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The End of Vision Zero

October 19, 2017

One of the problems with talking about e-bikes is that those who think e-bikes are the deadliest scourge in New York City often frame the debate using tactics that sound a little bit like the classic loaded question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” Advocates, who are mostly just people with a deep knowledge of a subject about which they care passionately, often find themselves on the defensive immediately, ceding ground to more reactionary forces before any conversation even gets started.

“Oh, so you don’t think that e-bikes are dangerous?”

“I never said that! I agree that they ride on the sidewalks, go the wrong way down one-way streets, and go too fast.”

Once you’ve admitted that e-bikes can be dangerous — and any honest advocate must do that — all hopes of a rational conversation from that point on go down the tubes. This is the case with so much of our political discourse — “So you don’t think Islamic terrorism is wrong?” “You want to ban guns and make it so that only criminals have guns?” — and explains why we can’t come up with solutions to some of the most pressing issues of the day. We either get caught up in trivialities — Let’s keep arguing about parking spaces, everybody! — or the discussion becomes dominated by people who have no real sense of actual threats to health and human happiness.

I don’t have much more to say about the specifics of Mayor de Blasio’s announced crackdown on e-bikes beyond what I said on Twitter earlier today, other than to emphasize that this is a massive failure of leadership. Considering that the mayor framed the effort as part of Vision Zero, I can’t see how it can be interpreted any other way. Cracking down on e-bikes is most definitely not Vision Zero by any definition of the concept. It’s as absurd as the city’s other classic brand-diluting Vision Zero effort, stamping logos on bicycle helmets.

Yes, people complain vociferously about e-bikes. And, yes, one of a mayor’s jobs is to listen to the complaints of his or her constituents and respond to their satisfaction when possible. There’s a reason Ed Koch’s famous catchphrase — “How’m I doin’?” — is remembered so fondly; it’s retail politics distilled to its most basic form, and everyone knows that failing to perform the less glamorous functions of city government — filling potholes, collecting garbage, and plowing streets after it snows — can trip up even the most capable of executives.

But here’s the thing about e-bikes. They have been involved in zero fatalities and, quite likely, a vanishingly small number of injuries. One clue in that regard is the absence of any statistics at today’s press conference despite numerous requests from reporters; I’m quite confident that if there were any meaningful figures on the subject beyond the number of 311 calls, neither the mayor nor the NYPD would have been shy about citing them.

Sometimes it’s the job of leaders to jump when citizens say “jump.” But sometimes it’s the job of leaders to focus people’s attention on real solutions to real problems, and to not even respond to the loaded question. Sometimes it helps to turn it around: “Let me ask you something. Do you honestly think e-bikes are a bigger threat to New Yorkers than cars and trucks?” Today’s press conference was not one of those times. No one will be made safer by the upcoming e-bike crackdown. In fact, New York is likely to be less safe, as the time and money the police spend confiscating e-bikes is time and money they can’t devote to stopping more urgent dangers, like off-route bus drivers and private sanitation haulers.

That’s not to say the city hasn’t made big improvements when it comes to reducing traffic fatalities and injuries, nor is it to say that it won’t going forward. (There are a lot of good DOT projects in the works for 2018 and beyond.) However, there’s a big difference between the core, fundamental principles of Vision Zero and what New York, under Bill de Blasio’s leadership, is doing right now. It’s the bare minimum of what any city should be doing this late into the 21st century. But it is certainly not what it must be, which is, as I’ve said before, a kind of Apollo program for safe streets.

Vision Zero, for all intents and purposes, is over. I have no doubt that the mayor, a father like myself, understands the pain and suffering of people who have lost loved ones to traffic violence. But while he once perhaps grasped why such a program was necessary in theory, he does not act like a person who believes it’s practical or politically worthwhile. He just can’t see beyond his windshield.

 

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A Serious Topic That’s Diminished by a Bicycle Pun for a Headline

August 11, 2017

There’s a fascinating conversation to be had about why people on bikes frequently ignore laws. Unfortunately, you won’t find it in the New York Times.

