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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?”

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.

 

 

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4 Comments
  1. August 13, 2017 1:11 pm

    Wonderful piece!! you nailed it

  2. Michael Kushner permalink
    August 13, 2017 9:42 pm

    Why don’t you submit this to the NYT’s opinion page? This is as important and relevant as Madison’s piece, if nor more so.

  3. Clark in Vancouver permalink
    August 14, 2017 11:56 am

    Yeah, reading that opinion piece it almost makes one think that there’s some vast conspiracy to force everyone to use a car for every trip.
    Your response is very good.

    BikeSnob’s quote should be on a T-shirt.

  4. August 14, 2017 3:46 pm

    Very good piece.

    As a personal anecdote: I saw this article shared on Facebook on a cyclist’s wall, and after leaving a comment supportive of these notions, I received a flambeeing from complete strangers (hostile sentiments, curse words, the whole nine yards) over the collective responsibility & universal scofflaw premises.

    Ok, nothing new. But…

    I tried to productively lead the conversation to a more common-ground place, and found myself in an awkward situation: one of the commenters lives on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. So when she was saying “99% of cyclists I see go through red lights like they don’t even exist”… well, I would be a liar to argue against her, knowing what I know about RSD!

    There is a calm, rational explanation as to how RSD ended up a lawless paradise & what could be done to redesign that byway for a more complete sense of safety and mobility. (Yes I even brought up Mr. Drives To Vermont On Weekends) In the end the conversation ended up in a civil place, and I think the RSD resident understood the concept that there really wasn’t anyone arguing for cyclists having a free whack at pedestrians in their way, but there was a very good case to be made for radically rethinking how the design of that street responds to different uses at different hours.

    I also had to balance that with noting that scofflaws (in a technical sense) appear with a significantly lower frequency in central areas of the city, but any bad behavior in pedestrian-dense areas comes with grave risks. But that’s another story…

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