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Opinion | New York Needs to Move Aggressively to Protect Cyclists and Pedestrians


For more than a decade now, New York City has challenged the reign of the car, making streets safer and more welcoming for those who pedal and walk. But after several years of safer streets, 2019 is proving to be a dangerous year for cyclists in New York, as more are being killed by drivers.

As Jose Alzorriz brought his bicycle to a stop at a red light on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn on Sunday, a driver heading in the other direction drove his car through the light. He plowed into an S.U.V. crossing the intersection, caroming it into a helpless Mr. Alzorriz, who became the 19th cyclist killed in the city this year.

Since 2006, the number of daily bike rides has risen to nearly half a million from 180,000, according to city officials. In that time, New York added more than 750 miles of bike lanes to 500 or so that existed, and the popular bike-share program Citi Bike sent tens of thousands more cyclists onto the roadways.

The number of cyclists killed so far this year, though, is more than double those killed at the same point in 2018, a year when fewer cyclists than ever were killed.

Even pedestrian deaths are going up after years of decline. Under the Vision Zero plan that Mayor Bill de Blasio began in 2014, pedestrian fatalities had been slashed by nearly 40 percent. But so far this year, 69 pedestrians have been killed, 11 more than at the same point in 2018, according to the city’s Department of Transportation.

City officials say they aren’t exactly sure why this is happening, although they note that there are more delivery trucks on the roads because of e-commerce, and more S.U.V.s, which tend to be deadlier for pedestrians and cyclists than smaller cars. And they say many cyclists have been killed in once purely industrial areas that are now home to denser populations, like Sunset Park and Bushwick in Brooklyn. Cyclists also need to follow the laws of the road, out of concern for their safety but also that of pedestrians. But city officials say cars, trucks and buses are responsible for an overwhelming majority of pedestrian and cyclist deaths in New York City.

Facing pressure from advocacy groups and relatives of those killed, Mr. de Blasio’s administration announced a $58.4 million plan last month to reduce cyclist deaths.

Focusing on 10 Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods that account for nearly a quarter of cyclist fatalities, the plan, dubbed Green Wave, would build an average of 30 miles of bike lanes with protective barriers each year — up from roughly 20 miles. It would also increase police enforcement against drivers who speed and enter bike lanes, as well as make key intersections safer. Among the designs being considered is a “protected intersection,” which would add cyclist and pedestrian islands at dangerous crossroads to reduce interactions with cars.

Transportation experts, cyclists and groups that advocate for pedestrian and cyclist safety say the plan is a good one and note that many of the measures would benefit pedestrians as well. But they also say the city should be doing more — and faster. They’re right.

With a little vision, the city can make its roads safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers alike, reduce reliance on cars, lower greenhouse emissions and help more New Yorkers stay in shape. There’s even some evidence that biking is good for the economy.

The city can move faster to install safety measures at problem intersections and corridors, and build a larger, more interconnected system of bike lanes protected from traffic. That can include putting plastic barriers or mini speed bumps at intersections where cars turn left through a bike lane, forcing vehicles to slow down.

Just 120 of the 757 miles, or about 16 percent, of bike lanes created since 2006 in New York City are protected, according to city data. Why not aim to build 50 miles of protected bike lanes each year, instead of 30?

City officials say creating hardened barriers for bike lanes is complicated by the number of city vehicles like street cleaners and fire trucks that have to navigate older, narrow streets. But many of these problems are not insurmountable. The city could purchase smaller sanitation vehicles for narrow streets, for example. The city’s fire officials can work closely with transportation officials to see what’s possible.

A bill sponsored by Councilman Brad Lander of Brooklyn would do even more to stop dangerous drivers, by letting the city impound vehicles that get at least five red-light or speed-camera violations in a one-year period. That would take 20,000 to 25,000 cars off the road, according to Mr. Lander, until those drivers took a safety course.

Mr. Lander introduced his bill after a driver plowed through a red light in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn in March 2018, killing a 4-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy. The girl’s pregnant mother lost her unborn daughter as a result of injuries from the crash.

The driver’s doctor had ordered her not to get behind the wheel because she suffered seizures, and the Volvo she was driving had four speed camera violations and four red light camera violations. The driver, Dorothy Bruns, was charged with manslaughter but died last November in an apparent suicide.

The Green Wave plan’s call for more aggressive ticketing of those who block bike lanes is promising, too, since the police have sometimes been more focused on ticketing cyclists. Prosecutors can also help, by supporting and pressing for prosecution of the most dangerous drivers.

On street safety, as with many other issues, the mayor needs to think bigger, and more creatively. In recent years, other American cities have surpassed New York’s vision for cycling. Cambridge, Mass., for instance — where Mr. de Blasio grew up — passed a law this year requiring that all bike lanes in the city be protected.

That irks people like Joe Cutrufo of Transportation Alternatives, a New York City bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group.

“New York should have been first,” Mr. Cutrufo said. “The mayor’s from Cambridge. He has a thing or two to learn from his city.”


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