Road Cycling

New York Was Supposedly Getting Better for Cyclists. What Happened? – The New York Times



As the city makes way for more bike paths, there is also more congestion than ever, and cyclist fatalities are on the rise.

A recent die-in protest at Washington Square Park in Manhattan. CreditCreditChristopher Lee for The New York Times
Ginia Bellafante

On a particularly humid evening this week, hundreds of cyclists gathered in Washington Square Park for an action reminiscent of the years when AIDS summoned so many to protest bureaucratic indifference to tragedy. After several speeches addressing the need for cyclists to be better protected on the road, those who came to the park staged a die-in, lying down in mournful silence — a response to what has become known in the biking community as “the crisis.”

Just two years ago, the city’s transportation department issued an encouraging report on cycling in the city: over the preceding 20 years it had become safer and easier to navigate streets that were increasingly clogged with cars and trucks.

That progress, though, now appeared harder to identify. Between 2006 and 2015, the study noted, the number of bicycle trips made in a single year increased from 66 million to 164 million, and this presumably played a role in impeding the dangers coming from motor vehicles. For years, researchers in the field of traffic safety have posited that the more cyclists there are out on the streets, the safer the riding experience is for everyone. But recently that theory had begun to seem less reliable.

This year, 15 cyclists have died, struck by cars and trucks — more than the total, 10, killed during the whole of 2018. And while the crisis refers in the immediate sense to these fatalities, it speaks more broadly to the continued, reflexive privileging of automotive culture even as the urgencies of climate change mount and terrify.

Over the past two decades, urban planning has demonstrated little will to stem the forces of suburbanization resulting from the choice made by many families to remain in New York with the belief that they should forfeit none of the conveniences of living in Greenwich. Just this week The Daily News reported on one neighborhood’s rage over a financier who manage to carve a driveway for himself in front of his enormous townhouse out of a patch of public sidewalk.

The proliferation of cars and delivery trucks in the city could undermine the use of small alternative vehicles that reduce our carbon footprint.CreditChristopher Lee for The New York Times

About 45 percent of all households in New York City have cars according to recent census data, with close to 93,000 of them owning three or more. This reality has unfolded alongside the rise of Uber and Lyft and our growing reliance on getting everything — pet food, tennis balls, cocktail shakers, bulk ancient grains — delivered to us within 24 hours via the use of panel trucks. These developments not only threaten the cyclist’s sense of autonomy but also undermine the use of small alternative vehicles that reduce our carbon footprint.

Last month this increasingly congested streetscape absorbed 1,000 shareable mopeds. They arrived seemingly out of nowhere from a newly formed company called Revel whose chairman and co-founder Frank Reig, a former chef, wanted to ease the complications involved in moving from one part of Brooklyn or Queens to another. (“You’ve got a girlfriend in Williamsburg; how do I get there from Crown Heights?’’ he said by way of explaining his inspiration, a scenario that within certain demographics has a relatability factor upward of 99 percent.)

Alarmingly, the city has very little jurisdiction over these vehicles, and motorists in New York are not accustomed to sharing the road with a guy whose major qualifications to ride one is that he has a credit card and a girlfriend in Williamsburg. The rules surrounding these vehicles are minimal and governed not by the city but by the state, which simply requires you to have a standard driver’s license — not a motorcycle license — to operate them.

Revel is activated by an app that demands proof of that license (and prohibits usage if you have certain traffic violations). But although the company offers free instruction, you as a rider are not mandated to take a single class and might likely be inclined to dismiss the whole idea on the grounds that it would defeat the free-spirited, when-in-Rome ethos of a moped in the first place.

All you need to rent a Revel moped in the city is a standard driver’s license. CreditDrew Angerer/Getty Images

Perhaps in a different city a highly visible public-education would accompany this kind of roll out but at the moment, New York is not that city. It is a city managed by a mayor who, as Charles Komanoff, a former director of Transportation Alternatives, a prominent advocacy group put it, “is car culture.’’

The description applies not only because Bill de Blasio is chauffeured 12 miles to the gym on mornings that he is not out of town running for president, but also because the values of his administration can seem as if they are buried in the 20th century.

This was especially clear last fall, when a stretch of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway was revealed to be in dire condition. The first impulse from the city was not to eliminate it or to reduce the number of car and trucks dependent on the artery. Instead it proposed shutting down a heavily used pedestrian thoroughfare — the Brooklyn Heights Promenade — for several years as the B.Q.E. was returned to the state of polish in which it was created during the era of Robert Moses. The idea was regressive enough to attract almost no support.

One of the most moving speeches given at the Washington Square rally came from Hindy Schachter, whose husband died five years ago after he was hit by a cyclist while he was jogging in Central Park. She was there, she said, because she blamed inadequate road design and infrastructure for her husband’s death, not the cyclist who ran into him.

Of the city’s 1,240 miles of bike lanes, 337 have been added during the de Blasio administration, which is significant, in theory if not always in practice. The lanes are often obstructed by parked cars and the police, who have long maintained a skeptical if not hostile disposition toward cyclists, blame them in many cases for crashes that are ultimately the fault of motorists.

So far this year, 15 cyclists have died, struck by cars and trucks.CreditChristopher Lee for The New York Times

City Councilman Brad Lander has proposed a bill that would use camera technology to identify the city’s worst offenders — those with many speeding tickets and other infractions on their records — committing them to improving or impounding their cars. The City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, has pushed for the city to increase the number of bike-lane miles it creates each year to 50.

Ideally, New York would be ribboned with continuous bike paths that made street driving virtually unnecessary. But even if cost were not a factor, our system of governance empowers local community boards to have outsize influence over what gets built in their neighborhoods. Communities have fought back against bike lanes on the grounds that they will take away parking spaces, that they are aesthetically dubious, that they are a sign of further unwanted transformations.

At the rally in Washington Square I met a woman named Kweli Campbell, relatively new to cycling but someone who has been committed to expanding biking opportunities in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, where her family has deep roots. The resistance that she and others there have met comes from those who fear that bike lanes signal more insidious forms of gentrification. In neighborhoods where there has traditionally been little investment in infrastructure, bike lanes might feel hard to justify. But the biking world., something obvious from rallies and reflected in the recent deaths — among them an artist’s, a courier’s, a middle-aged man’s from Brownsville in Brooklyn — is huge and diverse, spanning many demographics.

And the dangers do not discriminate.

Ginia Bellafante has served as a reporter, critic and, since 2011, as the Big City columnist. She began her career at The Times as a fashion critic, and has also been a television critic. She previously worked at Time magazine. @GiniaNYT

A version of this article appears in print on , Section MB, Page 3 of the New York edition with the headline: What Happened to the Bike Safety Push?. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe