Some quick thoughts on the so-called “Pedestrian Menace,” as described by the TWU’s Pete Donohue…
Mr. Donohue’s post represents at best, a gross misunderstanding of Vision Zero, and, at worst, a deliberate misrepresentation of the greatest threats facing New Yorkers who dare put their feet to the pavement on a regular basis.
However, to be extremely charitable to the TWU, the de Blasio administration has done a mediocre job of explaining what Vision Zero is all about, leaving a vacuum into which views like Donohue’s are sucked. We’ve gotten a lot of “your choices” messaging and platitudes about everyone doing their part. Even Polly Trottenberg told pedestrians “we all have a role to play” in making our streets safer, a comment she had to walk back. None of these things are what Vision Zero is about. But when the message is that everyone is in it together, those who are inclined to discount the awesome responsibility that comes with operating a multi-ton vehicle might think it’s awfully unfair that pedestrians who cross against a signal or who walk into the street with their eyes buried in a smartphone — even with the legal right of way — aren’t doing their part. “Come on, buddy! Take out the earbuds and pay attention! Be part of the solution, not the problem!”
Then there’s the fact that New York’s version of Vision Zero has so far had a lot of emphasis on punitive outcomes after reckless driving occurs. That’s not to discount these efforts at all. Increased enforcement saves lives, victims deserve justice, and some measures — such as increasing the number of red-light and speed cameras — have both punitive and preventative qualities with a balance that shifts over time from the former to the latter. These polices must continue and be expanded, but year three and four of Vision Zero ought to swing the pendulum back to traffic calming measures using design, as was the focus before most people in New York even knew what Vision Zero was. While holding reckless drivers accountable is important, I’d rather not be hit in the first place than have the driver who kills me go to jail.
I think Bill de Blasio has done a lot right when it comes to traffic safety and the numbers clearly back him up. However, the failure to properly frame Vision Zero for what it really is — a top-down, systems-based approach to solving traffic deaths and injuries — has allowed ideas like Donohue’s to take root. To be fair to the mayor, they’d take root even in a world where City Hall explained Vision Zero better, but at least they’d have less fertile ground in which to grow.
One of the simplest tools in the pedestrian safety toolkit can also benefit people on bikes. In a lot of cases, it already is. That tool is the Leading Pedestrian Interval, or LPI.
Here’s how the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) defines it in its Urban Street Design Guide:
A Leading Pedestrian Interval (LPI) typically gives pedestrians a 3–7 second head start when entering an intersection with a corresponding green signal in the same direction of travel.
Put another way, pedestrians get the walk signal before motorists get the green. This allows people on foot to get out ahead of car traffic, which makes them more visible to drivers, and, according to NACTO, “reinforce[s] their right-of-way over turning vehicles, especially in locations with a history of conflict.” In New York, where 44 percent of pedestrians hit by drivers are in the crosswalk with the legal right of way, even a 3-second head-start is no minor thing. “LPIs have been shown to reduce pedestrian-vehicle collisions as much as 60% at treated intersections,” says NACTO.
While leading bicycle intervals do exist, some cities skip bike-specific signals and simply allow cyclists to proceed on LPIs. Washington, DC, for example, has allowed this behavior ever since the Bicycle Safety Amendment Act of 2013:
(a) A bicyclist may cross at an intersection while following the pedestrian traffic control signal for the bicyclist’s direction of travel unless otherwise directed by traffic signs or traffic control devices.
(b) A bicyclist may cross an intersection where a leading pedestrian interval is used.
While New York does have a few places where cyclists are directed to use the pedestrian signal – the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge at Tillary Street, for example – I’m not aware of any intersections where cyclists can legally treat an LPI as green. (If you can think of one, please let me know in the comments.)
Nevertheless, this practice happens all over the city, and based on my completely unscientific, anecdotal, amateur observations, it’s making people safer.
Here’s the simplest example of cyclists advancing on an LPI, which I encounter nearly every day during my ride to work. It’s at the intersection of Prince St and 6th Avenue in Manhattan. (Prince becomes Charlton west of 6th Avenue.)
