Benjamin Shepard here. By day, I am a college professor at New York College of Technology/CUNY. Every day, I ride my bike from Smith Street across Jay Street to Tillary, where I traverse into traffic to avoid crashing into cars double parked outside of the Court, swerving in and out of the designated bike lanes. I am certainly not alone in having this experience. According to a Hunter College study, there is a 60 percent chance of a cyclist being obstructed by a car in a bike lane. Yet, never have I seen a policeman ticketing a car in one of these lanes.
Today, riding in New York City is not a safe experience. In the last few years, I have been doored by two cars - one was on a bike lane. This driver even suggested it was an optional bike lane. No one should take their life in their hands when they ride to school or work. The New York Department of Health report “Bicyclist Fatalities and Serious Injuries in New York City1996-2005” confirm that many do.
This fall I participated in a Transportation Alternatives study of patterns of traffic abuse in downtown Brooklyn. We found most of those violating traffic laws were members of the NYPD, who routinely take u turns through traffic, park in bike lanes, and fail to enforce the traffic laws along the street. Transportation Alternatives passed on the information to the police. Yet, nothing has changed. If police do not obey the law, why should commuters?
The other day on the way home from work, I rode down Jay Street, past two police cars parked on Jay Street, in between a man sitting in his car texting. I took a left onto Schermerhorn Street, and a right onto Hoyt where I found two more police parked in the bike lane. Riding down Hoyt on the bike lane, a man screamed at me, “Splat, there goes another homo cyclist.” I kept on riding.
I turned up Sackett Street. As I turned, a man in an SUV screamed 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 few months 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.
I hope the city ends the demonization of cyclists and treats us with dignity and respect. We know cycling is part of the solution for a city facing increasing congestion as well as global problems, such as global warming. Cycling is an easy way to cool the planet. In response to this cyclists should be applauded as part of the solution, not subject to harassment.
A useful way to improve bike safety in New York would include:
- The city enforcing traffic rules prohibiting cars from parking for long periods in bike lanes. These are bike lanes, not texting spaces.
- Improvement of the bike infrastructure connecting all the bike lanes so cyclists can ride through the lanes unabated by cars.
- Make bike riding more family friendly. This way, more youth learn the importance of reducing global warming and making the city safer for all. This means making cycling safer for all.
- And support those who have endured injuries on the road, instead of investigating them, as was done to Mathieu Lefvre’s family.
- And prohibit harassment of cyclists by automobiles.
- For more people to ride, the city needs to make cycling, walking, and non-polluting transportation safer for all.
After all, we’re all in this together.