A Proposal for NYPD: Protect New Yorkers From Jerks on the Road

Photo: Clarence Eckerson
Failure-to-yield is one of the most dangerous behaviors on the street, but you'd never know it from the types of summonses NYPD chooses to enforce most frequently. Photo: Clarence Eckerson

The state of pedestrian-cyclist relations got some ink in the Times this weekend, in a piece the headline writers chose to run under the banner “The Cyclist-Pedestrian Wars.” That’s a pretty inflammatory choice of words, especially when you consider that the Times style guide still calls for using the non-confrontational “accident” to describe traffic collisions that kill pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists. (Maybe these are the same headline writers who took Robert Sullivan’s 2009 plea for bike-ped solidarity and called it “The Wild Bunch.”)

Early in the piece, there’s a big tell that the “war” between pedestrians and cyclists, in many places, still consists mainly of fighting over the leftovers on our streets:

Cyclists who disobey traffic laws are the No. 1 complaint among residents of the Upper East Side, according to the police.”

The Upper East Side is also a desert of bike infrastructure. To get anywhere on a bicycle, you have to brave some of the widest, deadliest streets in New York. As long as motorized vehicles have such a stranglehold on the road, a lot of cyclists are going to opt for the haven of the sidewalk, no matter how many summonses the NYPD hands out in response to these complaints.

Put out some physically-separated bike lanes — like the city had promised to do on First and Second Avenues — and the sidewalk won’t be such a contested zone between pedestrians and cyclists on the Upper East Side.

The Times also revisits the difficult-to-pin-down nature of data on bike-ped collisions:

Nobody seems to keep reliable data on bicycle-pedestrian crashes, though two researchers at Hunter College analyzed data from 100 hospital emergency rooms across the nation and found evidence of at least 38,000 such collisions between 1980 and 2009 (about 38,000 people die in car accidents each year). The researchers, Peter Tuckel and William Milezarski, found no discernible change over the nearly 30-year period studied.

I can add one other data point that gets somewhat more specific. According to a spokesperson with the State Department of Health, an average of 81 pedestrians are hospitalized annually as a result of bicycle collisions, across all of New York State. That comes to about 1 out of every 200,000 New York residents.

I don’t have an exact apples-to-apples comparison with traffic injuries, but the Department of Health reports that statewide, from 2004 to 2006, an average of 312 pedestrians were killed, 3,446 were hospitalized, and 12,104 made emergency room visits each year as a result of motor vehicle traffic.

This isn’t very fine-grained data, but it does explain why, these days, you often hear public health authorities voice support for policies that protect pedestrians and cyclists from the dangers of automobile traffic, while they tend not to say much about policies to protect pedestrians from the dangers of bikes and cars.

Reader Paco Abraham sent in this re-working of the
Reader Paco Abraham sent in this headline re-write, envisioning some Times coverage devoted to the shared interests of New York's walkers and bikers.

Now New Yorkers are seeing cutting edge bike-ped policy right in front of our eyes. Several miles of Manhattan roads below 34th Street have been re-designed to make walking and biking safer, and the mutual benefits are real. But here’s the thing: perceptions matter. If pedestrians don’t feel they have a stake in the changes, it’s going to be that much harder to win support for re-engineering other streets with safety in mind. The screaming headlines don’t help, and neither do those reckless cyclists who let the headlines gain traction.

At this point, though, I’d say a bigger impediment is the fact that the agency responsible for protecting New Yorkers has been so disengaged from the effort to improve street safety.

The engineers are doing their part to try safer new street designs and see what works best. But what about the police? Do they have any public message to help New Yorkers understand which motorist behaviors pose the greatest danger on NYC streets? What is NYPD doing to make sure New Yorkers know how to drive and ride on the new street designs? How are they measuring compliance with the law, and enforcing the rules so that streets function as safely as they should?

When it comes to traffic enforcement and preventing pedestrian injuries and deaths, the police prefer to stay silent. When it comes to cycling enforcement, they seem focused on sidewalk riding. The Times reports that tickets for sidewalk-riding accounted for the vast majority of summonses that NYPD issued to cyclists the first six months of 2010 — 13,632 out of 15,957.

This should embarrass NYPD for two reasons. One, they’re on track to issue more than 27,000 sidewalk riding summonses this year when far deadlier motorist behavior is getting far less attention. The agency handed motorists all of 5,866 summonses for failure-to-yield violations in 2007, according to Transportation Alternatives’ report Executive Order. Unlike sidewalk riding, failure-to-yield kills: It’s a contributing factor in 27 percent of crashes that kill or seriously injure pedestrians.

The second reason is that the cyclist enforcement they’re doing isn’t targeting behavior like riding the wrong way or blowing through reds. Compared to irritating but generally slow-moving sidewalk riders, salmon and red light burners seem far more likely to catch pedestrians unaware and cause dangerous conditions for other people on the street.

So here’s my modest proposal. Before the bus lane enforcement blitz that’s going to accompany the roll-out of Select Bus Service on the East Side next month, police should pick some intersections on First Avenue below 34th Street and measure all the law-breaking that goes on. Then, in addition to keeping the bus lane free of cars, they should ticket the motorists who fail to yield to pedestrians, turn left from the wrong lane, block the bike lane, or speed through those intersections. Ticket the cyclists who ride the wrong way or burn through red lights without stopping. Give the cyclists who block the crosswalk a stern talking to, and remind the pedestrians who stray into the bike lane that they should stay on the sidewalk. Then measure compliance with traffic laws after the blitz.

What sort of violations are most common? Which pose actual dangers to other people? What effect does enforcement have? New York needs this sort of data to get past the notion of a “war” between pedestrians and cyclists and see that the real struggle is between the jerks and the non-jerks on our streets.

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