CampaignViews: NYPD Stonewalling Won’t Protect Cyclists

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Alex Cairncross

A ghost bike memorial to a fallen cyclist.

What does NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan see, we wonder, when he looks out on city streets and observes people riding bicycles? Does he see an ever-growing number of New Yorkers opting for an efficient, healthy and non-polluting way to get around our vibrant but traffic-choked city? Or does he perceive only unpredictability, disorder and danger?

And we wonder how Chief Chan — the city official in charge of street safety — views his department’s role in Vision Zero, the aspirational goal to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2024. What strategies does he think are effective and just?

These questions matter more now than ever.

The year 2017 is proving particularly deadly for people who ride bicycles. In June, two people on bikes were run over and killed in Chelsea in strikingly similar incidents just blocks apart. The confluence of their deaths, the individuals’ everyman quality, and the unjust and brutal nature of the incidents — both men had clear right of way when they were rammed and crushed by charter buses — stoked outrage, an outrage that was compounded when the NYPD responded to the loss of life by ticketing people on bikes.

Since those two deaths, four more people on bikes have been run over and killed in our city. One, Ronald Burke, was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Another, Neftaly Ramirez, was just weeks away from his wedding when he was struck by the driver of a private sanitation truck who fled the scene. In both cases, the local precincts responded not by targeting dangerous driving but by issuing tickets to people riding bicycles.

Many of these summonses were for harmless infractions like slipping red lights at quiet T intersections. Many were issued mere blocks from streets where drivers were aggressing against cyclists and pedestrians with no legal consequence.

This gratuitous and routine ticketing of cyclists isn’t just an exercise in futility. It seems to carry a whiff of sadism — a pure meanness that recently led an ally of ours to say of the NYPD, “They don’t want to make people on bikes safer. They want to punish us for existing and complicating their lives.”

The backward responses by the police pour salt in the wounds of families reeling from the deaths of their loved ones, and reinforce the insidious myth that New Yorkers who bike are some sort of invasive species to be rooted out from city streets — when in fact we’re ordinary citizens, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and friends who crave safety and deserve respect.

The uncomfortable truth, whether Chief Chan knows it or not, is that little of what his department does in the name of Vision Zero actually fits the definition of the term. Just the opposite. Punishing cyclists with mass ticketing each time a lawful bicycle rider is killed or seriously injured by a reckless driver undercuts safety three-fold: by forcing bicycle riders’ attention away from genuine road dangers; by drawing enforcement resources away from dangerous driving; and, most insidiously, by discouraging people from riding bikes, thus preventing the “safety in numbers” effect from fully leveraging higher cycling volumes into greater safety.

Nor has the chief connected the dots between his department’s tolerance of rampant “placard abuse,” on the one hand, and cynicism toward the police and a reinforced motorist entitlement, on the other. Or the dots between the NYPD’s ingrained “windshield culture” and local precincts’ compulsion to blurt out alternative-fact accounts of deadly crashes that blame dead cyclists and exculpate drivers.

In June, cops told reporters that Dan Hanegby “lost control and fell under the bus” on West 26th Street. That was a fabrication. Video footage — unearthed by Mr. Hanegby’s grieving family, not the police — demonstrated that Dan, a trained athlete and skilled cyclist, was cycling straight ahead when that charter bus sideswiped him and pulled him under. Last year, police blamed Brooklynite Lauren Davis for cycling against traffic when a turning motorist struck and killed her. Yet mere weeks later, a witness account confirmed that Ms. Davis was complying with traffic laws before she was hit.

And lest anyone think the NYPD practices blame-the-victim only on those pesky cyclists, the mentality is so ingrained that police have even blamed innocent children for their own deaths. In 2014, officers told reporters that a 3-year-old in Flushing was run over when she “broke free” from her grandmother, a lie that persisted until video footage — once again discovered by the family, not the police — established that she never let go of her grandmother’s hand before the driver steered into her.

Is there a way forward? There has to be. The city desperately needs more cycling: as a relief valve for under-functioning and jammed subways, as an affordable and healthful way to get around, and as an antidote to economy-killing congestion. We won’t get it unless and until New Yorkers feel they can bike in reasonable safety and tranquility.