Fairly straightforward, right? Cyclists start going as soon as the walk signal turns on, allowing them to get partway down the street before car traffic gets the green. (Here’s another video of the same intersection, this time with a bigger swarm of cyclists proceeding on the LPI.)
For an even better example of how proceeding on an LPI can protect cyclists, here’s the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Hoyt Street in Brooklyn:
In this video, the walk signal turns on, indicating that pedestrians can cross Atlantic Avenue. Cyclists start going at the same time, using the LPI to get a head start on drivers. But here’s where this practice really proves its worth: when the light turns green for cars the driver of a minivan turns behind the final two cyclists. That’s highly preferable to what can happen at intersections where cyclists and motorists advance at the same time. In such situations, the first driver out of the gate might gun it and try to turn in front of a line of cyclists. Far too frequently this results in a person on a bike getting crushed under an impatient motorist’s car or truck.
It’s also worth pointing out that in the video above, the turning minivan driver fails to signal. This demonstrates another great thing that happens when cyclists get a head start: it reduces the need for them to guess a motorist’s intent.
It’s time for the law to catch up with what’s already happening on the streets. New York City should make it legal for cyclists to advance through intersections with leading pedestrian intervals. Given the purported goals of Vision Zero, it’s an idea that would yield immediate results with little in the way of effort or expense. A general rule that applies to all LPIs would require some sort of City Council legislation, but if a handful of forward-thinking elected officials got behind it, such a law could be enacted nearly overnight. Unlike other costly and time-consuming traffic calming measures such as protected bike lanes, all it would take to roll this out would be the installation of signs like this:
Now, before anyone clutches their pearls and declares that civilization itself will disintegrate unless Everyone Follows The Law, it may be helpful to get some things straight:
- Bikes aren’t cars. A 30-pound bicycle is no match for a multi-ton car or truck. People on bikes are hugely exposed at intersections, and under Vision Zero the city should be doing as much as possible to reduce the danger that comes from mixing flesh-and-bone cyclists with steel and glass vehicles.
- The city frequently allows people on bicycles to legally do things people in automobiles can not. Two-way bike lanes on streets that are one-way for cars and places where cyclists are legally allowed to use the sidewalk prove that it’s possible to create rules that acknowledge that bikes aren’t cars.
- This would largely apply at large arterials, which is where most LPIs in the city can be found anyway. For quieter side streets or any place where drivers and pedestrians currently get their respective signals at the same time, existing rules would still apply. (Even though bikes aren’t cars, New York will likely lag behind other cities in rationalizing traffic laws for cyclists for quite some time.)
Perhaps the biggest potential objection to allowing cyclists to legally advance on LPIs would come from people who think that it would create chaos and uncertainty, especially for pedestrians. Such an objection would be misplaced. In most cases, cyclists who proceed through an intersection on an LPI would be traveling in the same direction as people crossing the street on foot. Turning cyclists would still have to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk, which is no different than what’s expected at an intersection without an LPI. Any confusion that might exist in the initial days or months after the passage of such a law would diminish over time. As it stands now, some cyclists start pedaling on LPIs while others do not, simply because it’s illegal. Codifying this practice under the law would eliminate this uncertainty and quickly turn it into a common, accepted practice.
There’s one additional benefit to legalizing this behavior: it would take away a cudgel occasionally used by the NYPD to ticket cyclists. While proceeding on an LPI is technically illegal for people on bikes right now, those who choose to do it are keeping themselves out of harm’s way, as demonstrated in the videos above. There’s simply no data-driven reason for punishing anyone who engages in this behavior.
If people who bike are meant to be equal beneficiaries of the city’s Vision Zero efforts, a law allowing cyclists to proceed on leading pedestrian intervals is one of the easiest steps toward that goal. Let’s do it, New York.
My headline isn’t going to get as many clicks as the one at the top of this Thrillist article, so click through and read reporter Dave Infante’s take on the challenges of building better bike lanes in New York. Here’s one of my favorite passages:
Reengineering the city’s 6,000 miles of roadways to be more equitable is the DOT’s job, and it’s a big one. “City streets are all a balancing act,” Wright, the DOT greenway director, patiently told me in a phone interview. “You’re trying to make everything work on this small curb-to-curb place.” As noted earlier, the imbalance exists because the system was designed for motor vehicles, but it persists because it’s beneficial to the very people who hold the power to change it: car owners.
