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In NYC, Cycling Deaths Increase But Gears Turn Slowly On Safety Measures

Aug 14, 2019
Originally published on August 20, 2019 2:49 pm

Jennie Jo Marine is 49 years old and has lived in New York City for her entire life. During her more than 20 years working as a bike messenger, she has been in more traffic accidents than she can count.

She's flown up on windshields and has been sucked underneath vehicles. Some of her most frequent accidents have been "doorings" — when a bicyclist is struck by an abruptly opened car door or rides into one that has been left open.

During her most recent dooring — almost a year ago — she injured her shoulder and broke her collarbone. She is still recovering and has had to cut down her bike messenger work from full time to part time to heal.

But Marine says she's one of the lucky ones. Despite all of her accidents, she is still alive.

Is it making a difference?

In New York City, eight people have been killed while riding their bikes since June, bringing the total number of deaths so far this year to 19.

"My friends [and I] ... we are really in a weird time right now," Marine said. "No one really wants to go ride even though it's the thing we love to do most. So we do it and hope we make it home safe."

Bike deaths are on the rise across the United States, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. It recorded 840 cycling fatalities in 2016 — the highest in 25 years.

In New York City, cycling fatalities have continued to fluctuate without a clear trend. Last year the city reported an all time low of 10 cyclist deaths, down from 24 deaths the prior year.

A memorial site in Manhattan, where Robyn Hightman, a bike messenger, was hit and killed by a truck this summer. People have tucked messages of support in the spokes of a bike wheel.
Aubri Juhasz / NPR

But the recent surge has led cyclists and transit safety advocates to ask whether the city's ambitious plan to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries by 2024 — known as Vision Zero — is making a difference.

In 2014, then newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio — now a Democratic presidential candidate — made New York the first U.S. city to adopt Vision Zero. Since then, the number of pedestrian and motor vehicle deaths have steadily decreased. That hasn't been true for cyclists, despite the construction of more than 300 miles of bike lanes.

Researchers say that in order to bring down the number of cycling deaths, cities need to have a complete network of bike lanes, with as many separated from cars as possible.

Building a new bike lane can take weeks or months, and the process can be delayed even further when communities resist these efforts.

Polly Trottenberg, the city's transportation commissioner, told NPR that the city is taking the necessary steps to prevent future deaths and that the circumstances the city is facing are not unique.

"We are all facing a lot of the same challenges," Trottenberg said, referring to Vision Zero cities in the U.S. "Years where we see fatalities go down. Years where tragically we see fatalities on the rise. Dealing with all the demands on our roadways."

New demands are also a part of the equation. Uber and Lyft as well as big-box trucks — fueled by the booming e-commerce industry — pose added dangers for cyclists and strain an already over-congested system.

Many months, many years

Leah Shahum, executive director of the Vision Zero Network — an independent nonprofit that assesses progress in Vision Zero cities across the U.S. — agreed with Trottenberg's assessment and said the state of cycling infrastructure in New York has less to do with flaws in current policy and more to do with prior decades of inaction.

"When [a city] commits to Vision Zero ... everything doesn't change on that day. Their systems don't change, their funding models don't change. It's going to take many months for some things and many years for some things," Shahum said.

At the same time, Shahum said the deaths may be evidence that New York is not doing enough to keep pace with the city's growing number of cyclists.

"For most cities we were seeing slower progress to date than New York was seeing. New York was really ahead of the game in that way," Shahum said. "And now do you see New York in some ways kind of falling back? We do, but I wouldn't say that that's unexpected because there is so much literal territory to cover on the ground redesigning streets, but also the policy change."

Disappointing and disorienting

With more people cycling than ever before, setbacks are leading to accidents. According to the NYDOT, the number of daily bike rides more than doubled between 2012 and 2017. Today, nearly half a million cycling trips are made every day.

More people are choosing to cycle for a variety of reasons — concerns about their impact on the environment, frustration with public transit and desire to improve their physical health. The city has also been instrumental in encouraging people to bike, including the massive rollout of Citi Bike bike shares.

Over the past few years, the city has on average built 62 miles of bike lanes each year — the largest increase anywhere in the country. But, in a city with more than 6,000 miles of streets, fewer than 1 in 5 has a bike lane.

According to the New York Department of Transportation, the number of daily bike rides more than doubled between 2012 and 2017. Today, nearly half a million cycling trips are made every day.
Aubri Juhasz / NPR

Sophie Maerowitz and Todd Martino live in Manhattan's East Village and rely on their bikes to get to work, run errands and visit friends — logging more than 50 miles a week each.

They've found the city's fragmented network to be particularly frustrating.

"When you get these incomplete networks you have this situation where great, you have this fresh new bike lane, you're excited you know?" Maerowitz said. "This infrastructure is working for you and then suddenly it's gone and you have to go back out into traffic again."

Not only is it disappointing when a bike lane ends, it can also be disorienting.

"There's no consistency. One second the lane is there and then it is on the other side of the road. Then it's gone completely," Martino said. "You have to be keeping an eye on this, while watching for other cars and keeping pace with traffic."

Car culture and other opposition

Marco Conner, co-deputy director of the New York City-based advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, says the city isn't being aggressive enough when it comes to both policy enforcement and the speed of bike lane construction.

"We have the resources for both. It is strictly a matter of political will or lack thereof," Conner said. "We are only using half measures. We are still seeking the approval of local community boards for far too many projects when we know those projects will save lives."

He cites two big challenges. The first is addressing car culture and the controversy of removing street parking to make room for bike lanes.

Conner says projects often get postponed — sometimes indefinitely — because of opposition from local community boards. This opposition is not surprising given the United States' dependence on cars and deference towards policies that protect this dependence. This is often referred to as "car culture."

