Cyclists Are Not the Enemy, Says a Widow Whose Husband Was Killed By a Cyclist

Scores of activists rallied at City Hall last month to argue that Mayor de Blasio has decelerated Vision Zero. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Scores of activists rallied at City Hall last month to argue that Mayor de Blasio has decelerated Vision Zero. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Cyclists are not the problem — poor street design is, and it’s killing people.

Last week, Donna Sturm became the first pedestrian killed by someone riding a bike in New York City since 2017. The biker allegedly went through a red light and struck the 67-year-old in a Midtown crosswalk on April 24, sending her into a coma. She died on May 4.

The fatality was a devastating reminder for Hindy Schachter, whose husband Irving Schachter was killed in 2014 by a teen biker in Central Park — but she says it also reinforced the idea that the real threat on New York City’s streets is a culture that prioritizes cars over safety. It’s an argument she’s been making for five years.

Irving and Hindy Schachter.
Irving and Hindy Schachter.

“When I hear a story like this, my first thought is deep sympathy and empathy for the victim and the family. After that I think, ‘How can we make this the last tragedy of this sort.’ I know that the answer is going to be better street design allied with enforcement,” said Schachter, a member of Families for Safe Streets. “There are people who will talk about bad cyclists who whizz by them — sure let’s give that cyclist a ticket. But the issue is not the few cyclist fatalities, the issue is the fatalities as a whole, the vast majority of which come from motor vehicles, and the solution is a totally different way of designing streets.”

And the proof is in the numbers.

According to the city’s NYPD Motor Vehicle Collisions database, there were 45,775 motor vehicle collisions that resulted in injuries last year — 11,115 of those injuries were to pedestrians. Police say 230 of those pedestrians — just two percent — were struck and hurt by a bike rider, with the remaining 98 percent hurt by motorists. This year, at least 65 people have been killed by a driver — a 30-percent increase in fatalities compared to the same time period last year, according to NYPD data (the city DOT claims the percent increase is actually lower). One person — Sturm — has been killed by a cyclist.

Schachter recognizes that the individual cyclists who killed both her husband and Sturm are just as much at fault as any reckless motorist who kills someone. But demonizing those who ride bikes, who statistically cause a tiny fraction of all injury-causing collisions on the road, is not making anyone safer.

Instead, the city must invest its resources in redesigning streets that make it harder to kill someone, said Schachter.

“These incidents where a negligent, thoughtless cyclist kills a pedestrian are horrible for the people involved and a blight on the city, but they are very, very rare,” she said. “If you want safe streets, if you want to be able to walk around NYC and feel, ‘I’m okay in the crosswalks,’ worrying about bikes is not going to get you there. You’re never going to get a world with no negligent people — but we can do something about street redesign, we can change the city so it’s easier to walk and bicycle.”

According to the Department of Transportation, there are roughly 490,000 bike trips per day. Comparatively, the DOT counted about 4,441,000 daily car trips at borough and city boundaries in 2016.  That means about .04 percent of cyclists on the road cause injuries to pedestrians, while .2 percent of car drivers do.

(The city does not know the total number of cars on the road, so the 4,441,000 does not include intra-borough trips. But even accounting for many more trips, cars still cause more injuries to pedestrians than cyclists do by a factor of 10. And car speeds and weights mean that many injuries become deaths.)

Cyclists did not kill a single person in New York City in 2018, while drivers killed 202.

But despite those numbers, critics paint cyclists as villains, and cops continue to target them. Mayor de Blasio also continues to defend his crackdown on e-bike riders — most of whom are low-wage immigrant delivery workers — despite the city’s own data that proves e-bike riders have caused even fewer injuries to pedestrians than cyclists overall. E-bike rides injured just nine of the 11,115 injured pedestrians last year, according to the city’s own data.

The mayor doubled down on his enforcement effort, saying on Brian Lehrer’s radio show on Friday morning that e-bikes are dangerous because they go “the wrong way down the street, a lot of speed at levels they shouldn’t be.” He then added, “Why don’t these businesses and these restaurants find another way to make their delivery rather than an e-bike?”

