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.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    While I definitely think you’re right about speed traps on the segments of interstates that pass through urban areas, it’s hard not to argue for speed limits that you might find unreasonably low in urban centers, where pedestrians and bicyclists can be abundant. Those aren’t mere revenue generators.

  • jcwconsult

    You make a common argument which would be valid if posted limits set well below the safest 85th percentile speeds changed the actual travel speeds of most drivers. But they don’t and no city can afford enough enforcement to make a material difference. The IIHS just did a study in Boston with a change from 30 to 25. The mean speeds before and after were 24.8 mph – 0.0 mph change. The 85th percentile speeds before and after were 31.0 mph – 0.0 mph change.

    The largest study ever done studied 100 locations both urban and rural where the limits were scheduled to be changed for a variety of reasons. The study was done for the Federal Highway Administration. You can raise a too low limit by up to 15 mph or lower a good one by up to 20 mph and the maximum change in the 85th percentile speeds was 3 mph, but the average change was about 1.5 mph – too small to affect safety.

    I only argue for things in reality, based on a 50+ year study of the unbiased research. If the slowest 85% of the drivers are at or below XX mph and you want them to be at or below XX minus 10 mph, then you must reengineer the street so that the slowest 85% of the drivers now feel safe and comfortable only at speeds up to about XX minus 10 mph. That is the reality.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Lauren Bertrand

    So because we can’t afford the right enforcement, we should accept the fact “cars will be cars” with no regard to the markedly higher likelihood of death or serious injury if a person gets hit by a vehicle at 30 mph versus 20 mph? No thanks. Unless I’m understanding you wrong in this capacity (and please correct me if I am), I don’t hate urban centers as much you apparently do. I’ve been in cities with good enforcement of safety standards for pedestrians–Boston comes to mind–and drivers genuinely do yield at crosswalks. The consequences are severe if they don’t. Compare that to most cities and it’s a world of difference.

    I’d be willing to let cars cruise the open highway at higher speeds when they’re on limited access roads, if it’s a compromise for the fact that urban areas (especially city centers) should be safe for bikes and peds. I’m not sure you’re willing to make that compromise.

    Haven’t we been “re-engineering the street” pretty consistently in downtowns for the last 20 years to tighten those radii, so cars can’t speed through right-hand turns? Is that frustrating to you as well?

  • jcwconsult

    If advocating significantly better traffic safety engineering that is superior in almost every way is “advocating stupid shit” in your view, then I am sorry you don’t understand how better engineering could solve a lot of problems in the US.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • LimestoneKid

    “that some car drivers also do not respect traffic laws.”

    “some” …..LOL!

  • jcwconsult

    I don’t hate urban centers at all, and culture does have something to do with behavior – over a LONG period of time. So does engineering, such as advanced pedestrian walk signals to give pedestrians time to establish activity in the crosswalks before the parallel lanes get a green light and might turn right. Chicago does this very effectively downtown.

    My point is that traffic engineering science, even in Boston as recently proven by IIHS, shows that setting lower speed limits does NOT change the actual travel speeds by enough to matter.

    Let me ask you a serious question, if you are willing to answer it. The 85th percentile speed on the Boston streets in the recent IIHS study was 31.0 mph and the mean speed was 24.8 mph – regardless of whether the limit was 30 or 25. Why would anyone think that safety would be better if the legal limit is now 25?

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    One gets to observe massive numbers of other drivers in 1.1 million miles of driving & their actions say a lot about their mental states.

    I and other NMA members are happy to see the crazy, careless, reckless, high-DUI, and other high risk drivers sanctioned.

    What we do NOT accept is deliberately improper traffic safety engineering to make the normal & safe actions of a high proportion of drivers illegal for the purposes of for-profit enforcement. The revenues from those actions are little different than larceny.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Lauren Bertrand

    To answer your question quite willingly, a violation of 6 mph is more egregious than one of 1 mph in an urban setting, so it establishes a greater justification for enforcement. If the speed limit is 25 mph, 6 mph is a deviation of more than 20% above the law, which is a violation on par with 13 mph on 65 mph highways–typically enough to get a ticket. I’m not as impelled to shrug my shoulders at the notion of good enforcement, especially when these differences in pedestrian and bicycle-dense areas can be the difference between injury and fatality.

    A cost benefit analysis on whether traffic-calming engineering versus enforcement yields more benefits in terms of pedestrian safety would be something I can get behind. And, frankly, I’m in full support of higher speed limits on limited access roads in rural areas, where pedestrians and bikes are (with few exceptions) prohibited. If Texas wants to raise its speed limits to 100 mph on the long road between San Antonio and El Paso (or even the road between Austin and Dallas), I’m fine with it, though I think greater enforcement of left-lane-for-passing regs would help the public handle such a speed limit increase without a compromise in safety.

