I don’t want to give too much oxygen to Alan Dershowitz’ opinion piece in the Daily News in which he laments the law-breaking “culture of cycling in NYC.” Much of it is well-worn, bikelash-era material that has been easily swatted down countless times before. After I read it, my first reaction was that it felt as if it had been written in 2010 but had just dusted off after sitting in an editor’s inbox for six years.
But Dershowitz does take on a more modern development: Intro 1072, otherwise known as the LPI Bill. Here’s his take on it:
There’s also a City Council bill that would allow cyclists to ignore the stop lights for vehicles that under law they’re supposed to obey — and instead let them go through lights at more than 1,000 intersections with a “leading pedestrian interval,” when the walk signal comes first. Bad, bad idea.
The bill would not “allow cyclists to ignore the stop lights for vehicles that under law they’re supposed to obey.” The very nature of changing the law means that the law will no longer requires people to obey those lights; they’ll have to obey different lights. (Dershowitz might have meant that current law requires people on bikes to obey “stop lights for vehicles,” but any lawyer knows that imprecise language can sink an argument very quickly.) The LPI bill is not a license for cyclists to blow through intersections. It’s a safety measure meant to give people on bikes a head start so they are not at risk of being hit by turning cars and trucks.
Dershowitz claims that allowing cyclists to go on LPIs is a “bad, bad idea” but has no evidence to support his claim. In reality, it’s a good, good idea that people are already using to stay safe.
I understand and am sensitive to the almost instinctive reaction among some New Yorkers that this bill will put pedestrians at risk of being hit by cyclists. But consider the video above. When the walk signal goes on, the people on bikes travel in a parallel direction as the people on foot. No cyclists turn, so there’s no conflict with pedestrians. It doesn’t seem bad at all.
Dershowitz goes on to do a sort of twisted version of “This isn’t Amsterdam,” in which he points to European bike riders’ lawfulness without answering his own question about what makes European bike riders obey the law:
People who love to ride bikes in New York often hold up Europe as a model. Well, my experience in Europe has been different. Bike riders — and there are many more of them in most European cities — seem to be more respectful of red lights. What are Europeans doing that we aren’t?
So what are Europeans doing that we aren’t? Among other things, they’re allowing people on bikes to get head starts on motor vehicles. Jump to 16 seconds in this video — via Copenhagenize — and you’ll see some examples of advance signals for bicyclists in action:
At the end of his opinion piece, Dershowitz encourages readers to “Put on your thinking caps and try to come up with some realistic, constructive solutions to this problem.” Bike advocates have done that. And one of the things we came up with is the LPI bill.
This morning during our walk to school, I talked to my seven-year-old daughter about the election. That kid worked her butt off; over the last month she came with me to two volunteer shifts and was my data-entry assistant when we made calls from home. She deserved to feel like her work mattered, and part of feeling like one’s work mattered is in making sense of the outcome, win or lose. I asked her what she thought about the news. She said, “It was unexpected.” Characteristically to the point, if you know my kid.
We talked a little bit about how — just as we did a lot of work before Election Day — we still had work to do. Perhaps even more. She asked what she can do and I told her, “Ask questions.” She asked me what I meant and I said that just because someone is the President — or a teacher, or a mom, or a dad, or a really any adult — it doesn’t mean that person always does the right thing. I told her it’s always our job as people to question someone when we think they’re not being nice or not making the right choice, even if that person is “in charge.”
I know a lot of people are wondering what they can say to their kids or do for them that will make things feel alright, which right now may be more of a need to assure ourselves than them. My advice was what I figured an independent, intelligent, compassionate, and sometimes stubborn seven-year-old kid would be able to get. Your kid may need something else. Results may vary.
Our children are going to hear a lot of crazy stuff in the coming weeks, months, and years, and I want mine to be ready. I want my daughter to know that it’s okay ask questions and that people aren’t right just because they’re “grown ups.” I want her to know that she must always start from a place of respecting other people, but that respect also has to be earned. I want her to grow up and know that questioning authority is okay. And being a bit of a rabble-rouser is okay, too. It’s what makes her an American.