The timing was brutal; just days earlier, a candy truck driver hit and killed a 3-year-old boy in Brooklyn.

But it’s not just the mayor and law enforcement who seem to disproportionately bully bikers — pedestrians are reflexively more scared of cyclists than they are of cars, and often unleash that fear on social media or in op-eds printed in major daily newspapers.

Howard Husock of the Manhattan Institute penned a Daily News op-ed demanding that cyclists “must do better” after Sturm was killed.

“Some cyclists in New York are posing a public safety risk,” Husock wrote.

Of course some cyclists misbehave, but Husock was fighting the wrong battle; advocates are not arguing for cyclists to blow through a red light or speed the wrong way down a block without punishment. But they are calling for changes that Husock did not even mention: the need for better road design would make it harder for everyone, including those who bike, to break traffic laws.

Critics of cycling often taunt bike riders by saying, “New York isn’t Amsterdam,” but the jibe reveals the essential problem: New York does not have Amsterdam’s cycling- and pedestrian-friendly road designs  —  if it did, there wouldn’t be more than 200 people killed on the streets every year.

But Amsterdman, like Copenhagen, wasn’t built in a day, as Bike New York’s Jon Orcutt told Streetsblog last week.

Leaders of the Dutch city made the conscience decision in the 1970s to transition from its heavy reliance on cars to a more sustainable mode of transportation, like bikes. Cycling advocates formed a group, “Stop de Kindermoord (Stop the Child Murder)” after more than 400 kids had been killed in traffic crashes in 1971, according to The Guardian.

But the imperative to break Amsterdam’s car-dependance was also emboldened by the rising price of oil — the Dutch government started car-free Sundays in an effort to save energy. That culture change stuck and continued to grow, making Amsterdam one of the world’s leading cycling capitals.

New York could be too, if its leaders were as focused on creating the infrastructure for it.

“Anywhere and everywhere the city installs safe cycling infrastructure, injuries to all users go down,” said safe-street advocate Doug Gordon. “If we want better behavior from people, we just need better infrastructure. It’s as simple as that.” 

Peter Walker of The Guardian continued his ground-breaking work with a video last week about the wrongheaded attacks on cyclists who break the law, citing the low risk they cause by doing so compared to drivers who break the law.

There’s a psychological reason behind the fear of cyclists, according to psychiatrist Anne Skomorowsky, a clinical instructor at Mount Sinai. Pedestrians interact on a closer and more personal level with cyclists — literally seeing them at eye level — as opposed to viewing a car as an inanimate object, she said.

“An interaction with a cyclist is a personal one rather than an interaction with someone in a machine that we cannot see. And interpersonal violence causes far more symptoms than natural tragedy,” she said. “One asshole cyclist is so disturbing that you can’t get it out of your mind for a long time. But a car cutting me off in the crosswalk, I forget about that a minute later.”

And the fact that there are way more cars on the road than there are bikes means one close encounter with a cyclist will stand out more in someone’s mind, said Skomorowsky.

“The volume is important, too. In a given day, I might see 10,000 cars. And I might see 80 people on bikes. So my experience of cars in general is that they’re well-behaved and won’t hurt me but my experience of bikes is that some get a little close,” she said. “It only takes one to make people feel that bicyclists are lunatics. It’s normal to be afraid of fast-moving objects.”

But the result is “misfearing,” a psychological term connected to people’s emotional reaction, Skomorowsky said — like women fearing breast cancer far more than they fear heart disease, even though heart disease is a far bigger killer of women.

The psychology behind being disproportionately scared of a bicycle still does not take away from the suffering of the Sturm and Schachter families. But personal psychology — and the political reaction to it — gets in the way of simply redesigning streets to make them safer so that cyclists — and motorists — are less likely to speed, less likely to be reckless, and less likely to kill someone, said Gordon.