  • Joe R.

    I’ve proposed that exact same compromise myself. We can and should raise highway speed limits to realistic levels based on current road and vehicle design, and current driver behavior. To do that we first must of course abolish any “state maximum speed limits”. Those often prevent raising highway speed limits to realistic values. Few states have state speed limits over 75 mph, for example. On the east coast many have a ridiculously low 65 mph. Based on my observations, a lot of highways would be posted at 80 to 100 mph if the speed limits were set properly. A few really wide, straight sections in the middle of nowhere might even be posted at 110 mph to 125 mph.

    Once all highways have speed limits which reflect the speed 85% to 95% of drivers feel comfortable at, I strongly feel drivers will regain respect for speed limits in general. That means we can set limits well under the 85th percentile on urban streets for safety reasons, yet more drivers will respect those limits. They are also more likely to respect other traffic laws.

    The national 55 mph speed limit back in the 1970s at first eroded respect for speed limits, then eventually respect for traffic laws in general. It’s time to attempt to get some of that respect back by setting realistic highway speed limits.

  • jcwconsult

    I understand your reply. The for-profit enforcement industry thanks you for that view, it is a material part of their for-profit business plans.

    What your reply ignored is the fact the mean and 85th percentile speeds did NOT change – even by one-tenth of one mph. All that happened was to change the percentage of drivers above the legal limit from 18.2% to 46.9% to enable sporadic enforcement for profits for the courts and the insurance industry. NO city will afford the resources to enforce all or even most of their streets anything close to 24/7. So they just use enforcement for profits – knowing the overall speeds will NOT change and therefore safety will not change. It is a racket.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    Addendum: And any one driver will likely get a ticket only once every 4 or 5 years, not often enough or severe enough to have much effect on their behavior. Tickets that rarely become an annoying “road tax”, not a result that changes behavior more than very temporarily. This knowledge is also a material part of the for-profit ticket industry – because the real purpose is profits, not safety.

    If lower posted speed limits set well below the safest 85th percentile speed levels actually changed behavior and the 85th percentile speeds went down by something close to the reduction in limits, we would have a totally different scenario. But lower limits don’t change behavior by enough to matter, so they just enable for-profit speed trap rackets.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    I only try to talk about realities, not wishful thinking hopes. Please note that posted limits set at the safest 85th percentile speed levels get voluntary compliance from the overwhelming majority of drivers and enforcement becomes both unnecessary and unprofitable.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    Most car drivers respect traffic laws that are actually based on safety, but disrespect unnecessary ones that are arbitrary or improper.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • fdtutf

    One gets to observe massive numbers of other drivers in 1.1 million miles of driving & their actions say a lot about their mental states.

    Not enough for you to speak for them as you did, though.

    I and other NMA members are happy to see the crazy, careless, reckless, high-DUI, and other high risk drivers sanctioned.

    What we do NOT accept is deliberately improper traffic safety engineering to make the normal & safe actions of a high proportion of drivers illegal for the purposes of for-profit enforcement. The revenues from those actions are little different than larceny.

    I and other pedestrians would be happy, I think, to see all careless and reckless drivers sanctioned. (Notice I’m not claiming to actually know what other pedestrians are thinking.) I think you would be unhappy to find out how many that actually is.

    What we do NOT accept is deliberate flouting of the traffic laws by drivers who are unconcerned for the safety of anyone except themselves. Tons more enforcement is needed.

  • fdtutf

    All road users have and take risks.

    But some road users are better able than others to transfer the consequences of the risks they take onto other people.

    See NHTSA studies about pedestrian fatalities where the crash happened in a travel lane not at a crosswalk and the percentage of after dark fatalities where the pedestrian was in dark clothing and hard to see.

    Those behaviors should not carry the death penalty. There’s no moral justification for that.

    Vision Zero can be accomplished ONLY where there is no mixture of moving vehicles and pedestrians & cyclists. Do note that I support well designed pedestrian precincts.

    HOORAY! Let’s banish all motor vehicles from cities where pedestrian volumes are significant. I’m ready.

  • jcwconsult

    I understand your view, and so do the officials and the for-profit camera companies. They depend upon some people with your views to keep speed limits artificially low set below the safest points, traffic lights improperly timed, and sporadic enforcement enough to be VERY profitable, but not enough to stop most violations because then the enforcement would not be profitable.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    Those behaviors should not carry the death penalty.

    Agreed that is a terrible penalty, but behavior changes from pedestrians could likely cut the fatalities in half. It is perhaps about the same level of risk taking as not fastening a seat belt in a vehicle – incredibly risky and stupid.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association
    .

  • LimestoneKid

    LOL! Do you even listen to yourself?