Also: this advice could totally backfire and she might wind up questioning everything her mother and I tell her, like not getting a tattoo, at least not until she’s out of the house, but no matter what those giant earrings that stretch out your earlobes are totally out of the question.
All movies tell their stories in three acts. Act one begins with some sort of status quo. Then something comes along that changes that status quo and moves the story into act two. By the time the story gets to act three, the person or people affected by that change in that status quo — the small-town sherriff, the band of rebels, or the private investigator taking on powerful government interests – do something specific to either adapt to or fight that change.
The same holds true in advertising. Ads are stories with a purpose: to get people to buy a product or service. I’m vastly oversimplifying it, but for an ad to get people to motivate people to spend their money, it also has to have three acts, or parts:
- Define the status quo.
- Introduce something new that disrupts that status quo.
- Motivate a specific behavior or action.
Using the above framework, think of an ad for a new soft drink:
- You’re thirsty, right? (Status quo.)
- Awesome Water is here to quench your thirst! (Something new.)
- So if you’re thirsty, drink Awesome Water! (Specific action.)
Now, this isn’t the only way ads can motivate people to part with their hard-earned cash. They can tug at people’s heartstrings. (“When you care enough to send the very best.”) They can prey on insecurities or fears. (“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”) Or they can include a catchphrase or slogan that’s so memorable that there’s no way to not think of the brand or product when one hears it. (“Just do it.” “Think Different.”) Regardless of the tactic, the purpose is the same: get people to buy stuff.
Public awareness campaigns don’t always have the same goals as consumer products. For starters, they’re not usually trying to get people to buy something. But for them to be effective, the tactics should more or less be the same.
One of NYC DOT’s most effective public awareness campaigns had to do with the 2014 reduction of the citywide speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph. The messaging followed the same steps outlined above:
- The New York City speed limit used to be 30 mph. (Status quo.)
- It’s been lowered to 25 mph. (Something new.)
- So drive 25 mph. (Specific action.)
That’s a simple takeaway: drive five miles per hour slower than before. The concept is easy to explain in a thirty-second radio ad, Facebook post, or during a quick interaction between a Vision Zero Street Team member and a motorist. It can be understood in the amount of time it takes to drive by a billboard or walk by a bus shelter. (It’s hard to measure the exact effectiveness of DOT’s “Your Choices” campaign, but at least it was easy to understand. Drivers – not kids on bikes or people crossing with the light in a crosswalk – have the biggest responsibility to move through the city safely.)
But what to make of the city’s current campaign to remind people to be careful as the clocks change and it gets darker earlier? What should any individual person do about that? Following the basic framework at the beginning of this post, you can see how this breaks down by step three:
- It’s been light out during the evening commute for a while. (Status quo.)
- When the clocks change, it will be dark. (Something new.)
So what’s the third step? What’s the specific action to follow once someone has the not exactly surprising information that it gets dark early when daylight saving time ends? Be careful? Most drivers think they are. (Like the children of Lake Wobegon, all drivers are above average.) Is the takeaway that drivers should take turns slowly? Define slow. Should they look out for pedestrians? That doesn’t necessarily jibe with the excuse a lot of drivers give when they hit someone: “He came out of nowhere!”
I’m not even sure such a campaign could contain all the information needed to change driver’s behavior in just three steps. “What does darkness have to do with driving? My car has lights! It’s those pedestrians buried in their phones who need to be careful!” Even if one can defend this campaign by saying that it’s mostly about raising awareness about a serious public health problem – Did you know that the earlier sunset and darkness are linked to an increase in the number of pedestrians killed or seriously injured by drivers? – what is anyone supposed to do with that awareness? It’s an open-ended question that can lead to all kinds of misguided initiatives, from NYPD crackdowns on cyclists to taping reflective tape on seniors’ canes.
$1.5 million is less than a rounding error in the city’s budget. This campaign will come and go. Maybe more people will choose to drive safely. Maybe they won’t. But the next time the city thinks about sending its a public service campaign, I hope it asks a simple question: What specific behavior do we want people to change? If there isn’t a simple answer, then go back to the drawing board.