I’m quoted in the piece along with a few other names you might recognize.
I haven’t updated “Some of My Best Friends are Bike Lanes” — a post about how people who oppose bicycle lanes first have to say they love bicycles — in quite some time. However, the following quote by attorney Steven Sladkus is worthy of inclusion.
“I can’t stand these bicycles,” Mr. Sladkus said. “While I applaud this mode of public transportation, I still can’t believe that helmets aren’t required and I still cannot believe the rationale the city uses in placement of some of these racks.”
It’s actually an inversion of the standard, “I like bicycles, but…” construction. In this case, Sladkus flat-out admits that he “can’t stand these bicycles” before applauding bike share. That’s a new one.
In his book, Fighting Traffic, Peter Norton describes the reaction that many had to cars in American cities in the early part of the 20th century:
With the sudden arrival of the automobile came a new kind of mass death. Most of the dead were city people. Most of the car’s urban victims were pedestrians, and most of the pedestrian victims were children and youths. Early observers rarely blamed the pedestrians who strolled into the roadway wherever they chose, or the parents who let their children play in the street. Instead, most of the city people blamed the automobile. City newspaper headlines, editorials, letters, and cartoons depicted the automobile as a juggernaut.
Norton’s book spans many decades, though a large number of the editorials and cartoons he cites are from the 1920s, when the Model T, for example, would have already been in mass production for at least twelve years, their impact deeply felt in cities such as New York or
While doing a little research, I stumbled upon this piece from the July-December 1906 issue of Life Magazine. Titled, “Get After the Chauffers,” it was written about two years before Ford’s Tin Lizzie rolled off the assembly line at a time when motoring would have largely been a pursuit of the most affluent Americans. (While today the word chauffeur means any person employed to drive a motor vehicle, typically with a passenger, I’m assuming the 1906 definition was more of a catch-all for motorists in general. Readers with a deeper knowledge of etymology are free to help me out in the comments.)
The essay pulls no punches in describing what ought to happen to New York’s newest class of street user:
The article, appearing in about as mainstream an American publication as there is, expresses many of the frustrations that are today often limited to advocacy circles. It compares “homicide by automobile” to “homicide by a gun,” describes a horrific crash after a motorist “came racing down a drive in Central Park,” and bemoans the lack of legal consequences for drivers who kill:
We read every day of innocent people being killed or hurt by automobiles, but we never read that any adequate degree of inconvenience has been incurred by the chauffeur who did the killing. Nothing of any consequence seems to happen to the homicidal chauffeurs, unless they happen to be the victims of the accidents they cause.
Consider this musing over the idea of what constitutes an accident:
There will be some legitimate automobile accidents, just as there are runaway-horse accidents, but they should be few. Horses are irresponsible, and cannot be punished for running away. Chauffeurs, as a rule, are very imperfectly responsible, but they can be punished for running away and held accountable for the harm they do.
Compare the above to stories of drivers who “lost control” of their cars before killing innocent victims. In some cases, news sites such as DNAInfo.com even describe the car itself as the thing that was “out-of-control,” never mentioning a driver, as if the car was some sort of sentient animal that got spooked. Like, say, a horse.
While the New York City bikelash has been dead for quite some time, there are outbreaks every now and then, like some sort of horror-movie zombie that refuses to stop crawling long after the hero has hacked it to bits with a machete. The most recent has been the mini — and it is very mini — hysteria over the pending Citi Bike expansion on the Upper West Side. Ben Yakas at Gothamist has a good rundown of some of the more ridiculous claims:
“Our street is a very narrow one,” Joanne Aidala argued about a dock slated to be placed at West 78th Street near Columbus Avenue. “There are mothers with strollers, and there are young children walking around.”
Tom Valenzuela, who lives near a proposed site on Central Park West between 67th and 68th Streets, hit upon the core of the complaints: “There are so many safety concerns here,” he said of that location. “I have witnessed many near-misses between bike riders and pedestrians in that area. There will be way too much combat between Citi Bike riders and pedestrians.”
