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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?




  1. Jesse permalink
    May 1, 2017 4:58 pm

    “You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan.’ Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan’. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!”

    couldn’t resist.

  2. Ralph James permalink
    May 1, 2017 9:47 pm

    Victim blaming is a purposeful tactic long practiced by the NYPD; not a mistake by un-knowledgeable cops. Murder? The NYPD loves nothing more than to quickly state that the victim had a prior arrest record; or was drinking or taking drugs. Almost as if murder is acceptable in these cases. The reason being is that murders, other crimes and people getting run over by motor vehicles makes the NYPD look bad. God forbid if people were to think an army of 35,000 cops, was not doing their job. That is the last thing that NY’s so-called finest want anyone to think. So the ability to quickly blame the victim means that ‘this one doesn’t really count’ in their statistics column.

  3. Kevin Love permalink
    May 2, 2017 3:16 pm

    “How do we change the framing so that people start to prioritize safety over order?”

    Frame it as an issue of child safety. That is what the Dutch did with “Stop de kindermoord.” It works. Very few of the haters are so sick that they will openly come out against child safety.

    Of course, the dirty little secret is that what keeps safe a child riding a bike will also keep safe an adult.

  4. matthiashess permalink
    May 4, 2017 12:26 pm

    This is a very helpful way of explaining something I’ve been wondering about. Thanks for giving it a name.


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