Right on Green, Part 1 can be found here. And since people liked disclaimers in the last post, here are two more.
1. I don’t know if the officer who ticketed me was lying.
Let me say that more clearly: I am not calling the cop a liar. Now, I can cite some moments where it seemed like the officer wasn’t telling the truth — telling me that the other cyclist saw me run a red light, only to have her shout “NO!” as she rode by, for example — but was he actively lying? Only he knows. What I do know is that the officer didn’t see what he said he saw. I turned right on green and couldn’t have been coming from the direction the officer said. Period.
2. This took place in the 78th Precinct, but it is not about the 78th precinct. Inspector Michael Ameri, the former Commanding Officer of the 78th, was a true leader on street safety even before Vision Zero became official city policy. Captain Frank DiGiacomo, the current Commanding Officer, has continued to make great strides in those areas as well. While there are clearly a lot of problems with the NYPD when it comes to the departments relationship with bikes and smart enforcement, this is about one officer, not one precinct
Anyway, on with part two.
On Monday, February 9, 2015, over one year since I received a ticket for a red light I could not have run, my hearing was held at the Department of Motor Vehicles’ Traffic Violations Bureau in the Atlantic Center in Brooklyn. Readers from more civilized parts of the world might wonder why, in a country that prides itself on due process and swift justice it takes a year or more to have your day in court, so to speak. It might be fun to imagine that it’s because the police flood the courts with bogus bicycle tickets for things that aren’t illegal — which I’m sure doesn’t help — but it probably comes down to something far more American: lots of people contesting all sorts of tickets and not enough resources to process them all.
I was aided at my hearing by Steve Vaccaro, an attorney who’s better known for his work achieving real justice for people with far greater problems than an imaginary bicycle offense. Ticket hearings aren’t normally his thing, and he accompanied me to the DMV as a favor from one friend and fellow advocate to another.
When the hearing began, the administrative law judge explained that in order for the ticket to be upheld, “clear” evidence of the violation had to be established. This gave me quite a bit of confidence — after all, I had more than enough evidence to, if not prove things beyond a reasonable doubt to someone who wasn’t on 5th Avenue that morning, then at least show that the cop’s claim was rather thin.
Then the judge let the officer begin. “Tell me what happened,” he said.
There was something about those instructions from the judge — “Tell me what happened.” — that struck me as odd. It wasn’t “Tell me your side of the story,” or “Tell me your version of events.” Maybe I was reading too much into it, but if the judge’s job was to be neutral, telling the officer to explain What Happened didn’t fill me with too much confidence.
There’s no need to rehash what the officer said he saw. It’s all in the first post. The officer ran through his version of events, reading off a small piece of paper on which he had written his testimony. Then it was our turn.
Steve questioned the officer about the position of his car, what he saw, and all the rest. And then he submitted the following evidence on my behalf:
- A map showing my alleged route.
- A map showing my actual route.
- The picture showing the position of the officer’s car.
- The sign-in sheet from my daughter’s pre-K.
The Monday after I received my ticket, I asked my daughter’s teachers if I could take the sign-in sheet from Friday, January 31st, knowing it would come in handy at my hearing. The ticket the officer wrote me was time-stamped with 8:44 AM. I signed my daughter into her classroom at 8:30, so a sheet bearing her name, my signature, the date, and the time, was the best evidence that I was on Lincoln Place before I was ticketed.
A note about the evidence: Even though my hearing was classified as a “bike/skate ticket,” every piece of evidence I submitted was labeled as “Motorist.” “Motorist Map 1,” “Motorist Map 2,” etc. I know people like to argue that bikes ought to be subject to the same rules as cars, but come on! The bias is woven right into the nomenclature of the system! Justice is supposed to be blind, but in traffic court she wears driving goggles.
After I explained what happened, one of the judge’s questions was simple, if a tad unrelated to whether or not I had run a red light. He wanted to know if I had a seat on my bicycle for my daughter. Now, he could have just asked this question in order to paint a picture, but the more likely explanation — at least one closer to my experience of explaining my car-free lifestyle to relatives or friends who live in more car-dependent cities — is that he actually couldn’t quite imagine that people actually transport their children to school six whole blocks by bicycle. Honestly, if I had been on trial for running a red light in a car in the same location, can you imagine him asking, “Do you have a car seat for your daughter?”
Another of the judge’s questions involved whether I had taken the photograph before or after I had allegedly run the red light at Lincoln Place and was stopped by the officer. I told the judge that I took the picture before I was ticketed. As I explained before, I came around the corner, saw the woman and her bike stopped next to a car with flashing lights, stopped to take the picture, and then continued on my way before being chased down and stopped four blocks away.
