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Clang, Clang, Clang Went the Trolley

June 3, 2015


Via Discovering NYC, here’s an 1898 DeKalb Avenue trolley with bicycles mounted on the front and back. Something to consider when people wonder why the MTA doesn’t put bike racks on buses. The demand has been there for a long time!

The Return of Kidical Mass NYC

April 23, 2015

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Kidical Mass NYC is back for 2015! Join us for our first Brooklyn ride of the year this Sunday, April 26th. The ride starts at 10 AM from 3rd Ave and DeGraw inside of Douglass Greene Park. We will ride on city streets — kids can ride on sidewalks — with bike paths to the Brooklyn waterfront. Our destination is Jane’s Carousel in DUMBO.

This is a beginner, all-ages ride, so kids on their own bikes, kids in cargo bikes, and people who just want to have a fun leisurely ride are welcome to come.

For more information and to RSVP, please check out the Kidical Mass NYC Facebook page. And if you’re in Queens or Upper Manhattan, you can join up with our other Kidical Mass NYC chapters on Saturday.

Is Your Bike Safety Idea Any Good?

April 6, 2015

Let’s say you’re an inventor or entrepreneur and have a new product that you think will “change everything” about the future of bicycle safety. Or perhaps you’re a writer for a website that relies on click bait and figure that promoting a story about “the Modern Safety Solution Cyclists Have Been Begging For,” will drive a lot of traffic. Here’s a helpful flowchart to help you decide if you’re actually on to something or if you’re just wasting everyone’s time. (Click to enlarge.)




Unhappy Birthday

March 12, 2015

Via Park Slope Neighbors, here’s an ignominious claim to fame from the people who brought you the bikelash: the Prospect Park West bike lane lawsuit was filed four years ago this month.

PARK SLOPE, BROOKLYN, March 9, 2015 – The misguided lawsuit challenging the New York City Department of Transportation’s 2010 redesign of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West marked its fourth birthday this past Saturday, March 7th, to little notice and even less effect.  There was no party, no cake or gifts, and no one bothered to send a card.

Yet while thousands of people ride in the bike path every week, and the combination of road diet and lower speed limit have largely rendered the highway-like speeds of the old PPW a distant memory, the citizens of New York City are still on the hook for the costs of defending a lawsuit that few people realize still looms.

“There are children riding their bikes on the Prospect Park West bike path today who are younger than the lawsuit aimed at pushing them out into the street to mix with cars and trucks,” said Eric McClure, co-founder of Park Slope Neighbors.  “We don’t know if this sets a record for dragging out a frivolous lawsuit, but surely it sets a record for dragging out a frivolous lawsuit against a bike path.”

Sadly, one of the two plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, Lois Carswell, passed away last October, and the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Jim Walden, has moved on from Gibson Dunn to start his own firm.

“It’s almost as if the lawsuit has taken on a life of its own,” said McClure.  “We’re not sure who the lawyer is, or which firm is representing the plaintiffs, or who the plaintiffs even are at this juncture.  No one knows when the next hearing might be.  If any of the so-called ‘Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes’ or ‘Seniors for Safety’ are still paying attention

Right on Green, Part 2

March 1, 2015

Right on Green, Part 1 can be found here. And since people liked disclaimers in the last post, here are two more.

1. I don’t know if the officer who ticketed me was lying.

Let me say that more clearly: I am not calling the cop a liar. Now, I can cite some moments where it seemed like the officer wasn’t telling the truth — telling me that the other cyclist saw me run a red light, only to have her shout “NO!” as she rode by, for example — but was he actively lying? Only he knows. What I do know is that the officer didn’t see what he said he saw. I turned right on green and couldn’t have been coming from the direction the officer said. Period.

2. This took place in the 78th Precinct, but it is not about the 78th precinct. Inspector Michael Ameri, the former Commanding Officer of the 78th, was a true leader on street safety even before Vision Zero became official city policy. Captain Frank DiGiacomo, the current Commanding Officer, has continued to make great strides in those areas as well. While there are clearly a lot of problems with the NYPD when it comes to the departments relationship with bikes and smart enforcement, this is about one officer, not one precinct

Anyway, on with part two.