The policies that help make cyclists — and pedestrians — safer, such as lower speed limits and eliminating street parking to build bike lanes, often inconvenience and sometimes anger drivers.

New York City has more than 6,000 miles of streets. Fewer than 1 in 5 has a bike lane.
Aubri Juhasz / NPR

Colin Browne, communications director with the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, says that in all cities this tension — sometimes referred to as "bikelash" — is a major reason why infrastructure change isn't happening faster.

"This is where American cities are struggling," Browne said. "You get a lot of pushback. People don't want to slow down. They don't want to have to look for a parking space somewhere else just because that space is needed to keep people safe. And so the process gets slowed down as people sort of grapple with the reality of what it means in their day to day life and decide that maybe they don't support it as much as they thought they did."

The other problem New York City needs to address is the lack of policy enforcement, says Conner.

The city has been successful in passing several laws that protect cyclists — like lowering the speed limit to 25 mph in most areas and making it illegal to open your car door into a cyclist's path — but violations often go unnoticed.

Conner says there needs to be more enforcement, not just more speed cameras — which the city has already pledged to install — but also automated ticketing for vehicles that park in bike lanes or fail to yield to bicyclists.

More bike lanes, better enforcement

At the beginning of July, after 15 cyclists had been killed, the New York Police Department announced a two-week crackdown on policies that protect cyclists. During this period, the police department reported that 5,673 summonses for vehicles parked in bike lanes were handed out — a 96% increase compared to the same period last year.

After the 17th cycling death this year, Mayor de Blasio announced that over the next five years an additional $58.4 million will be targeted to building more bike lanes and providing better enforcement in high risk areas.

Marine says that since Vision Zero started five years ago, she hasn't noticed the streets getting safer — the situation has simply "morphed." She argues that having bike lanes, but not having a complete network, might actually be making the streets more dangerous for cyclists.

"It's always been dangerous but now that we have [bike lanes] and people see that there's a place that we should be, we have to be there. Even if it's not there," Marine said. "There aren't bike lanes on every street. Before there were bike lanes, it was just a free-for-all and the cars knew you were there. We had to take a lane and that was it. But now if you take a lane, people want you back in the bike lane even though it's not always there."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Bike deaths are on the rise in the U.S. Fatalities in 2016 were the highest they have been in 25 years. Take New York City, where 19 cyclists have died this year - eight so far this summer. The city has tried to protect riders, but as NPR's Aubri Juhasz reports, vehicles hitting cyclists remains a big problem.

AUBRI JUHASZ, BYLINE: Cycling in New York City has always been dangerous, but the recent surge in deaths has even shaken longtime bike messenger Jennie Jo Marine.

JENNIE JO MARINE: My friends - we're really in a weird time right now. No one really wants to go ride, even though it's the thing that we love to do the most. You know, so we do it, and we hope we make it home safe.

JUHASZ: The deaths have led some to question whether Mayor Bill de Blasio's traffic safety plan, known as Vision Zero, is making a difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Mayor de Blasio.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We are here for Hugo.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: We are here for Hugo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And Hector.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: And Hector.

JUHASZ: Last month, hundreds of cyclists gathered in Washington Square Park to protest the deaths. In 2014, New York was the first U.S. city to adopt the Vision Zero safety plan. Since then, while the number of pedestrian and motor vehicle deaths have decreased, that hasn't been true for cyclists, despite the construction of more than 300 miles of bike lanes.

In order to bring down the number of cycling deaths, experts say cities need to have a complete network of bike lanes, with as many separated from cars as possible. Building a new bike lane can take months, and car-dependent communities often resist construction efforts.

POLLY TROTTENBERG: You know, we're all facing a lot of the same challenges - years where we see fatalities go down, years where, tragically, we see fatalities on the rise, dealing with all the demands on our roadways.

JUHASZ: That's Polly Trottenberg, New York City's Department of Transportation commissioner. She says that it's normal for cities to experience setbacks. But with a growing number of cyclists on New York City's streets, setbacks are leading to accidents. Overall, most of the city's streets are far from bike friendly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOPHIE MAEROWITZ: Cool. Are you ready for a ride?

JUHASZ: Yeah.

MAEROWITZ: So this is nice.

JUHASZ: Yeah, lots of space right now.

I'm riding a bicycle and following cyclists Sophie Maerowitz and Todd Martino in New York's East Village. We start out on a protected bike lane, but that quickly comes to an end. Then there's a painted lane. Then there's nothing at all. On another street, we see cars parked in the bike lane. We circle back to the park, and Maerowitz expresses her frustration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAEROWITZ: When you get these incomplete networks, you have this situation where, great, you have this fresh, new bike lane. You're excited. You know, this infrastructure is working for you. And then, suddenly, it's gone, and you have to go out into traffic again.

JUHASZ: This is a city with more than 6,000 miles of streets, but fewer than 1 in 5 have a bike lane. Marco Conner, with the New York City-based advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, argues that New York isn't being aggressive enough.

MARCO CONNER: We are only using half measures. We are still seeking the approval of local community boards for far too many projects when we know that those projects will save lives.

JUHASZ: He cites two big challenges. The first is addressing car culture and the controversy of removing street parking to make room for bike lanes. The second is enforcement. New York City has already expanded its use of speed cameras, but Connor says they also need automated ticketing for vehicles that park in bike lanes or fail to yield to cyclists.

After the city's 17 cycling death this year, Mayor de Blasio announced an additional $58 million will be targeted to building more bike lanes and providing better enforcement in areas that are high-risk for cyclists.

Aubri Juhasz, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HOLYDRUG COUPLE'S "AMPHRITRITES LOST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.