The judge then asked the officer if could it have been possible that I ran the red light after I took the picture. You might want to recall that the standard for upholding the ticket, in the judge’s words, is establishing “clear” evidence that a violation had occurred. So empty your head of all other thoughts and read the next part.
The officer said that he couldn’t be sure, but that it might have been possible that I saw him pulling someone over, took the picture, and then went around the block before running the light. Essentially, in such an incredible scenario, whether I was coming from Lincoln Place or 5th Avenue the first time around would be irrelevant. It’s an amazing claim, especially when you consider that such a route would look like the map below. (Remember, the Chase Bank on 5th is where I saw the ticket sting.)
Think about that for a second. According to a theory posited by this officer of the law, it is entirely possible that on a cold January morning, I saw a ticket sting going on, snapped a picture of that ticket sting, and then went seven tenths of a mile out of my way up a hill and then down again, only to ride northbound on 5th Avenue and run a red light directly in front of an active NYPD ticket sting I already knew was happening. (Go back and read disclaimer number 2 in my first post and ask if that sounds like something I’d do. It’s not something anyone would do.)
That the implausibility of this idea went unchallenged by the judge did not give me hope.
The other big question was how to explain the 14 minutes between the time on the sign-in sheet at my daugther’s pre-K and the time written on the ticket. This isn’t as big a mystery as the missing 18 1/2 minutes on the Watergate tapes, and I had a perfectly logical explanation. My typical routine was to sign my daughter in when we walked in to school and then get her settled. That process usually lasted around seven to ten minutes. Add four to seven minutes to that, and you essentially have the time between me leaving pre-K and the cop writing the summons, which, as I explained previously, was delayed because I initially refused to give him my ID.
Now one player in this drama is conspicuously missing: the woman in the striped scarf who had been ticketed right before me. You may recall that the officer told me that she told him that I ran the red light, and that when he asked her as she rode by us, she screamed out “No!” You may also recall that thanks to the Transportation Alternatives bike ambassadors, she and I were able to get in touch and that she volunteered to come to my hearing to testify on my behalf. Well, this would be the perfect part of the story for her to burst through the doors of the hearing room, raise finger in my direction, and loudly declare, “Your honor, that man DID. NOT. BREAK. THE. LAW.”
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. My work schedule, a busy family life, and just the general passage of one whole year meant I simply didn’t have time to go the full Perry Mason and line everything up perfectly in preparation for this hearing. To be honest, I also felt guilty asking another person to take off of work to come testify on my behalf, especially when I thought there was a better-than-good chance that the ticket would be thrown out.
One thing that came up during the hearing was the issue of me not providing the officer with my ID immediately when I was stopped. If you recall, the driver threatened me with arrest. He also threatened the woman who he had stopped before me with arrest as well, but she provided him with a cellphone picture of her passport to avoid a trip to the precinct. The officer brought this up, saying that he had remembered our encounter quite well due to this fact, and in fact it was what caused him to remember so many other details of my alleged red light offense.
The judge, however, explained to the officer that he can not arrest someone for not providing an ID. Now, it can result in a trip to the precinct to verify someone’s identity, but not having ID is not an arrest able offense. Who knows what the officer was thinking when this was explained to him, but from my perspective he seemed genuinely chagrined.
Finally, it was time for the judge to render his decision. Despite some of the stranger moments, I actually felt like there was at least a small chance that Steve and had thrown some shade on the judge’s requirement that “clear” evidence of a violation be established.
Well, as you’ve probably guessed if you’ve read this far, I lost. (“I got a bogus ticket, the judge knew right away it was bogus, threw it out and asked the cop what the hell he was thinking” certainly wouldn’t have taken two blog posts to explain.)
The judge said that there was enough evidence to conclude that a violation had occurred. “Clear” evidence of a violation, at least in this case, simply meant, “The cop said so.”
I was ordered to pay $190 and told that I must not run a red light again through July 2015, a time limit that began from the moment of my alleged violation, or it would be recorded as a second violation. And, this being New York, you simply don’t want multiple red light violations.
Now, being told that I must not run a red light “again” when I hadn’t run one in the first place stung. But what also hurt was the sense that this officer’s experience was validated. Whether he actively lied or simply based my ticket on something he thought he saw out of the corner of his eye, neither exactly meet the standard one would want our police officers to live by as they enforce order on our streets.
But what also concerned me was the sense that I had everything going for me — some pretty good evidence, the help of a lawyer, the ability to take a few hours off of work — and I still lost. People who can not afford the time off of job, who don’t have a friend who feels like doing a favor, and who may be more intimidated in even as low-stakes a setting as traffic court… there’s not a lot many of the people who find themselves unfairly ticketed by the NYPD can do. And $190 is a lot of money for people who actually need to rely on a bicycle for transportation.
