Corey Johnson: Cyclists Make It Hard to Defend Cyclists

Yes, some bikers run through red lights, but pols need to remind cranky people like Steve Cuozzo what the real problem is: cars.

Council Speaker Corey Johnson with reporters. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Council Speaker Corey Johnson with reporters. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Let’s get back to that applause for a second.

At a New York Law School breakfast last week, Council Speaker Corey Johnson earned a smattering of cheers when he blamed cyclists for contributing to the perception among some pedestrians that two-wheeled pedalers are more dangerous than the four-wheeled, two-ton, motorized steel cages that kill and maim tens of thousands of New Yorkers every year.

I’ve been thinking about that applause all week.

Johnson had been asked a question from cyclist George Calderaro about why the NYPD summonses for passing through a red light are the same for cyclists as they are for drivers — even though scofflaw drivers are much more dangerous.

Here was Johnson’s response, which started out so well…:

There is a real issue surrounding enforcement and the amount of summonses and the fine amount for these things. We need to invest in all options, and that means biking, citi bike, building out infrastructure around the city to make it easier to bike. And so the vast majority of accidents in New York City where people are killed or seriously hurt are by trucks and by cars and by buses. They are the ones that are causing the most amount of harm on the streets for pedestrians and cyclists.

Somehow, I knew a “but” was coming…

But I will tell you — as someone who is incredibly sympathetic to cyclists and has] supported more protected bike lanes in my district than anyone else — there is a public perception problem when people see cyclists not stopping at lights. Or driving on sidewalks. Or going the wrong way down the street. It is a serious problem.

And that’s when the applause started.

Calderaro tried to steer the conversation back to summons injustice.

“But I’m not talking about that,” he said, before Johnson interrupted him.

But it has to be part of the conversation. … I think it’s totally unfair [for cyclists] to pay a much higher ticket … at a red light. So we have to look at that. But you have a problem in New York City when I get stopped all the time especially by older New Yorkers who feel threatened by bikes that don’t stop. … I get stopped constantly. We need to have some level of enforcement because we need to change behavior of some cyclists.

There was some more applause. So Johnson pivoted back to reality.

But cyclists can’t also be a scapegoat. You can’t pin this all on cyclists. Ultimately, the real things that are killing people are trucks and buses and cars. … Someone is injured by a car in New York City every six minutes. That’s not by a bike. There’s a balancing act. We don’t want to be disproportionately punitive towards cyclists. It’s good for people to bike. But we have to make sure that cyclists respect the rules of the road just like we want vehicles to respect the rules of the road.

Those words — “rules of the road” — always haunt me. They remind me of how politicians are always equating cyclists with drivers (“rules”) even though the groups represent a completely different level of danger and how politicians ignore that our very infrastructure (“roads”) is completely designed around the needs of drivers.

The cheap applause line reminded me of something Mayor de Blasio — yes, the guy who gets in an SUV to be driven to his gym — said last year at a community meeting when a Midtown claimed, “You take your life in your hands now in New York City when you cross the street.”

“What has happened — and this I can talk to because I am a lifelong New Yorker — a culture has been created in New York: Here come the bikes, everybody else get the hell out of the way,” the resident, Richard Resnick, added.

Mr. Vision Zero didn’t push back despite his own Department of Transportation’s stats showing that car drivers are responsible for 99.5 percent of all pedestrian and cyclists deaths since 2011. Rather, according to reporting by my colleague David Meyer, de Blasio agreed that a culture of disobeying traffic laws has emerged as an unintended consequence of his effort to make a “more bikeable city.” And de Blasio got his applause, too.

Now, do Johnson and de Blasio have a point that bad cyclists shouldn’t do what they do? Of course they do. But are people far too quick to applaud their easy, fact-free, slippery moral equivalence? Of course they are. (Meyer pointed out, for example, that violations like sidewalk riding decline dramatically when cyclists are made to feel safer riding on the street, but who has time for such facts?)

I stalked Johnson after the breakfast to ask him why people applauded even though cyclists are a tiny part of the problem. The text of our exchange is telling:

“It’s more than one reckless cyclist,” he said.

“You are never going to win this argument with me,” I replied.