On Monday, February 9, 2015, over one year since I received a ticket for a red light I could not have run, my hearing was held at the Department of Motor Vehicles’ Traffic Violations Bureau in the Atlantic Center in Brooklyn. Readers from more civilized parts of the world might wonder why, in a country that prides itself on due process and swift justice it takes a year or more to have your day in court, so to speak. It might be fun to imagine that it’s because the police flood the courts with bogus bicycle tickets for things that aren’t illegal — which I’m sure doesn’t help — but it probably comes down to something far more American: lots of people contesting all sorts of tickets and not enough resources to process them all.

I was aided at my hearing by Steve Vaccaro, an attorney who’s better known for his work achieving real justice for people with far greater problems than an imaginary bicycle offense. Ticket hearings aren’t normally his thing, and he accompanied me to the DMV as a favor from one friend and fellow advocate to another.

When the hearing began, the administrative law judge explained that in order for the ticket to be upheld, “clear” evidence of the violation had to be established. This gave me quite a bit of confidence — after all, I had more than enough evidence to, if not prove things beyond a reasonable doubt to someone who wasn’t on 5th Avenue that morning, then at least show that the cop’s claim was rather thin.

Then the judge let the officer begin. “Tell me what happened,” he said.

There was something about those instructions from the judge — “Tell me what happened.” — that struck me as odd. It wasn’t “Tell me your side of the story,” or “Tell me your version of events.”  Maybe I was reading too much into it, but if the judge’s job was to be neutral, telling the officer to explain What Happened didn’t fill me with too much confidence.

There’s no need to rehash what the officer said he saw. It’s all in the first post. The officer ran through his version of events, reading off a small piece of paper on which he had written his testimony. Then it was our turn.

Steve questioned the officer about the position of his car, what he saw, and all the rest. And then he submitted the following evidence on my behalf:

The Monday after I received my ticket, I asked my daughter’s teachers if I could take the sign-in sheet from Friday, January 31st, knowing it would come in handy at my hearing. The ticket the officer wrote me was time-stamped with 8:44 AM. I signed my daughter into her classroom at 8:30, so a sheet bearing her name, my signature, the date, and the time, was the best evidence that I was on Lincoln Place before I was ticketed.

A note about the evidence: Even though my hearing was classified as a “bike/skate ticket,” every piece of evidence I submitted was labeled as “Motorist.” “Motorist Map 1,” “Motorist Map 2,” etc. I know people like to argue that bikes ought to be subject to the same rules as cars, but come on! The bias is woven right into the nomenclature of the system! Justice is supposed to be blind, but in traffic court she wears driving goggles.

After I explained what happened, one of the judge’s questions was simple, if a tad unrelated to whether or not I had run a red light. He wanted to know if I had a seat on my bicycle for my daughter. Now, he could have just asked this question in order to paint a picture, but the more likely explanation — at least one closer to my experience of explaining my car-free lifestyle to relatives or friends who live in more car-dependent cities — is that he actually couldn’t quite imagine that people actually transport their children to school six whole blocks by bicycle. Honestly, if I had been on trial for running a red light in a car in the same location, can you imagine him asking, “Do you have a car seat for your daughter?”

Another of the judge’s questions involved whether I had taken the photograph before or after I had allegedly run the red light at Lincoln Place and was stopped by the officer. I told the judge that I took the picture before I was ticketed. As I explained before, I came around the corner, saw the woman and her bike stopped next to a car with flashing lights, stopped to take the picture, and then continued on my way before being chased down and stopped four blocks away.

The judge then asked the officer if could it have been possible that I ran the red light after I took the picture. You might want to recall that the standard for upholding the ticket, in the judge’s words, is establishing “clear” evidence that a violation had occurred. So empty your head of all other thoughts and read the next part.

The officer said that he couldn’t be sure, but that it might have been possible that I saw him pulling someone over, took the picture, and then went around the block before running the light. Essentially, in such an incredible scenario, whether I was coming from Lincoln Place or 5th Avenue the first time around would be irrelevant. It’s an amazing claim, especially when you consider that such a route would look like the map below. (Remember, the Chase Bank on 5th is where I saw the ticket sting.)


Think about that for a second. According to a theory posited by this officer of the law, it is entirely possible that on a cold January morning, I saw a ticket sting going on, snapped a picture of that ticket sting, and then went seven tenths of a mile out of my way up a hill and then down again, only to ride northbound on 5th Avenue and run a red light directly in front of an active NYPD ticket sting I already knew was happening. (Go back and read disclaimer number 2 in my first post and ask if that sounds like something I’d do. It’s not something anyone would do.)

