At the New York City vigil for slain cyclist Robyn Hightman on June 24, the crowd spilled onto Sixth Avenue in Manhattan from both sidewalks. A remarkable number of people stood crying for this young bike racer and messenger who had just come into their lives. Friends from the track and messenger community decorated the light post closest to where Hightman had been run over by a driver operating a box truck just before 9:30 that morning. Over the course of the evening, dozens of people added flowers, photos, candles, and messages to the makeshift memorial.
Those who knew or knew of the 20-year-old described them as extraordinary (Hightman preferred they/them pronouns). When they were killed, they were planning to relocate to New York from Richmond, Virginia, but had not yet made the move officially. Instead, for many weekends this spring they traveled between the cities by bus and slept on a friend’s couch in order to race the “6 Days of Kissena” series at the Kissena Velodrome in Queens. Hightman was a new but talented racer who surprised even themselves with their strength on the track. After a recent Sunday race, as riders trickled out of the velodrome, Hightman was still riding, staying late to practice tactics.
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For Hightman, riding a bike was everything: It represented work, recreation, and family. This year, they were selected as ambassador for the Hagens Berman | Supermint pro cycling team. In their application, Hightman wrote of finding a sense of safety in the cycling community: “In this sport where one’s safety is so easily placed in a position of jeopardy, the value of one’s life, and that of my own, have been impressed upon me, not through miles traveled, but rather through those networks which extend far beyond the sport itself. I have learned how to trust, how to navigate the world confidently, how to love, and how to accept the love of others.”
About this time last year, Hightman first came to New York to volunteer for the 2018 Bicycle Film Festival. They spent the first night sleeping on the subway. They had planned to spend a second night on the train but made fast friends and were immediately offered a couch to sleep on.
Hightman quickly joined Spinpeaks, one of the several racing teams in New York that emphasizes gender equality and inclusion for women, trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people. They became deeply involved in the team, making the trip up from Virginia multiple times not just to race, but to attend even minor team meetings and events. Hightman started picking up messenger shifts in the city and planned to move permanently. The last, fateful, trip they made to New York City was not by bus, it was by bike: a three-day, 400-mile journey between Richmond and Brooklyn on a track bike—arriving a day earlier than planned.
But the city Hightman had embraced so completely wound up fatally failing them.
According to a police report, Hightman was unresponsive by the time officers arrived shortly after the incident. The truck driver, Antonio Garcia, hadn’t stopped, later saying that he hadn’t noticed he’d hit anyone, but returned to the scene when onlookers alerted him to the crash. Hightman was taken to Bellevue Hospital and pronounced dead.
Hightman’s death was the first in the bloodiest week of the year so far in New York City: Four days afterward, 57-year-old Ernest Askew was run over by a teenage driver in Brooklyn; a week later, 29-year-old Devra Freelander was killed by a cement truck driver, also in Brooklyn.
Despite New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero campaign to eliminate traffic fatalities in by 2024, at just halfway through 2019, the number of cyclists killed in NYC is already 50 percent higher than the total for all of last year, which was 10 by official count.
According to city data, cyclist fatalities in New York City ranged from 12 to 24 per year between 2000 and 2017. At the current rate, 2019 could be at the highest end of that range. The raw number of fatalities somewhat obscures long-term progress, because New Yorkers took 460,000 daily cycling trips in 2016, versus only 150,000 in 2000, according to the American Community Survey, but the recent trend is dispiriting.
“These numbers are going in the wrong direction in a rather serious way,” said Thomas DeVito, senior director of advocacy at Transportation Alternatives, which advocates for better bicycling, walking, and public transit infrastructure in New York City. “It’s clear that Vision Zero is in a state of emergency and there is so much more that needs to be done in order to get us back on track.”
In response to this sense of emergency and to politicians’ lack of urgency in creating a safer city, a coalition of cycling groups staged a mass die-in in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park on Tuesday evening to bring more attention to the issue. Nearby, as protesters gathered, an NYPD vehicle was parked in a bike lane.
At the vigil for Hightman, a wall of police officers kept the swelling crowd from the traffic moving behind them. The police department eventually replaced the human wall with metal barricades. Across the street from the main gathering, a gaggle of officers stood talking and laughing. This was better than sitting in the office, they were overheard saying. Unsurprisingly, half a block away, on the southwest corner of Sixth Avenue, a police SUV was parked in the bike lane.
The next morning, the police were back on the block. They were not observing traffic or ticketing drivers for moving violations. They were there to ticket cyclists for riding outside the bike lane—an action that is often not in violation of the law in New York. According to local news outlet Gothamist, at least one officer was overheard blaming Hightman’s death on the fact that they were not in the bike lane when they were run over.
Mayor de Blasio has previously defended the practice of ticketing cyclists in the days after a driver runs over someone. (The mayor’s office did not return multiple requests for comment for this article.) But poorly designed streets in New York—especially the wide avenues that run north and south in Manhattan like the one where Hightman was run over—often physically push cyclists out of the bike lane, or make it a less safe option than simply riding in the road. While the New York Department of Transportation has added dozens of miles of bike lanes throughout the city in recent years, they are often unusable for more than a block or two at a time because of obstructions. Over the past two weeks, cyclists and cycling advocates have flooded social media with photos of vehicles—often government vehicles, commercial trucks, and taxi cabs—blocking bike lanes and making it impossible to pass.
After Askew and Freelander were killed, Mayor de Blasio told local news station NY1: “We absolutely have an emergency on our hands,” but also insisted that his Vision Zero plan was working. He pledged a “full-court press” to address cycling fatalities. The next day, the New York Police Department announced it would spend three weeks ticketing drivers, especially those parked in the bike lane.
On July 5, during what should have been one of the first days of the driver crackdown, the drivers of an NYPD SUV veered into a bike lane in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood and physically ran over a bicycle in an attempt to pull over a cyclist (who, fortunately, jumped off the bike before it was hit and wasn’t harmed).
This is what it is like to be a cyclist in New York City. It’s a wonderful and welcoming community that embraces newcomers with open arms. It’s easy to make friends, and most people quickly fall into something that resembles a family. But cycling is also met with downright hostility by those tasked with keeping us safe. There’s a joke among cyclists in this city that the way to kill someone without consequence is to run them over with your car (it’s a little too close to reality to be funny).
In the space between the grief at the vigil was a sense of dejection, a sense that no one cares about the lives of the people who work, commute, or just play on bicycles in this city. Most of the group were more familiar with mourning friends than 20-somethings should be. Many of them had gathered just four months prior in Brooklyn to mourn 25-year-old Aurilla Lawrence, run over by a tanker truck in March.
Cyclist fatalities are not accidents. They are preventable. They are as much a product of negligent or reckless driving as they are failures of street design and political will. Cyclist and pedestrian deaths in New York City (and America more generally) are a political choice—a choice to prioritize the value of letting cars move as they wish throughout the densest part of America over the lives that will inevitably be lost as a result.
At 20 years old Robyn Hightman stood for the best things about cycling. Those in power failed them. The question is not if, but when, they will fail the next young person who dares to believe this is a city that can keep them safe.
Shane Ferro is a writer and bike racer who has been cycling the streets of New York City for a dozen years. Her writing has previously appeared in HuffPost, Reuters, Business Insider, and Above the Law.