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The Advice I Gave My Daughter this Morning

November 9, 2016

This morning during our walk to school, I talked to my seven-year-old daughter about the election. That kid worked her butt off; over the last month she came with me to two volunteer shifts and was my data-entry assistant when we made calls from home. She deserved to feel like her work mattered, and part of feeling like one’s work mattered is in making sense of the outcome, win or lose. I asked her what she thought about the news. She said, “It was unexpected.” Characteristically to the point, if you know my kid.

We talked a little bit about how — just as we did a lot of work before Election Day — we still had work to do. Perhaps even more. She asked what she can do and I told her, “Ask questions.” She asked me what I meant and I said that just because someone is the President — or a teacher, or a mom, or a dad, or a really any adult — it doesn’t mean that person always does the right thing. I told her it’s always our job as people to question someone when we think they’re not being nice or not making the right choice, even if that person is “in charge.”

I know a lot of people are wondering what they can say to their kids or do for them that will make things feel alright, which right now may be more of a need to assure ourselves than them. My advice was what I figured an independent, intelligent, compassionate, and sometimes stubborn seven-year-old kid would be able to get. Your kid may need something else. Results may vary.

Our children are going to hear a lot of crazy stuff in the coming weeks, months, and years, and I want mine to be ready. I want my daughter to know that it’s okay ask questions and that people aren’t right just because they’re “grown ups.” I want her to know that she must always start from a place of respecting other people, but that respect also has to be earned. I want her to grow up and know that questioning authority is okay. And being a bit of a rabble-rouser is okay, too. It’s what makes her an American.

Also: this advice could totally backfire and she might wind up questioning everything her mother and I tell her, like not getting a tattoo, at least not until she’s out of the house, but no matter what those giant earrings that stretch out your earlobes are totally out of the question.

Is Your City’s Public Education Campaign Worth It?

October 27, 2016

All movies tell their stories in three acts. Act one begins with some sort of status quo. Then something comes along that changes that status quo and moves the story into act two. By the time the story gets to act three, the person or people affected by that change in that status quo — the small-town sherriff, the band of rebels, or the private investigator taking on powerful government interests – do something specific to either adapt to or fight that change.

The same holds true in advertising. Ads are stories with a purpose: to get people to buy a product or service. I’m vastly oversimplifying it, but for an ad to get people to motivate people to spend their money, it also has to have three acts, or parts:

  1. Define the status quo.
  2. Introduce something new that disrupts that status quo.
  3. Motivate a specific behavior or action.

Using the above framework, think of an ad for a new soft drink:

  1. You’re thirsty, right? (Status quo.)
  2. Awesome Water is here to quench your thirst! (Something new.)
  3. So if you’re thirsty, drink Awesome Water! (Specific action.)

Now, this isn’t the only way ads can motivate people to part with their hard-earned cash. They can tug at people’s heartstrings. (“When you care enough to send the very best.”) They can prey on insecurities or fears. (“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”) Or they can include a catchphrase or slogan that’s so memorable that there’s no way to not think of the brand or product when one hears it. (“Just do it.” “Think Different.”) Regardless of the tactic, the purpose is the same: get people to buy stuff.

Public awareness campaigns don’t always have the same goals as consumer products. For starters, they’re not usually trying to get people to buy something. But for them to be effective, the tactics should more or less be the same.

One of NYC DOT’s most effective public awareness campaigns had to do with the 2014 reduction of the citywide speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph. The messaging followed the same steps outlined above:

  1. The New York City speed limit used to be 30 mph. (Status quo.)
  2. It’s been lowered to 25 mph. (Something new.)
  3. So drive 25 mph. (Specific action.)