That the implausibility of this idea went unchallenged by the judge did not give me hope.

The other big question was how to explain the 14 minutes between the time on the sign-in sheet at my daugther’s pre-K and the time written on the ticket. This isn’t as big a mystery as the missing 18 1/2 minutes on the Watergate tapes, and I had a perfectly logical explanation. My typical routine was to sign my daughter in when we walked in to school and then get her settled. That process usually lasted around seven to ten minutes. Add four to seven minutes to that, and you essentially have the time between me leaving pre-K and the cop writing the summons, which, as I explained previously, was delayed because I initially refused to give him my ID.

Now one player in this drama is conspicuously missing: the woman in the striped scarf who had been ticketed right before me. You may recall that the officer told me that she told him that I ran the red light, and that when he asked her as she rode by us, she screamed out “No!” You may also recall that thanks to the Transportation Alternatives bike ambassadors, she and I were able to get in touch and that she volunteered to come to my hearing to testify on my behalf. Well, this would be the perfect part of the story for her to burst through the doors of the hearing room, raise finger in my direction, and loudly declare, “Your honor, that man DID. NOT. BREAK. THE. LAW.”

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. My work schedule, a busy family life, and just the general passage of one whole year meant I simply didn’t have time to go the full Perry Mason and line everything up perfectly in preparation for this hearing. To be honest, I also felt guilty asking another person to take off of work to come testify on my behalf, especially when I thought there was a better-than-good chance that the ticket would be thrown out.

One thing that came up during the hearing was the issue of me not providing the officer with my ID immediately when I was stopped. If you recall, the driver threatened me with arrest. He also threatened the woman who he had stopped before me with arrest as well, but she provided him with a cellphone picture of her passport to avoid a trip to the precinct. The officer brought this up, saying that he had remembered our encounter quite well due to this fact, and in fact it was what caused him to remember so many other details of my alleged red light offense.

The judge, however, explained to the officer that he can not arrest someone for not providing an ID. Now, it can result in a trip to the precinct to verify someone’s identity, but not  having ID is not an arrest able offense. Who knows what the officer was thinking when this was explained to him, but from my perspective he seemed genuinely chagrined.

Finally, it was time for the judge to render his decision. Despite some of the stranger moments, I actually felt like there was at least a small chance that Steve and had thrown some shade on the judge’s requirement that “clear” evidence of a violation be established.

Well, as you’ve probably guessed if you’ve read this far, I lost.  (“I got a bogus ticket, the judge knew right away it was bogus, threw it out and asked the cop what the hell he was thinking” certainly wouldn’t have taken two blog posts to explain.)

The judge said that there was enough evidence to conclude that a violation had occurred. “Clear” evidence of a violation, at least in this case, simply meant, “The cop said so.”

I was ordered to pay $190 and told that I must not run a red light again through July 2015, a time limit that began from the moment of my alleged violation, or it would be recorded as a second violation. And, this being New York, you simply don’t want multiple red light violations.

Now, being told that I must not run a red light “again” when I hadn’t run one in the first place stung. But what also hurt was the sense that this officer’s experience was validated. Whether he actively lied or simply based my ticket on something he thought he saw out of the corner of his eye, neither exactly meet the standard one would want our police officers to live by as they enforce order on our streets.

But what also concerned me was the sense that I had everything going for me — some pretty good evidence, the help of a lawyer, the ability to take a few hours off of work — and I still lost. People who can not afford the time off of job, who don’t have a friend who feels like doing a favor, and who may be more intimidated in even as low-stakes a setting as traffic court… there’s not a lot many of the people who find themselves unfairly ticketed by the NYPD can do. And $190 is a lot of money for people who actually need to rely on a bicycle for transportation.

I want to be clear: My experience does not rise to the level of the Greatest Injustice in New York City. It’s an interesting story — I hope! — that brings up some troubling questions for how committed the average NYPD officer is to targeted, smart enforcement using rigorous standards in the Vision Zero age. It gives rise to this question: “If this, then what?” If this officer nailed me for a violation that didn’t occur, then what actual violations did he ignore that could have made the streets safer without wasting everyone’s time with a fourteen-minute traffic stop and an afternoon at the Traffic Violations Bureau?

Hopefully, if you’ve read this far, you’ll consider the question as we move forward in our efforts to make America’s Best City for Cycling live up to the honor.

