Gelinas Responds to Komanoff on Bike-Share Safety

Manhattan Institute fellow Nicole Gelinas submitted this response to Charles Komanoff’s critique of her weekend opinion piece in the New York Post about bike-share safety.

Charles Komanoff, in his Streetsblog post, called my weekend Post piece on bike-share “intellectually muddled.” In the piece, he offers no evidence for any intellectual muck on my part. Instead, he uses mirage to distract from a very real safety challenge. Novice bicyclists need to learn that truckers are not their friends. The way to get that message across to new Citibikers is to tell them, as often and simply as possible.

Let’s go through Komanoff’s piece point by point (without making any broad, unsupported generalizations about it, as he did with mine).

I am not a “bike-share detractor.” I favor bike-share, something that anyone who asks would know. The Post article in no way disparaged the bike-share concept. I challenge Komanoff to find a disparaging statement anywhere in the piece. I have ridden the Velibs in Paris for years. My personal opinion on this should not matter to anyone but me, so I feel no need to trumpet it in print. But if someone makes a factual reporting error in mischaracterizing my approach to bike-share, as Komanoff did, he should correct it.

Komanoff characterizes my pointing out that “Three people died in Paris’ first year of bike share” and that “New York should heed Paris’s lesson” as a “ghoulish lede.” Ghost stories are ghoulish. My facts are simply facts. Three people indeed did die during the first year of Paris bike-share. This is a simple stated fact, a fact I haven’t seen reported elsewhere in the New York press. Further, it is hard to argue that we shouldn’t heed lessons that we can glean from any useful data.

Is the Paris data useful? To be useful, Paris’ data would have to be relevant to New York. Komanoff implies we should ignore Paris in favor of cities such as Boston, Washington, and London, three cities that haven’t experienced bike-share deaths. Whether we should compare New York to Paris is where Komanoff presumably could offer some reasonable statistical debate. Yet he does not.

As I wrote in my Post piece, there is reason to believe we can make the comparison to Paris. Boston and Washington come nowhere close to New York when it comes to population density. Core London, too, is not as dense as New York. Paris, on the other hand, does come close to New York, with 80 percent of our population density. As New York’s own Department of Transportation said in a bikeshare study, “the population density of New York’s medium- and high-density areas – including parts of Brooklyn, where bikeshare will be — is virtually identical to Paris.”

Paris’ bike-share, which started off with 6,000 bikes, 500 more than New York’s will, is off the charts compared to bike-share usage in other cities. Compare its 27.5 million first-year rides to London’s six million, or to Washington’s million, or to Boston’s half-million.

It is difficult to know how many riders New York bike-share will attract in its first year, because the city hasn’t produced any estimates. But even before bike-share launches, New York has now signed up more annual members – 10,000 – than the city of Boston has attracted in two years.

When we have no idea how many people will use our bike-share and when we can reasonably compare our system to Paris’ because of density, it is statistically supportable – although not ironclad – to conservatively estimate, for safety purposes, that our system will get tremendous usage and that we can extrapolate lessons from other cities that enjoy tremendous usage for our own benefit.

If Komanoff has some reason why it is not statistically appropriate to compare Paris to New York, then he should say so.

Paris is a particularly potent example for New York, because – something that didn’t fit in the Post piece – Paris’ pre-bike-share experience in cutting traffic deaths was similar to New York’s in recent years. In 2001, Paris had 114 traffic deaths across all modes (see chart). Because of great public outcry, Paris spent the early 2000s doing the same type of traffic-calming measure New York has done in recent years. In 2006, Paris’ death total was 64. Adjusted for population, that would be 239 deaths in New York, lower than New York’s 274 deaths last year. Paris had an even lower bicycle death number in 2006, the year before it started bike-share, with 2 deaths, compared to 5 in 2001, despite big increases in bicycle ridership before bike-share started there. In New York, by contrast, the number of people killed in bike crashes was 18 last year and 18 in 2006.

That means that Paris started off bike-share in a safer position than New York does, both in terms of absolute numbers and in terms of getting the bicycle-death numbers (not the rate) down in recent years. This is not a good sign for New York.

If there is some reason we should ignore this data, Komanoff should say so. Komanoff is a statistical expert, but his main argument is that we should use his own figures rather than third-party city and state data, as I did, to estimate New York bicycling population.

There’s another reason why we should pay particular attention to Paris’ deaths. First, statistically speaking, bike-share in Paris doubled bicyclists’ deaths. During the three years before bike share, the average number of people who died annually on a bike in Paris was 2.67. During the three years after bikeshare, the average number killed annually rose to 5.67. All of this increase was due to bikeshare.

We can also learn qualitative information from these deaths that can save lives in New York. For example, the first three people killed in Paris bike-share were all women. This fits with the theory that novice bikers, statistically women and older people, are at risk. Second, all were killed by a large truck or bus (two trucks, one bus). Indeed, virtually all of the eight bike-share deaths in Paris over nearly six years (the latest death last October) have involved a large truck making a turn. The majority of the victims have been women, or older people, or both, neither category of which fits the statistical profile of the middle-aged, male expert biker. It is reasonable to assume that inexperienced cyclists have made up the preponderance of victims.