That’s a simple takeaway: drive five miles per hour slower than before. The concept is easy to explain in a thirty-second radio ad, Facebook post, or during a quick interaction between a Vision Zero Street Team member and a motorist. It can be understood in the amount of time it takes to drive by a billboard or walk by a bus shelter. (It’s hard to measure the exact effectiveness of DOT’s  “Your Choices” campaign, but at least it was easy to understand. Drivers – not kids on bikes or people crossing with the light in a crosswalk – have the biggest responsibility to move through the city safely.)

But what to make of the city’s current campaign to remind people to be careful as the clocks change and it gets darker earlier? What should any individual person do about that? Following the basic framework at the beginning of this post, you can see how this breaks down by step three:

  1. It’s been light out during the evening commute for a while. (Status quo.)
  2. When the clocks change, it will be dark. (Something new.)
  3. ???

So what’s the third step? What’s the specific action to follow once someone has the not exactly surprising information that it gets dark early when daylight saving time ends? Be careful? Most drivers think they are. (Like the children of Lake Wobegon, all drivers are above average.) Is the takeaway that drivers should take turns slowly? Define slow. Should they look out for pedestrians? That doesn’t necessarily jibe with the excuse a lot of drivers give when they hit someone: “He came out of nowhere!”

I’m not even sure such a campaign could contain all the information needed to change driver’s behavior in just three steps. “What does darkness have to do with driving? My car has lights! It’s those pedestrians buried in their phones who need to be careful!” Even if one can defend this campaign by saying that it’s mostly about raising awareness about a serious public health problem – Did you know that the earlier sunset and darkness are linked to an increase in the number of pedestrians killed or seriously injured by drivers? – what is anyone supposed to do with that awareness? It’s an open-ended question that can lead to all kinds of misguided initiatives, from NYPD crackdowns on cyclists to taping reflective tape on seniors’ canes.

$1.5 million is less than a rounding error in the city’s budget. This campaign will come and go. Maybe more people will choose to drive safely. Maybe they won’t. But the next time the city thinks about sending its a public service campaign, I hope it asks a simple question: What specific behavior do we want people to change? If there isn’t a simple answer, then go back to the drawing board.


Mayor de Blasio: Get Out of Your Car

October 7, 2016

Here we go again.

Yesterday, during another appearance on the Brian Lehrer show, Mayor de Blasio repeated the idea that stopping in a bike lane isn’t always worthy of a ticket, so long as the driver has what I might call a relatable reason.

…if you’re just getting out to drop off a child or, you know, bring some groceries into a home — that should not be a ticket. So, that’s something we have to work on. Our enforcement agents of course need to show some sensitivity to when people are very, very briefly doing something like that. So, that’s something we will try and work on to improve because that’s not the kind of enforcement we’re looking for.

I’ve already articulated why the mayor’s philosophy is dangerous, wrong, insensitive, and antithetical to Vision Zero. Dorothee Benz at, offers a similar perspective in this great piece on the reality of biking in New York:

It’s illegal to stop or park in a bike lane, yet Mayor de Blasio himself recently signaled that stopping in a bike lane isn’t really that bad. A car that blocks a bike lane to “let someone off at an appointment or something like that, or just drop off kids at home or something quickly” is “different” than someone who leaves their car parked in a bike lane, he told Brian Lehrer.

Not to the cyclist who has to dodge the car and the kids it’s dropping off.

More fundamentally, if the mayor who initiated Vision Zero doesn’t get that a cyclist’s safety is more important than a motorist’s convenience, how will the other eight million New Yorkers?

The first time Mayor de Blasio excused away bike lane blocking, I was willing to give him a little bit of a break. As I wrote before, “To a lot of drivers, stopping in a bike lane for just a minute or two to let someone out feels a heck of a lot less harmful—and therefore less deserving of a ticket—than leaving a car in a bike lane for an extended period of time.” On its surface, this is not an unreasonable point of view. But when you dig just beneath a surface into the laws of physics—which tend to be neutral on the subject of groceries, kids, and driver intent—the mayor’s excuses fall apart.

