Opponents of a potential two-way bicycle lane on Clinton Avenue here in Brooklyn are circulating a petition in which the list a number of concerns with the Department of Transportation’s plan. While I certainly respect that the scope of the change may feel big – DOT will convert Clinton from two-ways for cars to one-way while adding a two-way bicycle lane – a lot of their concerns have easy answers, if the opponents are willing to compromise and think differently about how streets work, the future of our city, and the nature of history.
Here are their concerns:
– The street can be completely blocked by one vehicle causing traffic delays and lack of access for emergency vehicles
– Poor access for residents to load and unload; also dangerous, as passing cars will have no room
– Poor access for delivery services- UPS, Fedex, USPS which deliver several times a day
The elephant in the room here — and with nearly every potential street transformation — is the free storage of private automobiles. Throw in a handful of loading zones on Clinton Avenue and the first three concerns on the opponents’ list simply evaporate. This involves losing a handful of parking spaces, and opponents should be asked if they believe such a trade-off is worth it.
– Loss of parking spaces in an area that continues to see tremendous population growth. Loss of parking spaces leads to greater traffic congestion as vehicles continue to circle the neighborhood in search of parking spaces.
This is a losing battle. Those residents are coming whether or not Clinton Ave gets its bike lane. Better to offer them streets that make getting around without a car possible. As journalist Ezra Klein explained at the Washington Post during the height of the 2011 bikelash here in New York, for driving to remain as pleasant as some bike lane opponents want it to be — or to at least remain as awful as it already is without getting worse — “it will only be because most New Yorkers decide against purchasing cars. And they’re only going to do that if the other options seem attractive.”
– Studies show one-way streets lead to speeding, increasing danger to pedestrians, bikes and cars alike.
I have some sympathy for this concern, as it’s not entirely wrong. However, this can be addressed, at least a little, with speed bumps. Chicanes and other design features — some of which would mean losing one or two parking spaces — would help pedestrians and drivers even more. As for people on bikes, the risk of getting hit by a car will more or less be eliminated since a parking-protected bike lane means they won’t be riding next to moving vehicles.
– The destruction of the beautifully designated and historic nature of Clinton Avenue by placing traffic islands in the middle of our beautiful street – and thus taking even more space from the road.
Longtime readers of this blog will know that questions about a neighborhood’s “historic nature” are, in my opinion, highly subjective. They can’t be answered without answering a different question first: Which historic nature?
Or how about this one?
This looks pretty historic to me:
Then there’s this history:
This history began sometime in the middle of the last century. If this is what bike lane opponents are trying to preserve, that’s certainly their right. But they should know that this “beautifully designated” area is currently filled with late-model automobiles which some might argue are even more anachronistic than bicycles.
What is Vision Zero?
Vision Zero is a set of defined principles that guide the effort to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries. One of those principles is, of course, the moral imperative of ending this kind of suffering. Another is that crashes are preventable. Still another is that humans, being human, tend to make mistakes. But perhaps the biggest guiding principle is that the responsibility for reducing the severity and frequency of traffic crashes falls not on individual road users but on the people who design those roads and write the rules that govern them. While there may be ways in which one city’s approach to Vision Zero differs from another’s, this specific principle should always remain the same.
In one sense, Vision Zero is like a religion. Any organized spiritual movement is guided by a core set of tenets that define the behavior and beliefs of everyone from clergy members to the most causal layperson. Not that everyone has to adhere to every rule, of course. There are plenty of people who may identify as Jewish but who don’t keep kosher, for example. (I’m one of them!) But it’s quite easy to identify practices which might automatically disqualify a person from claiming membership in a particular faith. It would be hard for a person who goes to church and receives Communion to call himself a rabbi, no matter how many Woody Allen movies he’s seen.
Keep all that in mind as you read on.
This morning, the New York City Department of Transportation held an event on the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library at which they debuted a Vision-Zero-branded bicycle helmet. You read that right: a Vision Zero helmet. Now consider the basic principles of Vision Zero and match them up against the capabilities of bicycle helmets and you can immediately see how absurd this is. Can helmets eliminate serious fatalities and injuries? Possibly, though the research is all over the map. Can helmets prevent crashes? Of course not, no more than a bullet-proof vest can prevent gunfire. Do helmets place the responsibility for reducing the severity and frequency of crashes on traffic engineers and policy makers? No way.
