New York City’s Cyclist Deaths Should Surprise No One
Vision Zero isn’t working because it doesn’t address the underlying (and fixable) problem: there are way too many cars on the road
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In 2018, New York City recorded 10 cycling deaths—an all-time low for this city of well over 8 million people, and a sign that maybe Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative, an action plan to end traffic deaths by 2024, was working. Now, only halfway through 2019, the death toll is already at 15, and cyclists here are awash in seemingly relentless waves of grief and outrage. So why the hell is this happening?
This most recent spate of cycling deaths began on Monday, June 24, when a truck driver hit and killed 20-year-old bicycle messenger Robyn Hightman on 6th Avenue near 24th Street in Manhattan. The driver, Antonio Garcia, kept going and only returned to the scene after another driver stopped him. The NYPD wrote Garcia five tickets—for truck inspection violations, not for killing a human being—and video shows an officer consoling him as he returns to his vehicle.
By the next day, the NYPD were cracking down on bicycle infractions at the location of Hightman’s death, a macabre and ironic ritual familiar to New York City cyclists. According to The Gothamist, one of these officers also took the additional step of blaming the victim:
“As far as the female who passed away unfortunately, yesterday, I believe she was riding off the bike lane, you know,” Officer Negron said. “It's sad, but it's sad that she was off the bike lane, you know? Maybe if she had been on the bike lane, maybe she'd still be alive.”
Even if we give Officer Negron the benefit of the doubt and assume he simply didn’t know that Robyn Hightman preferred they/them pronouns (I really hope that's the case), the fact that we’re five and a half years into Vision Zero and the NYPD is still blaming crash victims for their own deaths feels at best like obstinance and at worst contempt for anybody who’s not driving a motor vehicle. Then there’s the infuriating dissonance of an officer working on a “bicycle unit” and implying that the 6th Avenue bike lane is even remotely passable on a Monday morning.
And Robyn Hightman’s death was just the beginning of what turned out to be an especially bloody week. On Thursday, June 27, cyclists held a memorial ride for Hightman. That same night, a teenage driver killed 54-year-old bicyclist Ernest Askew in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a neighborhood still lacking much of the bicycle infrastructure wealthier parts of the city now take for granted. And on Monday—the day of Askew’s vigil and one week after the death of Hightman—a cement truck driver killed 28-year-old bicyclist Devra Freelander in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
As for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is currently running for president of the United States, his initial response to the cycling death uptick in his own backyard was somewhat vexing. After Robyn Hightman’s death, he defended the success of his Vision Zero program, and then went on about the supposed dangers of e-bikes. (De Blasio has been waging a war against e-bikes since January 2018, despite the fact that e-bike riders have already attained Vision Zero by killing exactly zero people.) But subsequent to the deaths of Askew and Freelander he changed his tone, acknowledging that we have an “emergency on our hands” and vowing to take action. In a public statement, De Blasio said he’d instructed the NYPD to take “major enforcement action” to “crack down on dangerous driving behavior like parking in bike lanes.” He added, “At the same time, I have charged the Department of Transportation with developing a new cyclist safety plan to make biking in our city safer. No loss of life on our streets is acceptable.”
All this brings to light the fact that Vision Zero has always completely failed to address the real problem in New York City, which is the unchecked and ever-increasing number of cars and trucks on the city’s streets. Paris, London, Copenhagen, Madrid, Tokyo: all of these cities have taken meaningful steps to reduce automobile traffic, like banning cars certain days of the month or phasing out car sales. But not New York. And whether it’s 20-year-old Robyn Hightman in Manhattan, or 54-year-old Ernest Askew in Brownsville, or 16-year-old Yisroel Schwartz in Borough Park (doored into traffic and run down, in case you’re wondering), or in fact anybody who’s been killed on a bike in New York City in 2019, they all had one thing in common: They were killed because of the actions of people in cars. And by the time you ticket a driver, it’s already too late.
There are nearly 2 million registered motor vehicles in New York City, and the number of cars and trucks that enter the city from elsewhere on a daily basis is simply staggering: the George Washington Bridge alone carries a quarter million vehicles every single day. So while ticketing one of these drivers for parking in a bike lane may decrease the likelihood that they’ll do it again, it’s also largely a symbolic gesture given the sheer volume of motorists flooding the city. Our antiquated, artisanal practice of tasking traffic agents and police officers with placing hand-curated paper tickets under windshield wipers, or spending 20 minutes at a time writing a motorist up for a moving violation they have to personally observe, is laughably inefficient. It’s also undermined by the fact that the City of New York considers parking tickets (including those for parking in bike lanes) a cost of doing business, and even runs a de facto discount club called the “Stipulated Parking Fine Program” designed specifically to make that cost more manageable for commercial enterprises. Far more effective would be to reduce cyclist and pedestrian exposure to these vehicles in the first place by strengthening the Off-Hours Delivery Program (which encourages businesses to conduct deliveries from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m.), reducing the size of the trucks permitted in the most crowded neighborhoods, reforming our wildly inefficient and dangerous commercial waste collection system that essentially makes trash pickup a free-for-all, impounding the cars of reckless drivers (a bill that's already on the table), and flat-out closing streets to and eliminating parking for private motor vehicles in the densest parts of the city.
But instead, the city is telling its cyclists, “Here, we built you this bike lane, it will keep you safe,” while at the same time telling businesses, “Go ahead and park in the bike lanes if you have to, we’ll cut you a deal.” (And that’s saying nothing of all the city employees, police officers, and legislators armed with placards that let them park in bike lanes, in crosswalks, and on sidewalks with impunity.)
As long as there’s nothing but a few tolls and maybe the threat of a ticket to discourage drivers from going into New York City and parking anywhere they want at all times, then there will always be more than enough of them out on the streets to ensure a robust death toll. Sickeningly, the owner of the cement truck that killed Devra Freelander blamed “too many bikes on the road,” when quite clearly the problem is that there are too many fucking cement trucks. The only way to meaningfully and permanently reduce the death toll is by enacting policies that meaningfully reduce the number of motor vehicles. Until then, all this bike infrastructure is just window dressing.