I don’t think the mayor understands how much law-breaking his words excused. If stopping in a bike lane for a second is okay so long as a driver is unloading groceries, surely it’s okay for Fresh Direct to do it all over the city, right? What about UPS? Some parents send their kids to school in taxis. Is it okay for taxi drivers to block bike lanes to pick them up and let them out? If all one needs is a good reason to break a law, why observe it?

Discussing the finer points of multi-modal transporation policy is never going to be Bill de Blasio’s forte. This is a man who, during the 2013 campaign, used his “I’m a motorist” schtick as a way to curry favor with car-obsessed tabloids and outer-borough voters. In February 2014, just days after the then-new mayor announced a slew of Vision-Zero-related initiatives, his caravan was caught speeding and rolling through stop signs. In 2015, he floated the idea of ripping out the Times Sqaure pedestrian plazas. For goodness sake, he’s driven to a gym twelve miles from his house nearly every day.

Nobody is expecting perfection, but politicians should be expected to evolve, especially on issues of life and death. When they introduce a major policy, they should be expected to bone up on its key points. And when they make a mistake, they shouldn’t come back two weeks later and repeat it to a radio-listening audience.

I’m also not expecting the mayor to suddenly ditch his caravan of SUVs and hop on a Citi Bike to get to City Hall. But it would serve the mayor of New York well to see how the majority of New Yorkers live. Walk with us. Bike with us. And stop making excuses.

The More Streets Change, the More Some People Stay the Same

September 22, 2016
A commuter rides a Citi Bike on Prospect Park West.

A commuter rides a Citi Bike on Prospect Park West.

This is how the bikelash ends, not with a bang but with a press release.

I launched Brooklyn Spoke in late 2010, shortly before the fight over the Prospect Park West bike lane was really heating up. (The lawsuit was filed in March 2011, the winter of our discontent and perhaps the height of the New York City bikelash.) For the most part, my early posts focused on biking in general; they’re clearly written by a newbie who was just dipping in his toes in the larger social and political words of bikes, activism, and progressive transportation planning.

My first mention of the Prospect Park West bike lane was in a post from December 16, 2010: “The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Change Itself.” It wasn’t specifically about PPW, but was a general reflection on the fight over bike lanes in general.

I believe that some of the biggest bike lane opponents, such as Marty Markowitz and those who live on Prospect Park West, have that fear. This is not the Brooklyn they know, the Brooklyn they have lived in for the past many decades. To them, the city has always been a city of cars, the roads have always been designed to accommodate them, and what looks like a sudden change–even if it is the result of multi-year conversations with community boards and intense, data-driven studies–is a shock to the system. Carol Linn, of Neighbors For Better Bike Lanes (which is actually against the PPW bike lane) testified to this very point during the City Council hearing on bikes. She mentioned going away last summer only to come back to see that the street had been radically changed. Years of requests from the local community board and conversations with the DOT were invisible as far as she was concerned; all that mattered was that the street had changed without her knowing it.

There is also another fear that comes with change: the fear of being wrong and having to admit it.

That last idea — that being wrong about bike lanes means never having to say you’re sorry — is very evident in the statement Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes and Seniors released yesterday. Ben Fried at Streetsblog artfully describes it not as an apology, but as “a longwinded attempt to save face and maintain the fiction that they sued to erase a perfectly safe and functional bike lane out of a sense of civic duty, not selfishness.” It was written, as Ben implied, with what must have been the knowledge that most journalists would offer little more than “he said/she said” coverage of the lawsuit’s end. If that was the calculation, they were right. Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes and Seniors for Safety may never have known much about bike lanes or safety, but they always seemed to know a lot about the press.

I began to find my voice as an advocate responding to a lot of the nonsense that NBBL managed to get into print. In the spirit of those early days, I wanted to single out two parts of NBBL’s full statement [PDF].