Before you race to the comments to explain how a helmet once saved your life, please understand that this post is not about whether you or I as individuals should wear helmets. It is about a simple fact:
Helmet promotion and Vision Zero are fundamentally incompatible.
Linking helmets to a Vision Zero effort, to use another religion analogy, is like arguing about the health benefits of the glazed ham, dinner rolls, and butter you’re about to eat at your Passover seder. In both cases, something big is being fundamentally ignored.
To be fair, DOT’s free helmet program isn’t bad all by itself. I picked up two helmets for my kids at a giveaway during Summer Streets a couple of years ago, and there are plenty of communities around the city where the events are also combined with bike skills classes, appearances by elected officials, and other things that help promote bicycling in NYC.
But Vision Zero helmets? Come on.
In early 2014, Matt Flegenheimer of the New York Times wrote a pair of articles in which he looked to Sweden, the country which originated the idea of Vision Zero, to help define it for Americans, who were typically used to hearing about the three E’s — education, enforcement, and engineering – in, as Flegenheimer put it, “roughly equal emphasis.”
…Swedish authorities have generally dismissed the effects of education or enforcement on pedestrian safety. They were critical of the blitz of jaywalking tickets during Mr. de Blasio’s early months in office and efforts by the New York Police Department to distribute cards with safety tips in areas with a recent history of fatal crashes.
Ylva Berg, the national coordinator of road safety for the Swedish Transport Administration, chafed at these kinds of campaigns. “It’s actually quite horrible,” she said. “Those being victimized in those crashes are those being told to do better.”
Promoting helmet use at the same time as an active Vision Zero campaign is, to use Berg’s words, “actually quite horrible.” It puts the onus on victims to protect themselves, instead of on traffic engineers to fix the system that’s killing people in the first place.
This month’s Momentum Magazine (big download, beware!) has a feature by Shaun Lopez-Murphy titled, “Are Bicycle Helmets Holding Us Back?” Here’s what Lopez-Murphy has to say:
When it comes to bicycle safety however, progress slows when the center of attention becomes the bicycle helmet. Much like whether or not a motorist in an accident was wearing a seatbelt, one of the first questions we ask when a bicyclist is involved in a crash is, “Were they wearing a helmet?” The media and police reflect the public’s pro-helmet sentiment by implying that its role in any major crash is highly significant.
Emphasis mine. This knee-jerk instinct by reporters and cops to ask whether or not a cyclist was wearing a helmet when he or she was killed is a cultural problem that the New York City Department of Transportation and City Hall ought to be trying to correct in every way possible. That can’t happen if DOT is stamping Vision Zero logos on helmets and sending pictures like the one below to the same media outlets that will report on the next cycling fatality.
Today’s helmet promotion was all the more horrible when one considers that the past few weeks have been particularly bloody for people who get around by bicycle. Lauren Davis was killed by a turning driver on Classon Street in Brooklyn on April 15th. James Gregg was hit by an off-route semi truck driver on 6th Avenue in Brooklyn on April 20th. Heather Lough was hit by an allegedly distracted truck driver in the Bronx on April 27th and then died from her injuries on May 2nd. (There are conflicting reports as to whether she was walking or riding her bike when the driver hit her, but she did have the legal right of way.)
A witness who saw Davis before she was killed said the young woman had been wearing a helmet. In Lough’s case, her memorial page says, “She was wearing her helmet, followed the signs, and did everything right.” While the Daily News reported that “No bicycle helmet was found” at the scene of Gregg’s death, it’s highly unlikely it would have made a difference against a massive truck on a narrow residential street. Safe streets, not plastic hats, would have saved these people. Vision Zero tells us exactly that.
Want proof of how pernicious helmet promotion is, especially in the context of Vision Zero? Look no further than the Daily News’ coverage of today’s DOT Vision Zero helmet giveaway:
A few blocks away from the helmet giveaway, 33-year-old James Gregg died after he fell under the wheels of a truck driving alongside him at Sixth Ave. near Sterling Pl on April 20.
