New York City

Inadequate traffic enforcement is undermining Vision Zero

After years of decline, New York City’s traffic deaths have ticked upwards so far this year and bicycle advocates point to misplaced priorities in the NYPD’s traffic enforcement as a leading culprit.

Cyclists mourn the loss of a 33-year-old woman fatally struck by a delivery truck while riding her bicycle on June 24, in New York City.

Cyclists mourn the loss of a 33-year-old woman fatally struck by a delivery truck while riding her bicycle on June 24, in New York City. Efren Landaos/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero program is faltering. After years of gradual progress for the ambitious initiative – which aims to eliminate all traffic-related deaths on New York City streets by 2024 – its momentum has stalled. 

Halfway through the year, 15 cyclists have already been killed on city streets, compared to 10 cyclist deaths in all of 2018. Pedestrian fatalities are also on the rise, with 56 people killed by cars so far this year (up slightly from 53 at the same point last year). And while total traffic-related deaths hit a record low in 2018, they have spiked more than 19 percent so far this year from the same period last year, according to the most recently released city data.

The rise in deadly crashes has sparked outrage among safe streets advocates, who contend that a lack of adequate traffic law enforcement has undermined Vision Zero and its goals and repeatedly failed to keep cyclists and pedestrians safe on city streets. Last Tuesday, activists staged a mass “die-in” in Washington Square Park to protest the carnage, at one point chiding the mayor with chants of “do your job.” 

The event came one week after de Blasio announced on July 2 that he had instructed the NYPD to begin a 3-week “major enforcement action” aimed at curbing reckless driver behavior, including parking in bike lanes and failure to yield. “When we started Vision Zero, it was meant to be a very ambitious initiative to change behavior and protect people… and obviously for five years, we’ve seen it working,” de Blasio said during an unrelated press conference on July 8. “This crisis situation with the bikes worries me deeply, and we need to do something differently.” 

During that press conference, the mayor also seemed to imply that traffic violations by cyclists were a factor in the recent uptick in traffic-related deaths on city streets, and said that in order for enforcement to work, “everyone has to be a part of the solution. We need everybody following the law.” 

That rhetoric upsets some cyclists and safe streets activists, who say they are already the targets of disproportionate police scrutiny – particularly after members of their own community are killed. After 20-year-old bike messenger Robyn Hightman became the 12th person killed on city streets this year in June, the NYPD commenced a ticketing blitz that led to 77 summonses – nearly 40 percent of which were handed out to cyclists

During a panel hosted by WNYC and Gothamist on Thursday night, NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan acknowledged that the policy of handing out summonses to cyclists in the wake of a deadly crash is “insensitive” and said that moving forward, the department’s enforcement policy will focus “strictly on vehicles." In a statement, Sergeant Mary Frances O’Donnell, an NYPD spokesperson, confirmed that police will move from enforcement action against bicyclists to education in the wake of a fatal collision, and said that moving forward, “enforcement efforts will be directed at vehicle operators when this type of fatality occurs.” O’Donnelladded that 5,673 summonses have been issued to vehicles parked in bike lanes citywide since July 1, a 96% increase when compared to the same time period last year.

But many in the cycling community still believe that some cops harbor anti-cyclist attitudes. In a July 14 tweet, the Sargeant’s Benevolent Association – the city’s second-largest police union – claimed that people in the city were being “killed by bicycles” while the mayor campaigned in Iowa during a power outage that left much of the city dark the weekend prior. Doug Gordon, who co-hosts the “War on Cars” podcast, responded that “this is the cops’ cultural bias against cyclists in action. It’s a real problem.”

City Councilman Justin Brannan, from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, said that a “windshield perspective” within the NYPD has frequently resulted in law enforcement officials letting drivers off the hook after crashes, even when they are to blame. “When other violent crimes are committed, law enforcement doesn’t need to personally witness the act to bring charges,” Brannan said. “If someone gets stabbed and cops arrive on the scene to a victim, a guy holding a bloody knife and three witnesses, an arrest will be made. I have no idea why it's handled any differently when the weapon is a car."