Given these facts – and they are facts – it would be wise for Citibike to print right on bicycle handlebars a warning to new bikers to watch out for turning trucks. Indeed, Paris bike-share has offered these handlebar instructions since the first few deaths, and the number of deaths has gone down significantly.

Komanoff, though, is oddly against such a warning, literally “mock[ing]” it. Of course, the city should also force truckers to follow the rules of the road, as he suggests. But why not do both? Why not arm bicyclists with all of the information they need to stay alive?

Such a warning is especially necessary because the number of speeding tickets the NYPD gave out last year declined 7 percent. Komanoff may want the city to police truckers, but the city is not doing it. That does not mean that bicyclists should die in the meantime. The fact that Citibikers won’t be “as battle-tested as the current biking base” is an argument in favor of such a warning, not against one.

Komanoff also criticizes me for “segment[ing] dangers to bicyclists from general road dangers facing everyone.” This is factually incorrect. I said early on in the piece that “More cycling can make riders collectively safer, by increasing awareness by drivers.”

I also wrote that “New cyclists should understand that bicycling is collectively beneficial” (collectively generally means everyone). Moreover, I wrote that “since the early [Velib] deaths,” as Paris has adjusted its behavior, “all bicyclist deaths have fallen to just more than two annually.”

How do these factual statements not address the traffic-calming measures and overall beneficial impact that Komanoff mentions? (Something that didn’t fit in my Post article, but is interesting: since Paris started bikeshare, all traffic deaths have fallen dramatically, from an average of 56 annually in the three years before bikeshare to an average of 44 now. Injuries are down, as well.)

Finally, it is surprising that Komanoff makes two unforced statistical errors by implying that just because Velib victims would have been safer had they stuck to their pre-Velib way of getting around, the same thing is not true in New York. “Don’t tell that to NYC pedestrians,” he says.

But unless he can give us a measure of how many pedestrians are on a given sidewalk at any given time and then give us a death rate using that denominator of the total population at risk, both for Paris and New York, he cannot possibly make such an assertion. Anecdotally, far more people walk on the sidewalks of Manhattan (or elsewhere) than bike.

Last year, bicyclists made up 6.5 percent of people killed in New York traffic crashes, far more than their 1 percent share of people coming into Manhattan via traditional commuting modes, including the most common ways of commuting, subway and train rides. With bike stations concentrated in Manhattan, many bike-share riders will be switching from subways and buses, or from walking. Subway riders make up more than half of commuters into Manhattan, but only 10 percent of deaths (not including subway suicides). Even using Komanoff’s method of counting bicyclists, cyclist fatalities outweigh their share of the commuting population.

Statistically, you are undeniably safer on the subway than on a bike. This information is useful to you if you are thinking of switching from the subway to a Citibike. This does not mean that you shouldn’t make the switch. But being armed with facts helps you by making you realize the statistical risk you are taking.

To recap: For my article, I spent a week studying archival Parisian news articles from a variety of sources as well as official state and city data from France to learn about Paris’ cycling fatalities, talked to two bicycling advocates in France (one off the record and one on), talked (on background) to city officials involved in bikeshare to ask about bikeshare safety measures, and attempted to contact a leading New York bike advocate to see what his group is doing on bike-share safety education.

To rebut my article, Komanoff wrote a lazy piece that wrongly reported the basic facts laid out in my article. He added nothing of value from his statistical expertise either to rebut, criticize, or buttress the statistics in my piece.

After all that, he essentially acknowledges that I am right. “Traffic hazards await bike-sharers,” he says.

Yet he criticizes “tabloid titillation”!

  • Eddie

    This is off-topic, but one big safety difference between Paris and NYC is that Parisian streets are well-paved, and the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn are not (in general). In fact, our streets are often shockingly bad. I’m a very experienced cyclist and a good bike handler, yet have come close to crashing twice in the last week when my front wheel hit a new deep pothole.

  • Anonymous

    I do appreciate critical voices that aren’t just anti-bike cranks. So I’m really glad for this.

    During the three years before bike share, the average number of people who died annually on a bike in Paris was 2.67. During the three years after bikeshare, the average number killed annually rose to 5.67. All of this increase was due to bikeshare.

    I don’t get how 3 deaths is statistically significant given the massive amount of users they had in Paris. And isn’t that information useful if we have the “rate of cyclists/mile traveled” or some sort of denominator?

    Three people indeed did die during the first year of Paris bike-share. This is a simple stated fact, a fact I haven’t seen reported elsewhere in the New York press.

    From today’s NYT [ok, they were copying your lead]:

    The Paris system saw several rider deaths in its early years, Mr. Asséraf recalled, before cycling growth in the city compelled drivers to amend their habits.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/22/nyregion/a-bike-share-system-for-new-york-built-from-ideas-around-the-world.html

  • Thank you, Eddie. Excellent point. This is also points to city liability. The city may not be liable for bikeshare riders’ behavior, but it is and will remain liable for poor street conditions.

