From reading the steady drumbeat of coverage of bicycle crashes on New York City streets, one would think that biking is uniquely dangerous. In fact, far more New York City pedestrians than cyclists have died in traffic this year.
So why are cyclist deaths receiving more media coverage? Experts and city lawmakers point to a spike in cyclist deaths, the pitfalls of city initiatives to curb traffic fatalities and the city’s cycling community’s ability to mobilize and make waves.
Traffic fatalities in the city were at a record low in 2018, dropping to 200 total, with cyclist deaths also at an all-time low. There have been 19 cyclist deaths and 70 pedestrian deaths in 2019, thus far, with overall traffic fatalities up 25% compared to last year, according to data from the New York City Police Department. Deaths among bikers have seen a remarkable climb, rising from 10 in all of 2018.
It’s the steep rise in cyclist fatalities that’s caught the media’s attention and is largely responsible for this disparity in coverage between pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, Gersh Kuntzman, Streetsblog NYC’s editor-in-chief, told City & State. “They've (pedestrian fatalities) been fairly consistent over the past few years,” Kuntzman said. “But the renewed attention to cyclist deaths is in response to what is on pace to be one of the bloodiest years ever for cyclists.”
Though not as dramatic, pedestrian fatalities also have increased slightly this year. Seventy pedestrians have died within the past eight months, a 15% increase from the 58 pedestrians who died in the same period last year. And, while 2018 saw record-low traffic deaths in total, pedestrian deaths saw a slight incline, rising from 107 to 114.
Thomas DeVito, director of advocacy at Transportation Alternatives, an organization dedicated to making city streets safer by reducing the number of automobiles on the road, also noted the uptick in cyclist deaths, while stressing the importance of making sure all traffic deaths receive coverage. “Coverage of these (traffic) deaths shouldn’t be based off of this year versus last year’s percentages,” DeVito told City & State in a phone interview. “These (pedestrians and cyclists) are all individuals who mattered, who have people who miss them, and ultimately the city failed them. So, all of them really should be covered.”
The city’s strong community of cyclists is also a reason why cyclist deaths have gained significant media coverage over the past few months, according to New York City Councilman Brad Lander, who says that being a pedestrian is “less of an identity.”
“Cyclists have a community of solidarity that pedestrians don't have,” Lander said. “There's a sense of organizing amongst cyclists, who have built up a community of political solidarity through StreetsPAC and other organizations. Folks who are cycling now see themselves in each other, whereas we're all pedestrians.”
Cyclists and safe streets advocates have been hustling to bring attention to cyclist fatalities by taking to Twitter and the streets to advocate for policy changes. On July 9, hundreds of cyclists held a die-in in Washington Square Park, after the death of the 15th cyclist this year. “Mayor de Blasio, we demand protection,” protesters chanted in unison.
The city’s most vocal cycling activists also tend to stem from a demographic that is over-represented in politics and media: college-educated professionals, the same sort of progressive activists who have powered successful insurgent campaigns in recent Democratic primaries. The prevalence of cycling accidents in Brooklyn, and – to a lesser extent, Manhattan – might be part of why the issue gets disproportionate attention. There have been 14 bicycle riders killed in Brooklyn this year and three in Manhattan, versus only two in the other three boroughs combined.
“We need to work harder to make sure the movement for safe streets, the implementation of safe streets, and the implementation of our work for safe streets really reflects the totality of the city,” Lander said.
Both Kuntzman and DeVito noted that policy failures and a perception of hypocrisy in the de Blasio administration are responsible for catching the attention of journalists. “Of course there would be more coverage of cycling deaths,” Kuntzman said, “when the city says it wants to try to encourage cycling at the same time that it is not keeping cyclists safe. I think reporters are noticing the hypocrisy and the abject failure of the de Blasio administration to advance one policy without solving the other policies that inhibit cyclists.”
On July 25, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled out his $58.4 million Green Wave plan, following the 17th cyclist fatality this year. The plan’s main objective is to make the city safer for cyclists by installing more protected bike lanes, redesigning intersections and cracking down on reckless driving. Vision Zero, the mayor’s original initiative to curb traffic fatalities, which he launched in 2014, is focused on preventing all traffic-related incidents and deaths, not just cyclist deaths. But both programs have received significant criticism from cycling advocates, who say it doesn’t go far enough.
Vision Zero is something that Transportation Alternatives has long supported, according to DeVito, but advocates have grown more frustrated and skeptical of the city’s ability to deliver on its promise to make streets safer for cyclists due to its piecemeal implementation. “It wasn't systematized and it hasn't been systematized to the extent that it needs to be,” DeVito said. “The (introduction of) cycling technologies that occurred this year have occurred on streets without any bike infrastructure whatsoever. We need a fully connected network of protected bike lanes.”
Scott Gastel, a spokesperson for the city's Department of Transportation told City & State in an email that the department is working on making improvements to the city’s transportation system by “allocating more street and curb space to the most efficient modes of travel: walking, biking, and buses, and helping trucks to find a place at the curb so they don’t double park,” to reduce vehicle usage and achieve the city's Vision Zero goals.
The DOT is using speed cameras, increased enforcement of traffic laws and the Green Wave plan to improve cyclist safety and decrease fatalities, according to Gastel. The city is also working toward having 80% of trips be made either walking, cycling, or using public transportation, increasing the average bus speeds by 25% over the next year and implementing congestion pricing within the coming years. It's also in the midst of studying the effect of its car share program on vehicle reduction.
Kuntzman argued that the city’s newest plan to increase cyclist safety, Green Wave, includes design and enforcement measures that should have been authorized by the city when Vision Zero was initially launched. He also cited the absence of automobile reduction strategies in either plan as a hindrance to reducing traffic fatalities in general. “If the mayor would seek to reduce car usage, we would get close to the zero of Vision Zero,” Kuntzman said. “Until then, the Green Wave is just a slight improvement to the existing approach to road violence.”
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