If you want to reign in bad behavior, you need to create better infrastructure, like protected bike lanes. It self-enforces people in them. It also helps pedestrians deal with unpredictability in the street, makes the street safer and more predictable,” he said.

Cyclists and pedestrians should not be pit against each other — they are both fighting for their lives against cars, said Schachter — who joined dozens of other victims’ families and safe-street advocates on Tuesday to declare that Vision Zero in a “State of Emergency” and to demand that de Blasio do more to stop the bloodshed.

“Both pedestrians and cyclists are woefully shortchanged in today’s allocation of space and we need to shift that, we need protected bike lanes and pedestrian islands,” said Schachter. “We need a culture that prioritizes safety.”

We don’t, unfortunately, live in that culture.

“For many of us, what it means to be American means that we drive cars,” said Skomorowsky, the psychiatrist. “And we drive cars to get to work and we just accept whatever risks come from car driving because we are Americans and we drive cars. Cars are for grown-ups for doing something important and bikes are toys, for kids, or for recreation and it’s not done by people who are doing anything important, not like using a car to get to work or feed your family by going to the store.”

Additional reporting by Gersh Kuntzman. 

  • Larry Littlefield

    If I’m not mistaken, the pedestrian who was killed by a cyclist before Schachter was five years before that. So it appears to be one every five years. I’d bet the number of pedestrians killed without colliding with anyone, trips and falls on a public ROW, is similar.

    It’s just a matter of how big a motor vehicle is, and how fast it moves, compared with a bicycle. But these tragedies should be a reminder to those who are traveling by bicycle — don’t go fast near pedestrians.

  • Andrew

    If I’m not mistaken, the pedestrian who was killed by a cyclist before Schachter was five years before that.

    But the next one after Schachter came the following month (Jill Tarlov). And according to this piece (second sentence) there was another in 2017 (I don’t know the details). That’s four within a five-year span.

    That’s tiny compared to the number of pedestrians killed by motorists – so far this year, about one every other day – but let’s be honest here.

  • jr195

    What arrogance waiting to write an article about a cyclist killing a pedestrian until you could spin it big-picture and defend cyclists’ law-breaking. This was a horrible and preventable tragedy — preventable by simply respecting the law — and a crime that should be reported on just like every other senseless traffic fatality.

    It is also the direct result of a cycling culture that sees itself above the law, regularly flaunting the rules in front of pedestrians and drivers, putting that entitlement on full display and pissing them off. Pointing out that car drivers also break laws is childish and unrelated — someone rode recklessly, which is common, and killed an innocent person; no excuses.

    The bias and exceptionalism from this site in the last few years is gross. And I say this as a daily cyclist and car-hater myself.

  • Larry Littlefield

    All these ought to be analyzed. What happened?
    It’s pretty hard for someone on a bicycle to kill or critically injure someone. So the circumstances ought to be examined.

  • Rider

    I agree. They’ve really done it this time. You know what someone with humanity would have done? Shut this site down for a day as a way of demonstrating mourning and solidarity. Instead the editors and writers have shown they are just as entitled and oblivious as the car drivers. Ugh.

  • qrt145

    We already have all the demonization we need from the local papers, so I don’t see anything wrong with Streetsblog providing some analysis and perspective instead of just feeding people’s “misfears”.

  • Alex

    I believe the last 2 people who were killed were in 2013 and 2014. Both occurred in Central Park, where cyclists basically have no solid separation between them and pedestrians, and those two fatalities, like this past one, were much older.

    Older people are more likely to sustain more serious injuries than younger people.

  • Larry Littlefield

    However, the perspective ought to be “this is bad” and “how can this be avoided in the future?” That’s true to an extent, but perhaps not enough.

    I saw on the news this morning that two small private airplanes carrying tourists collided in Alaska, and four people were killed with two missing.

    The NTSB is dispatching a team to carefully examine what went wrong and try to prevent future similar incidents. For 4-6 people, in a mode of transport that I could easily see people deciding “well there are dangers and these things happen.”