  • Daphna

    Despite her denials, Nicole Gelinas must know that the tone of her piece, and of the material that she selectively chose to report on (the only city with bikeshare user deaths rather than other cities without) disparages bikeshare yet she writes her “article in no way disparaged the bike-share concept.” A tone of a piece and selectively reporting negative statistics do disparage even if no statement actually does.

    She says novice cyclists need to learn that truckers are not their friends. Well, I agree with Charles Komanoff’s point: truckers are not a friend to any vulnerable road user, not just cyclists. I don’t think cyclists should be singled out to receive this instruction; cyclists and pedestrians more often should be looked at in the same category of vulnerable road user.

    If she truly supports bike-share then she should use her platform to help shape public knowledge and to truly educate people. The statements she left out of her article that “since Paris started bikeshare, all traffic deaths have fallen dramatically, from an average of 56 annually in the three years before bikeshare to an average of 44 now. Injuries are down, as well.” should have been included!!!!! Those are facts that the public needs to be informed of! Those facts are not just something “interesting” that “didn’t fit in”. I would like to see an article that leads with those statistics and centers around them.

  • Yes, your comments point up the difficulty of being too confident in any statistical extrapolations on this topic, given dearth of good raw data on ridership, dearth of definitive ways of how to compare it to other modes (how relatively dangerous is walking, anyway, compared to or in combination with another transportation method, and at what point does the increase in ridership outpace any increase in raw numbers of deaths?). But imperfect conclusions are better than simply ignoring the data. I did a three-year average, to smooth out one-year spikes, but still, it is imperfect. It is not proof, just evidence, and I think it is best to err on the side of caution in using the evidence to educate new bicyclists.

  • Joe R.

    The city is liable for poor streets in theory. In practice try to collect. I’ve bent more than a dozen wheels thanks to potholes in my early years of riding but was never able to collect a dime. I’ve since become adept at avoiding potholes. In fact, I haven’t fallen off my bike for any reason since 1996 (and I’ve ridden over 23,000 miles since then).

    In any case, you make some valid points, as does Komanoff, and I thank you for engaging in dialogue here. It’s important to keep things in context. In general, cycling is safer than walking or driving from a statistical standpoint. Yes, the subway is statistically even safer than cycling, but unfortunately doesn’t go everywhere people need to go. That’s where bike share comes in. Hopefully bike share will increase the numbers riding enough to make drivers of all vehicles, including large trucks, more aware of cyclists. Pedestrians will benefit from this also.

  • BTW, you can follow me on Twitter @nicolegelinas . Happy to debate / discuss facts / perceptions / conclusions.

  • We need this depth of analysis in all news outlets, including the Post, the NY Times, and Streetsblog. Thanks for the continued discussion. Maybe you and Charles should get together and have a beer.

  • Anonymous

    I mean, I see her as being critical and her reliance upon France doesn’t seem unreasonable. I think she misses for the forest for the trees’ by focusing on giving a “watch out for trucks” warning. Especially given that every week, vastly more than the 3 deceased Parisians, are killed by cars and trucks in preventable circumstances. So, I do find it annoying that we’re so concerned about more deaths, when we do less than nothing about the on-going crisis we have right now.

    But ultimately, I believe she’s an ally and her view point valuable. She works for a conservative think tank that supports congestion pricing! It was liberal Sheldon Silver that killed congestion pricing.

  • Yes, good idea! And I should note that I admire his work generally, especially with MoveNY, and I have in the past gotten good answers from him on statistical questions.

  • Thank you both Nicole and Charlie for providing such a sophisticated discussion of this important issue.

    Nicole, you wrote “The city has a special responsibility to new cyclists — because it’s putting them in relative danger.” The problem is that this assertion is based on commuter data. People don’t use streets (or subways or buses or taxis or private cars) only to commute. Calculations of relative risk across modes based on commuter data don’t work, and that fact that we don’t know which modes new bikeshare users will discard when they adopt citibikes makes this problem in calculating relative risk worse. You cite this lack of data as a problem for Charlie’s conclusion, but it is just as much a problem for yours.

    Based on intuition I expect the modal shift represented by Citibike trips will reflect trips that would have been made by walking, buses, taxis, and then subways, in that order. The extent of increased risk due to this modal shift is impossible to calculate, and I doubt it will result in an increase in the total number of annual transportation-related deaths in New York City that is statistically significant. But even the task of taking that measurement would be fraught with great difficulty, given the need to correct for the “safety in numbers” effect, increases in non-bike share cycling rates, and other variables likely to change as a result of the introduction of bike share.

    I strongly support cyclist safety education in a variety of ways and encourage others to do the same. Publishing an article entitled “Gore de France” in the Post with questionable claims about increased risk that will not be parsed by Post readers with the sophistication seen here is not at the top of my list of effective ways to do cyclist safety education.