Instead, what you will find is an admittedly heartbreaking but ultimately unfocused and unhelpful op-ed piece by Lucy Madison titled “Wheels of Misfortune.” (“Vicious Cycle” has already been claimed repeatedly by the Daily News and the Post.)

In the piece, Madison describes her mother’s death after a person on a bike disobeyed a traffic control device and hit her, according to the citation he received from the police.

Before I get going, I want to be perfectly clear. I don’t want to diminish Madison’s personal tragedy. Not in the slightest. It is unquestionably awful. I’m my parents’ child and my children’s parent, and I can’t begin to imagine what the sudden loss of my own mother or mother in-law would do to my family. But does such an experience qualify someone to opine in the Times on the general issue of bicycling and pedestrian safety? Because this is more than just an essay about loss and a changed outlook. It’s positioned as a cautionary tale as New York experiences its “cycling boom.”

My issue with this piece is not so much that Madison wrote it — she’s more than entitled to do so and to seek as big an audience for it as possible — but that in this moment in the city’s evolution, when cycling has truly taken hold as a transportation option while still barely having even scratched the surface of its potential, it’s the wrong editorial for the Times to have printed. It has the unintended consequence of hurting, however slightly, the very thing we all have every reason to hope for: a safer city for everyone, and not just for people who bike.

First of all, let’s consider that this piece is premised on a clearly tragic and completely preventable death… that happened in another city. There have been terrible cyclist-on-pedestrian fatalities here in New York, but the fact that an op-ed about the reckless behavior or New York City cyclists begins with a personal story from Washington, DC says something about how we’re doing.

There are 450,000 daily bike trips in New York City, a figure that continues to grow. On July 26, Citi Bike broke a major milestone when it hit 70,286 trips in a single day. In the four years since its launch, the bike-sharing service has racked up over 44 million trips.

While bike-on-ped collisions have risen, the streets have not gotten particularly deadlier for walkers as a result of all the biking. Brad Aaron at Streetsblog reported in 2015:

From 2000 to 2013 (the most recent year for which official bike crash data are available), cyclists killed eight New York City pedestrians, according to DOT. During that time frame, drivers killed 2,291 people walking. There were two reported incidents in which people on bikes struck and killed pedestrians in 2014, when DMV data show drivers killed 127 pedestrians.

All told, cyclists fatally struck 10 people in NYC in 14 years, compared to 2,418 pedestrians killed by drivers, making cyclists accountable for .4 percent of pedestrian deaths.

Now consider these statistics, which are included in the Times op-ed:

Mayor Bill DeBlasio of New York has touted his Vision Zero initiative to reduce traffic fatalities across the city, which overwhelmingly involve cars. (More than 10,000 pedestrians were injured and 137 killed in accidents involving motor vehicles in 2015. And 4,433 cyclists were injured and 14 killed.) But clearly not enough has been done to protect pedestrians from irresponsible bikers. The number of collisions between pedestrians and cyclists rose more than 40 percent from 2012, when there were 243 crashes that injured 244 pedestrians, to 2015, when there were 349 that injured 361 pedestrians.

I’m very familiar with figures like these, but I’m never not stunned when I read them. Drivers injured nearly 15,000 New Yorkers and killed 151 people in just one year? That’s horrific! Yet, in a piece admonishing cyclists for their bad and potentially deadly behavior — that’s teased on the Times’ online Opinion page with the summary and image seen below — these statistics are treated as a mere parenthetical! If I were a Times editor who was neutral on the subject of bicycles, knew nothing about motor vehicle crashes in New York, and then read those figures buried in the middle of a piece about cyclists injuring pedestrians, I’d probably think, “Hold on a second. Can we refocus this op-ed to concentrate on what is clearly a much more urgent public health crisis?”

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Then consider this passage:

I live in Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, where cyclists seem to be everywhere. I have always loved taking long walks in my neighborhood, ambling through the park and brownstone-lined streets with my husband and young daughter. But now when I leave the house I’m struck by the number of cyclists with no regard for the traffic laws. I see them blowing through red lights and stop signs, careering down sidewalks and weaving in and out of traffic, often while wearing earbuds or even looking at their phones.

