It’s Hard to See Vision Zero When You’re Looking Through a Windshield.
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.