  • Anonymous

    Lots of problems with this:

    A) Where’s your evidence that women and older people are, statistically speaking, novice cyclists in Paris? Here maybe. There? I’d like to see the primary source that supports any assertion along those lines.

    B) This is claim gets at the heart of the problem with your initial article: “All of this increase was due to bikeshare.” No: the increase was due to additional drivers killing additional cyclists. That these deaths happened on bikeshare bikes does not necessarily mean the bikeshare system itself was responsible. And all the other evidence you gather to help substantiate that point does not give you reason to be so confident in this assertion. You claim here you won’t make any broad, unsubstantiated generalizations, but this most assuredly is one.

    C) Let’s pretend, though, that any person on a bikeshare bike is killed by that system. Does that mean that the death last October was “due to” bikeshare? Or is the system off the hook now?

    D) The absolutely singular causality you imagine here is . . . kinda scary. Even in your original article you don’t pretend it’s just a matter of “put a warning about trucks on a bike and the carnage will end.” But that’s the only trick you have up your sleeve here.

    E) In your original article, you also acknowledge that drivers of large vehicles were educated about how to operate around bikes. But you didn’t (even in that reportorial way) suggest that happen here as well. And in this post, you skip past it once again, moving on to enforcement rather than education: “Of course, the city should also force truckers to follow the rules of the road, as he suggests.” This is part and parcel of your imagined singular causality: one notice, one result.

    F) Were there no changes to road design concurrent with the release of bike share? Were drivers having to accommodate new traffic patterns in any of the locations? Could the change during that initial period not be due to the world’s most powerful notice about turning trucks but rather to increasing experience (and education) on the part of drivers of large, dangerous vehicles? All questions you skip past–with a confidence that belies your “just the facts, ma’am” response.

  • Anonymous

    Lots of problems with this:

    A) Where’s your evidence that women and older people are, statistically speaking, novice cyclists in Paris? Here maybe. There? I’d like to see the primary source that supports any assertion along those lines.

    B) This is claim gets at the heart of the problem with your initial article: “All of this increase was due to bikeshare.” No: the increase was due to additional drivers killing additional cyclists. That these deaths happened on bikeshare bikes does not necessarily mean the bikeshare system itself was responsible. And all the other evidence you gather to help substantiate that point does not give you reason to be so confident in this assertion. You claim here you won’t make any broad, unsubstantiated generalizations, but this most assuredly is one.

    C) Let’s pretend, though, that any person on a bikeshare bike is killed by that system. Does that mean that the death last October was “due to” bikeshare? Or is the system off the hook now?

    D) The absolutely singular causality you imagine here is . . . kinda scary. Even in your original article you don’t pretend it’s just a matter of “put a warning about trucks on a bike and the carnage will end.” But that’s the only trick you have up your sleeve here.

    E) In your original article, you also acknowledge that drivers of large vehicles were educated about how to operate around bikes. But you didn’t (even in that reportorial way) suggest that happen here as well. And in this post, you skip past it once again, moving on to enforcement rather than education: “Of course, the city should also force truckers to follow the rules of the road, as he suggests.” This is part and parcel of your imagined singular causality: one notice, one result.

    F) Were there no changes to road design concurrent with the release of bike share? Were drivers having to accommodate new traffic patterns in any of the locations? Could the change during that initial period not be due to the world’s most powerful notice about turning trucks but rather to increasing experience (and education) on the part of drivers of large, dangerous vehicles? All questions you skip past–with a confidence that belies your “just the facts, ma’am” response.

  • The facts about Paris traffic data post-bikeshare may be interesting facts, but you see how many words they take up (“fit in” means, literally, space on a page — it doesn’t mean thematically or anything). I included the number about bike deaths in Paris falling after the initial spike, however, which goes to your general point about traffic calming and driver/cyclist learning.That was the most relevant collective traffic-calming point to the topic at hand.

    I picked Paris because, as I noted several times, Paris is the only city relevant to us in terms of population density. (Boston and Washington are just nowhere; London is closer but not by much, and also problematic because of different urban layout).

    Cyclists are being singled out for instruction because bikeshare is new! We are adding a huge number of new cyclists unfamiliar to the streets via this one city policy. We are not, by contrast, adding a huge number of pedestrians to the streets.

    Tone is a funny thing. You complain about the tone, yet you can’t find a specific example of a poor tone in the piece. The piece is very dry tonally. There is no nice way to gloss over the fact that people died, nor should here be.

    And btw, no one wants to read a 2,000-word article that jumps around from topic to topic. This is not “semi-literacy,” as at least one Streetsblog commenter likes to term non-“expert” readers; this is just people having lives and not wanting to be bored silly.

    I would like to see articles on all sorts of topics in all sorts of venues, including traffic calming. But one person writes one article about one narrow topic at one time.

    Many people have already addressed the traffic-calming issue. I would add nothing to parroting what people like Komanoff have already said on this important topic. If experts on the traffic-calming aspect of the topic want to write for broader outlets on this particular topic, then they should! I’m not simply going to repeat other people.

