The death toll has become a grim reminder of the dangers of biking on New York City’s congested streets.
It has continued to rise even as city officials have sought to make streets safer by redesigning intersections and building more protected bike lanes to separate cyclists from vehicles. Twenty-five cyclists have been killed so far this year, which is 15 more than in all of 2018, and the highest toll in two decades.
Now New York is going even further to re-engineer streets that were once dominated by cars and for the first time adjusting traffic signals to give bikes the priority for green lights.
Cyclists who travel, on average, 10 to 15 miles per hour on streets where the speed limit is typically up to 25 m.p.h. will catch a wave of green lights and glide through intersections without having to stop.
Drivers who go faster than 15 m.p.h. will hit red lights.
“As we are working to grow cycling in New York City, we want to make it safer and we also want to make it an enjoyable ride,” said Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner, who called the move “the next frontier” in the city’s biking efforts.
New York’s experiment with what has been called a green wave is part of a global movement to make urban streets more welcoming to bikes, even as the country’s streets have become more dangerous.
The number of bicyclists and pedestrians killed in the United States last year reached its highest level since 1990, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Other cities, including San Francisco and Chicago, have also calibrated traffic signals in favor of bicyclists.
The retimed signals help maintain a slower and steadier traffic flow and reduce potential conflicts, such as when cyclists run red lights or drivers race to beat the light at the next intersection, traffic experts say.
The green wave for cyclists has been quietly introduced in Brooklyn, where 16 of the 25 bicycling fatalities so far this year have occurred. It has been operating on a nearly half-mile stretch of Hoyt and Bond Streets since December and will soon be expanded over the next year to three more locations that draw many cyclists and have relatively low vehicle traffic: Clinton Street, which is also in Brooklyn; Prince Street in Manhattan; and 43rd Avenue in Queens.
Many cyclists have already benefited from the program without knowing it.
“I just thought I got lucky, but it’s nice they’re doing it on purpose,” said Anthony Scelza, a 21-year-old college student, as he rode recently on Hoyt Street. “I like keeping my momentum.”
Some drivers, not surprisingly, were less enthusiastic. “It seemed like I stopped at every light,” said Daniel Ortiz, 41, who drives to work in Downtown Brooklyn. “It’s horrible. It slows you down. Every light you’ve got to keep stopping.”
Mr. Ortiz added that retiming the traffic signals did little to address the issue of cyclists who run red lights. “They don’t stop,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they have the light or not. It’s dangerous for everyone.”
In 2018, police officers issued summonses for running red lights to 16,254 cyclists and 56,086 motor vehicle drivers, according to police records.
Joe Cutrufo, a spokesman for Transportation Alternatives, a group that promotes cycling, said drivers were likely to object to anything that challenged their long-held claim to the streets.
“The green wave doesn’t just accommodate people on bikes — it prioritizes them,” he said. “For so long, cities would paint a stripe on the street, and we were supposed to be content with that.”
While the concept of a green wave is not new, it was traditionally used by traffic engineers to move cars more quickly through congested urban streets.
It was adapted for cyclists in 2007 by Copenhagen, a city that has gained international acclaim for its extensive bike system, and has since spread to other cities as cycling has increasingly emerged as a healthier and more environmentally friendly alternative to driving.
The green wave not only makes it safer and less stressful for cyclists to ride alongside cars, but it also ensures a more even and predictable travel speed for everyone sharing a road that can result in fewer accidents and, if there are any crashes, less severe injuries, said Aaron Villere, a senior program associate for the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
“We’ve seen it improves safety,” said Mr. Villere, citing the findings of cities that have retimed signals for cyclists. “We’ve seen it makes the streets more comfortable for people biking, walking and driving.”
San Francisco introduced a green wave in 2009 on Valencia Street, a popular biking corridor near the city’s downtown, and has since expanded it to six other streets. Cyclists have become so accustomed to the green waves that they complain to city transportation officials whenever a traffic signal is malfunctioning.
Traffic signals in Portland, Ore., have been retimed on seven streets used by thousands of cyclists daily since 2011. In Denver, the signals along part of 16th Avenue, a major biking corridor into downtown, were adjusted five years ago.
And in downtown Chicago, cyclists now ride faster along a half-mile section of Wells Street, where traffic signals were retimed in 2015; the average morning bike speed increased 64 percent to 10 m.p.h. from 6 m.p.h., according to city data.
In New York, cycling has boomed as the city’s bike-share program, Citi Bike, has expanded and people fleeing the troubled subway and bus systems have sought other ways to get around. There are about 460,000 bike rides daily compared with about 180,000 in 2006, according to city estimates.
In response to the cyclist fatalities, city officials in July unveiled a bike safety plan, which includes hiring 80 new city workers dedicated to bike improvements.
New York recently completed building its 100th mile of protected bike lane on the city’s streets since 2014; the latest addition is in East New York, a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn with relatively few bike lanes.
“We’ve done a lot of work developing the physical roadway and now we’re looking at ways that signal-timing can improve the safety and comfort of cyclists,” said Carl Sundstrom, a senior project analyst for the city’s Transportation Department.
City transportation officials began testing the green wave late last year on eight blocks of Hoyt and Bond, two one-way streets popular with cyclists going to and from the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. On Hoyt, cyclists — as many as 594 an hour — often outnumber drivers.
To create a green wave, the signals were retimed so that each light turned green about 11 or 12 seconds after the one immediately preceding it. When the signals were timed to cars, the green lights came on about seven seconds apart.
“It’s a lot more efficient,” said Olguine Alcide, a civil engineer who managed the project. “It’s less time waiting at the intersection and less time traveling the same distance.”
While the retimed lights have made it easier for cyclists, they have also slowed traffic. On Hoyt Street, for example, traffic slowed during the evening rush to an average of 12 m.p.h. down from 17 m.p.h., officials said.
Rudolph Harrison, a retired security officer, said the change had made traffic worse and benefited cyclists at the expense of drivers. “You’ve got to go to work or to appointments,” he said. “It’s good for cyclists, but not motorists, and I’m both.”
But Tex Barnwell, 72, who bikes every day, said the city needed more green waves. Too many drivers, he said, are going too fast and not paying attention to the cyclists riding beside them. In June, he was knocked over by a turning car in Brooklyn and spent weeks recovering from his injuries.
Mr. Barnwell said drivers need to be slowed down.
“No matter how fast you go, the light is going to change and you’re going to stop,” he said. “They should do it everywhere.”