    A similar level of scrutiny is applied to railroad crashes that result in severe injury or death.

    It ought to be easier to get to zero deaths caused by bicycles than zero deaths caused by motor vehicles, given how close we are already.

    After the Central Park crashes, it appeared to me that people should not be riding fast for exercise and training close to pedestrians there. I suggested bike tracks be built around cemeteries instead. Yesterday, I read that in fact a place was available for cyclists to race away from pedestrians, but it might be taken away.

  • Alex

    While a person is killed by a driver almost every day, the news barely cover it, as if its just the norm and move on to the next story. But when a cyclist is the cause of a fatality, news articles go above and beyond with their reporting.

    Seems like NYPD has been putting their priorities on bikes, with several instances documented this year with NYPD resourses focusing on cyclist traffic violations, and, in the meantime, traffic fatalities involving motor vehicles have increased by 30%. When a cyclist is killed by a driver, NYPD goes on a ticketing spree on cyclists, rather than drivers, who are usually the ones at fault.

    I think what they are trying to say is that, while yes, cyclists should follow traffic laws and should be held accountable when they cause a fatality/serious injury, they account for an insignificant percentage of the total number of serious injuries/fatalities. And statistics have shown that bicycles are no where near the same threat as a motor vehicle, but it seems like the City is more focused on a minor threat instead of focusing on the real threat, motor vehicles.

  • Free!

    Yes, every news site should shut down every time someone is killed. Tell that to Fox, CNN and ABC too.

  • Wilfried84

    Then can we get that level of scrutiny for every car crash? The press and the authorities descend on every bike caused death, every plane, every train crash, But car crashes that kill get nary a mention in the press, and not even the pretense of an investigation. There were zero deaths from plane crash in the US between 2009 and 2018, 30,000+ motor vehicle fatalities each and every year. If the level of scrutiny and concern were even remotely commensurate with the risk, we could get to Vision Zero tomorrow.

  • Joe R.

    Why are you assuming speed had anything to do with this? If I recall, the cyclist who killed Jill Tarlov was only going 15 mph. This is a speed even people on clunky Citibikes easily reach. As far as I can tell, most times when a pedestrian is killed by a cyclist it’s a freak thing where they just happen to fall the wrong way, hit their head, and suffer fatal TBI. It could happen even if the cyclist was going walking speed. I’ve yet to hear of anybody killed by blunt force trauma to the major organs, which is associated with speed and mass, due to being hit by a cyclist. In that case, yes, you could attribute the death to speed, but the cyclist would probably be killed in such a crash also.

    In my opinion, the problem is this city is just too crowded in many places for a third mode of transportation. Ideally, we would get rid of a lot of motor traffic, giving cyclists and pedestrians more space. In practice, they’re getting the scraps left over from cars. That’s not good enough. Given that, I really think we need a system of non-stop bike highways in this city. Total separation from pedestrians and motorists is the best way to promote efficient, safe cycling.

  • Joe R.

    The problem here isn’t that the cyclist went through the red light, but that he failed to look and yield to a person crossing the street before doing so. As a cyclist, I think we need to be considerate of pedestrians. However, at the same time it’s important to realize that you can’t expect cyclists to obey traffic laws which not only place them in more danger, but also make cycling highly inefficient. In the Netherlands they didn’t keep trying to get cyclists to stop every 2 or 3 blocks and sit there for 40 seconds, as we’re trying to do in NYC. That won’t happen because from a cyclist’s point of view it makes no more sense than expecting pedestrians in NYC to wait the full cycle at every red light. Stopping also places the cyclist in danger of being hit from behind by an out-of-control car (almost happened to me once). Rather, they realized cyclists generally want to stay in motion, and systematically removed traffic signals from bike routes. They also routed bike routes over or under very busy intersections to avoid conflicts with motorists and pedestrians. If we had done the latter, this incident never would have happened. There would have been no red light for the cyclist to go through, and no person crossing in front of them to hit.

