This past Friday, a private trash hauler truck struck and killed Madison Jane Lyden, 23, who was riding a bike and veered into automobile traffic because a livery driver had illegally parked in the Central Park West bike lane—a conventional bike lane that has no physical barrier protecting cyclists from automobile traffic. According to the numerous heartbreaking and infuriating news reports from publications such as West End Rag, StreetsblogNYC as well as The New York Times, the driver of the truck was intoxicated. The young woman who was visiting the city from Australia was declared dead at the hospital.
More New Yorkers are biking than ever before, thanks in great part to a strong and growing bicycle lane network now well over 1,100 miles. And, the New York City Department of Transportation has said that since 2014, the de Blasio administration has added 62.7 protected miles of bike lanes bringing the on-street total to 98.4 lane miles. DOT says the biggest challenges in expanding bike lane infrastructure has to do with balancing the needs of all users; intersection design and signal timing constraints; and, ensuring community/stakeholder input is incorporated into designs.
But as many cycling advocates are saying, the tragic death of Madison Jane Lynden heightens the sense of urgency that certain city streets can be perilous for cyclists, even those stretches with conventional but unprotected bike lanes. Protected bike lanes use planters, curbs, parked cars or posts to separate bike and auto traffic on busy streets.
The majority of the city’s designated bike lanes are unprotected: basically nothing more than around three-feet wide stretches of asphalt marked by strips of paint and an occasional bike lane symbol. The constant worry for many cyclists is that automobile drivers might swerve into the bike lane. A 2017 report on the state of cycling in the city by activist organization Transportation Alternatives found that 88 percent of frequent cyclists fear being hit by a car.
As someone who has used a bike as a primary mode of transportation in New York City for nearly 25 years, I can attest to some of the hair raising dangers one encounters on an unprotected bike lane on a busy street or avenue. As I’ve grown older, I’ve gotten less fearless and more careful on my bike. My decisions about going around a car or trying to maneuver around barricades that force me out into traffic at random construction sites has taken on a more cautionary tone. I’ve come to the conclusion that unprotected “designated” bike lanes are basically cosmetic borders where cyclists are mere inches from passing cars often speeding to get someplace.
It’s upsetting to encounter drivers that seem clueless that the human pedaling along on a bike is essentially fragile. And God forbid, if a driver is under the influence as the driver of the truck that killed Madison Jane Lynden allegedly was on Friday August 10. Over the years, I’ve had close calls with aggressive drivers who violated the bike lane right of way when they swooped into the bike lane to get around a double parked car. I’ve seen lots of angry cyclists curse at drivers after a car or truck cuts them off as they pull over to drop someone off, snatch a parking spot or maybe check their cell phone. And despite the threat of stiff penalties, getting doored when someone jumps out of a cab and into the bike lane is still an issue.
For its part, the New York City Police Department has at least made some effort to ticket cars that block bike lanes. In 2017, NYPD issued around 79,000 tickets to automobile drivers for blocking bike lanes according to NYPD Open Data. But weirdly enough, NYPD often goes on ticketing blitzes of cyclists—after a cyclist is killed by an automobile—even when the automobile driver is at fault. But what’s especially galling and arrogant, the police and other city employees are some of the biggest culprits abusers of unprotected bike lanes. Armed with state parking placards on their car dashboards, these city employees boldly park their cars on bike lanes and obstruct bike lanes near police precincts and other municipal buildings across the city. There’s an entire tumblr site—cops in bike lanes—that houses a plethora of police vehicles blocking bike lanes.
While unprotected bike lanes on slower side streets and residential areas are adequate, busy heavily trafficked avenues and thoroughfares need protected lanes.
In 2017, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), an organization that represents 58 major U.S. cities, issued guidance that said on higher-volume streets with vehicle speeds above 20 mph, conventional infrastructure, such as painted lanes, can be insufficient. On lower-speed streets where other traffic calming measures have been introduced, such treatments may be an adequate solution.
NACTO cited 2011 data from New York City that said adding protected bike lanes to streets reduced injury crashes for all road users by 40% over four years.
Protected bike lanes also encourage more and more New Yorkers to take up biking. Many of my own friends took up cycling when they realized how vast the city’s existing network of protected lanes is today. Imagine if all New Yorkers across the five boroughs lived within a quarter mile of a protected bike lane. The Transportation Alternatives survey of cylists found that 63 percent of city cyclists think the most important thing the city could do to improve biking is build more protected bike lanes.
DOT says this year, it has several large Protected Bike Lane projects in the works, including in Midtown on 8th Ave, 10th Ave, and 2nd Ave.
But Central Park West is also one of the city’s higher volume streets that has been crying out for a protected bike lane for years now. It is a busy, chaotic two-way thoroughfare where local cyclists and a bevy of tourists ride to museums and the park. It is also a street where cars most certainly barrel past at speeds way over the city’s 25 mile-per-hour speed limit.
If there had been a protected bike lane on Central Park West, the awful ugly nightmare Madison Jane Lynden’s family and friends are now suffering through could have been prevented. Paul Steely White, executive director at Transportation Alternatives wrote in a passionate statement after the tragedy that, “as a city we should be ashamed. Every day in this city, bike lanes meant to protect people on bikes are used as drop-off lanes, parking lanes and idling lanes for lazy and entitled drivers.”
The DOT says it will be studying the Central Park West area for any potential enhancements.
Cody Lyon is a New York City-based journalist.