These kinds of arguments were completely ridiculous in the spring of 2013 just before Citi Bike’s launch. Now, with millions of trips logged since then, they’re absolutely absurd. Think about it: in the two years since bike sharing began in New York, hundreds of people have been killed on city streets… by drivers. Thousands more were injured. Those weren’t near-misses, they were actual hits.
All of that is a long way of saying that while it may seem worthwhile to ignore some of the more fanciful or ignorant claims about bike share, highlighting them does provide a valuable lesson, should the powers that be care to learn from it. Citi Bike is Kryptonite to bikelash. It renders it completely powerless, and exposes anti-bike sentiment as nothing more than a paper tiger.
So come on, DOT. Get stuff on the ground. And stop worrying about the haters. There’s nothing you can do to stop the tabloids from squeezing a little more blood from the bikelash stone.
Last month I had the pleasure of attending Le Festival Go vélo Montréal, an annual celebration of biking put on by Vélo Québec. While the festival lasts for an entire week, I was in town just long enough to participate in its two main events: rides on Friday evening and Sunday morning involving thousands upon thousands of riders.
The one that kicks the weekend off is the Tour la Nuit, which, as the name implies, is a nighttime tour of the city. A 21-kilometer ride on car-free streets, it’s short and stress-free enough that it attracts all kinds of people, from hardcore sports cyclists to young kids and everyone in between. And I do mean everyone. Over 15,000 people take part.
It’s almost hard to call the Tour La Nuit a bike ride. “Party” is probably the more appropriate term. Costumes aren’t required, but scattered throughout the throngs of riders are people who truly dress for the occasion.
Even Bixi, Montréal’s bike sharing service, gets in on the act. Twenty-four-hour passes (normally $5 CAD) are only $1, and 72-hour passes (normally $12 CAD) are only $2, making it easy for people to take out a bike for the ride, late charges be damned.
The ride sets off at 8:15 PM, just as the sun is going down. If you’ve never seen 15,000 riders head off into a pink-hued Canadian sunset, you’re missing out.
Being a father, one of the things that struck me most about the ride was the number of kids who participated in the ride, either on their parents’ bikes or on their own. It was truly a sight to see. The pictures can’t do it justice, but there were easily more kids at this ride than at any other comparable bike event I’ve seen, such as Bike New York’s Five Boro Bike Tour or Boston’s Hub on Wheels.
I spoke with Suzanne Lareau, the president and CEO of Vélo Québec, about her organization’s efforts to attract children and families, specifically through the Tour La Nuit and its companion event, the Tour de l’Île. “Our goal is to encourage cycling,” she said, matter of factly. To that end, the Tour La Nuit is free for children 12 and under, and just $15 for kids 13 to 17. Adults are $25.50, although fees vary depending on when participants register, Vélo Québec membership, and other promotions. Compare that to the $92 Five Boro Bike Tour registration fee or the $50 fee for Hub on Wheels.
A few years ago, only children 6 and under were free. About 2,000 kids participated in the Tour La Nuit, still an impressive figure. But making it free for kids under 12 doubled the number of children from one year to the next to about 4,000. And their ranks continue to grow. Free registration for kids, and low prices for teens and adults has yielded tremendous returns for Vélo Québec. “It’s special,” Lareau told me. “When families do this, they realize they can do more, ride more.” Not surprisingly, kids return with their parents year after year.
A 21-kilometer ride takes some people an hour or less, although there are rewards to taking it slow. The real action during the Tour La Nuit comes, of course, during the darkness. The streets of Montréal become a sparkling galaxy of blinky lights, glowsticks, and reflective bike gear. Clarence at Streetfilms captured some of the magic of the 2014 Tour La Nuit in this film, but there’s truly nothing like being there. Think about being this kid, riding through the city at 9 or 9:30 PM — or even an hour or two later! — on streets that are normally off limits to anyone without a driver’s license.
Many thanks to Vélo Québec for bringing me to Montréal for this year’s Festival Go vélo, and to Clarence Eckerson, Jr. of Streetfilms for connecting me with the organization. Feel free to check out my Flickr album from my weekend biking around the city.