Here’s the first one:

Back in June 2010, the City installed a bike lane on Prospect Park West on a trial basis, for the dual purpose of facilitating “traffic calming” goals and providing a public recreational amenity.

But wait! In 2010, NBBL acknowledged that one of the bike lane’s original purposes was to facilitate bicycle commuting. Here’s what Norman Steisel, Louise Hainline, and Iris Weinshall wrote in a letter to the editor of the New York Times:

Furthermore, the D.O.T. data’s lack of credibility is reinforced by our own videotapes. These show that the Prospect Park West bike lanes are used by half the number of riders the D.O.T. says, and that cyclists are not riding to commute as originally contemplated but are recreational users who could be better served by enhancing the existing lane 100 yards away in Prospect Park.

So, in 2010 NBBL acknowledged that one of the goals of the redesign was to accommodate cyclists who were “riding to commute,” even if they felt that it wasn’t living up to that promise. Yet yesterday they said that one of the two original purposes was to provide “a public recreational amenity.” If this swtich was intention, it sure is a subtle way of positioning people who use bicycles as less than people who drive. It reminded me of Louise Hainline’s dig at people who bike from this March 2011 New York Magazine feature:

“Bikers really think they’re doing work for the environment if, instead of taking the car a block, they take the bike to the food co-op. That’s touching. But it’s silly.”

See? I told you the winter of 2011 was really bad.

Here’s the second part that caught my attention. Again, emphasis is mine.

From the outset we have believed that bikes must be effectively introduced as a critical feature of the City’s evolving public transportation infrastructure. In fact, some of our groups’ members are civic leaders who participated in the formulation of the City’s transportation policy and plans well before this bike lane’s installation. However, we believe the evidentiary record and recent court decision in our favor confirm our view that the previous administration was purposely misleading with regard to the temporary nature of the original project.

Shorter NBBL: “We like bike lanes, but…”




It’s Hard to See Vision Zero When You’re Looking Through a Windshield.

September 18, 2016

On Friday morning, while appearing on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC, Mayor Bill de Blasio heard from “Chris from Soho” on the subject of biking in New York City. “You can’t go five minutes in a bike lane without running into somebody illegally parked,” Chris said, expressing a frustration that’s shared by people who bike across the five boroughs. There was a brief exchange about enforcement — of both the police and citizen kind — before the mayor offered a sort of taxonomy of bike lane blocking.

Via WNYC’s Kate Hinds:

“There are people stop in a bike lane to, you know, let someone off at an appointment or something like that, or just drop off kids at home or something quickly,” de Blasio said. “That’s a different matter than someone who double-parks and leaves their car there.”

Now, I understand what the mayor was trying to express. To a lot of drivers, stopping in a bike lane for just a minute or two to let someone out feels a heck of a lot less harmful — and therefore less deserving of a ticket — than leaving a car in a bike lane for an extended period of time. But there are lots of things wrong with the mayor’s response. Here are four:

1. To a person riding a bike, it makes no difference how long a driver intends to stay in a bike lane, nor does it matter why the driver is stopped in it. Such details are as relevant to the cyclist’s safety as what the driver had for breakfast. The danger is the same no matter the duration or reason for the obstruction. While merging with fast-moving motor vehicle traffic to get around a car parked in a bike lane, no person on a bike thinks, “I wonder how long the driver will be there or what he’s doing.”

2. Stopping or parking in a bike lane is illegal.



Chris from Soho said this clearly. “You can’t go five minutes in a bike lane without running into somebody illegally parked.” The mayor missed an opportunity to explain the law to drivers and, in an advocate’s dream world, express the need for New York City to fix its dysfunctional curb-management policies in ways that might improve things for cyclists and drivers alike.

3. His response positioned people who bike as worth less than people who drive. Did the mayor ever consider what people on bikes are doing when they find their legal right of way suddenly blocked? Did it not occur to him that they too might be going to an appointment or dropping their children off at home? Without explicitly saying so, here’s what the mayor said: “Drivers do Important Things. Cyclists ride bikes.” This is the root sentiment behind countless horrible interactions people on bikes have with motorists every day.