Anyone who knows me and my advocacy efforts knows that I don’t make excuses for individual acts of assholery. Bad actors on bikes should be ready to be held accountable for their bad actions, whether that means being on the receiving end of a “schoolmarmish” scolding from passersby for rude or dangerous behavior, getting a ticket for riding through crosswalks filled with pedestrians, or facing serious legal consequences for negligence or recklessness that injures or kills someone with the right of way.

I don’t doubt that Madison leaves the house with a heightened awareness of how often people on bikes break traffic laws. Given her experience, how could she not? But when one walks outside and is struck by an entire class of people frequently flouting the law or otherwise being inconsiderate, it might be fruitful to go deeper and question not the people, but the system that creates the conditions in which rules are so frequently broken. Some people who ride bikes are jerks. But there’s nothing innate to riding a bicycle that makes people jerks. Bad roads, bad drivers, bad laws, and bad enforcement do that. (I’d also argue that they don’t make people jerks, but rational humans exhibiting a strong survival instinct.)

As Eben “Bike Snob” Weiss said, “It’s not that cyclists have no regard for traffic laws, it’s that traffic laws have no regard for cyclists.” Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize puts it another way:

We can’t very well expect bicycle users to adhere to a traffic culture and traffic rules engineered to serve the automobile, now can we? It is like expecting badminton players to use the rules of squash.

With those words of wisdom in mind, here’s one of my favorite data sets on bike lane safety. It was compiled by Jonathan Soma following the installation of the Prospect Park West bike lane. This nugget has always stuck with me:

SidewalksafetyPPW.png

So long as PPW remained a three-lane speedway, no amount of scolding could convince people on bikes to stop “careening down” the sidewalk. What did do it was the installation of a protected, two-way bicycle lane next to the sideawalk. On the legal side, people on bikes are allowed to treat red lights as yields on PPW, which in many ways creates a more predictable and human-focused environment than a rigid expectation that Everyone Follow The Law.

Where laws and infrastructure are designed for people on bikes, people on bikes tend to behave. Yes, people should be more considerate to their fellow citizens and realize the power they have to do real harm to other human beings. But appeals to personal behavior have only done so much over the years. The installation of bike- and pedestrian-specific infrastructure, along with laws that recognize the vulnerability of people who aren’t in cars, have done a lot more.

I’m not saying Madison should have included these things in her piece; that’s not what she set out to write and that’s fine. I’m saying that the Times owes more to its readers than what it printed. While this op-ed is framed by a truly powerful and moving personal story, at its heart it’s just another wag of the finger at those cyclists that does nothing to consider the conditions in which people ride bikes in our fair city. It ignores the elephant in the room, reckless driving, and further divides people who walk and people who bike into us and them. As a result, it contributes to a lingering political climate where safe streets for all people can be stonewalled or halted completely all because of that one time when this bad thing happened or because someone walked out of their house and saw lots of people behaving badly.

As a veteran of the Bike Wars of 2011, I expected some sort of backlash to the Times’ July 30th report on the growth of cycling in the city.  I just didn’t expect it from the Times. Today’s op-ed was a missed opportunity to explain to 2017 readers that changing our streets to accommodate more cycling can continue to benefit the majority of New Yorkers who, like me, mostly get around on foot.

 

 

City Limits

August 1, 2017

I’ve been blogging a little less these days to focus on other projects, one of which was this collaboration with Charles Komanoff for CityLimits.org. It’s on a subject I’ve written about before, which is the NYPD’s misguided enforcement policy when it comes to cycling and Vision Zero.

Please give it a read and let me know what you think.

The Daily News

June 15, 2017

I have a piece on the Daily News Opinion page today about how the NYPD responds to crashes that injure and kill New Yorkers on bikes. Give it a read and let me know what you think.

Many thanks to opinion editor Josh Greenman for his editing skills and helpful suggestions.