I want to be clear: My experience does not rise to the level of the Greatest Injustice in New York City. It’s an interesting story — I hope! — that brings up some troubling questions for how committed the average NYPD officer is to targeted, smart enforcement using rigorous standards in the Vision Zero age. It gives rise to this question: “If this, then what?” If this officer nailed me for a violation that didn’t occur, then what actual violations did he ignore that could have made the streets safer without wasting everyone’s time with a fourteen-minute traffic stop and an afternoon at the Traffic Violations Bureau?
Hopefully, if you’ve read this far, you’ll consider the question as we move forward in our efforts to make America’s Best City for Cycling live up to the honor.
The editorial style of the Daily News has always been fairly straightforward: make short, declarative statements, and pretend to stake out a position of moral clarity on a subject that, right or wrong, inspires a lot of passion. This style is in full focus in Sunday’s editorial, “Slap ‘em with summonses: The right way to enforce the Vision Zero failure to yield law against bus drivers and others.”
Most of what the Daily News editorial board proposes, however, relies on straw-men arguments, faulty logic and a lack of facts on which policy proposals should be based. And, as becomes apparent partway through the piece, what the board proposes in no way involves enforcing the Vision Zero failure to yield law against bus drivers and others.
Seventeen drivers, including six Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus operators, have been run through the criminal justice system so far. In the latest case, Francisco de Jesus’ Brooklyn bus collided with teenage Jiahuan Xu and mangled her left leg as he attempted a left turn.
If you flip this construct around and start with the fact that 143 pedestrians were killed in New York City in 2014 and that 21 people have lost their lives in traffic this year so far — not to mention those who have received life-altering injuries — the fact that only 17 motorists have been “run through the criminal justice system” seems like the bigger outrage. Violating a pedestrian’s legal right of way is against the law. Through what other system should people who commit crimes be run?
There seems to be a large amount of concern over handcuffing and jailing drivers who, at least until the point that they killed or seriously injured someone, had a clean driving record. The police have their reasons for such protocol, but Pete Donohue and Errol Louis, for example, have a point: the American way of cuffing people for everything from violating open container laws to jogging in a park after dark certainly feels excessive. But questioning the need to cuff a veteran bus driver is separate from asking whether or not there should be criminal consequences for drivers who, however unintentionally, kill or maim pedestrians.
So that there is no misunderstanding: The goal of saving lives on the streets and preventing injuries is aces. Let’s do it.
But let’s do it right.
Like I said: short, declarative statements and an insistence that what follows, dear reader, Must Be The Solution No One Has Thought Of Yet.
The criminalizing of failure-to-yield accidents grew out of the notion, espoused by some transportation advocates, that there is virtually no such thing as a traffic accident. In almost every case, someone did something wrong, so that’s a crime.
Here’s the straw man. No advocate believes there aren’t honest-to-god accidents that are beyond the scope of criminal liability or prosecution. What transportation advocates actually espouse is that authorities and the press should hold off on calling a collision an “accident” until the circumstances of the incident are known.
Then there’s the the idea that advocates believe that “in almost every case, someone did something wrong, so that’s a crime.” There seems to be a lot of motivation on the part of the Daily News to characterize advocates’ position as too harsh and to also narrowly define recklessness or carelessness as “intending to harm,” a meaning that would decriminalize nearly all traffic violence. If there was no intent, then it was just an accident, right? But that’s just ridiculous. No credible advocate believes that drivers wake up in the morning intending to kill someone.
Yes, sometimes there are genuine accidents. However, the criminalizing of failure-to-yield collisions grew out of the notion that people who commit crimes, including the crime of negligence, ought to face criminal consequences.
True enough, a criminal penalty can serve as a deterrent to someone who is, say, on the fence about robbing a bank. But meting out jail to a paltry handful of drivers on the streets is unlikely to prevent many from lapsing into momentary inattention that has tragic results. (See this Op-Ed for a view from the driver’s seat.)
Drivers operate giant pieces of machinery with the potential to do great harm. What the News dismisses as mere “momentary inattention” can have tragic consequences for people on foot, on bikes, and, yes, in cars. And when a tragedy strikes, it should be on investigators to determine if a driver did everything he could to avoid the kind of momentary lapse of attention that can kill another human being. This should not be a controversial position.
Here’s where the faulty logic comes in. As far as the efficacy of “meting out jail to a paltry handful of drivers” in order to prevent other tragedies, I’d say the strategy is working well so far. In just one week, the Daily News has printed numerous opinion pieces on the subject of failure to yield, inspiring a healthy debate across New York City. Not only that, but the TWU has repeatedly urged its drivers to wait until pedestrians clear crosswalks before completing a turn. Public awareness of pedestrians’ legal right of way has probably never been higher than it is right now.