    In the long term, yes, the solution is infrastructure. In the short term, unfortunately assholes will be assholes, and what this cyclist did is inexcusable. However, police dragnets ticketing every cyclist who safely slow rolls red lights aren’t the answer. The police have been doing exactly that since the Guiliani administration, ticketing cyclists disproportionately to the carnage they cause. It hasn’t worked. There’s really no enforcement answer here. It would be nice if you could wave a magic wand and get every cyclist (and every motorist) to be considerate but that’s not happening, either.

  • Joe R.

    The circumstances seem to be similar to those where a person trips, falls, hits their head, and dies. It’s a freak thing, speed of the cyclist has nothing to do with it. Indeed, it’s something which could happen even if the person fell due to being hit by a fast walker. Or even tripping over a sidewalk defect. The numbers of people killed by cyclists are so low that they fall into the category of statistical noise. I really don’t think anything short of complete separation of cyclists and pedestrians everywhere would change the already low numbers. I also think trying to do so is a waste of public resources. If you reduce the number of people killed by cyclists by 50%, maybe you’ll save 3 or 4 lives every decade. You can accomplish the same goal by reducing the numbers killed by motorists by 0.2%.

    For similar reasons Vision Zero is an unattainable goal. No matter how much we slow down motor vehicles, there will always be freak instances where one going walking speed kills someone.

  • Joe R.

    But personal psychology — and the political reaction to it — gets in the way of simply redesigning streets to make them safer so that cyclists — and motorists — are less likely to speed, less likely to be reckless, and less likely to kill someone, said Gordon.

    Cyclists by definition really can’t speed, as in go significantly over the legal speed limit, nor was speed a factor here, or in most bike-pedestrian crashes. I’ve yet to hear of anybody killed by blunt force trauma to the major organs, which is associated with speed and mass, due to being hit by a cyclist. In that case, yes, you could attribute the death to speed, but the cyclist would probably be killed in such a crash also. Usually, the deaths are freak occurrences where the person just happens to fall the wrong way and hits their head. Yes, the bike was the catalyst which caused them to fall, but the fall was really the cause of death, not the impact from the bike. What are the numbers of pedestrians who die falling while walking alone? I’ll bet they’re higher than the numbers killed by cyclists.

    If anything was the cause here, it was reckless, inconsiderate riding. Yes, cyclists will go through red lights because it makes sense from their point of view to do so. However, that doesn’t excuse failing to yield to pedestrians before doing so. And this is exactly why NYC needs an Idaho stop law, in addition to systematic removal of traffic signals from major bike routes. With an Idaho stop law, major cycling advocacy groups can train people on how to properly pass red lights (as well as when you shouldn’t). And the police can focus on violators who actually put people in danger, instead of fish-in-a-barrel enforcement where they ticket every cyclist slow-rolling red lights. Maybe if police enforcement were focused on reckless violations instead of only technical ones, this cyclist may have already been caught and wouldn’t have continued to engage in such behavior.

    All that said, the real solution still remains infrastructure. Any solution that relies mostly on enforcement is destined to fail.

  • PDiddy

    Donkey brain thinking commenter checklist.

    1. Claims to be a cyclist.

    2. Disregards the basic physics of cars being 200 times heavier and going 2-4 times faster than a bicycle on average.

    3. Blames cyclists and accuses the entire population of smug behavior.

  • PDiddy

    I’d imagine more pedestrians die to other pedestrians than they do to cyclists in NYC due to infinite amount of conflict points pedestrians share in sidewalks.

    Most likely the deaths that do occur in pedestrian and cyclist caused fatalities are people colliding with elderly people who hit their head when falling down.

  • Joe R.