 

Fair and Balanced

June 6, 2017
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In the studio with Ernie Anastos.

I have to admit, when I got a call from a producer at Fox 5 a couple of weeks ago asking me to come on the news to talk about bike lanes, I was more than a little skeptical of how the segment might play out. Years in the Bikelash trenches have taught me that if you want a calm, nuanced discussion about how bikes fit into a city’s transportation network, local news isn’t always the place to find it.

So imagine my surprise when veteran TV anchor Ernie Anastos sat down in the green room at the Fox 5 studios for a pre-interview and asked me great, open-ended questions about New York City’s evolution as a bike city… and then did the same thing when we went live on the air. As you’ll hopefully agree, Mr. Anastos allowed me the space to offer a positive view of how far our great city has come and a little taste of what I believe we still have left to do.

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Never mind the chyron. Some TV news habits die hard, I suppose.

I also hope you’ll agree that the segment that preceded the interview was also, as they say in the Fox News world, fair and balanced. Arthur Chi’en has a history of good reporting on safe streets, so I was very grateful that my interview followed his story.

Many thanks to Ernie Anastos — seriously, such a great guy — and the producers and crew at Fox 5. I’ll be on again this Friday at 6 pm to talk about bike safety. Watch the full segment and let me know what you think.

Sorry, Mr. Mayor. Symbolism Matters.

June 2, 2017

Given the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Mayor de Blasio’s daily drive to the gym has been thrust into the spotlight. Today, “Charles from Manhattan” asked him on WNYC if he’d give up the practice:

“How about you stepping up your game, leading by example, getting out of your SUV armada?” Charles asked. “And if you need to go to the Park Slope Y five days a week rather than a gym near you, why don’t you take mass transit, or even once in awhile ride a bike, like the vast majority of your fellow New Yorkers, so you will know how we suffer under this transit system.”

The caller concluded: “One of the reasons we are in this climate crisis is because the average person see elites not playing by the rules imposed by elites on everyone else. And you’re not going to lead when you’re sitting in your SUV being chauffeured every day 12 miles from Gracie Mansion to Park Slope just so you can ride an exercise bike.”

Before I make a few obvious points, here’s Randy Cohen, the former Ethicist for the New York Times on the ethics of driving in a dense, transit-rich place like Manhattan:

First: Ethics involves the effects of our actions on others. There can be solitary sin. You can sit alone at home and covet your neighbor’s ox. But if you want to be unethical, you must  get up, get dressed, go out, and steal the ox. Ethics isn’t ethics until other people are involved. When you drive in Manhattan, you harm those other people. A lot.

Next: Ethics involves actions that are volitional. If you live in Atlanta or Phoenix or Dallas and you want to buy a newspaper or visit a friend or hold a job, you must drive. Here in Manhattan, you can walk to the corner for a paper, take the train to Brooklyn to visit your pals, bike to work. In Manhattan, driving is done by choice.

Cohen concludes that given the cost driving imposes on other people — danger, pollution, dominance of public space — driving when one has other options is unethical.

So, using the standard explained above by Cohen, we can reach two conclusions.

1. It’s okay that Bill de Blasio is driven places. 

Crazy thing for a biking zealot to say, right?

Any mayor of New York City has unique security concerns and a schedule that, unlike that of most New Yorkers, doesn’t have him sitting in his office from 9 to 5 every day. There are meetings with elected officials in districts far from City Hall, town halls in neighborhoods scattered across the five boroughs, ribbons to cut, parades to march in, and public appearances to make. Our mayor is call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days per year, so if driving makes it more convenient for him to take calls or do work while traveling from one appointment to another, great.

Put plainly, no one expects the mayor of New York City to get to all of these commitments by subway, bus, or bike, no matter what his PR flacks say.

All of the above is separate from whether or not Mayor de Blasio should be driven over 11 miles to the work out at the gym. Which leads us to conclusion number two.

2. It’s not okay that Bill de Blasio is driven to the Park Slope YMCA.

Being driven to the gym every day is the mayor’s choice, not a job requirement. And given the state of our climate and congested streets, it’s unethical and indefensible.

