Friday, September 9, 2011

Biking, Screaming, and Policy Alternatives for Non-Polluting Transportation

The other day on the way home from work, I turned left off Smith up Sackett Street, where I live. As I turned, a man in an SUV scream at me to get out of the way, and sped up the street only to stop at the red light. It was a jarring experience, on a residential block. This has been a tough week for cycling in Brooklyn, with two cyclists killed; a friend was hit by a brick, and another acquaintance given a ticket for “obstructing traffic” by belligerent police because he did not yield to cars fast enough. This can't be the news every few weeks. It made me think about the need for safety and respect among everyone using the road, including the right of cyclists to ride without being harassed on threatened with bodily harm. All year long, cyclists have fought a bike backlash. Yet, over and over the media, politicians, and police have helped create a hostile environment on the road for cyclists. Today, the roads are fundamentally unsafe for cyclists.
In several European countries, the higher standards of duty-of-care for more vulnerable road users include the legal responsibility for car drivers to avoid collisions with cyclists and pedestrians. In these countries the onus is on drivers to prove no-fault when in collisions with pedestrians and cyclists,” notes Jan Garrard in her editorial “Its Not Just About Bike Lanes.” “"I just didn't see her", "He came from no-where", or "It was raining/foggy/dark/glary" are not legitimate excuses for colliding with people on bikes or on foot. A driver is expected to anticipate the presence of cyclists and pedestrians on the road, and take action to avoid injuring them.”
If only we had such a culture here. Instead cyclists are routinely harassed, forced to navigate unsafe streets, and even killed by motorists, who face little to no deterrent for such behavior. Erica Abbott's senseless death highlights the systemic failures of the city to make the streets safe for all and to hold those who create obstacles to safer streets accountable for their actions.

Yet, the situation is changing all over the world, starting with car friendly Los Angeles where my friend Barbara tells me the city just passed anti-harassing legislation making it a crime for drivers to threaten cyclists verbally or physically. Other progressive laws include Idaho’s stop-as-yield statute which allows cyclists to stop at red lights like they would stop signs. While the great state of Texas’ legislature passed a similar vulnerable road users law in 2009, the measure was vetoed by Bush’s successor Rick Perry. And most European countries have “Strict Liability” laws which hold drivers accountable for accidents or collisions with cyclists. These are best practices worth emulating in New York. In Times Up! we are currently drafting legislation to make riding a bike a far more friendly and safe experience. After all, we all have to share the road.

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