    To my knowledge, though, nobody in the New York market (before my piece) had addressed what we can learn from the recent history of the city closest to us in density — as determined by NYC DOT — in terms of cyclist safety. This piece, thus, filled a void.

    It’s not advocacy for or against anything — it’s just reporting something that is potentially useful.

  • The facts about Paris traffic data post-bikeshare may be interesting facts, but you see how many words they take up (“fit in” means, literally, space on a page — it doesn’t mean thematically or anything). I included the number about bike deaths in Paris falling after the initial spike, however, which goes to your general point about traffic calming and driver/cyclist learning.That was the most relevant collective traffic-calming point to the topic at hand.

    I picked Paris because, as I noted several times, Paris is the only city relevant to us in terms of population density. (Boston and Washington are just nowhere; London is closer but not by much, and also problematic because of different urban layout).

    Cyclists are being singled out for instruction because bikeshare is new! We are adding a huge number of new cyclists unfamiliar to the streets via this one city policy. We are not, by contrast, adding a huge number of pedestrians to the streets.

    Tone is a funny thing. You complain about the tone, yet you can’t find a specific example of a poor tone in the piece. The piece is very dry tonally. There is no nice way to gloss over the fact that people died, nor should here be.

    And btw, no one wants to read a 2,000-word article that jumps around from topic to topic. This is not “semi-literacy,” as at least one Streetsblog commenter likes to term non-“expert” readers; this is just people having lives and not wanting to be bored silly.

    I would like to see articles on all sorts of topics in all sorts of venues, including traffic calming. But one person writes one article about one narrow topic at one time.

    Many people have already addressed the traffic-calming issue. I would add nothing to parroting what people like Komanoff have already said on this important topic. If experts on the traffic-calming aspect of the topic want to write for broader outlets on this particular topic, then they should! I’m not simply going to repeat other people.

    To my knowledge, though, nobody in the New York market (before my piece) had addressed what we can learn from the recent history of the city closest to us in density — as determined by NYC DOT — in terms of cyclist safety. This piece, thus, filled a void.

    It’s not advocacy for or against anything — it’s just reporting something that is potentially useful.

  • NYFM

    And as I will keep on telling people here and elsewhere: the city can and will be found liable for not citing enough drivers for speeding where it counts- midtown. Forget about a drop of 7% citywide: the critical info is WHERE were those speeding tickets issued?

  • JK

    Nicole makes a good point about educating future bike share cyclists about dangerous trucks. Is there an effort underway to educate NYPD about the danger of big trucks, and get them to actually enforce the rules against oversize trucks? There is a 55 foot limit on tractor trailers in NYC, but 63ft and longer trucks are common — Rite Aide and Duane Reade both use oversize trucks for their everyday deliveries to stores, and have been for years. Does management at these companies know their NYC delivery trucks are illegal?

  • A fruitful and much-needed safety education campaign if ever I heard of one! But unlikely to drive page hits.

  • Daphna

    I commend Nicole Gelinas for being on streetsblog reading and commenting intelligently. Just as she is asking others to be open to her point of view, I hope she is open too to hearing other points. At least a dialog is happening and that is good.

    I agree with JarekAF that focusing specifically on giving bikeshare cyclists instructions to watch for trucks misses the forest for the trees. This warning to cyclists can be one tool, but to me it strikes me as similar to those silly LOOK signs that the DOT painted on crosswalks where motorists hit pedestrians. It puts the onus on those in danger instead of the drivers who are creating the danger. What is needed is a comprehensive approach on many fronts to stop the carnage on the streets including but not limited to:

    1) East River bridge tolls and congestion price to reduce the volume of traffic and road rage
    2) More streets metered and higher meter rates to increase parking turnover and lessen the driving around time searching and the dangerous behaviors drivers do to get a free or under-priced spot
    3) Red light cameras placed abundantly
    4) Speed cameras placed adundantly
    5) New laws that criminalize more types of dangerous driver behavior
    6) Far greater enforcement by NYPD of existing motor vehicle laws
    7) Far greater application of existing laws by the District Attorney
    8) Strong automatic penalties for injuring or killing
    9) Automatic impoundment of any vehicle involved in an injury or death until full conclusion of the investigation, and until the driver has his/her license back, with the driver paying for the tow charge and for the per day storage fee
    10) Automatic suspension of the license of any driver who injured or killed
    11) Create many more 20 mph zones
    12) Decrease criteria for 20mph zones so that areas of Manhattan on the grid can qualify
    13) Continued re-allocation of street space to pedestrians, cyclists and commercial vehicles
    14) Continued narrowing of traffic lanes down to 10′ wide (many are 11′ or 12′ or more); narrow lanes encourage motorists to drive within the speed limits
    15) Create many more streets that have physical barriers (curb bulb outs, pedestrian islands, speed bumps) which are street designs that are self-enforcing of the speed limit
    16) Put more streets on road diets
    17) Replace more parking with parklets (pop up cafes)
    18) Build out the network of protected bike lanes; make sure all future lanes are wider to handle future growth
    19) Dedicate more money to mass transit (so drivers have other better options for getting around); roll out much more SBS routes; have the courage to do actual BRT
    20) Do a major PR campaign to get drivers to yield to pedestrians and cyclists at all times
    21) Pedestrianize more blocks
    22) Allow E bikes. Roll back the laws against them
    23) Roll back the laws against commercial cyclists (cycling should be encouraged and not discouraged which is what these laws aim to do – they are not about safety)
    24) Roll back the laws encumbering the DOT from installing bike infrastructure more quickly
    25) etc. etc. etc.