“We want to make sure as people cycle around the city that they do it safely,” Trottenberg said. “We know that there have recently been some tragedies and we certainly mourn those — and it certainly makes us want to redouble our efforts.”
In this coverage, there’s no mention that the truck driver who killed James Gregg shouldn’t have been on 6th Avenue in the first place. There isn’t even a mention of the fact that the truck was an 18-wheeler. Gregg simply “fell under the wheels of a truck driving alongside him” as if it was all going so pleasantly until that fall. All that readers can infer is that James Gregg probably wasn’t wearing a helmet. Why else would DOT be doing the helmet giveaway so close to where he was killed? And thus the hope of preventing the next tragedy — to be more specific: placing the onus on traffic engineers to prevent it — remains as elusive as ever.
Helmet promotions water down the core principles of Vision Zero to the point where they become worse than meaningless. They feed into a victim-blaming mentality that is anathema to what the entire philosophy is about. If culture eats policy for breakfast, what does it say that the very agency that has the most responsibility for ending traffic deaths in New York City served up a heaping pile of styrofoam this morning?
Car-Free Day came and went on Friday, April 21st with lots of press attention, self-congratulatory selfies, and other well-meaning gestures meant to push New York to think about its future. If our city’s streets are telling us anything, it’s that they can do more for the people of New York. Car-Free Day can, too.
While I applaud City Council transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez for his efforts this year, here are three ways I think Car-Free Day can be even better in 2017 and beyond:
1. Don’t have it on Earth Day.
Linking car use to environmentalism is fraught with complications. Perhaps the biggest is that it can automatically put off people for whom a driving isn’t really a choice. A person may opt for a car because it saves time over a fifteen minute walk to a bus that might be late or a subway trip that involves two or more transfers. Ben Kabak at Second Avenue Sagas smartly observed that people’s reasons for taking the subway are “inherently personal” and all “perfectly valid.” It might shock some readers to read this, but I think the same applies to driving.
While some politicians used Car-Free Day to highlight transit deserts in their districts, that idea might not find a receptive audience if it’s packaged in the same wrapping paper as environmentalism. The minute someone thinks that they’re being lectured to about saving the environment is the minute they’ll get defensive. If that happens, it won’t matter if the goal of Car-Free Day is to spark discussions about society’s over-reliance on cars and its lack of investment in alternatives. The message is muddled and the people who need to hear it will tune it out.
Then there’s the idea that the environmental case against cars may be running out of steam, if it ever had much to begin with. Many Americans believe that promise of electric cars, solar power, and innovations like the Tesla Powerwall could wean the country off its addiction to fossil fuels. Combine that with green materials made from soybeans or corn and the day when our roads are lined with clean-running, low- or no-impact cars might seem like it’s just around the corner. There are lots of reasons to be skeptical about such a day, but they all involve highly nuanced discussions that are unfortunately anathema to the body politic, or at least regular readers of New York City tabloids.
Besides, focusing on the carbon footprint of cars isn’t the be all and end all of why they shouldn’t be in cities to begin with.
Here’s a better way to frame Car-Free Day, no connection to Earth Day required:
New York is a city that’s always on the move. Fewer cars will help New Yorkers move better.
That’s a message that will resonate with everyone, even drivers. By decoupling Car-Free Day from Earth Day, it allows people to bring their own interpretation to benefits of going car-free — or at least having other people do it — rather than have such meanings forced upon them.
2. Have it on more than one day.
Summer Streets happens on three consecutive Saturdays. Inside baseball folks like me and anyone reading this blog already know that, but not everyone does. Despite a big marketing and social media push by DOT that begins months before the annual event – I’ve already seen some Summer Streets 2016 ads on city bus shelters in Manhattan – some people simply don’t find out about it until the first one is well underway or even over. Thankfully, anyone who is late to the party will immediately find out that she still has two more chances to attend.