Here we go again.
Yesterday, during another appearance on the Brian Lehrer show, Mayor de Blasio repeated the idea that stopping in a bike lane isn’t always worthy of a ticket, so long as the driver has what I might call a relatable reason.
…if you’re just getting out to drop off a child or, you know, bring some groceries into a home — that should not be a ticket. So, that’s something we have to work on. Our enforcement agents of course need to show some sensitivity to when people are very, very briefly doing something like that. So, that’s something we will try and work on to improve because that’s not the kind of enforcement we’re looking for.
I’ve already articulated why the mayor’s philosophy is dangerous, wrong, insensitive, and antithetical to Vision Zero. Dorothee Benz at CityLimits.org, offers a similar perspective in this great piece on the reality of biking in New York:
It’s illegal to stop or park in a bike lane, yet Mayor de Blasio himself recently signaled that stopping in a bike lane isn’t really that bad. A car that blocks a bike lane to “let someone off at an appointment or something like that, or just drop off kids at home or something quickly” is “different” than someone who leaves their car parked in a bike lane, he told Brian Lehrer.
Not to the cyclist who has to dodge the car and the kids it’s dropping off.
More fundamentally, if the mayor who initiated Vision Zero doesn’t get that a cyclist’s safety is more important than a motorist’s convenience, how will the other eight million New Yorkers?
The first time Mayor de Blasio excused away bike lane blocking, I was willing to give him a little bit of a break. As I wrote before, “To a lot of drivers, stopping in a bike lane for just a minute or two to let someone out feels a heck of a lot less harmful—and therefore less deserving of a ticket—than leaving a car in a bike lane for an extended period of time.” On its surface, this is not an unreasonable point of view. But when you dig just beneath a surface into the laws of physics—which tend to be neutral on the subject of groceries, kids, and driver intent—the mayor’s excuses fall apart.
I don’t think the mayor understands how much law-breaking his words excused. If stopping in a bike lane for a second is okay so long as a driver is unloading groceries, surely it’s okay for Fresh Direct to do it all over the city, right? What about UPS? Some parents send their kids to school in taxis. Is it okay for taxi drivers to block bike lanes to pick them up and let them out? If all one needs is a good reason to break a law, why observe it?
Discussing the finer points of multi-modal transporation policy is never going to be Bill de Blasio’s forte. This is a man who, during the 2013 campaign, used his “I’m a motorist” schtick as a way to curry favor with car-obsessed tabloids and outer-borough voters. In February 2014, just days after the then-new mayor announced a slew of Vision-Zero-related initiatives, his caravan was caught speeding and rolling through stop signs. In 2015, he floated the idea of ripping out the Times Sqaure pedestrian plazas. For goodness sake, he’s driven to a gym twelve miles from his house nearly every day.
Nobody is expecting perfection, but politicians should be expected to evolve, especially on issues of life and death. When they introduce a major policy, they should be expected to bone up on its key points. And when they make a mistake, they shouldn’t come back two weeks later and repeat it to a radio-listening audience.
I’m also not expecting the mayor to suddenly ditch his caravan of SUVs and hop on a Citi Bike to get to City Hall. But it would serve the mayor of New York well to see how the majority of New Yorkers live. Walk with us. Bike with us. And stop making excuses.
This is how the bikelash ends, not with a bang but with a press release.
I launched Brooklyn Spoke in late 2010, shortly before the fight over the Prospect Park West bike lane was really heating up. (The lawsuit was filed in March 2011, the winter of our discontent and perhaps the height of the New York City bikelash.) For the most part, my early posts focused on biking in general; they’re clearly written by a newbie who was just dipping in his toes in the larger social and political words of bikes, activism, and progressive transportation planning.
My first mention of the Prospect Park West bike lane was in a post from December 16, 2010: “The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Change Itself.” It wasn’t specifically about PPW, but was a general reflection on the fight over bike lanes in general.
