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Tonight’s Ride and Forum Are About Livable Streets for All

Mayor John Lindsay (center) and Parks Commissioner August Hecksher (in white shirt) lead ride up Sixth Ave. to Central Park, April 1, 1968.

New York City bicyclists will celebrate bike activism’s past, present and future this evening in a ride from Greenwich Village to Central Park South and back to the Village, culminating in a community forum at Cooper Union. These linked happenings come the day after the New York Times managed to twist its big story on the July 2011-June 2012 spike in NYC traffic fatalities into a jab at DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s livable streets makeover.

Sadly, the connections between the fatalities story and tonight’s events aren’t just in the timing.

The most obvious connection, and the most painful, is that the Houston Street and Sixth Avenue meetup for tonight’s ride, which was chosen months ago, is where long-time Village resident Jessica Dworkin was run over in late August when the driver of an 18-wheeler steered his rig into her.

There’s a more enduring connection as well, and it’s two-fold: first, there’s the media’s chronic inability to scrutinize traffic-crash data critically to determine, as we at Transportation Alternatives asked a quarter-of-a-century ago, Who’s Really Getting Hurt?; paired with that is the NYPD’s utter unconcern about traffic safety and justice -- from its autopilot “No Criminality” statements that appear even before the blood has been washed off the pavement, to its blanket refusals to release crash analyses by its Accident Investigation Squad.

Streetsblog has run dozens of posts on NYPD stonewalling, so let’s focus here on how the Times mis-reported the jump in fatalities.

The raw figures are simple enough: from the 2011 fiscal year ending June 30, 2011, to the 2012 fiscal year ending June 30, 2012:

    • Motor vehicle occupant fatalities rose by 37, from 78 to 115, a jump of 47 percent.
    • Non-occupant (pedestrian and cyclist) fatalities rose by 18, from 158 to 176, an increase of 11 percent.
    • Total traffic fatalities rose by 55, from 236 to 291, an increase of 23 percent.

The takeaways are fairly obvious too:

    • Driving, walking and cycling in New York City were less safe in FY 2012 than in FY 2011.
    • The increase in danger was concentrated in driving, with an increase in fatalities twice as large as that for walking and cycling -- and four times as great in percentage terms.

How, then, did the Times story manage to center its lead on DOT’s “roadway interventions,” virtually all of which have been on streets, not highways?

For years, the New York City Transportation Department has held a trump card in the roiling debate over its many roadway interventions: When officials said the measures, like pedestrian plazas and bike lanes, had made streets safer, the numbers appeared to back them up. But the release last week of the Mayor’s Management Report [large PDF, the data are at p. 134], a twice-yearly collection of city measures, revealed a disquieting figure. Traffic fatalities from July 2011 through June 2012 were up 23 percent from the previous year -- to 291, from 236. It was the first increase since 2007, when there were 310 traffic fatalities.

One could just as easily twist the same data and conclude that the DOT’s livable streets initiatives saved more than 50 lives last year: after all, if walker and bicyclist fatalities had risen as sharply as deaths for vehicle occupants, the increased bike-ped toll would have been 74 rather than the actual 18. (That’s ‘cause 47 percent of 158 is 74.)

Such an inference would be speculative if not downright nutty, of course, but no more so than the Times’ insinuation that bike lanes, pedestrian plazas and such had anything to do with the alarming rise in citywide traffic fatalities over the past 12 months.

We don’t know precisely what caused traffic deaths to spike. We don’t even know where -- in which boroughs, in which precincts, how many on highways vs. how many on streets -- the increases were concentrated. But we do know that the combination of motor vehicles’ bulk and speeds, drivers’ sense of aggrievement and entitlement, and NYPD and prosecutors’ indifference, has and will always spell tragedy and death.

Tonight’s ride and forum are focused on bike activism, but bike advocacy has always been about more than cycling alone. We seek, as NYC bicycle designer and visionary George Bliss wrote several decades ago, a democratic joining of mobility and community that provides safe travel for all. It is fitting that the ride begins at the site of an all-too-recent and horrific pedestrian death, and that the forum that follows is at the Cooper Union Great Hall, a true cradle of citizenship. Tonight's events are free. I hope to see you at both.

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