“That’s a problem though!” he said, continuing:

I am a real friend of cyclists, but if you stand on Eighth Avenue and 15th Street [in Manhattan], you have many many cyclists going the wrong way in the bike lane, who aren’t using the protected bike lane, riding on the sidewalk, who are not stopping for red lights, and that makes it more difficult to change perceptions of people who don’t cycle. We want to protect cyclists and make it easier for them. But we also want to implore them because of perception from the public and safety reasons, we want them to obey the rules of the road, just like we ask cars to obey the rules of the road, though cars are far more dangerous.

Other reporters jumped in with less-weighty questions (something about closing Rikers Island), so I walked off. Later, I was unlocking my bike outside and spotted Johnson yet again. I told him that the very term “rules of the road” is offensive because these “roads” were set up, laid out, signalized and enforced to make everything easier for drivers at the expense of cyclists and pedestrians, who compete for crumbs. I told him that even progressives like himself are so imbued in America’s car culture that they simply can’t see roads as anything else but space for car drivers (or worse, car parkers).

Johnson may be right that the public has a negative perception of cyclists, but it’s up to “leaders” like him to challenge that perception by pushing back. Yes, one or two cyclists run a red light, but more than 4.5 million drivers got speeding tickets in just four years from just 140 cameras that were operating only during school hours. Yes, one or two cyclists salmon for a block or two because they may feel safer in a city built for cars, but virtually every bit of congestion in this city is caused by drivers who double-park, so where are the politicians when the NYPD is writing a disproportionate number of tickets to bike riders?

So I ask you, Mr. Speaker, who has the perception problem? To me, it’s the people who applauded you last week.

Gersh Kuntzman is Editor-in-Chief of Streetsblog. When he gets really angry, he writes the Cycle of Rage column. They’re archived here.

  • jcwconsult

    OF COURSE roads can be designed for slower speeds, and I frequently mention that fact. Example: If the slowest 85% of the drivers now feel safe and comfortable at speeds up to 40 mph on a main 4+ lane collector or arterial street, it can be re-engineered so the slowest 85% now feel safe and comfortable only at speeds up to 30 or 25 mph with the re-engineering.

    Just bear in mind there can be negative consequences including more congestion, diversion of some traffic off the main collector or arterial street that was designed for the heavier and faster traffic onto smaller roughly parallel streets that were not designed as main collectors or arterials, and possibly some economic losses for businesses in the destination areas if some drivers stop coming because the congestion is now too difficult.

    But you have understood that just posting lower speed limits does not work.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • fdtutf

    I am sorry that you and many other motorists do not understand the fundamentals of morality. You want to avoid responsibility for your behavior, imposing the costs of it (which sometimes extend to death) on other people while you merrily buzz along at your God-damned 85th-percentile speeds, blissfully unaware of all the carnage you’re causing.

    When you do not understand that, you cannot speak with any authority. I only want to discuss justice, not fake science.

  • jcwconsult

    When you do not understand the realities of driver behavior, you cannot plan any changes. I only want to discuss realities, not wishful thinking ideas that greedy cities pervert for profits.

    I think our exchange has reached an impasse.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • fdtutf

    When you do not understand the fundamentals of morality, you cannot act with integrity. I only want to discuss justice, not ridiculous notions that maintain the unjust status quo.

    I agree.

  • Perhaps he’s already won though.

    Exactly right. Which is why we must stop giving this troll exactly what it wants.

  • Alicia

    “the safest 85th percentile speed”

    The 85th percentile standard is “safest” only for car users, not other users of the road.

  • Alicia

    “Sometimes it takes many repetitions of the science to get even minimal understanding of how the world really works.”

    But still you don’t understand the pitfalls in your conception of “science.”

  • Raymond

    I cant wait to see you “accidentally” hit by a car door because why would they look the wrong way… In 2012 I was hit by a bike that went the wrong way on driggs thru a red light in front of a school crossing guard. The bike rider was scuffed up, my shirt and pants were torn. She called the cops. Thankfully, they wrote her a slew of tickets. School crossing guard has my back and was a perfect witness. I am not sorry that she got what she deserved that day.

  • dfiler

    Your thought process is precisely how racism works.

    You’re hating people and wishing them injury because of the group they belong to rather than their actions as an individual.

  • dfiler

    It’s tough because he also wants to overwhelm the comments section in order to make his extremist position seem common.


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