  • Anonymous

    I say Nicole here rather than Gelinas in a spirit of collegiality, not condescension.

    Nicole Gelinas’s original column had two main points: Warning stickers or similar communications measures will help protect NYC bike sharers against turning heavy trucks that killed Velib users early on. And the steep rise in Central Business District (CBD) cycling from bike share statistically portends a rash of bike share fatalities.

    I challenged Nicole on both points. If I went too far in subjecting the first argument to ridicule, I apologize. Perhaps my 20+ years storming the barricades on endangerment of pedestrians and cyclists alike led to my getting too edgy on that score. I also thought the (deserved) compliments I offered to Nicole inoculated me, at least to some extent. But I’m unshaken in insisting that the warning approach is both futile and a diversion from the main event of confronting and arresting dangerous behaviors by drivers.

    On the numbers: Nicole’s comparison base of 31,000 cyclists (actually trips, since she compares them to bike share trips maxing at 27,500) may have State or City imprimatur, but it’s a screenline-crossing-only figure. As such it can’t come even close to being a proper metric for CBD cycling trips, as it excludes trips that never cross the screenline: trips like my daily commute, my wife’s, many of yours if you live in Manhattan south of 50th Street, most messengering, virtually all CBD food delivery, and most utilitarian non-commute trips to CBD doctors, schools, galleries, movies, restaurants and stores.

    Twenty-one years ago, for an Appendix to the Bicycle Blueprint, I took a stab at extrapolating from screenline trips to estimate all NYC cycling trips, and I’ve kept at it ever since. My methodology is laid out in the spreadsheet I linked to in my post, in the seventh graf. It suggests, as I said, that several hundred thousand cycle trips starting, ending, or remaining in the CBD take place on a typical day. That may or may not be right, but I believe I’ve gone deeper than did Nicole to approximate how much CBD cycling takes place now, which statistically gives rise to the 2-3 CBD cycling deaths each year.

    All that’s left is to reference the cogent comment to my post by “Guest” pointing out that bike sharers are more likely to be competent cyclists than “newbies” as I had assumed. This belies Nicole’s alarmism still further.

  • I don’t know, big trucks certainly get in the way of personal vehicles as well as being dangerous to cyclists and pedestrians. It might not be that far of a stretch for the Post to demonize them. After all, we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.

  • Ian Turner

    One major thing I think is missing in this debate: Cycling is healthy, even if it does carry some risk of injury. Whether velib’ added three extra deaths or not, it’s safe to say it prevents more than three deaths every year from heart disease, cancer, etc. The health benefits of cycling are generally understood to outweigh the health risks of cycling by somewhere between 20:1 and 100:1.

  • Larry Littlefield

    How about a general warning, that motor vehicles can kill you at any time with little care and no consequences? It could be applied to all cyclists, and pedestrians, not just Citibikes.

    Pedestrians should be taught NOT to cross with the light. but to make sure traffic has stopped, will not start, and there is a screen of vehicles blocking those coming from behind. Then rush across rapidly in terror.

    That is in fact what I taught my kids. Ignore the walk sign, make sure vehicles have stopped, and look back for drivers rushing around the corner.

    The real safety measure would be to ban driving, walking, and bicycling between 11 pm and 4 am, based on what I read. Bad things happen then.

  • Gelinas wrote:
    “Statistically, you are undeniably safer on the subway than on a bike.”

    Kevin’s comment:
    Really? I am quite prepared to deny it. The cardiovascular health benefits to transportation by cycling rather than a sedentary method such as the subway are much greater than any crime risk due to criminal motor vehicle operators.

    If we look at the actual data, we are “undeniably” safer on a bike than on the subway.

  • The City of New York doesn’t license drivers, and it doesn’t register vehicles. It seems to me therefore that the city has an uphill battle to change the composition of the commercial vehicle fleet to decrease the number of tractor-trailers.

    What the city can do, and in general fails to do, is emphasize the pure danger of trucks as the Velib’ system does. For a French-language example (the pictograms are ace, however) see here: http://blog.velib.paris.fr/blog/2013/02/11/angles-morts-2/

    The city bike map has no such pictograms, and the city biking-etiquette handout has no such pictograms. Instead of discussing the dangers to bicyclists–trucks and crappy pavement–they discuss the dangers that bicyclists pose to others. Same thing with TA’s biking rules program.

