On Tuesday, July 9, more than 1,000 cyclists laid on the ground of Washington Square Park during a “die-in” to protest the dangerous conditions of riding a bicycle on New York City streets. Among the prone protestors, a smattering stood with signs reading names of the 15 cyclists killed in the first seven months of the year. The crowd was mostly quiet, except for a trumpet player and chant of each name.
In the weeks since the die-in, there have been more, albeit smaller, vigils. One for Alex Cordero, a 17-year-old bicyclist struck and killed by a tow truck on Staten Island. Just a few hours after that crash, a box truck hit and killed a 58-year-old on his bike in Brooklyn. (His name has not been released.) In late July, around 50 cycling advocates gathered in Sunset Park to mourn Em Samolewicz, killed by a truck driver the prior day. And this month, 52-year-old Jose Alzorriz was killed on his bike in Brooklyn after a car ran a red light. Alzorriz is the 19th New Yorker killed while biking this year.
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There have been comparisons of the Washington Square Park die-in to the Stop de Kindermoord (“stop child murder”) movement that emerged in 1970s Netherlands in response to rising traffic fatalities. There is, however, a glaring difference: Stop de Kindermoord was subsidized by the Dutch government, established a formal headquarters, and went on to develop ideas for safer urban planning that helped change Dutch street design for good.
In New York, there is Vision Zero, created by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Transportation to eradicate traffic deaths in New York City by 2024. But five years after the program was established, safe streets activists are burnt out, frustrated, and emotionally drained. The bold promise of Vision Zero was not, in their minds, followed by a bold commitment to transform the streets. Cycling and transportation advocates ultimately know that achieving zero traffic deaths requires a radical change to how we regulate, design for, and talk about cars and driving—but there’s a wearying uncertainty as to when that day will come.
Now, many of those activists are asking one simple question: What does the future hold for Vision Zero in New York City?
While a DOT spokesperson provided information on the agency’s priorities moving forward—outlined in the recent Green Wave safety plan—they did not provide an interview with a Department of Transportation representative after multiple requests. The suggestion was that the Green Wave, introduced by the mayor after the die-in to “confront the rise in cycling fatalities in 2019,” speaks for itself.
While the plan proposes important solutions—increased bike lane implementation, traffic and truck enforcement, street design updates, new policies and legislation—there’s a hole that’s hard to ignore. As Streetsblog points out, “There’s nothing in de Blasio’s ‘bicycle safety plan’ that truly imagines a city without those drivers or their 3,000-pound machines, which more and more mayors across the globe are realizing are anathema to urban life.”
Vision Zero was founded in Sweden in 1996 on the belief that loss of life is not an acceptable price to pay for car mobility. De Blasio introduced it to New York City in 2014 as a broad, data-driven mandate to tackle traffic fatalities. In the past five years, the city has utilized crash data to identify priority streets and intersections for redesigns, resulting in important successes. Compared to 2013, the year before Vision Zero began, New York City’s overall traffic deaths have fallen by one-third, according to the five-year report. The city has also installed more than 82 miles of bike lanes since the start of Vision Zero.
But there remain reasons why this approach hasn’t fully worked for bicyclists. Until the Green Wave came along, Vision Zero’s priorities for cyclists have been bike lane implementation and improved intersection design. But addressing high-risk intersections and streets hasn’t been aggressively coupled with policies to replace cars with safer, better-connected street networks benefitting bicyclists who travel large swaths of the city on a single trip.
“Vision Zero is a really powerful mandate for the city to change the streets,” says Jon Orcutt, a former DOT official, TransAlt chief, and TransitCenter communications director who now runs Bike New York’s advocacy arm, which launched this year. “But in practice, it’s become a little mechanistic and we’ve lost a broader, sustainable, livable streets strategy as a result. We can make sure places with bad crash histories have less bad crash histories, but it’s not exactly the way you get the city you want to live in.”
As any New York bicyclist will tell you, painted roads don’t ensure safety. In the outer boroughs, bike lanes are either non-existent or spit bicyclists onto dangerous, unprotected streets. (For an example, look no further than the years it’s taken to create a cohesive bike lane along Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue.)
Vision Zero hasn’t grappled with the constant reminder bicyclists face: New York streets are designed for, and dominated by, the car. And it hasn’t fully acknowledged the 140-year history of suspicion and contempt toward cyclists fighting for a safe piece of New York City’s roadways.