Slap ’em with words: Anatomy of a Daily News editorial on Vision Zero

February 22, 2015

The editorial style of the Daily News has always been fairly straightforward: make short, declarative statements, and pretend to stake out a position of moral clarity on a subject that, right or wrong, inspires a lot of passion. This style is in full focus in Sunday’s editorial, “Slap ’em with summonses: The right way to enforce the Vision Zero failure to yield law against bus drivers and others.”

Most of what the Daily News editorial board proposes, however, relies on straw-men arguments, faulty logic and a lack of facts on which policy proposals should be based. And, as becomes apparent partway through the piece, what the board proposes in no way involves enforcing the Vision Zero failure to yield law against bus drivers and others.

Seventeen drivers, including six Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus operators, have been run through the criminal justice system so far. In the latest case, Francisco de Jesus’ Brooklyn bus collided with teenage Jiahuan Xu and mangled her left leg as he attempted a left turn.

If you flip this construct around and start with the fact that 143 pedestrians were killed in New York City in 2014 and that 21 people have lost their lives in traffic this year so far — not to mention those who have received life-altering injuries — the fact that only 17 motorists have been “run through the criminal justice system” seems like the bigger outrage. Violating a pedestrian’s legal right of way is against the law. Through what other system should people who commit crimes be run?

There seems to be a large amount of concern over handcuffing and jailing drivers who, at least until the point that they killed or seriously injured someone, had a clean driving record. The police have their reasons for such protocol, but Pete Donohue and Errol Louis, for example, have a point: the American way of cuffing people for everything from violating open container laws to jogging in a park after dark certainly feels excessive. But questioning the need to cuff a veteran bus driver is separate from asking whether or not there should be criminal consequences for drivers who, however unintentionally, kill or maim pedestrians.

So that there is no misunderstanding: The goal of saving lives on the streets and preventing injuries is aces. Let’s do it.

But let’s do it right.

Like I said: short, declarative statements and an insistence that what follows, dear reader, Must Be The Solution No One Has Thought Of Yet.

The criminalizing of failure-to-yield accidents grew out of the notion, espoused by some transportation advocates, that there is virtually no such thing as a traffic accident. In almost every case, someone did something wrong, so that’s a crime.

Here’s the straw man. No advocate believes there aren’t honest-to-god accidents that are beyond the scope of criminal liability or prosecution. What transportation advocates actually espouse is that authorities and the press should hold off on calling a collision an “accident” until the circumstances of the incident are known.

Then there’s the the idea that advocates believe that “in almost every case, someone did something wrong, so that’s a crime.” There seems to be a lot of motivation on the part of the Daily News to characterize advocates’ position as too harsh and to also narrowly define recklessness or carelessness as “intending to harm,” a meaning that would decriminalize nearly all traffic violence. If there was no intent, then it was just an accident, right? But that’s just ridiculous. No credible advocate believes that drivers wake up in the morning intending to kill someone.

Yes, sometimes there are genuine accidents. However, the criminalizing of failure-to-yield collisions grew out of the notion that people who commit crimes, including the crime of negligence, ought to face criminal consequences.

True enough, a criminal penalty can serve as a deterrent to someone who is, say, on the fence about robbing a bank. But meting out jail to a paltry handful of drivers on the streets is unlikely to prevent many from lapsing into momentary inattention that has tragic results. (See this Op-Ed for a view from the driver’s seat.)

Drivers operate giant pieces of machinery with the potential to do great harm. What the News dismisses as mere “momentary inattention” can have tragic consequences for people on foot, on bikes, and, yes, in cars. And when a tragedy strikes, it should be on investigators to determine if a driver did everything he could to avoid the kind of momentary lapse of attention that can kill another human being. This should not be a controversial position.

Here’s where the faulty logic comes in. As far as the efficacy of “meting out jail to a paltry handful of drivers” in order to prevent other tragedies, I’d say the strategy is working well so far. In just one week, the Daily News has printed numerous opinion pieces on the subject of failure to yield, inspiring a healthy debate across New York City. Not only that, but the TWU has repeatedly urged its drivers to wait until pedestrians clear crosswalks before completing a turn. Public awareness of pedestrians’ legal right of way has probably never been higher than it is right now.

The far more effective and fairer way to change driver behavior would be for the NYPD to ramp up failure-to-yield summonses before anyone has been hit. Cops now issue an average of roughly 50 a day. Five hundred, with a concentrated public education campaign, might do the trick.

Here’s the lack of facts. How does the Daily News know that this would be more effective that arrests? And why stop with 500? The cops could probably hand out that many summons on one corner in Brooklyn in the span of a few hours. So why not hand out 5,000 summons a day? How about 50,000? Wouldn’t 500,000 summons do the trick? And what’s a “concentrated public education campaign”? How long would it last and how would it be carried out? There’s also a bit of a straw-man argument at play here, since no advocate would argue that that ramping up preventative failure-to-yield summons and arresting drivers who hit people with the right of way are mutually exclusive.

Most importantly, despite the editorial’s title, the board’s proposal isn’t a way to “enforce the Vision Zero failure to yield law against bus drivers and others,” It’s a pie-in-the-sky way of hoping that the law is never enforced.

As it is now, the mayor and Council have achieved an outsized assault on some of the safest, best-trained drivers in the city: the MTA’s 11,000-plus bus operators, who covered 152 million miles last year under tough circumstances.

There’s no question that bus drivers appear to be bearing a disproportionate amount of the consequences under Section 19-190. There’s also no question that MTA drivers are, mile for mile, doing remarkable jobs under very difficult circumstances. That being said, professional drivers, especially those carrying passengers as part of a public transportation system, ought to be held to a tougher standard than the average motorist.

There’s also a very easy way to make it seem as if the Right of Way law isn’t unfairly targeting drivers while ignoring offenses committed by other drivers and that’s to arrest other drivers.

Those who hit pedestrians undergo intensive investigation and are subject to internal discipline. None, including de Jesus, intended any harm. The Transport Workers Union has said that the mirror on his bus may have placed the teenager he hit in a blind spot, perhaps defeating a criminal case.

Uncertain, after-the-fact prosecutions are an unfair waste of time. A credible threat of attention-getting fines is the way to go.

There’s that idea of “intent” again. Let me re-emphasize that no one thinks de Jesus saw a pedestrian in the crosswalk and decided to run her over anyway. But internal investigations as a means for determining what went wrong in a case where a bus driver strikes someone are highly problematic. What justice does this leave for a teen with a mangled leg or the parents left without a child? And if the only consequence is “internal discipline,” how does the greater message get out to drivers that a pedestrian’s right of way is sacrosanct? The public, not just the MTA ad TWU, has a vested interest in public investigations of events that put public lives at risk.

As to my original point about this editorial and its lack of basic logic, the last two lines bring it all into focus. To a degree, all prosecutions are uncertain. That doesn’t make them a waste of time, provided police officers make arrests based on credible evidence, investigations are thorough, and prosecutors are well prepared. That all prosecutions happen after the fact is just something we all have to accept, due to the linear nature of time.



The Question

February 17, 2015

I’ve been struck by the way in which the coverage of the bus crash that seriously injured a teenager last Friday as she crossed the street with the legal right of way exposes a core philosophy of traffic violence apologists. This philosophy has mostly played out in Pete Donohue’s coverage in the Daily News, but it’s a common point of view anytime an incident like this becomes the subject of debate: Death and serious injury, it seems, are the cost of doing business in the big city.

J.P. Patafio of TWU Local 100 said, “The law of averages has it we’re going to get into an accident.” Donohue, arguing on Twitter, has essentially said the same thing. The occasional bus crash in which a pedestrian is maimed or killed is just an accident and not a crime, and not something that should concern the law in any meaningful way beyond, perhaps, a traffic ticket. Work it out in civil court if you want, but leave criminal charges out of it.

If you accept that philosophy — that in order to keep buses moving on New York City Streets people are going to die every once in a while — then you should have to answer a rather serious question:

If the occasional death or serious injury is the inevitable cost of keeping the city running, how many of your family members would you be willing to lose?

If we take this “law of averages” philosophy to its logical conclusion, then someone has to pay the ultimate price for the greater good. So who loses that lottery? Should it be you? One of your kids? How about a friend or coworker? Is it only okay if you don’t know the person? If you accept these as simply unpreventable accidents, then it’s on you to answer whose death is worth it and how many people have to be hurt.

It’s easy to dismiss street safety advocates as “a zealous bunch of bicycling advocates,” but they’re not the ones saying that keeping the economy humming and the traffic flowing requires some sort of burnt offering to the gods of mobility.


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