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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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2 Comments
  1. JT10000 permalink
    October 20, 2017 9:56 am

    “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?” ”

    THIS.

  2. will permalink
    October 23, 2017 10:43 am

    Jun 12th 2017 a man was hit and killed riding a citi bike

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