    The only thing I’ve seen in this line is the truck that DOT brings to Summer Streets to demonstrate the blind spots and limited visibility.

  • Ben Kintisch

    Great points. An ambitious laundry list, for sure, but all admirable goals. Let’s roll up our proverbial sleeves!

  • Daniel

    58,630 deaths due to cartdiovascular disease in NYS in 2008. Assume About 1/3 of the state’s population is in the city — so about 19,500 deaths in the city due to cardiovascular disease, or 243 deaths per 100,000. If you assume the average bike share user lowers her risk of cardiovascular disease 10%, that means every 100,000 bike share users will save about 24 lives per year. Paris has about 100,000 daily usage, lets be generous to Gelinas and assume that means 3 deaths per 100,000 bike share users. This means every 100,000 bike share users save a net of 21 bike share users lives per year.

    To put it in a different perspective, if Gelinas’ article scares an average of 10,000 bike share users away for the next 5 years of the program, she will be responsible for over 10 deaths from cardiovascular disease alone. I don’t think Ms. Gelinas is really trying to kill people, she just didn’t think this through.

  • Anonymous

    Right, and we should not talk about immediately feasible measures that might reduce local crime because what we really want is World Peace.

    I agree with your laundry list, but it’s not something that the DOT or Citi Bike can do. What you want probably requires rewriting of laws at various levels, approval by city, state and federal agencies, and the consensus of hundreds of politicians and officials. So yes, fight for it, but don’t hold your breath.

    On the other hand, Citi Bike could make a better effort at educating their customers about defensive cycling today.

  • Absolutely. My only bike accident came from hitting a stretch of road that may as well have come from post-war Iraq. Even at an extremely leisurely speed, the entire bike just spun out of control from the asphault mogul course.

  • MFS

    Kudos to Gelinas for responding

  • Kevin, both you and Nichole picked a wrong fallacy.

    Subways hardly count as a sedentary travel mode compared to driving. New Yorkers walk far more to and from stations than drivers walk to their cars, and at most stations, we always have to walk up and down the stairs. Whether measured by calories burned or cardiovascular stress, NY straphangers and NY cyclists both get a better than US average workout.

    Nichole appears to be trying to compare fatalities on the subways with cycling fatalities, in an attempt to clarify leaving pedestrians out of her traffic death position. This misses the key point about subway riders; it’s not their deaths on the trains that’s relevant, but their deaths on the streets while walking to and from the trains that relates to cyclists being killed on the streets. It’s not on the subway vs on a bike, but on your feet outside the subway, vs on the bike that should be measured. What Charlie and others keep pointing out is that the NYC streets are not safe for anyone.

    Getting fatality “rates” for the subways is reasonably accurate – there are farebox counts to match the fatalities. But getting useful “rates” for bicycle and even for pedestrian deaths is very difficult. There are no reliable detailed user and exposure counts for cycling and too damned few for pedestrians. Body counts we have, but rates we really don’t.

    But Charlie, I and a lot of people, are shocked that the numbers for pedestrians killed while standing on the sidewalk and the numbers of cyclists killed in this city are not very different. You’re standing on the sidewalk and the cars are still coming after you. And then the NYPD tells your next of kin that it was just a tragic accident.
    Kind of like Friendly Fire in a combat zone.
    (side point – I did a tour in Vietnam and tend to drop terms like Body Count and Friendly Fire liberally, as appropriate.)

    There are 3 key factors needed to improve safety: Engineering; Education; and Enforcement.

    The DOT has the mandate for engineering, and they have been re-engineering the hell out of NYC’s streets. What DOT does not have is a mandate for education or enforcement. DOT has been performing a heroic role in education, but they don’t have the authority to do what’s needed.

    The NYS DMV should be the first stop in driver and traffic education, but if you look at the handful of questions about bikes and peds in the drivers test, it’s obvious they don’t take non-motorized modes seriously. The state education law mandated bicycle traffic safety education in schools; but when has anyone seen any such classes?

    Finally, enforcement. That should be the role of the NYPD. Should be is the operative word here. The NYPD is AWOL. Once again, the DOT has shouldered the burden of trying to enforce bicycle food delivery safety laws, by going after the restaurants directly. You have noticed how many delivery cyclists have started wearing brand new safety vests with the name of the restaurant on them? This wasn’t because of anything the NYPD did.

    Will Bike Share be the “cause” of more cyclists deaths. I don’t think so. Though some riders will crash, and some may even be killed, I don’t think it will be “caused” by Bike Share.

    (once you ride one of those bikes, you find out you can’t accelerate, you only gather momentum slowly. they are hard to get into trouble.)

    Will Bike Share be the “cause” of educating cyclists and preventing crashes and deaths. Actually, to some extent, yes it will.
    Bike Share and DOT have teamed with Bike New York to use the BNY education staff to teach bike safety classed targeted to the Bike Share program. This is one of the bike safety projects BNY is doing with the money raised from 5 Boro Bike Tour rider fees/donations. Remember the court battle BNY had with the NYPD to keep the police for charging for the policing of a city sponsored event. You may recall that BNY won.

