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Where Do All the Cyclists Live?

March 29, 2018

In previous posts, I’ve documented the language used by people who oppose bike lanes and safe streets projects. From “I like bikes, but…” to “This isn’t Amsterdam,” there are a host of things people say repeatedly in service of preserving parking and the car-dominant status quo.

And while these statements were covered in local news outlets, they didn’t originate from reporters’ pens; they were things that came out of the mouths of bike lane opponents themselves. But one thing that I’ve been cataloguing for quite some time — and least in my mind — is in fact something that comes straight from members of the press: the question of who reporters define as members of “the community.”

Take this story from the Queens Times Ledger about a revised proposal to install protected bike lanes in Sunnyside:

The original proposal by DOT, heavily opposed by the community, eliminated up to 158 spaces in exchange for bike lanes, while the new proposal eliminates 117 and 129 parking spaces on both Skillman and 43rd Avenues combined between Roosevelt Avenue and Queens Boulevard.

The original proposal was “heavily opposed by the community,” yet guess who showed up to see the new one?

The auditorium at PS 150 40-01 43rd Ave. was packed to standing room with bicycle advocates associated with Transportation Alternatives, which fights for safer streets, and community leaders such as Patricia Dorfman, executive director of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, who claimed many small businesses feared going out of business entirely.

This was only the latest example of something that plays out in press coverage all over the country. When it comes to covering the ongoing shift from car dominance to people-powered transportation, “the community” is just shorthand for “people who oppose change.” People who support street redesigns, however, aren’t members of the “community.” They’re merely “bicycle advocates” or “cyclists.”

Last year, I noticed this report from Cambridge, Massachusetts:

The first public meeting on a Cambridge Street separated bike lane project drew some 150 cyclists, street residents and concerned business proprietors and others Tuesday, and the design – shifting the bike lane between parked cars and the curb – and summer timeline were received with overwhelming support.

“Street residents” tells us something useful about the people who attended the meeting, namely that they live on the affected street or at least in the immediate vicinity. Similarly, “concerned business proprietors” paints a mental picture of local mom-and-pop store owners. But who are the “cyclists” and where do they live? Your idea is as good as mine.

Here’s another example from St. Paul, Minnesota.

This headline raises a good question: do any of the neighbors have neighbors who bike?

It isn’t just reporters and editors who fall into this trap. Here’s a listing from a 2017 event hosted by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

galebrewerevent

Brewer has been generally supportive of bike lanes, a car-free Central Park, and safe streets in general. But the above shows that even those with the best of intentions can divide people into limited and unhelpful categories. Note the copy that asks, “How can we accommodate more bikers, and improve biker/community relations?” This makes it sound like bikers are an invasive species infecting the urban ecosystem. The listing might have been improved if it said, “How can we accommodate the growing number of New Yorkers who bike and improve conditions for all street users?”

Of course, nearly every bikelash trope can be found in the case that perhaps kicked off the phenomenon, or at least elevated it to its most absurd zenith: the Prospect Park West Bike lane. Here’s how a  2010 story from WNYC framed the players in this neighborhood drama:

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Some Park Slope residents believe that the bike lane has made the street more dangerous, since pedestrians now have to cross a two-way bike lane and then a one-way street when leaving Prospect Park. Some residents also say that cyclists do not obey traffic lights along Prospect Park West.

However, cyclists and other supporters said it’s not a pedestrian safety issue, since cyclists should still obey traffic lights, and pedestrians simply need to look both ways before crossing. In addition, many believe slower traffic is an improvement for a street known for speeding cars.

Now it is true that not all people who bike through a neighborhood live there, and in the case of Prospect Park West — a street that runs next to Brooklyn’s biggest and most popular park — that is most certainly the case. But that’s just the nature of city living. Most New Yorkers do not live on limited access cul-de-sacs or within gated communities. The streets that make up one neighborhood are merely threads that connect the entire urban tapestry. And that is what gives this city — any city, really — its vitality.

On a personal level, my commute to work takes me from my apartment in Park Slope and through Gowanus, Boerum Hill, and downtown Brooklyn before I reach the Manhattan Bridge. In Manhattan, I ride through Chinatown, Little Italy, Soho, and Greenwich Village. And even though I don’t reside in these neighborhoods, that doesn’t mean I’m not a member of the community of people who make up each of those places.

Sure, people who live in a particular area generally have a much more vested interest in what happens there than those who merely pass through, and local residents’ should be allowed to have a voice — but not necessarily a veto — on street-level changes. But automatically excluding or othering people simply because they ride a bike makes no sense, even if it does make for convenient “both sides” reporting. Besides, something tells me that if a group of people who lived outside a neighborhood but who regularly drove through it came to a meeting to object to a bike lane project, very few of the similarly car-dependent local residents would object to their support. And no one in the press would describe them as “avid motorists” or “car advocates.”

One reason I disdain the term “cyclist” — and the broader “cycling community” — is because it creates an artificial tribe where none really exists. Jonathan Maus of BikePortland.org shares my point of view and articulates it in this post quite nicely:

As many of you know, I have a big problem with labels like “cyclist community.” What even is that? Am I member? Are you a member? Or are we just regular people who want safer streets? Even though KPTV doesn’t use the label with any intended malice, I firmly believe labels like this are unnecessary and harmful.

Labels are lazy. They allow us to paint with a broad brush instead of taking the time to speak in more detailed strokes. Labels assume a large group of people share the same motivations and beliefs when in fact no such common cause exists. Labels also perpetuate hate and divisiveness by serving up a tidy basket for people’s anger. Labels are linguistic punching bags — a conveniently gift-wrapped “other” served on a platter for people to take swings at.

I am not a cyclist. A bike is just a tool I use for getting around. And only then some of the time. I’m frequently a straphanger. More often than not I’m a pedestrian.Occasionally I’m a driver. I guess you could call me a multi-modalist. But I think it’s easier, more accurate, and more productive to just call me a New Yorker.

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Lifehacker

December 12, 2017

LifehackerUpgrade

I recently had the chance to talk about all things bike with the good people at Lifehacker for their podcast, The Upgrade. I’m in the latter third of the episode, discussing bikelash, and why sharrows are terrible among other subjects. I also answer listener questions on everything from why all cyclists appear to be scofflaws and whether or not to go blinky light or steady beam. Eben Weiss, of Bike Snob fame, and Rosemary Bolich of We Bike NYC, are also on the podcast and I enjoyed every minute of everything they had to say.

Thanks to hosts Alice Bradley and Melissa Kirsch and producer Levi Sharpe for having me on. Please give the episode a listen and let me know what you think.

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.

 

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?”

nytimesoped

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.