Delivery Cyclists Have One of the Most Dangerous Jobs, But No One Is Protecting Them

Cops were out on Sixth Avenue ticketing and victim-blaming cyclists.

Working cyclist Robyn Hightman was killed by a truck driver in Manhattan on June 24.
Working cyclist Robyn Hightman was killed by a truck driver in Manhattan on June 24.

Working cyclists have one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, and they are dying at rapid rates on New York City streets — but instead of stepping in to protect them, Mayor de Blasio is off running for president and New York’s Finest are focused on victim-blaming and ticketing bikers.

Twenty-year-old Robyn Hightman, who was killed by a truck driver Monday in Manhattan, is now at least the fifth delivery cyclist to die because of the actions of a motorist while on the job in the past six months. Even more cyclists have been hurt or have experienced other traffic violence while biking in the city, according to advocacy group the Biking Public Project. 

A whopping 62 percent of working cyclists interviewed in a 2017 survey by the Biking Public Project said that they had been involved in a motor-vehicle collision at least once, and an average of 30 percent said they had missed work because of work-related injuries in the last year. 

For comparison, the New York State’s Department of Labor  said that only 1.5 of 100 full-time workers missed work because of work-related injuries in New York in 2017; the national Bureau of Labor and Statistics calculated that .9 per hundred full-time workers had missed work for injuries in that year.

Biking Public Project’s Do Lee attributed the high percentage of injuries to the many hours working cyclists must bike on dangerous streets that aren’t built for them, as well as to the cyclists’ poor working conditions, such as low pay, overlong shifts, demands that they work faster, and lack of worker’s compensation. 

“They’re working long hours under poor labor conditions; it puts them at more risk,” said Lee. “I think it’s constant exposure on the streets, anywhere from eight to 12 to 16 hours a day, an enormous opportunity to have something happen no matter how experienced you are.”

Demand for quick deliveries is only rising, making workers’ jobs harder and more dangerous — but the city can step up and redesign streets to make it harder for reckless drivers to run over and kill working cyclists, said Lee. 

“I think it really speaks to the necessity of infrastructure that accommodates the needs of working cyclists,” he said. “No matter what precautions you take, you can’t protect yourself against a two-ton machine.”

Hightman, whose preferred pronouns were they/then, said their bike was a means of empowerment and even saved them from a troubled childhood. They could not have known, of course, that unsafe streets would kill them.

“As a homeless youth deeply entrenched in the trappings of poverty and parental abuse and neglect, my first bicycle offered a way to seek respite from the horrors of my surroundings and human experience, if only for a few glorious minutes,” Hightman wrote in an application to join an Ambassador Program for a professional cycling team. “My bicycle established a sense of independence, strengthened my ability to be self sufficient, and provided me with the confidence necessary to advocate for myself, my rights, and my needs in public space. My bicycle enabled me to leave our encampment every day to access education, seek out food, and fulfill my basic needs. Eventually, my bicycle allowed me to provide for myself when I began working a full time job at the age of fourteen. My bicycle provided me with the socioeconomic mobility necessary to escape. My bicycle saved my life.”

Police say Hightman and the 54-year-old truck driver, Antonio Garcia, were both traveling northbound on Sixth Avenue when “they collided.” Garcia, who initially left the scene before returning, told Streetsblog that this crash was his first “accident” in 14 years. He claimed he did not feel the impact of hitting Hightman.

Police investigate after the fatal crash on Sixth Avenue. Photo: Julianne Cuba
Police investigate after the fatal crash on Sixth Avenue. Photo: Julianne Cuba

Cops slapped Garcia with five summonses for minor violations related to his truck — although none for actually killing the cyclists. He walked away without so much as a ticket for failure to yield or to exercise due care. A Streetsblog video shows a police officer patting Garcia on the shoulder before Garcia left the crash scene.

More than 100 people came out to mourn Hightman’s death just hours after they were killed — and to demand that cops enforce traffic laws against reckless drivers, not cyclists, in the crash’s aftermath.

But instead of doing more to protect bikers, cops were again out near the scene of the fatal collision — the morning after the massive vigil — victim-blaming and ticketing bikers, just as they have done in the wake of other cyclists’ deaths.

One officer even said Hightman’s death was their own fault for riding outside of the bike lane, despite it likely being blocked by construction that morning.

“As far as the female who passed away unfortunately, yesterday, I believe she was riding off the bike lane, you know,” Officer Carlos Negron told Gothamist, as he stood near the intersection of West 24th and 6th Avenue the morning after Hightman was killed there. “It’s sad, but it’s sad that she was off the bike lane, you know? Maybe if she had been on the bike lane, maybe she’d still be alive.”

Hightman’s tragic death was all too familiar to the messenger community, who just months ago had to bury another friend, 25-year-old Aurilla Lawrence, after a hit-and-run driver mowed her down in Williamsburg back in February. 

Other professional riders told Streestblog that they felt powerless in the face of police indifference toward reckless drivers, adding that even the most experienced riders could also end up as roadkill if the city does not do more to protect them. 

The need for that protection hasn’t changed four months later.

Bikers and safe-street advocates blasted Mayor de Blasio for not doing more to stop the bloodshed, especially with the mayor out gallivanting across the country.

“What are you doing to make sure I go home today? That I won’t be another number? That I won’t be crushed by a speeding commercial truck with 85 summonses running rampant in your city, blowing red lights with no worry of consequence, like my dear friend Robyn?” said Hightman’s friend Kelsey Leigh on Twitter, the day after they were killed. 

De Blasio did not comment directly on Hightman’s death, except to say on Errol Louis’s show Inside City Hall that it’s a “very painful time and our heart goes out to all families involved,” before quickly clapping back on Transportation Alternatives’ characterization that Vision Zero is in crisis now that Hightman is at least the 12th biker to be killed this year. 

“I disagree with that characterization though, I have to be honest it’s five years in a row fatalities have gone down,” Hizzoner said. 

In addition to Lawrence and Hightman, three other working cyclists have been killed in the last six months — 29-year-old Mohammed Abdullah was killed this month while riding an electric bicycle in Canarsie, 21-year-old MD Rajon was killed while delivering food in East New York in December, and 26-year-old Hugo Garcia was killed while biking to work in Sunset Park on Jan. 1.

Police have arrested just one of the five victims’ killers — the four others are still driving. Cops cuffed 32-year-old Jonathan Cuesta and charged him with failure to yield and failure to exercise due care after he struck and killed Rajon in the early morning of Dec. 14.

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