Car-Free Day should follow this model. Ydanis Rodriguez and his team did an admirable job getting the word out in advance of April 22nd, but there’s no better advertisement for the event than the event itself. “If you like what you see, wait until next week” is going to build more momentum for the continued success of Car-Free day than “Wait until next year.”
Plus, if the temptation to link Car-Free Day to Earth Day remains, having the event on multiple days will at least allow for other messages — the economy, safety, efficiency, equity, etc. — to break through.
3. Make going car-free easy.
Much of Car-Free Day involved politicians and the city’s elite commuting around town via subways, buses, ferries, or bicycle. The photo ops seemed to say, “ABC: Anything But a Car.” As Ben Fried writes at Streetsblog:
Most of us do that already, sure, but more than a million of us do not. Maybe some habitual car commuters switched things up on Car-Free Day and found that the train, bus, or bike works better than they thought.
Ben goes on to note that one of the problems with this year’s Car-Free Day was that it “was not tied to any concrete public policy proposals that would get the city closer to Rodriguez’s goal of reducing private car ownership.” He’s right. But there’s another problem. Car-Free Day wasn’t tied to any concrete.
True, some spots were closed to cars and open to people. But the streets around Washington Square Park felt mostly like an extension of the park. Broadway between the Flatiron Building and Union Square isn’t exactly a major commuter route. While there’s no question that New York should follow the lead of Paris and other world cities and reclaim more space for pedestrians, what was missing from Car-Free Day were the kinds of spaces — routes, to be precise — that would have allowed people who needed to get from point A to point B to do so comfortably and efficiently without a car.
On Friday, April 21st, rush-hour traffic was just as bad as it always is, and buses were no faster than they are on other days. Anyone who thought they might try biking to work that morning might have been enticed with a free 24-hour Citi Bike pass but still would have had to ride in the same kind of door-zone bike lanes that are blocked by idling cars and trucks the other 364 days of the year. Thanks, but no thanks. Free ferry rides with a city ID were also a nice gesture, but the ferry landings didn’t get closer to people’s homes or jobs just because it was a special day.
A city can’t be what its citizens can’t see. Car-Free Day should involve actually changing streets, at least temporarily. Next year, organizers should identify key bike routes and make them off limits to cars for the day. If that’s too much for some to stomach, what if parking was banned on the bike-lane side of some streets to create temporary curbside bike lanes protected by traffic cones? (Imagine a bike lane on Bergen street wide enough for two people to ride abreast and others to pass.) What if DOT and the MTA took a page from the city’s response to Sandy in 2012 and operated temporary “bus bridges” from major transportation hubs, turning lanes on major avenues and East River crossings into BRT-like transportation corridors? There’s a lot the city could do to show what things would look like if we stopped devoting so much asphalt to moving and storing private automobiles.
On a smaller scale, restaurants and stores could install pop-up bike corrals to encourage people to bike instead of drive. Companies could provide valet bike parking to their employees by taking over a few car parking spaces. What a sight it would be to see hundreds of bikes parked in front of a Midtown office building.
I tip my hat to everyone involved with this day for thinking big. But the good news about next year’s Car-Free Day is that it’s about fifty-one weeks away. There’s plenty of time to think bigger.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but repetition is the sincerest form of bikelash.
The latest entry into this niche Mad Libs genre is by Steve Cuozzo, a master of the form. The Cuozz is so good at this, he doesn’t even need to invent new material.
Here’s Steve Cuozzo on March 6th, 2016:
In nearly every case, just about the only riders most times of day are food delivery people. While a boon to Upper East Siders who might have a shorter wait for General Tso’s chicken, it spells slower progress for the zillion cars, trucks and buses trying to inch their way uptown.
Here’s Steve Cuozzo on December 13, 2012:
I’ve clocked as few as a half-dozen cyclists in 20 minutes — nearly all of them delivering food. Many ride the wrong way, endangering any pedestrian naïve enough to expect them to obey the law: Yesterday, it took me all of one minute observing the corner of West 85th Street to catch a deliveryman illegally speeding north.
And here’s Steve Cuozzo again on April 18, 2011:
You don’t need a degree in statistics to grasp what’s obvious to any New Yorker out for a stroll: The DOT’s bike lanes are usually devoid of bikes except for food-delivery personnel. The lanes are the superhighway for General Tso’s chicken, but lonesome highways for everyone else.