The far more effective and fairer way to change driver behavior would be for the NYPD to ramp up failure-to-yield summonses before anyone has been hit. Cops now issue an average of roughly 50 a day. Five hundred, with a concentrated public education campaign, might do the trick.
Here’s the lack of facts. How does the Daily News know that this would be more effective that arrests? And why stop with 500? The cops could probably hand out that many summons on one corner in Brooklyn in the span of a few hours. So why not hand out 5,000 summons a day? How about 50,000? Wouldn’t 500,000 summons do the trick? And what’s a “concentrated public education campaign”? How long would it last and how would it be carried out? There’s also a bit of a straw-man argument at play here, since no advocate would argue that that ramping up preventative failure-to-yield summons and arresting drivers who hit people with the right of way are mutually exclusive.
Most importantly, despite the editorial’s title, the board’s proposal isn’t a way to “enforce the Vision Zero failure to yield law against bus drivers and others,” It’s a pie-in-the-sky way of hoping that the law is never enforced.
As it is now, the mayor and Council have achieved an outsized assault on some of the safest, best-trained drivers in the city: the MTA’s 11,000-plus bus operators, who covered 152 million miles last year under tough circumstances.
There’s no question that bus drivers appear to be bearing a disproportionate amount of the consequences under Section 19-190. There’s also no question that MTA drivers are, mile for mile, doing remarkable jobs under very difficult circumstances. That being said, professional drivers, especially those carrying passengers as part of a public transportation system, ought to be held to a tougher standard than the average motorist.
There’s also a very easy way to make it seem as if the Right of Way law isn’t unfairly targeting drivers while ignoring offenses committed by other drivers and that’s to arrest other drivers.
Those who hit pedestrians undergo intensive investigation and are subject to internal discipline. None, including de Jesus, intended any harm. The Transport Workers Union has said that the mirror on his bus may have placed the teenager he hit in a blind spot, perhaps defeating a criminal case.
Uncertain, after-the-fact prosecutions are an unfair waste of time. A credible threat of attention-getting fines is the way to go.
There’s that idea of “intent” again. Let me re-emphasize that no one thinks de Jesus saw a pedestrian in the crosswalk and decided to run her over anyway. But internal investigations as a means for determining what went wrong in a case where a bus driver strikes someone are highly problematic. What justice does this leave for a teen with a mangled leg or the parents left without a child? And if the only consequence is “internal discipline,” how does the greater message get out to drivers that a pedestrian’s right of way is sacrosanct? The public, not just the MTA ad TWU, has a vested interest in public investigations of events that put public lives at risk.
As to my original point about this editorial and its lack of basic logic, the last two lines bring it all into focus. To a degree, all prosecutions are uncertain. That doesn’t make them a waste of time, provided police officers make arrests based on credible evidence, investigations are thorough, and prosecutors are well prepared. That all prosecutions happen after the fact is just something we all have to accept, due to the linear nature of time.
I’ve been struck by the way in which the coverage of the bus crash that seriously injured a teenager last Friday as she crossed the street with the legal right of way exposes a core philosophy of traffic violence apologists. This philosophy has mostly played out in Pete Donohue’s coverage in the Daily News, but it’s a common point of view anytime an incident like this becomes the subject of debate: Death and serious injury, it seems, are the cost of doing business in the big city.
J.P. Patafio of TWU Local 100 said, “The law of averages has it we’re going to get into an accident.” Donohue, arguing on Twitter, has essentially said the same thing. The occasional bus crash in which a pedestrian is maimed or killed is just an accident and not a crime, and not something that should concern the law in any meaningful way beyond, perhaps, a traffic ticket. Work it out in civil court if you want, but leave criminal charges out of it.
If you accept that philosophy — that in order to keep buses moving on New York City Streets people are going to die every once in a while — then you should have to answer a rather serious question:
If the occasional death or serious injury is the inevitable cost of keeping the city running, how many of your family members would you be willing to lose?
If we take this “law of averages” philosophy to its logical conclusion, then someone has to pay the ultimate price for the greater good. So who loses that lottery? Should it be you? One of your kids? How about a friend or coworker? Is it only okay if you don’t know the person? If you accept these as simply unpreventable accidents, then it’s on you to answer whose death is worth it and how many people have to be hurt.
It’s easy to dismiss street safety advocates as “a zealous bunch of bicycling advocates,” but they’re not the ones saying that keeping the economy humming and the traffic flowing requires some sort of burnt offering to the gods of mobility.
First, a disclaimer: I sometimes go through red lights. Shocking, I know.