4. It’s the polar opposite of Vision Zero. The fundamental philosophy behind Vision Zero is simple: “Human life and health are paramount and take priority over mobility and other objectives of the road traffic system.” In other words, your need to stop your car for a minute does not take priority over my need to not be killed. Only someone who drives or is driven everywhere could believe that stopping in a bike lane is a harmless activity so long as it’s quick and for an important reason.

I give the mayor a lot of credit for standing up to obstructionist community boards on specific projects such as Queens Boulevard or, when pressed by New York’s motoring-obsessed media, putting the onus for traffic safety on drivers. But with a disturbing increase in the number of people on bikes killed in 2016 so far, we need the mayor to educate himself about the day-to-day reality for the many New Yorkers who do not rely on cars. Three years in, Mayor de Blasio is still struggling to understand the vision behind Vision Zero.

I’m running for safe streets… and need your support!

May 26, 2016

I’m honored and humbled to join Team TransAlt in the 2016 New York City Marathon this November. Casual readers of this blog know how important safe streets are to my experience as a dad, husband, and New Yorker. Longtime readers may also know that Marathon Sunday is my favorite day in the city each year, largely because of how it connects people in all five boroughs to their neighborhood streets like no other day. I’ve spent years cheering on runners from behind the blue tape as they stride down Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, and have even used the early-morning street closures to have a little fun with my daughter and call attention to the need for more space for kids of all ages to roam — and ride — freely.

My daughter takes a pre-marathon spin on Fourth Avenue in 2013.

My daughter takes a pre-marathon spin on Fourth Avenue in 2013.

This fall, I’ll be on the other side of that blue tape, running in my first marathon (!) and I’m asking for your help.

In order to run I need to raise money, all of which will support the kind of advocacy work that makes this city better every day. Your tax-deductible donations will help an organization near and dear to my heart, Transportation Alternatives, which is filled with dedicated employees, passionate volunteers, and all-around amazing people, all working to make this city we love safe for people on two feet or two wheels. If you’ve ever walked around and suddenly stumbled across a new pedestrian plaza, TA probably had something to do with it. If you’ve ever biked to work and suddenly discovered your route now has a protected bike lane, there’s a good chance TA was involved. Even if you drive now and then — It’s okay! Don’t be ashamed! — that new 25 mph speed limit that’s keeping you and everyone else around you safe happened because of a lot of great people associated with Transportation Alternatives.

You can donate by following this link.

To sweeten the pot, anyone who donates $50 or more will be invited to join me on a group ride through Brooklyn. We’ll take some of the best bike infrastructure in the city to tour some of my favorite spots and perhaps stop for some snacks and beverages. I’m hoping to turn this into quite the social affair, so the more people who donate, the bigger and better we can make this ride. More details to follow, but the unofficial Brooklyn Spoke Tour de Brooklyn will happen in November after my legs have had a chance to recover.

Thanks in advance for your generosity and support! I will carry the message of safe streets with me from Staten Island all the way to the finish line.

Finishing the Brooklyn Half while sporting a little #bikenyc flair.

Finishing the Brooklyn Half while sporting a little #bikenyc flair.

On Clinton Ave

May 12, 2016

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?

This one?


Leading down to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, c. 1840 – 1845. Image via Flickr user sjcny.

Or how about this one?


Clinton Avenue c. 1910. Image via Flickr user sjcny.

This looks pretty historic to me:


Clinton Avenue, Looking North from Lafayette Avenue. Date unknown. Image via Flickr user sjcny.

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.


Helmets and Vision Zero Go Together Like Helmets and Vision Zero

May 5, 2016

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, 2017

April 28, 2016

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.



“Food Delivery People” Are People

March 7, 2016

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.

Emphasis mine.

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.