I get that the mayor wants to stay connected to his old stomping grounds by going to his gym and getting coffee with his wife across the street. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But there’s also nothing about it that requires an eleven-mile, three-SUV drive five days a week and sometimes on weekends. It’s a practice that benefits the mayor personally but that other people pay for in their tax dollars, exposure to pollution, and time spent in traffic.

Consider this example, as reported by J. David Goodman and Emma Fitzsimmons in the Times in their story on the mayor’s gym habits:

Last Tuesday, for example, Mr. de Blasio traveled from the Upper East Side to Brooklyn, before reversing direction to head 15 miles north — straight past Gracie Mansion — to an event in the Bronx at 10:30 a.m.

The mayor went over 22 miles out of his way to go to the gym! Even on that day he couldn’t have worked out at home or – gasp! – skipped the workout? Such wastefulness can’t be excused away simply because he’s able to get work done in the car.

As far as traffic congestion goes, fixing our city’s problem will mean reducing the number of cars on the road. It will mean prioritizing buses with their own lanes and dramatically increasing the protected bike lane network, which means taking space from drivers. How can any mayor tell New Yorkers who feel that they have no choice but to drive that they should change their habits when he’s taking discretionary trips to a gym in another borough? It’s hardly worth it to get deep into Vision Zero, but let’s just say that reducing car dominance in New York must also be a part of the plan to eliminate traffic fatalities.

The mayor may dismiss cries for him to stop being driven from Gracie Mansion to the Park Slope YMCA as “cheap symbolism,” but at a time when people are being asked to make personal sacrifices to cope with climate change, reduce traffic, and achieve Vision Zero, the messages our elected officials send about driving matter deeply.

Symbolism matters very much because it’s the most outward expression of a politician’s priorities. I’d argue that a daily drive to a gym is itself a symbolic act, one that sends a message that the mayor of New York City doesn’t experience New York City as New Yorkers do.

Back in October, I wrote about the need for de Blasio to “educate himself about the day-to-day reality for the many New Yorkers who do not rely on cars.” At the time, I was writing about the danger many of us face when we bike or walk on city streets. This time, we need the mayor to feel the urgency of a different danger, climate change. He can show that he truly feels it by leading by example.

Law & Order

May 1, 2017

You may have seen a rather strange piece by Douglas Feiden from West Side Spirit making the rounds over the past few days. Called “Disrupting the Grid.” It’s a throwback to some of the more ridiculous and hysterical anti-bike rants of the Bikelash era, circa 2011.

The streetscape is imperiled. And evidence is everywhere: Order devolves into chaos. Rule of law is abrogated. Basic protocols pertain no more. Menace pervades roads and public spaces. Fear of bodily harm awaits vulnerable citizens who venture out of doors.

A post-apocalyptic vision out of a “Mad Max” movie? Take another look. It’s actually a description of the streets of Manhattan in the Age of the Bicycle.

This, of course, is absurd. It’s not worth any sort of detailed response, but it did strike me as somewhat significant in light of two recent crashes that have taken the lives of New Yorkers on bikes and the subsequent NYPD response to each tragedy:

The responses to these tragedies haven’t occurred in a vacuum. They come on the heels of a major crackdown on e-bikes used mainly by poor, immigrant delivery workers and amidst the typical kind of confusion from NYPD — deliberate or otherwise — that leads police to ticket people on bikes for riding outside a bicycle lane.

Watching police officers respond to the deaths of people on bikes by ticketing people on bikes is frustrating beyond belief, but it’s nothing new. The question many advocates have each time this happens is simple: Why? Why do the police blame victims and focus their enforcement efforts on generally harmless but entirely rational behavior? Why aren’t they out there aggressively cracking down on the deadliest actors on the street?

There are probably a lot of reasons for this, and many of them have to do with the relative ease with which it takes to pull over a person on a bike versus a person in a car. I’ve seen cops casually step out into a bike lane and calmly raise their arms to stop three or four people on bikes to stop after having just gone through a red light. The same can’t be done with drivers.