But a couple of points to tease out the details of that disclaimer:
1. I believe that laws for bikes need to be updated to reflect the fact that they are not cars, that resources ought to be deployed according to the threat, and that infrastructure — not punitive enforcement — will ultimately change behavior. But going through a red signal is still illegal, so that’s that. If I ever go through a red light and am stopped by the police, I’ll say I’m sorry, accept a ticket without argument, and pay the fine promptly. I also have no desire to be one of those entitled cyclists who thinks it’s a massive injustice that he got caught doing something that everyone knows is illegal. My face on a Gothamist post with 816 comments? I’ll pass.
2. Although I occasionally go through red lights, I most certainly would never knowingly do so in the presence of a police car, no matter how safe the intersection. I don’t have a lot of love for the 5th Precinct’s penchant for ticketing cyclists at low-stakes T intersections, but I also don’t have a lot of sympathy for cyclists who get caught there. It’s not as if the cops are hiding behind a bush.
3. I never run red lights on 5th Avenue in Park Slope. First, some of the cross streets are set in such a way that it’s hard to see around the corner. Second, it’s a busy, narrow street that’s teeming with cars, buses, delivery trucks, and people on foot and on bikes, making it a bad candidate for any sort of Idaho Stop Law treatment most times of the day. Third, as a stroller-pushing papa who frequently takes his kids around the neighborhood on foot, I know all too well the experience of having someone on a bike come at you even at a distance he or she thinks is safe. Do unto others and all that.
So please keep those things in mind as you read the rest of this post. Read them again every now and then if it helps. Now on with the show…
I received a ticket after making a right turn on a green light.
Now, the officer who ticketed me didn’t write me a ticket for that; he accused me of going straight through a red signal in flagrant violation of the law — and, as you’ll soon see, the rules of time and space — but the truth of the matter is that I made a right turn on a green light and then received a red light ticket from an officer from the 78th Precinct.
Here’s what happened.
On Friday, January 31st, 2014, I rode my daughter, as I did nearly every day last school year, from our old apartment on 4th Avenue and Baltic to her pre-K on Lincoln Place between 5th and 6th Avenue. Our ride took us up St. Johns place, right on 6th, and then about half way down Lincoln Place to pre-K. A classroom sign-in sheet has me walking in at 8:30 AM to leave her with her teachers. I kissed her goodbye, left the building, and hopped on my bike, taking off down Lincoln Place.
The light ahead was red and there were a few cars stopped waiting for it to change. The bike lane on Lincoln Place is on the left side of the street and I needed to turn right, so I merged behind a car and waited too. When the light changed, the cars began moving and I slowly turned right onto 5th Avenue. Here’s the route:
As I turned the corner, I saw flashing lights coming from a car parked against the flow of traffic on the east side of 5th Avenue. A woman with a bike was stopped next to the car, so I figured it was one of two things: an officer responding to a crash or a red-light ticket sting. I stopped, saw that the woman was okay, and took this picture:
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that I frequently take pictures of cops ticketing cyclists. If you follow constitutional law, you’ll know that taking pictures of cops ticketing cyclists is not a reason for the cops to then pull you over. Nevertheless, I continued northbound on 5th toward Bergen Street to make my way to work. But then I heard it: “CYCLIST, PULL OVER.” Okay, I thought. Taking a picture of a police officer is not a crime and I’ve done nothing wrong. I stopped in front of Gorilla Coffee at Park Place and 5th Avenue, about four blocks from Lincoln Place.
The officer exited his car and demanded to see my ID. I initially refused, and instead demanded to know what the officer thought I had done. He once again demanded to see my ID. Once again, I refused. I can’t say that I was as cool or calm as I could have been, but I also know that the police can’t just stop a person and ask for identification without saying why. I refused again, and demanded to know what the officer thought I did. At this point he told me that he observed me running a red light and that he would arrest me if I did not provide him with my identification. I told him that I did not run a red light, but he said he saw me go straight through the light on 5th Avenue, which would have had me traveling from a direction from which it would have been impossible for me to travel, given the location of my daughter’s daycare and my normal route to work. Here’s what he said I did:
For orientation, the officer’s car was parked along the curb next to the Chase Bank on 5th Ave when he said he saw me riding northbound on 5th before going straight through a steady red signal. Never mind that he was alone and occupied with ticketing another person on a bike, he said he saw me go through a red light. I pointed to my bicycle –a big, upright black Dutch bike with child seat in the back — and said that he most certainly did not see me run a red light, since I had just dropped my daughter off on Lincoln Place.
At that point, the officer said that the woman he had been ticketing back at Lincoln Place told him that I had run the same red she did. I found this hard to believe, since, in case you’re just joining me, I DIDN’T RUN A RED LIGHT. She might have run a red light while going northbound on 5th Avenue, but I didn’t, nor could I have. I told the officer that he wasn’t telling the truth. He said that he was. I then told him that for all I knew the woman was just intimidated and told him what he wanted to hear.
