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.