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Spike in Traffic Deaths has Cyclists Wondering if NYC Drivers have License to Kill

Emma Gaffney Aug 13

Issue 249

When 30-year-old Em Samolewicz was killed on Brooklyn’s Third Avenue on July 29, after she was hit by a truck when she swerved after being “doored” — her path blocked by a suddenly opened car door — she became the 18th bicyclist to die in a crash in New York City this year. That number is almost twice the 10 bicyclists killed in accidents in all of last year, which was the fewest the city recorded in the last 100 years.

On July 25, two days after two other bicyclists were killed in separate accidents in Greenpoint and Staten Island, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the “Green Wave” plan, which will see $58.4 million poured into keeping cyclists safe on city roads over the next five years.

“You will see continued and increased presence by the NYPD. You will see more public education […] to change the behavior of motorists,” the mayor said, speaking at a high school in Bay Ridge. “I want everyone driving a truck in this city to know that the NYPD will be watching, and they will take action if any trucker… endangers a bicyclist.”

Nine of the 18 cyclist fatalities this year involved a truck, according to the mayor’s office.

The Green Wave plan, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg explained, intends to expand the Vision Zero traffic-safety plan’s goal of building 10 miles of protected bike lanes each year. It would add 30 miles a year of new bike lanes separated from traffic by barriers, with 25 miles to be completed this year and 80 miles by the end of 2021. Those projects are “in various stages of planning and design,” the mayor’s office said.

The plan also includes hiring 80 new transportation staff dedicated to improving bike-friendly infrastructure and redesigning city streets over the next five years. According to the city’s map of the proposed renovations, much of the redesign will be focused on Brooklyn, where 13 of the 18 deaths have occurred. Trottenberg estimated that “thousands” of parking spaces would be lost.

The Vision Zero plan was announced by de Blasio in 2014, with the goal of eliminating all traffic deaths in the city by 2024. The name “Vision Zero” comes from a Swedish program that theorizes that pedestrian deaths are not accidents but failures of street design.

In 2018, according to city Department of Transportation data, 203 people were killed in crashes involving motor vehicles — 115 pedestrians, 78 vehicle occupants and 10 bicyclists — and more than 60,000 were injured, including about 10,800 pedestrians and 4,300 cyclists. Bicycle-pedestrian crashes injured 55 riders and 270 walkers, and 329 riders were hurt in bicycle-only crashes.

The revamped safety plan comes after mounting pressure from community organizers and cyclist advocates. On July 9, more than 1,000 people attended a mass “die-in” in Washington Square Park, silently lying on the ground beside their bicycles. Participants decried government’s failure to prosecute drivers involved in the deaths and the police history of responding to bike tragedies by going on a ticket-writing blitz against other cyclists in the area of the crash. “We don’t think this is a problem that can be policed away,” bicycle messenger Mike Pach, 28, told AMNewYork.

On July 26, hundreds more gathered at Union Square Park to participate in a Critical Mass ride organized by Time’s Up to demand better infrastructure for cyclists.

At the July 25 press conference, de Blasio said that one in four adults in the city own a bicycle, and the number of people biking to work is growing twice as fast as in any other major U.S. city. “That’s good for our earth, our city and our quality of life,” he said. “Our responsibility is to ensure that this good option is safe.”

The mayor, however, did not address how the city might reduce the number of cars on the roads. “We must break car culture to protect cyclists in NYC,” City Councilmember Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn) posted on Twitter on July 25. He said the “new bike plan — largely an expansion & acceleration of Vision Zero — falls short. Reckless drivers will continue to terrorize our streets until there’s a culture shift to prioritize pedestrians & cyclists.”

The number of cars on city streets has risen over the last four years, largely driven by e-hail apps such as Uber and Lyft. According to city Taxi and Limousine Commission figures, the average number of “high-volume for-hire vehicles” on the streets increased from 7,300 a day in January 2015 to 59,900 in May 2019.

The Green Wave plan, Transportation Alternatives communications director Joe Cutrufo said, “is taking several good steps forward, but given the urgency of the problem, we’d like to see action even faster.”

About “800,000 people ride a bike regularly in New York City, but there is this huge population of people who are curious and interested but are afraid because the streets don’t adequately protect them,” Cutrufo said. “We’ve seen the number of cyclists grow over the last decade or so, right along with the growth in safe cycling infrastructure. When you look at the expansion of protected bike lane miles, you can see the number of regular cyclists go up in tandem. If you build it, they will come.”

Two of the 18 fatalities this year, including Em Samolewicz, occurred on Third Avenue in Sunset Park, an eight-lane road under the elevated Gowanus Expressway that’s a major truck route and has no bike lanes. Cutrufo says roads like this “deserve a rapid response,” and that any time a cyclist is killed, the Department of Transportation should immediately investigate why it occurred and how to prevent these tragedies from happening in the area again.

Mayor de Blasio said on July 25 that the “100 most dangerous locations” would “receive additional NYPD enforcement, with a special focus on trucks.”

“Third Avenue needs a protected bike lane,” says Andrada Popa, a Sunset Park resident who suffered multiple foot and ankle fractures after a truck drove into her in April while she was riding her bike there. “I don’t feel safe riding in the open bike lanes. It’s a wide-open road, so it should be possible to have a protected lane there.” Popa, who is still recovering from her injuries, told The Indypendent she believes the 30 miles of protected bike lanes the Green Wave vows to create over each year are not enough.