I want to be pretty clear here: I probably came across to this officer as a total asshole, that same kind of entitled cyclist I wrote about in my disclaimer, above. Stopped and threatened with arrest for not providing an ID and for running a red light I didn’t run? I never swore or lost my temper, but I definitely gave this officer a piece of my mind. I also must recognize the privilege aspect of this: I’m a white male who was stopped in Park Slope. Yelling at a cop and not immediately complying with an order isn’t probably going to land me in cuffs, at least not right out of the gate, so every choice I made was filtered through that knowledge.
At that moment, the woman who he had been ticketing back at Lincoln Place rode by on her bike. She had a striped scarf on, which you can kind of see in the picture above. The officer pointed at me and yelled to her, “Did he run a red light?” The woman, just as she passed, screamed, “NO!”
It didn’t matter. He demanded to see my ID again. Finally, I complied. I was no dummy. This cop wanted to write me a ticket, and I knew I’d have to make my case in court. I also didn’t want to wind up in jail; knowledge of the law and one’s rights can be cold comfort if you’re arrested by a cop who somehow thinks you did something you couldn’t have done. So I handed the cop my ID and he went back to his car. He returned with a ticket:
As you can see, the ticket says that I was going “N/B on 5th Ave @ Lincoln Place.” Just a quick reminder: I was going westbound on Lincoln Place, before turning right onto 5th and the light was green. The time written on the ticket is 8:44 AM. This is my first ticket in 17 years of riding a bicycle in New York City, and it’s for something I didn’t even do.
Anyway, both the officer and I parted ways. I headed to work, as I often do, via the Manhattan Bridge. As I arrived on the Manhattan side, I saw the Transportation Alternatives bike ambassadors doing one of their outreach sessions, giving out coffee and signing up new members. I stopped and told Luke, one of the ambassadors and now TA’s Brooklyn Outreach Coordinator, about my ticket. “A woman just came through here and signed up for membership because she said she had been ticketed, too,” he said. “Must have been the same officer.” I asked if this woman was wearing a dark jacket and a long striped scarf. Luke said yes.
So my wheels started spinning. Realizing TA couldn’t violate this woman’s privacy by giving me her contact information, I asked Luke if he would do me a favor and give her mine. He said that he would email her when he got to the office.
The next day, I got this email from the woman in the striped scarf, the one who had screamed “NO” when the officer asked her if I had run a red light:
Hi Doug,Luke from TA forwarded your contact info yesterday. I was ticketed yesterday morning while riding up Fifth Avenue (at Lincoln Place). A number of cyclists passed while I was being written up and the officer caught one right behind me but not others.The same officer continued north and I passed him talking to a cyclist outside of Gorilla Coffee. I’m sorry if that was you and if I had anything to do with your ticket. I did say aloud that you didn’t run a red light. I had a green and white striped scarf.Good luck.
Hi Doug,In your case, the officer was sitting in his car facing me or south when you rode by. He only saw you bike by; he didn’t see you run the red. However, because the light on Fifth Ave was red, he inferred that you ran the red, since myself and two other subsequent cyclists did exactly that.I’m disappointed that he would write you a ticket that isn’t based on his own observations; this seems very wrong and also embarrassing. I can’t imagine a police officer backing down to admit fault so I would be happy to testify for your case.As for me, I told him I left my wallet at home and didn’t have identification on me. He threatened to arrest me for not having ID, and I ended up showing him a photograph of my passport that was stored on my phone. Could you ask your attorney & TA volunteer whether a ticket without driver’s license is valid? I was told that it couldn’t be entered in the system; it does have my name and address however. I’m grateful for any response.
If culture eats policy for breakfast, what does this example of DOT policy do to the culture of reckless driving?
As Brad Aaron at Streetsblog reported, the Department of Transportation has “DOT has watered down some Slow Zone features,” partly in response to complaints about losing a handful of parking spaces and also as a result of Slow Zone signs being “hit and damaged at an unsustainable rate.” A robust gateway treatment is essentially the defining feature that is meant to a) distinguish a “Slow Zone” from a neighboring “Do Whatever You Want Zone” and b) slow down drivers as they turn corners. Remove the gateway treatment and, lacking other traffic calming features such as chicanes, the Slow Zone is more of a Suggestion Zone. If drivers even see the sign, that is.
Here’s an example from Union and Bond Street in Brooklyn. This is the Slow Zone gateway as it existed in October 2013:
Here it is in August 2014. It’s clearly been hit by a driver:
And here’s that same “gateway” in October 2014:
Basically, in the span of just one year, DOT gave up. That says something about its institutional culture, doesn’t it? But scroll back up through this post again. If you start in October 2014 with the sign on the sidewalk and end with the sign in the street, that’s the progression you’d want to see as far gateway design is concerned. And once that sign has been planted in the street, like a settler’s flag claiming land for the Kingdom of Pedestrians, you’d want to start moving toward a gateway design that looks something like this:
Design eats culture for breakfast.
