The Times Finally Opines on Street Safety: ‘Calm Traffic’ By Ticketing Cyclists

Today’s Times editorial on cycling enforcement (the kicker: a few more tickets for bicyclists “would certainly calm traffic in New York City”) is generating a stir. What I want to know is this: Why did the Times editorial writers choose to pipe up about this particular aspect of street safety? Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I can tell, the Times has not seen fit to print an editorial about traffic enforcement for at least as long as Streetsblog has been publishing.

When Assembly member Deborah Glick had a bill pending in Albany to allow New York City to enforce the speed limit with cameras, the Times editorial page didn’t say a word. (A search of the Times site for “speed cameras” yields a few dozen news results, including this one, which is basically free advertising for iPhone apps that let drivers detect when they’re in zones monitored by automated enforcement.)

When there was a bill pending in the City Council to compel NYPD to release its data on traffic safety and summonses, the Times apparently did not publish an opinion about it. (A search of the Times site for content containing the name of the bill sponsor, Jessica Lappin, and “police” did not turn up any news items about that bill, but did return a story about an older bill to crack down on reckless delivery cyclists.)

Now that the City Council has held an oversight hearing on bike policy, the Times has weighed in with this piece, urging stepped-up enforcement “if the city is serious about encouraging biking.” No mention of the fact that the provision of safer bike infrastructure in New York City has been proven to reduce infractions like sidewalk riding.

The authors seem to anticipate the accusation that a double standard is at work, writing:

Cyclists often complain that the problem is not the bicycles but the cars. It is true that cars and trucks can too easily maim and kill cyclists. But cyclists can too easily injure pedestrians — and themselves.

This passage about cyclists, their complaints, and the dangers of NYC streets is bereft of data, unlike the following paragraph, which goes on to list specific counts of traffic violations by various parties.

Here are a few numbers on injuries and fatalities worth noting:

According to the State Department of Health, an average of 3,446 pedestrians are hospitalized and 312 are killed statewide each year as a result getting struck by motorists. The average number of pedestrians hospitalized as a result of getting struck by cyclists is 81. In New York City, 155 pedestrians and 12 cyclists were killed in traffic in 2009. Historically, bike crashes kill about one pedestrian per year in the city (see page 22 of this PDF).

The death toll on our streets should be zero, and to get there, you need to get priorities straight. If NYPD devotes more resources to cycling enforcement, that’s less manpower available for other tasks, including enforcement of motor vehicle infractions with a much higher likelihood of causing death. A crackdown on traffic violations won’t calm traffic or make us safer unless it targets the behavior that’s putting people’s lives at risk.

When will the Times publish an editorial about that?

  • Wanderer

    Bicyclists already, in my experience, overwhelmingly treat stop signs as yields. And that’s OK, as long as they don’t interfere with pedestrians. But some cyclists don’t some stop at stop signs even when there are pedestrians. The fact that the law says stop means that more bicyclists will stop when there are pedestrians instead of blasting on through. The law may not be followed much, but it keeps the worst behavior from all modes in check.

    An idaho traffic law as precedent for New York City? Seriously? Conditions are just a bit different there. There are fewer people than in Manhattan (or than in Brooklyn or Queens).

  • BicyclesOnly

    Sanity,

    You make a number of excellent points but cyclists can’t play the vanguard role in transforming streets unless they exhibit a reasonable degree of respect for the safety and right of way of others. As I’ve tried to argue above, that does not mean focusing on achieving a higher degree of law-abidingness than other traffic participants. Rather it means actually paying very close attention to others in traffic, not stealing their right-of-way from them, and using all the extra effort that is necessary–including taking a longer route to avoid counterflow or sidewalk riding, changing speed, course, or stopping altogether–to avoid scenarios that could reasonably be interpreted as presenting a significant crash risk. This latter approach is entirely different than “following the law” and may well end up in getting a ticket occasionally (which should be paid of upheld), but so what?

    To the extent other cyclists fail to follow this approach, I think they are doing harm to the livable streets mission as I define it and I feel justified in calling them out.

    But one very big qualification to all concerns the scenario where the safety needs of one user comes in conflict with the right of way of others. In theory, safety issues would almost never arise if everyone just followed the traffic laws, but that’s not what happens. Whenever the potential for collision arises, the question of whose “at fault” for the scenario goes out the window (at least until the risk has passed), and the burden falls to everyone to avoid the collision the best they can. For pedestrians, that usually means freezing where they are (so that bikes and cars can maneuver around them and not hit them); for cyclists, it usually means changing course and speed to avoid the collision (because that is usually the best ways for a cyclist to avoid colliding with a stationary object, without stopping short and being hit from behind); and for motorists, it means never tailgating, passing too close to unarmored traffic, exceeding the speed limit if there is any risk of an unarmored person suddenly appearing in their path, etc.–the conduct which when engaged in by motorists poses the risk of near-instantaneous harm with virtually no opportunity for correction or avoidance.

    Yes, this is a much more onerous burden on motorists than on cyclists and pedestrians but it follows from the inherently greater propensity of motor vehicle use to cause harm, the size and lack of maneuverability of motor vehicles on city streets, and the inherently more vulnerable character of non-motorized traffic. Many existing traffic laws already embody this differential standard, to the extent they call for traffic participants to use “reasonable care” or “due care,” because what is reasonable or due depends on the circumstances and the participants involved. Even without changing the text of the laws, we can and should interpret them (both in the law enforcement and civil liability contexts) consistent with principles of protecting what is truly vulnerable and deterring what is truly dangerous.

    Subsidiary to this safety principle is the lesser but due regard we should all pay to the reasonable expectations each of us have of getting to our destination efficiently without others slowing us down by unfairly cutting in front of us. In contrast to the safety principle, this convenience principle is necessarily driven more by the fundamental allocation of street space embodied in the law and traffic control devices. Modes allocated to the roadbed have a reasonable expectation of proceeding without interference from pedestrians, who have a reasonable expectation of primacy on the sidewalks and in crosswalks when peds have the right of way in them. Reallocating street space, signal timing, and other revisions in the right-of-way) is the best approach to achieving fairness with respect to convenience.

    As much as it might seem nice to have cops out there enforcing my right of way so I’m not delayed, the fact is we don’t have enough cops to watse their time on that. Better they should spend what resources they have focused on policing to enforce the safety principle, leave the convenience issues to traffic participants to work out amongst themselves. Get cops out of the business of moving traffic, leave that to hard-wiring of the system by DoT. Enforcement of safety rules should be enough to ensure that motorists don’t use their higher speeds and armor to bully other traffic. And that cyclists don’t engage in similar behavior vis-a-vis pedestrians.

  • Sheesh

    @Joe R: I wasn’t familiar with the Varna Diablo, but that’s pretty cool/interesting. Thanks for pointing it out!

  • Joe R.

    @Sheesh,

    You’re quite welcome! Here’s more info on the Varna Diablo:

    http://www.recumbents.com/wisil/whpsc2001/varna_detail.htm

    http://www.popsci.com/diy/article/2005-10/worlds-fastest-bike

    http://www.suso.co.uk/blog/varna-diablo

    Here’s a cool video of a 77 mph high-speed run ( that’s the Varna Mephisto he’s riding, not the Varna Diablo, but it’s cool nonetheless ):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5C-rwPP_gQ

    As an engineer, I absolutely love stuff like this. More importantly, I see eventual practical applications for these “super streamliners”.

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