I believe that some of the biggest bike lane opponents, such as Marty Markowitz and those who live on Prospect Park West, have that fear. This is not the Brooklyn they know, the Brooklyn they have lived in for the past many decades. To them, the city has always been a city of cars, the roads have always been designed to accommodate them, and what looks like a sudden change–even if it is the result of multi-year conversations with community boards and intense, data-driven studies–is a shock to the system. Carol Linn, of Neighbors For Better Bike Lanes (which is actually against the PPW bike lane) testified to this very point during the City Council hearing on bikes. She mentioned going away last summer only to come back to see that the street had been radically changed. Years of requests from the local community board and conversations with the DOT were invisible as far as she was concerned; all that mattered was that the street had changed without her knowing it.
There is also another fear that comes with change: the fear of being wrong and having to admit it.
That last idea — that being wrong about bike lanes means never having to say you’re sorry — is very evident in the statement Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes and Seniors released yesterday. Ben Fried at Streetsblog artfully describes it not as an apology, but as “a longwinded attempt to save face and maintain the fiction that they sued to erase a perfectly safe and functional bike lane out of a sense of civic duty, not selfishness.” It was written, as Ben implied, with what must have been the knowledge that most journalists would offer little more than “he said/she said” coverage of the lawsuit’s end. If that was the calculation, they were right. Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes and Seniors for Safety may never have known much about bike lanes or safety, but they always seemed to know a lot about the press.
I began to find my voice as an advocate responding to a lot of the nonsense that NBBL managed to get into print. In the spirit of those early days, I wanted to single out two parts of NBBL’s full statement [PDF].
Here’s the first one:
Back in June 2010, the City installed a bike lane on Prospect Park West on a trial basis, for the dual purpose of facilitating “traffic calming” goals and providing a public recreational amenity.
But wait! In 2010, NBBL acknowledged that one of the bike lane’s original purposes was to facilitate bicycle commuting. Here’s what Norman Steisel, Louise Hainline, and Iris Weinshall wrote in a letter to the editor of the New York Times:
Furthermore, the D.O.T. data’s lack of credibility is reinforced by our own videotapes. These show that the Prospect Park West bike lanes are used by half the number of riders the D.O.T. says, and that cyclists are not riding to commute as originally contemplated but are recreational users who could be better served by enhancing the existing lane 100 yards away in Prospect Park.
So, in 2010 NBBL acknowledged that one of the goals of the redesign was to accommodate cyclists who were “riding to commute,” even if they felt that it wasn’t living up to that promise. Yet yesterday they said that one of the two original purposes was to provide “a public recreational amenity.” If this swtich was intention, it sure is a subtle way of positioning people who use bicycles as less than people who drive. It reminded me of Louise Hainline’s dig at people who bike from this March 2011 New York Magazine feature:
“Bikers really think they’re doing work for the environment if, instead of taking the car a block, they take the bike to the food co-op. That’s touching. But it’s silly.”
See? I told you the winter of 2011 was really bad.
Here’s the second part that caught my attention. Again, emphasis is mine.
From the outset we have believed that bikes must be effectively introduced as a critical feature of the City’s evolving public transportation infrastructure. In fact, some of our groups’ members are civic leaders who participated in the formulation of the City’s transportation policy and plans well before this bike lane’s installation. However, we believe the evidentiary record and recent court decision in our favor confirm our view that the previous administration was purposely misleading with regard to the temporary nature of the original project.
Shorter NBBL: “We like bike lanes, but…”
On Friday morning, while appearing on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC, Mayor Bill de Blasio heard from “Chris from Soho” on the subject of biking in New York City. “You can’t go five minutes in a bike lane without running into somebody illegally parked,” Chris said, expressing a frustration that’s shared by people who bike across the five boroughs. There was a brief exchange about enforcement — of both the police and citizen kind — before the mayor offered a sort of taxonomy of bike lane blocking.
“There are people stop in a bike lane to, you know, let someone off at an appointment or something like that, or just drop off kids at home or something quickly,” de Blasio said. “That’s a different matter than someone who double-parks and leaves their car there.”