If you paid attention to the coverage of Vision Zero in 2014, you may have noticed one of DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg’s most frequent refrains:
“One of my favorite lines comes from the former DOT commissioner from Massachusetts: ‘Culture eats policy for breakfast,’” said Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, “Culture is much more. You can change policy overnight. You can’t change culture overnight.”
Here it is again, in a different interview:
“Culture eats policy for breakfast,” said Trottenberg. “That’s one of my mantras in this business … meaning you can change policy, but culture is a more complex thing to change, and something that often takes more time and more effort.”
The phrase “Culture eats policy for breakfast” traces its roots to Peter Drucker, an influential Austrian-born business management consultant and author who died in 2005. Drucker actually said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, technology for lunch, and products for dinner, and soon thereafter everything else too” but that lengthy quote has been adapted and simplified as it’s flown around the corporate world.
In any company, organization, or even social movement, there’s always a conflict between those who would implement sweeping change quickly and those who feel that a piecemeal, step-by-step approach is more prudent. If you’re the head of a large city agency with a direct impact on the lives of millions of citizens, striking a balance between these two competing philosophies is key, lest big and noble policy goals get destroyed by something as simple as bad timing or a small group of people who simply aren’t ready to change.
But something always rubs me the wrong way anytime I hear Commissioner Trottenberg repeat her line about culture, policy and breakfast. When I match it up against the absence of truly innovative and original bicycle projects from DOT in 2014 — most of the protected bike lanes installed last year originated under the Bloomberg administration — it seems that what should just be a catchy piece of business advice may actually be a core philosophy that’s holding the city back from taking biking to the next level. “Culture eats policy for breakfast” has become a self-perpetuating, defeatist mantra that ignores how far the city has come, where it wants to go, and who wants to take it there. It removes design and engineering as primary drivers of cultural change, defers too much to those who seek a kind of selfish comfort in the status quo, and has consequences for other important policy goals beyond bikes.
Here are what I see as the biggest problems with “Culture eats policy for breakfast.”
1. The last administration changed the menu.
In the waning months of Mayor Bloomberg’s final term, an August 2013 New York Times poll showed widespread support for bike lanes, bike share, and pedestrian plazas.
Even as far back as March 2011 — the same month Neighbors for Better Bike lanes filed their Article 78 lawsuit to remove the Prospect Park West Bike lane — a Quinnipiac poll showed that 54 percent of New York City voters viewed the expansion of bike lanes as “a good thing.” By July that number had risen to 59 percent. In August, a Marist poll showed 66 percent of New Yorkers supported bike lanes. Again, this was in 2011, when New York Magazine asked “Is New York Too New York for Bike Lanes?”
The New York Times poll proved what many advocates and policy leaders had long known, that the media-generated bikelash that had dominated the headlines for years never matched the reality on the ground. “People are voting with their feet, they’re voting with their pedals, and they’re voting with their dollars,” former DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan was fond of saying. Howard Wolfson, who had long gone to the mat for the Bloomberg administration’s livable streets agenda, gave this valedictory comment late last year: “At some point it became obvious that this was a popular policy, that people were using bike lanes, that Citi Bike was being used. (Emphasis mine.)
“Culture eats policy for breakfast” takes the momentum accrued under Bloomberg and runs the risk of squandering it. The language accepts the idea that popular policies are still up for debate. Even worse, it reintroduces a debate that was settled a long time ago.
2. There’s more than one way to define culture.
Consider the following quote from DOT Director of Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs Josh Benson about the agency’s choice to install extra-wide parking lanes on streets with more than enough room to accommodate robust bicycle infrastructure:
“People in the community might not initially value the importance of a street to the bike network until there’s some initial calming and the character changes,” DOT Director of Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs Josh Benson said, citing Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights and 44th Drive in Long Island City as examples where DOT later converted extra-wide parking lanes into bike lanes. “People don’t necessarily envision a street as a bike-friendly street,” he said. “Once you make an improvement, people take to it and opinions change.”
Riverside Drive, for example, is a major cycling route both for points along the Upper West Side and for recreational cyclists heading to the George Washington Bridge. Safe streets advocates have been packing community board meetings on the Upper West Side on all manner of traffic-calming and bike-related projects for months, oftentimes outnumbering opponents by a lot. So who is Benson talking about? Not that one should ignore people in the local community who can’t or don’t want to envision the benefits of a complete street, but incorrectly or imprecisely defining words like “culture,” “people,” and “community” fuels a myth that New York still isn’t ready for bike lanes. It makes “Culture eats policy for breakfast” a self-fulfilling philosophy.