I’ve written before about Cuozzo’s dehumanization of “food delivery people” who, it must be pointed out, are real people.
In Cuozzo’s world, rather than being part of what Jane Jacobs called the “sidewalk ballet,” the “New Yorker out for a stoll” and the food-delivery person exist in separate universes. Even his sentence construction suggests that there’s a difference between “food-delivery personnel” and “everyone else.” It’s as if the people who live and work here providing food to the people who live and work here aren’t people.
They do not exist separate from New Yorkers; they are New Yorkers. And they are just as deserving as safe streets and working conditions as anyone.
As with trying to understand geologic time or the age of the universe, it’s hard to get a meaningful sense of just how long Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes and Seniors for Safety have been trying to get rid of the Prospect Park West bike lane. Words alone can’t make it comprehensible to a layperson.
So here’s one way to do it, measured in the age of my kids.
This is my daughter, then seventeen months old, at the April 2011 “We Ride the Lanes” family bike ride:
Here she is at age three, riding on her balance bike:
Here she is at age four, riding a pedal bike without training wheels:
And here’s her little brother. He was born in 2013. In this photo is about the same age as his sister was at the “We Ride the Lanes” event at the top of this post:
He just turned three and wouldn’t you know, he’s starting to ride a balance bike.
New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca introduced a bill today that will hopefully make one of the easiest, low-cost bike safety ideas around a reality: letting cyclists treat leading pedestrian intervals (LPIs) as greens.
The bill, which is co-sponsored by Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Brad Lander, lets people on bikes piggyback on the safety benefits of LPIs, the 3 – 7 second head start that pedestrians get at some intersections to help reduce conflicts with drivers.
As I’ve written previously, cyclists across the city are already taking advantage of LPIs to keep themselves safe. Menchaca’s bill would merely codify a practice that, while technically illegal, really works.
“As a bicyclist myself, this small head start over traffic provides me with an added sense of security,” said Menchaca in a statement, calling his proposal more than just a matter of safety. “This bill is part of a larger conversation we are having as a city through the Vision Zero plan.”
While I’m sure the tabloid angle on this will be that Menchaca wants to let cyclists “blow through red lights” and terrorize pedestrians, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Menchaca stressed that his proposal “in no way alters the fact that pedestrians have the right of way when cyclists are in motion.” As I wrote in September:
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.
Antonio Reynoso, who introduced resolution in November calling for a change in state traffic laws to allow New York City cyclists to treat stop signs as yields and stop lights as stop signs, added that this new bill “is a step toward acknowledging that cyclists are not cars, and that we should have sensible rules that address their needs and promote their safety.”
Brad Lander, another staunch supporter of safe streets, underlined the safety benefits that LPIs accrue to both pedestrians and cyclists. “Leading pedestrian intervals are already working well, providing people with an important window of protection when they are most vulnerable crossing dangerous intersections. Extending this protection to cyclists who are vulnerable in intersections in the same way is an important step — and has the added advantage of allowing cyclists to get ahead of traffic as the proceed down the street making them much safer that way as well.”
Some of the tools in the city’s Vision Zero toolkit are costly and time-consuming, such as pouring concrete to build a protected bike lane. (And that’s after going through a potentially lengthy community board process.) Others, such as lifting the restrictions on speed cameras, require intense lobbying in Albany and a way around the Cuomo/de Blasio feud. But allowing people on bikes to take advantage of LPIs is something that can be instituted by DOT almost overnight, should the City Council give the agency the green light.
Fellow advocate Dave “Paco” Abraham put it best. “Council Member Menchaca’s bill is a much needed step forward on the road to Vision Zero. It will give people who bike a brief head start as they contend with multi-ton vehicles beside them. It will give those who drive a few extra seconds to notice their fellow New Yorkers who are more vulnerable to danger, all while preserving a pedestrian’s right of way when crossing our city streets. If the mayor and City Council want to continue reducing unnecessary risks on our streets, I urge them to approve this bill immediately.”
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.