside Drive and beyond. They are riding fast and slow, carrying flowers in baskets, or tucked into time-trial positions, and what they share in common is a decision that their personal entertainment is more important than your safety. Not to mention theirs.
Look, I know there are going to be a few defensive headphone-wearers out there who claim that they never crank the volume, and only listen to soft Ray LaMontagne or humpback whales, and can hear the traffic all around them. While I’m sure some of that is true—you might be able to hear a lunatic bearing down on you, screaming “ON YOUR RIGHT!” or “LOOK, A DOG WALKING A CAT ON A LEASH!” you cannot argue that you’re more aware than you’d be without headphones.
I don’t know why this is not obvious, why it’s acceptable to pedal down the street with iPod earbuds or those hipster jumbo-earmuffs that make you look like you’re about to park a jet at LGA. We’d freak out if we saw a car driver wearing headphones; why do cyclists get a pass?
Just yesterday I was crossing the street in front of my apartment when a rider blew past me wearing a big set of headphones and (here’s another classic maneuver) holding his helmet in his hand. Am I the only person who goes nuts seeing this?
Yes: I have worn headphones on a bike. Let’s get that out there. More than once. Especially if you’re training (in my case, to improve from a totally pathetic racer to a merely pathetic one), music can be a fantastic way of breaking up the repetitious drudgery—find just the right Motley Crue, and the suffering subsides. But it doesn’t make it right.
And it doesn’t make it safe. I gave up the headphones fast, after a couple close calls. I was dumb and lucky.
If you’re wondering, it’s not actually legal—according to the NYC Department of Transportation, you can keep one earbud in, but that’s it, though that rule appears to be loosely enforced at best. I also know that New Yorkers don’t always respond to peer pressure—this is a town, after all, where people still clip their toenails on the subway. But if public safety and common sense don’t compel you, know this: Headphones atop a bike is an insult to an extraordinary, all-sensory city. Bob Dylan has bemoaned today’s earbud culture, but I prefer a quote from poet-philosopher Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” It’s true. Riding a bike in New York City is becoming a sublime experience, but you might be missing it. Headphones off.
Write to Jason Gay at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared April 18, 2012, on page A26 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Please Remove the Earbuds.