Those accusations are more than just mere speculation: In June, an investigation by City Limits found that a majority of summonses issued under Vision Zero’s Failure to Yield Law are ultimately tossed out by judges due to inadequately detailed tickets and cops blowing off hearings. Safe streets advocates have also long disputed what they describe as a lack of enforcement around the obstruction of New York City’s 1,240 miles of bike lanes, of which only around 480 miles are “protected” — meaning that a physical barrier exists to separate cyclists from moving traffic. (Overwhelmingly, the 15 cyclists killed by cars in 2019 were struck on roads on which no protected bike lane exists.) Complicating the alleged lack of enforcement over bike lane obstruction is the fact that the NYPD officers themselves are often the operators of vehicles parked or idling in areas specifically designated for cyclist use. 

Even some progressive New York City politicians have said that scofflaw bikers are themselves part of the problem. At a New York Law School breakfast last year, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said, “I will tell you – as someone who is incredibly sympathetic to cyclists (and has) supported more protected bike lanes in my district than anyone else – there is a public perception problem when people see cyclists not stopping at lights, or driving on sidewalks, or going the wrong way down the street. It is a serious problem.” 

But others still believe that bike riders are the disproportionate focus of traffic law administration. Mike Lydon, a principal at StreetPlans, an urban planning and transportation design firm, said NYPD officers should not issue summonses to cyclists for infractions such as riding outside of unobstructed bike lanes and failure to yield. While technically illegal, Lydon argued, those violations are “so much less severe than someone who’s driving a 4,000-pound car,” and committing the same offense. “The impact of a car running through a red light at an intersection can be deadly; if a cyclist does it, no one’s going to die,” Lydon said. “That’s not saying that cyclists shouldn’t stop at red lights, but if there’s no traffic coming and you have a totally clear intersection and you slow down and yield, it just seems kind of silly to not be able to proceed legally.”

The tension between the NYPD and cyclists reached a boiling point on July 5, after video footage and photos emerged showing a mangled Citibike lodged inside the wheel well of a police cruiser. In video taken at the scene, an arresting officer can be heard telling a cyclist that the crash had been a justified use of force, given that he had been attempting to stop him for reckless activity that included running multiple red lights. "I'm going to use whatever means necessary to stop you, and that's for your safety," the officer said, to outraged cries from onlookers.

Joe Cutrufo, communications director for the bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives, said that the NYPD’s frequently pro-car attitude also runs the risk of influencing opinions elsewhere in the city’s criminal justice system when, all too often in the aftermath of a deadly crash, officers will prematurely blame victims for their own deaths. Those prejudgements, he said – usually issued before an investigation has even been conducted – can have the unintended consequence of prejudicing the judges or lawyers tasked with examining the cases further on down the road. “They get the ball rolling in the wrong direction every time they do that, and then victims’ families, who are already mourning, have to pull together an investigation of their own and try to get the story right and make sure that drivers who kill are held accountable,” Cutrufo said. “It’s why we’ve leaned so heavily on unbiased, automated enforcement.”

Automated enforcement, such as speed cameras, is the cornerstone of legislation introduced by City Councilman Brad Lander last June. Known as the “Reckless Driver Accountability Act,” the legislation would punish drivers who rack up more than five red-light or speed camera violations in one year, threatening to boot or impound offenders’ cars or force their owners complete a traffic safety course aimed at reforming dangerous driving habits. “It’s no surprise that those reckless drivers cause more crashes, and yet we haven’t done anything to target those drivers or require them to change their behavior or get them off the road,” Lander said. 

Even a shift in policing priorities may be unable to stem the tide of deaths in car crashes. Ideally, better street design would limit the dangers in the first place. “You’re supposed to get design right first, and traffic safety policy,” Cutrufo said. “Speeding and recklessness is what enforcement should be focused on, but the street design should take care of the systemic problems.”