3. It diminishes the importance of past institutional experience.
The Vanderbilt Avenue traffic calming project mentioned by Benson above began with the installation of wide parking lanes in 2006 before an upgrade to class 2 bike lanes in 2008. With everything that’s changed since 2006 — The Ninth Avenue bike lane, the city’s first on-street protected lane, wasn’t installed until 2007, for example — the interim step of installing wide parking lanes to build community acceptance for bike lanes may no longer be necessary. After all, none of the doom-and-gloom predictions that preceded previous bike lane installations came to pass, so DOT should by now be well versed in swatting down most community board complaints, including those related to the loss of parking. (More on that later.)
4. It removes DOT as a prime agent for rapid culture change.
It’s said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. The same might be said of livable streets. Endless community board presentations and tabloid arguments about whether or not New Yorkers will sit and enjoy themselves in pedestrian plazas tend to yield diminishing returns. Instead, the debate can easily be settled by setting up some traffic cones and buying cheap lawn chairs at a hardware store. As former DOT policy director Jon Orcutt recently tweeted, “If your policy changes infrastructure, it will change culture.”
5. It fails to fully seize the moral imperative behind Vision Zero as a catalyst for change.
Some cities justify the expansion of their bike lane network because it will attract young tech workers and help the economy. Fairly or not, many people only thought that Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan wanted New York City to be like Copenhagen. Not that these are bad reasons to build bike infrastructure, but they’re unlikely to satisfy longtime residents who think that young hipsters are coming with their bikes to take away parking spaces.
Vision Zero, on the other hand, arms DOT with a very powerful justification for reconfiguring streets. Ending all fatalities and serious injuries must trump petty concerns about small amounts of free parking spaces.
Of course, Families for Safe Streets has fully seized this mantle, changing the conversation and earning a marathon-like victory to lower to the default New York City speed limit to 25 mph. But Families for Safe Streets can’t fight every fight, especially since they have their eyes trained on some pretty big fish this year. It’s going to be up to DOT to explain at the community board level why some concerns simply don’t warrant serious consideration in light of the moral urgency of Vision Zero.
6. There are consequences to waiting for the culture to change.
The most obvious consequence of deferring too much to some notion of a change-resistant culture is that people will die. While we’re waiting for “the community” to get used to seeing Riverside Drive as a part of the bike network, people on bikes are still using it, more exposed than they need to be.
There are other consequences, some small, some big. The mayor has set a goal of 6 percent mode share for bikes by 2020, just five years from now. It won’t be achieved with extra-wide parking lanes. And if the city can’t touch parking to stop people from dying or get more people on bikes, then good luck removing all the spots needed to install a real bus rapid transit line.
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“Culture eats policy for breakfast” does not and should not mean that one drifts in the tides of culture, waiting the for the currents to change. I don’t think Trottenberg sees it that way either, and it was certainly important to concentrate her department’s efforts on the speed limit change and the arterial slow zone program, but it doesn’t follow that bikes needed to get the short shrift as they did in 2014. DOT needs to use its power for positive change as well as the moral imperative of Vision Zero to demonstrate that there is no daylight between pedestrian safety projects and bike safety projects. One contributes to the other.
As I mentioned at the top of this post, “Culture eats policy for breakfast” originated in the business world, so I thought I’d turn to the business world for a deeper look. Here’s Bill Aulet, director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, writing at Techcrunch:
Some may believe that culture cannot be “engineered,” and that it just happens. It is true that culture happens whether you want it to or not. It is the DNA of the company and is in large part created by the founders – not by their words so much as their actions. So the very decision to not try to create a corporate culture, or worse, to not have company values, is in fact your choice of what culture will prevail – and not for the better.
“Culture eats policy for breakfast” is not a philosophy. It’s an observation. It’s advice, and, applied correctly, fairly good advice at that. But if it’s allowed to be the guiding principle by which DOT operates, then eliminating all traffic deaths by 2024 — just nine (!) years from now — won’t happen. Remember John F. Kennedy’s 1962 announcement that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade? And remember how we did just that in 1969? It took boldness, experimentation, money, and manpower. Vision Zero needs to be like the Apollo program, but for streets.
Vélib’, the bike share system of Paris, will display this message at all of its 1,800 stations today. My French is terrible, but the caption for the cartoon on the right translates to, “Breaking a Vélib’ is easy…he can not defend himself.” The cartoon is by Jean Cabut, known by his pen-name of Cabu, who was one of the victims in yesterday’s attack on Charlie Hebdo.
It’s not for nothing that Vélib’ gets its names for the French words “vélo” and “liberté” – “bicycle” and “freedom.”