But there’s a bigger thing at play here, and that’s the prioritization of order over safety. Now, before I continue let me say that I realize I’m not saying anything revelatory; this is more or less the history and current state of policing in the United States. But it may be clarifying for street safety advocates as we think about the NYPD and its role in — and even outright hostility toward — the city’s Vision Zero efforts.

If one prioritizes order over safety, then a world in which bike lanes — and pedestrian plazas and other designs that prioritize people over automobiles — start popping up is a threat to order. Not just the Natural Order of Things where cars are at the top of the transportation food chain, but the very concept of order itself. If we change streets to accommodate people on bikes and this is how they behave now, the thinking goes, where will it all end? Nowhere good, right? (Feiden, in that silly West Side Spirit piece, writes about the city falling victim to the forces of “entropy.”)

Consider the Times Square pedestrian plazas, which, we were told by the city’s outrage-fueled tabloids, were quickly descending into a tourist-fleecing cesspool of immorality and violence thanks to hordes of “desnudas” and aggressive Elmos. When considering what to do to reign in the chaos, here’s what former NYPD commissioner William Bratton had to say:

“I’d prefer to just dig the whole damn thing up and put it back the way it was,” Bratton told 1010 WINS reporter Juliet Papa.

Bratton believes it would curtail topless women and costumed characters trolling for cash because there would be pedestrian and motor vehicle traffic flow, not a static gathering point, Papa reported.

“It would eliminate this area where people just hang out,” Bratton said. “The activity is not occurring anywhere else in the area.”

Never mind that putting Times Square “back the way it was” would have made things far less safe, since the installation of the plazas reduced injuries to pedestrians as well as drivers and car passengers. No. What mattered more to Bratton was that the former system at least appeared to be Governed By Order. There were signs. Traffic lights. There were rules. Cars went over here. People walking went over there. Everyone was moving purposely from point A to B to get to work, to catch a subway, or to make an 8 PM curtain at a Broadway show. There were no areas “where people just hang out.” [Shudders.]

We saw this play out on a much smaller scale on Prospect Park West or really in any place where the city installed a protected bike lane. I recall one public meeting where a woman stood up to lament that with the addition of a two-way bike lane on a street that had long been one way for cars, she had no idea where to look for bicycles when crossing. (“Both ways!” was the response from someone in the audience.) The former system — with drivers hitting 60 mph on a three-lane road next to a park — at least appeared orderly. Cars could only go in one direction. But bikes going both ways? Chaos! And remember all the ways Citi Bike was going to make getting around this city simply impossible for motorists and pedestrians? Disaster!

This prioritization of order over safety causes us to ignore the very real public health threat of cars. Even when drivers screw up and crash into something or someone — which to advocates merely highlights the actual danger and chaos of a car-centric system — the mess can be quickly cleaned up so that traffic can keep flowing again. Order, even after frequent and often tragic interruptions, can always be restored.

This is the apparent contradiction of people-friendly spaces: The safer streets get, the more they look like complete anarchy to people used to the status quo of car dominance. You’re letting bikes go both ways? You’re letting pedestrians cross mid-block? You’re letting people just hang out IN TIMES SQUARE? Are you nuts?!?! Someone is going to get killed! Meanwhile, actual people getting actually killed by car-centric designs and reckless motorist behavior prompts no outrage and no response from the powers that be. It’s maddening, but is it surprising?

As I said before, I don’t believe I’m hitting on anything that will be all that surprising to anyone who’s followed policing for any length of time. It’s more clarifying than anything else and is meant to prompt a discussion about what we as advocates and concerned citizens can do. Hitting the police — not to mention NIMBYs, West Side Spirit writers, and other people with hostility to bikes and bike lanes — over the head with statistics and constantly saying “But the cars!” isn’t going to accomplish very much. There’s a better approach out there. I’m not sure what it is, but it has to answer a fundamental question: How do we change the framing so that people start to prioritize safety over order?