    As noted by others, every increase in the numbers of bikes on the streets creates a better cycling environment by enhancing drivers awareness to cooperating with cyclists on the roadways. Several thousand more cyclists on the roads at all times – the Bike Share riders – will add to the cycling presence. This awareness of smaller, and usually slower, road users by drivers rubs off on drivers noticing pedestrians better, particularly at intersections. More traffic safety. Synergy – a wonderful word that applies here.

    But what about those truck drivers? Well, what about them? We still have work to do.

    There is a lot more to bicycle traffic safety than throwing down a series of one line zingers wrapped around three Parisian fatalities.

  • Mark Walker

    In addition to walking and stair climbing, subway travel while standing upright on a moving train also takes some physical effort and works a bunch of muscle groups, though it may not compare to cycling for sheer cardio. On the flipside, standing on an underventilated platform during a heat wave can be dangerous and highly unpleasant and I can understand why some would prefer cycling outside the oven.

  • Driver

    Hi, one truck driver here that is a friend to cyclists and pedestrians. I might be in the minority, perhaps even an anomaly, but I exist.

  • Anonymous

    But DOT and Citi Bike are doing things to educate their customers. Think of the biking-related PSAs and all the educational materials coming from DOT. And every Citi Bike already has the most important rules of the road printed on them.

    Then there’s the reality that DOT’s “Bike Smart” guide is included in the Citi Bike annual membership packet, and it has a very good section on the dangers of navigating around trucks and buses.

    The problem is that the onus is always on the cyclist or DOT, such that here Gelinas basically argues that, lacking this one warning, DOT will be responsible for an uptick in cycling deaths. Other causes of cycling fatalities–such as the outrageous lack of police enforcement–are treated as immutable facts, unworthy even of mention in Gelinas’s original article.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for posting the photo of the packet; I’m still eagerly awaiting mine. I think it’s great that they included the Bike Smart guide.

    I also see now that there is some useful advice in the riding tips section of the Citi Bike website. It’s not as detailed but does include a link to download the Bike Smart booklet PDF.

    What I don’t like so much is that the Rules posted on every bike and in other prominent places seem more focused on not annoying other road users than on being safe. “Safety theater”, almost. I guess they figured they had to do it for political reasons, though. When people complain about Citi Bike users riding on the sidewalk, Citi Bike can say “but look, we told them! It’s written on every bike!”

    If I had to pick four rules to write on the handlebars, they would be:

    1) stay away from parked vehicle doors

    2) beware of turning vehicles (especially trucks). Remember they have blind spots and might turn without seeing you.

    3) take the lane when it’s not wide enough for cars to pass you safely

    4) ride in the direction of traffic

  • Jared R

    I always come back to: “What was the intent of her article?” Seemingly, the intent was to say Citibike is flawed because there is nothing we can do about drivers killing pedestrians and cyclists. I’m still unsure. Someone clarify for me.

  • Anonymous

    I think she’d say her intention was to note how Paris dealt with a spike in apparently bikeshare-related deaths shortly after their system debuted, with the hope that New York might follow suit and head off similar problems here. And that’s fine. But she’s a fellow at the nightmarishly conservative Manhattan Institute and, therefore, all she could do was point fingers at DOT and bikers, since the police are the only blameless public employees and trucking companies and such are, when privately held, basically gods.

  • Jared R

    Thanks – that is my guess as well. The article is just veiled with particular language choices that allow it to flow well with other bikelash pieces.

  • Steven,

    You appear to be mixing “subway” with “multi-modal transportation.” If I walk and then take a subway train that’s multi-modal transportation.

    Most subway users do walk to and from a station. But the subway part of their journey will be standing or sitting, and that is sedentary transportation.

    While I am on the street walking, I’m a pedestrian. And the fact that criminal car drivers in their criminal negligence regularly crush and kill pedestrians on the sidewalk and pedestrian crossings scares the $&%*#!! out of me.

  • Wish Gelinas had read the article more thoroughly before getting all up in arms about it.. The whole response sounds blustery, all the way down to her seeming offense at Komanoff’s use of the words “tabloid titillation..” It sounds like she didn’t really read the rest of his article.

  • Nicolas Igersheim

    How many deaths subsequent to a flu contracted in the subway? Bike riders are notably immune to colds and flues!

  • Joe R.

    I rode 4300 miles last year but that didn’t seem to give me any special immunity. I was sick on and off the first 4 months of this year.

  • dr2chase

    So, 23 million trips in the US, not one fatality, any additional words from Gelinas? Surely she’ll want to take credit for scaring us all straight.

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Citi Bike Member Packets Include Cycling-Near-Trucks Safety Tips

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Yesterday we had a feisty exchange of posts between Charles Komanoff and Nicole Gelinas about what the city should do to enhance safety for Citi Bike users (and everyone else). One of Gelinas’s main suggestions is to educate bike-share users about how to interact safely with trucks, and it turns that there’s a big graphic […]

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