This has become a much bigger issue as city bicycling increases. According to a 2019 report by the DOT, there’s been a 26 percent rise in the number of New Yorkers who ride a bike several times a month between 2012 and 2017. Citi Bike launched in 2013, with 17.6 million trips taken in 2018, an 8 percent bump from the year prior.
Despite this increase, Orcutt feels we lack a basic understanding of ridership trends across the city. The DOT keeps “closely-held cycling counts,” according to a letter from Bike New York urging the department to release its automatic bike counts to the public. Opening the data, the letter suggests, will “allow the Department and other organizations that encourage cycling many more opportunities to analyze and promote the use of bikes, the attractiveness of well-designed and maintained bike facilities, the impacts of weather, bike network changes, and other factors affecting cycling behavior in New York.”
The DOT hasn’t responded to Bike New York’s letter, Orcutt says. “We don’t really understand what’s happening with bikes in the city,” he says.
Bahij Chancey, a member of the board of directors and advisory council at Transportation Alternatives, adds that Vision Zero’s focus on street and intersection data, rather than ridership, doesn’t serve the city’s most vulnerable riders. Most of 2019’s bicycling deaths, he points out, have happened in the outer boroughs, which lack the comprehensive bike lane networks in many Manhattan neighborhoods. A better understanding of ridership—particularly in outer boroughs—can be a first step in prioritizing bicyclists and their unique safety concerns.
“When you’re looking at the [intersection] data,” Chancey says, “You don’t see which cyclists are poor, which are black or Hispanic, you’re just seeing where people are getting hit and killed the most.” Many of the city’s most dangerous intersections happen to be in outer-borough, low-income neighborhoods, Chancey adds, and he sees it as a missed opportunity to understand the needs of riders in those communities.
There are, of course, major hurdles beyond the scope of Vision Zero. Ambitious safe street proposals typically face fierce community board opposition and lawsuits. The DOT, to its credit, has begun moving ahead on some street safety implementation without support of the local boards, but the Green Wave doesn’t prioritize any major shift in the DOT’s public engagement process.
Safe streets advocates have advanced a narrative they feel best challenges that opposition: Street fatalities are an urgent public health crisis, and the main cause—cars—should face increased enforcement and be reduced from the road.
“We have an epidemic, we have a vaccine, and know the cure; it should just be rolled out quickly,” says Amy Cohen, who became co-founder of Families for Safe Streets after a car killed her son Sammy in 2012. “It shouldn’t be this hard.”
“If we’re not really willing to make the big step to transition away from cars, we’re not really going to have the truly safe city,” says Philip Leff, chair of Transportation Alternatives’ North Brooklyn Committee. “We can have a statistically safe city, but not a truly safe one.”
It remains to be seen how much longer the city can drag its feet on the issue. This year Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed one of the most ambitious bills in the country to combat climate change; it’s unclear how those goals will be met without a significant reduction in car use. This longterm crisis is coupled with more rapid changes to New York City streets, including the growth of scooters, e-bikes, and mopeds.
“The fact is that the streets are changing,” Orcutt says. Addressing it all—the long-term urgency of climate change and short-term urgency of safety for rapidly-evolving streets—will require a more ambitious, multi-agency effort than Vision Zero or the Green Wave outlines. The city ultimately needs a vision unafraid to place limitations on cars.
One common sentiment from safe streets activists is their frustration at a seemingly never-ending fight and uncertainty toward prompt implementation of plans like the Green Wave. Chancey compared bicycling advocacy to fighting for gun safety at the federal level. Leff spoke of the year’s emotional hardship, attending one bicycle vigil after another. Cohen emotionally spoke of the growing rank of Families for Safe Streets, “involuntary volunteers” who have all lost loved ones to traffic deaths.
But as the Washington Square die-in demonstrated, there’s increased advocacy and outcry that’s resonated with local politicians (including City Council speaker Corey Johnson, who will run for mayor in 2021). Many advocates hope the fight for safe streets will further align with the fight for climate action. And there’s acknowledgment by the city that Vision Zero is now in crisis, coupled by a willingness to look into why.
“But to get more, we shouldn’t have to have more blood on our streets,” says Cohen, her voice cracking. “There is a river of blood flowing on our streets and it leaves an ocean of tears behind. It’s gotta stop.”