    Those virtuous drivers that you think can do no wrong use completely arbitrary standards to determine which traffic laws are unnecessary. ????

  • LimestoneKid

    You should NEVER salmon.

  • jcwconsult

    No, their behavior follows the science. If the speed limit is way below the safest 85th percentile speed – it will not be respected. If it is set properly, it will be complied with and enforcement will be neither necessary nor profitable. I only deal with realities.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    You make really accurate points on highway speed limits and the root cause of the disrespect – the National 55 limit starting 1974. When Interstates were first built in the late 1950s, the 85th speeds were about 70 and most Interstates were required to be posted for 70 at the minimum. Today, 50+ years later, most rural Interstates should be posted at 80 with a few of the best at 85. Texas Highway 130 is posted at 85, the highest in the country, and the actual 85th speeds are 86. Most drivers are not comfortable faster than that.

    I disagree that drivers would accept limits well under the actual and current 85th percentile speeds on the main urban collectors and arterials. If the slowest 85% of the drivers feel safe and comfortable at speeds up to 45 mph on a 5 lane urban arterial, posting 40 or 35 or 30 will make almost no difference in the actual speeds (+/- 0 to 3 mph). Actual speeds CAN be lowered by totally re-engineering the streets, but that carries negatives of congestion, diversion to smaller streets, and sometimes damage to commerce.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • fdtutf

    So pedestrians should have to select their clothing in a certain way because motorists are unwilling to drive at speeds that are safe for conditions?

    If it’s so dark that you can’t see a pedestrian wearing dark clothing, then it is your responsibility to proceed at a speed that gives you time to perceive pedestrians wearing dark clothing before you hit them. If you don’t, you are driving recklessly.

  • jcwconsult

    Again, I am only interested in realities. People who want to improve safety MUST start by accepting the realities of driver behavior. If they start from a wishful thinking point of view, their results are almost certain to fail.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • qrt145

    So basically you are saying the since the reality is that drivers are reckless (in this case by driving at a speed that does not allow for adequate reaction time when encountering pedestrians), we should have zero enforcement against reckless driving?

  • jcwconsult

    The reality is that posted speed limits have almost no effect on the actual 85th percentile and mean speeds – plus or minus 0 to 3 mph. THAT is reality. If you don’t start there, your plans are essentially certain to fail. And cities don’t use enough officers or speed cameras to reduce the speeds enough to matter, because then enforcement becomes a huge cost factor. Officials use enough enforcement to “claim we are doing something about the speeding problem” AND to produce large enforcement profits. Those officials will never admit that the “speeding problem” is caused by the improper and less-safe posting of speed limits well below the optimum 85th percentile speed levels. If the 85th percentile speed is 45 mph on a main arterial and officials want it to be 30, then the street must be re-engineered so that the slowest 85% of the drivers now feel safe and comfortable only at speeds up to about 30 mph. THAT is the reality.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Dave

    Speaking of who obeys what laws–get in your car and try, just try to drive on any Interstate highway at the posted speed limit. Just try–you will be treated as either an obstacle at best or as a four-wheeled speed bump at worst. Don’t fucking tell me about cyclists, okay?

  • fdtutf

    In other words, there is no point in expecting drivers to obey the traffic laws or to consider the safety of other road users.

    Best argument for banning motor vehicles altogether that I have ever heard.

  • fdtutf

    Yes. That’s exactly what he’s saying.

  • jcwconsult

    Drivers voluntarily comply with rational traffic laws that are not set up to create for-profit ticket traps by requiring drivers to behave in ways that are not necessary for safety or comfort.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Correct. Either find a street that goes in the direction you want, or else walk your bike.

    Riding the wrong way on any street is wrong at all times and under all conditions.

  • Excellent. And, on that note, I hope that you will conclude that continuing to engage with this apologist for dangerous criminal activity is utterly futile. This is nothing but a troll. I ask you not to encourage it.

  • jcwconsult

    When the slowest 85% of the drivers are at or below 40 mph on a major urban arterial street and the city improperly and less-safely posts the street for 30, you can pretty much guarantee that 89% to 90% will be at 31 mph or higher. That is the science.

    When cities use Stop signs in places where Yield signs would be a better engineering choice because the sight lines are good and conflicting traffic is not common, you can pretty much guarantee that a very high percentage of drivers will roll the Stop signs after checking for no conflicts.

    Engineering is the key to compliance.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    It is not dangerously criminal to drive at the speeds that tend to produce the lowest crash rates, even when the posted limit is set less-safely, artificially-low, to create a lucrative speed trap.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    Drivers will not drive artificially slowly on main roads to avoid the small possibility that a reckless pedestrian will dodge out into lanes of moving traffic not at a crosswalk at night wearing dark clothing and misjudging the time needed to get across those traffic lanes.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

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