Now, I understand what the mayor was trying to express. To a lot of drivers, stopping in a bike lane for just a minute or two to let someone out feels a heck of a lot less harmful — and therefore less deserving of a ticket — than leaving a car in a bike lane for an extended period of time. But there are lots of things wrong with the mayor’s response. Here are four:
1. To a person riding a bike, it makes no difference how long a driver intends to stay in a bike lane, nor does it matter why the driver is stopped in it. Such details are as relevant to the cyclist’s safety as what the driver had for breakfast. The danger is the same no matter the duration or reason for the obstruction. While merging with fast-moving motor vehicle traffic to get around a car parked in a bike lane, no person on a bike thinks, “I wonder how long the driver will be there or what he’s doing.”
2. Stopping or parking in a bike lane is illegal.Chris from Soho said this clearly. “You can’t go five minutes in a bike lane without running into somebody illegally parked.” The mayor missed an opportunity to explain the law to drivers and, in an advocate’s dream world, express the need for New York City to fix its dysfunctional curb-management policies in ways that might improve things for cyclists and drivers alike.
3. His response positioned people who bike as worth less than people who drive. Did the mayor ever consider what people on bikes are doing when they find their legal right of way suddenly blocked? Did it not occur to him that they too might be going to an appointment or dropping their children off at home? Without explicitly saying so, here’s what the mayor said: “Drivers do Important Things. Cyclists ride bikes.” This is the root sentiment behind countless horrible interactions people on bikes have with motorists every day.
4. It’s the polar opposite of Vision Zero. The fundamental philosophy behind Vision Zero is simple: “Human life and health are paramount and take priority over mobility and other objectives of the road traffic system.” In other words, your need to stop your car for a minute does not take priority over my need to not be killed. Only someone who drives or is driven everywhere could believe that stopping in a bike lane is a harmless activity so long as it’s quick and for an important reason.
I give the mayor a lot of credit for standing up to obstructionist community boards on specific projects such as Queens Boulevard or, when pressed by New York’s motoring-obsessed media, putting the onus for traffic safety on drivers. But with a disturbing increase in the number of people on bikes killed in 2016 so far, we need the mayor to educate himself about the day-to-day reality for the many New Yorkers who do not rely on cars. Three years in, Mayor de Blasio is still struggling to understand the vision behind Vision Zero.
I’m honored and humbled to join Team TransAlt in the 2016 New York City Marathon this November. Casual readers of this blog know how important safe streets are to my experience as a dad, husband, and New Yorker. Longtime readers may also know that Marathon Sunday is my favorite day in the city each year, largely because of how it connects people in all five boroughs to their neighborhood streets like no other day. I’ve spent years cheering on runners from behind the blue tape as they stride down Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, and have even used the early-morning street closures to have a little fun with my daughter and call attention to the need for more space for kids of all ages to roam — and ride — freely.
This fall, I’ll be on the other side of that blue tape, running in my first marathon (!) and I’m asking for your help.
In order to run I need to raise money, all of which will support the kind of advocacy work that makes this city better every day. Your tax-deductible donations will help an organization near and dear to my heart, Transportation Alternatives, which is filled with dedicated employees, passionate volunteers, and all-around amazing people, all working to make this city we love safe for people on two feet or two wheels. If you’ve ever walked around and suddenly stumbled across a new pedestrian plaza, TA probably had something to do with it. If you’ve ever biked to work and suddenly discovered your route now has a protected bike lane, there’s a good chance TA was involved. Even if you drive now and then — It’s okay! Don’t be ashamed! — that new 25 mph speed limit that’s keeping you and everyone else around you safe happened because of a lot of great people associated with Transportation Alternatives.
You can donate by following this link.
To sweeten the pot, anyone who donates $50 or more will be invited to join me on a group ride through Brooklyn. We’ll take some of the best bike infrastructure in the city to tour some of my favorite spots and perhaps stop for some snacks and beverages. I’m hoping to turn this into quite the social affair, so the more people who donate, the bigger and better we can make this ride. More details to follow, but the unofficial Brooklyn Spoke Tour de Brooklyn will happen in November after my legs have had a chance to recover.
Thanks in advance for your generosity and support! I will carry the message of safe streets with me from Staten Island all the way to the finish line.