We offer Chief Chan our expertise in bicycle safety — Charles as the erstwhile “re-founder” of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives and Doug as a writer on the subject of bicycle urbanism. We are ready with suggestions for making the NYPD protectors, not tormentors, of New Yorkers who ride bicycles. These include a zero-tolerance policy for precinct-level press leaks following driver-on-cyclist fatalities, public release of NYPD Collision Investigation Squad reports on crash forensics, a commitment to ticket and tow bike-lane blockers, a study of best practices by other police departments such as the new initiative by London’s Metropolitan Police that puts undercover officers on bicycles to catch dangerous drivers, and an end, finally, to rampant placard abuse by police and other city employees.

None of these measures get a mention in the new “Safer Cycling” report issued yesterday under the signatures of the commissioners of transportation, health and police — a report whose incrementalism won’t make bicycling truly safe and accessible for millions of New Yorkers.

We both ride bicycles every day, every season, and in practically every corner of the city. In bicycling, we see spontaneity and order, a moveable ballet as cyclists flow through busy streets. We find city cycling beautiful in a quintessentially urban form-follows-function way, and something to which all 21st century cities should aspire.

We’re not alone. There are thousands such New Yorkers, and we are angry, determined and inspired.

Charles Komanoff is widely known for his work as an energy-policy analyst, transport economist and environmental activist in New York City. Doug Gordon is a writer, producer and biking advocate.

9 thoughts on “CampaignViews: NYPD Stonewalling Won’t Protect Cyclists

  1. Pingback: Today’s Headlines – Streetsblog New York City

  2. Transportation Alternatives has had a petition up for a week addressing the NYPD responding to reckless, hit and run, and even alleged deliberate manslaughter (Matthew von Ohlen) by ticket blitzes aimed at cyclists, who are more often vulnerable victims than perpetrators of injury and death.

    https://campaigns.transalt.org/petition/stop-ticketing-cyclists-when-reckless-drivers-kill

    The idea is to encourage the NYC Council to pass legislation or otherwise oversee the NYPD so precincts respond to reckless driving by targeting reckless driving.

  3. endorse. all of this. both of you.

    i’d suggest creating signs when cops are out ticketing as a fast-strike short term solution “COPS UP AHEAD, BE CAREFUL”

  4. I Counted 5 vehicles running very red lights yesterday while I waited at the intersection on my bike. That was an average of 1 per mile that I travelled. I was almost backed over by a driver in a huge SUV that was waiting for a light. It seems he suddenly decided to try parking rather than moving forward. Only my loud screams stopped him. BRW the bike lane was blocked by several cars.

  5. Well said. So many more people would cycle if they could do so without being bullied or harassed, or even injured or killed.

  6. Everything from Stop & Frisk – an enemy of walking culture as bad as anything else – to the attacks under Bloomberg during Occupy have somehow not convinced you and other prominent cycling people that the NYPD cannot ever be reformed.

    They’re anti-cyclist for the same reason they’re racist. Join forces with groups working in various ways against the police who also recognize that reform is not possible.

    Safer intersections are a subset of more risky intersectionality.

  7. “This gratuitous and routine ticketing of cyclists isn’t just an exercise in futility.” Excuse me. Has anyone noticed that the City is no longer publishing statistics on how many “crashes” occur annually in which cyclists are hitting and injuring pedestrians? In an interview on Brian Lehrer today, a doctor hit by a bike in Riverside Park addressed the impossibility of getting any City official to pay attention; it was also observed that pedestrians hit by bikes are only being reported by the authorities when the pedestrian dies. There are far too many lawless cyclists out there, unlicensed and uninsured, like the one that recently hit a waitress with the right of way, crossing a street in Greenpoint (see dna.info). He admitted he’d run the red light; and she (unable to afford health insurance) wound up jobless and in a wheelchair, with no consequences for the cyclist. The City needs to start enforcing against cyclists, and quit ignoring the pedestrian injuries they cause (in the name of “Vision Zero.” Transportation Alternatives is a well funded lobbying group with DeBlasio and many others on the City Council in its pocket; and though it claims to care about pedestrians, nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s now every pedestrian for themselves when they step off the curb, even when they have the right of way; red lights mean nothing to a large percentage of NYC cyclists. And without licenses on the backs of their bikes (which of course TA opposes categorically), they can hit and run with impunity, as there’s no means to identify them as they flee the scene.

    • Agreed. EVERYONE that negligently injures another on the streets should be held criminally liable. That should be the dozens injured by cyclists every year and the thousands injured by cars. But we both know the guilty thousands will never let that happen don’t we.

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