    Or the elderly just tripping and falling on their own due to sidewalk defects, balance issues, etc. My mom fell 3 or 4 times in the house back when she was still able to walk without assistance. Bikes obviously had nothing to do with it. Thankfully she never was seriously hurt, but people do die falling in their own homes all the time.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I keep saying I’d like to see a table of those badly injured or killed in a public right of way, and who doing what hit them.

    Including those badly injured or killed in collisions between pedestrians and one-person pedestrian accidents.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Every one with deaths and injuries, yes.

    Maybe one can’t send out the NTSB, but there could be a least a local analysis and discussion of what happened and why.

    I think that level of scrutiny might be applied to robocars, in fact. But not human motor vehicle drivers.

  • Joe R.

    There are lawyers who specialize in these types of incidents who might have some hard numbers. Come to think of it, the fact such lawyers exist and can make a living suing for sidewalk falls tells me fairly high numbers of people are injured/killed annually. It has to be way more than the 5 or so killed every decade by bikes.

  • MatthewEH

    I bet some of his best friends are cyclists too

  • relevantjeff

    He is a daily cyclist, so he knows more, and his opinion is more valid, than anyone else on two wheels.

  • PDiddy

    I’m a daily cyclist and I don’t paint people with the large brush he just did. Don’t write off his smugness because he’s a cyclist, some people are just naturally stupid, even if you share some trait or hobby with them.

    Being up in arms about 1 person dying from a freak accident is the typical “can’t see the forest for the trees”. There’s way bigger fish to fry than worrying about this trivial nonsense.

  • Joe R.

    Exactly. I’m always saddened when one of our own kills someone, especially when it’s due to recklessness, as in this case, and not an “accident”. However, I also keep things in perspective. In a city with 8 million people and hundreds of thousands riding bikes daily, sooner or later someone on bike will kill someone on foot. So long as it’s not a regular occurrence, and it isn’t, it doesn’t merit getting up in arms about. I’m more concerned about the 4 or 5 people on average who die every single week due to motor vehicles. We’ll save a lot more lives focusing on that.

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get a few PSAs out about reckless riding (as opposed to technically illegal, but safe things, like slow rolling red lights after looking). The general public needs to be educated on the difference. Blasting through a crowded crosswalk on a red light is never OK. Most cyclists will never condone that kind of behavior. However, it doesn’t follow that because a minority of cyclists do this that all cyclists are reckless scofflaws. Nor do the actions of this minority of cyclists merit the draconian NYPD crackdowns. I really wish the NYPD would go after truly reckless cyclists, and ONLY reckless cyclists. That would actually make the streets safer, but not penalize those who bend traffic laws when it’s safe to do so.

  • Ishamgirl

    Do bike riders in this city understand the rules of the road? Because that’s not what I see. What I see are too many idiots blowing through red lights and stop signs, not giving a crap if someone is crossing the street.

  • Ishamgirl

    I love when NYC is compared to an entire country like the Netherlands. Not sure why comparing a city of over 10mm people to a country with 17mm is even a topic of discussion.

    And if the Netherlands is so wonderful, go move there and bike away to your heart’s content.

  • Joe R.

    Cyclists have the same basic needs regardless of what country they’re in. Ignoring those needs like most places in the US do doesn’t make them go away.

  • Really!?

    Both cars & cyclists are to blame. Whether taxis or trucks, whether spandex cowboys or casual commuters, NONE pay attention. They all think they own the road and exhibit contempt for people walking.

  • D3parent

    When you’re on a bike on the other hand, you see pedestrians walk directly in front of you when they have a don’t walk sign, as if you just didn’t exist. And they walk in the bike lanes, they step off the curbs into the bike lanes without looking, etc. If you give pedestrians a warning sound with your bell, mostly they ignore you.

    Which is to say, everyone is at fault. New Yorkers are, by nature, scofflaws when it comes to street traffic of all kinds. I can remember an interview where Harry Truman was complaining about jaywalkers in the city, so this isn’t exactly news.

  • D3parent

    Well. We’re really being compared to Amsterdam, not the entire Netherlands. And this is New Amsterdam, after all.