‘DIE-IN’ SPECIAL REPORT: Without Safety Fixes, Cycling is in a Death Spiral

Welcome to Fear City.

This is happening way too often, Mr. Mayor. Photo: Dave Colon
This is happening way too often, Mr. Mayor. Photo: Dave Colon

Mr. Mayor, you’ve lost CitizenKuv — and, quite possibly, tens of thousands of cyclists like him.

“I have been biking in the city for most of my life and I’ve stopped because I’m scared,” said the Midwood resident and cycling advocate, who blogs under a pseudonym out of fear of reprisal from drivers. We’re five years into the Vision Zero era and, yes, fatalities are down, but anxiety is not.

“You can really feel the increase in reckless behavior on the road,” added CitizenKuv, who is calling for cyclists to take back the streets. “I’ve found myself riding so much less than I usually do, it’s been tapering down. It’s sad because cycling has been the way to get around for most of my life.”

CitizenKuv's recent Medium post says it all.
CitizenKuv’s recent Medium post says it all.

If Kuv is afraid to bike as frequently as he once did, there are thousands, if not tens of thousands of other, less-experienced or would-be bike riders who are declining to take to the streets because the streets remain too damn mean. After a substantial rise in regular bike-riding during the Bloomberg administration that continued into Mayor de Blasio’s first term, the city’s own statistics show that bike riding has flattened.

In 2017 — the last year cited in the city’s most recent biking report — only 739,000 New Yorkers said they rode a bike “several times a month,” a number that represents just 12 percent of the adult population of the city. Worse, that number is down 4 percent from the previous year — the wrong direction in a city whose mayor claims he wants to boost cycling.

In addition, the number of cyclists using the four East River bridges every day — a crucial indicator of the strength of cycle commuting — has dropped seven percent since hitting a high of 22,626 riders on the average day in 2016. Seventy six percent of New Yorkers say they would never ride a bike in this town.

And, of course, those prior ridership statistics are just one part of the story. This year’s most important statistic is not reflected in the past data, but it’s published in blood for everyone who even considers riding to work: 15 cyclists have been killed this year on New York City streets, up from 10 all of last year. There is simply no denying that the death toll has inhibited many riders.

“I love riding bikes, bikes are my life,” Shane Ferro tweeted last month — before three cyclists were killed in the span of seven days. “I wish I could be a bigger advocate for more people on bikes in the city, but the truth is when people tell me they don’t commute by bike because they don’t feel like it’s safe I say ‘same.'”

New York is outpacing other U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Portland, Oregon, where bike commuting trips top out in the 20,000-per-day range. But the Big Apple is withering when compared to other world capitals, where aggressive leadership has added far more protected bike lanes and declared whole sections of the city off-limits to cars.

In London, bike riding is soaring, with over 900 million bike miles traveled in 2018, likely far more than New York, which gives statistics only in total number of trips, not distance, at 178.8 million in 2017. Cyclists in the British capital rode an average of nearly 2.5 million miles per day last year, up 5 percent from the previous year, according to city figures.

If cycling is declining in New York City, it will have a ripple effect because many cyclists say they get a strength-in-numbers feeling when bike riding is on the rise. But it’s the “De Blasio-22”: Cyclists will ride less if they don’t feel safe, but the city will be less inclined to build more protected infrastructure if cycling declines. Left in the breach are plenty of would-be riders.

“I’d take more discretionary trips if I could count on a regular network of protected bike lanes,” Chas Stewart, an occasional cyclist told Streetsblog. Stewart said he specifically will avoid riding from Astoria to his job in Manhattan because of safety concerns along Second Avenue, where a southbound protected bike lane suddenly disappears at 43rd Street and doesn’t return until below the dangerous car entrance to the Queens-Midtown tunnel. Since Jan. 1, 2018, there have been 472 crashes along that mere nine-block stretch, resulting in injuries to 17 cyclists, 38 pedestrians and 44 motorists, according to Crashmapper.

Everyone knows it’s a murderstrip. But the city does not act. And that sends a message to cyclists that cars get priority at some of the most dangerous places on earth.

“There are so many bewildering intersections and junctions out there that also look vaguely like a meat grinder, and they pop out of nowhere in unfamiliar parts of the city,” Stewart said.

Citi Bike has been a bright spot for cycling, with the bike share system racking up 17.6 million trips last year, but many users are tourists. Many would-be regular riders are deterred — even when they don’t even pay for the service.

“I have a free Citi Bike membership through work and decided to try it a month ago,” said Brooklyn resident and rookie cyclist Megan Magray. “But within a few minutes of being out, I got cut got off by a car and banged into a parked car.” The fear of car drivers still keeps her off the road. “The driver who cut me off was literally just heading towards a red light. There was zero reason for them to swerve. I don’t know how cyclists do this — I’d probably murder someone if I didn’t get killed first.”

Cyclists are most likely to give up regular riding because they don’t trust drivers to follow the rules — or even think about the presence of cyclists on streets that many drivers think are exclusively their space. Zoraida Palencia took her first New York City bike ride in June, using in a painted bike lane in Bedford-Stuyvesant, only to discover what longtime riders barely even notice any more: all painted lanes in this city are de facto parking lanes.

“I was assuming that because there was a bike path no one would park in it or drive in it,” she told Streetsblog. “I’ve learned otherwise since then, obviously cars are going to be parked there. [Drivers] really don’t see me. My helmet is bright pink and I have a bright backpack, I have bright colors, and they just act like I’m not there. I thought my protection was this stupid little paint, if we’re following the traffic rules you’re not going to cross the line.”

Palencia is proof that some people are still willing to continue giving cycling a try, but even in these cases, the city’s lack of urgency to make a truly protected network of bike lanes is putting people at risk. Palencia said she was shocked to learn that the city could build parking or concrete-protected lanes as well, which she said she hadn’t come across on her rides. “Those things exist? I thought I was in a protected path. Fuck yeah, I’d feel safer with a barrier. They’re not around in my neighborhood!”

Most disheartening is that even in the midst of a rise in cyclist and pedestrian deaths this year, city leadership still unabashedly proclaims that its mission is to make sure drivers are not adversely affected by roadway reconfigurations that city statistics show are actually safer for all road users.

“We do our best to balance the different needs and to have as little effect on all the road users so the street operates at the same level it did before we put the bike lane in,” Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg recently told Streetsblog.

How bad is the fear? None other than Transportation Alternatives’ Deputy Director Ellen McDermott recently wrote about her discomfort in unprotected bike lanes for Streetsblog. Her husband, Christopher Bonanos, shares her concern.

“It’s mostly the intensity of car traffic,” said Bonanos, a Midtown resident. “Ellen and I live in Midtown, facing an avenue, so you step off our curb and you are basically on a major highway. It’s not so much bad drivers — although bad drivers scare me, sure — as it is the sheer number of them. Our street is just full of cars, all the time. I was coming home in a cab a few nights ago and I literally got stuck in traffic at 10:30 p.m.”

This is not OK, regardless of what NYPD Commissioner James O'Neil says. Photo: Rich Garvey
This is not OK, regardless of what NYPD Commissioner James O’Neil says. Photo: Rich Garvey

So what is to be done? The bloody beginning to 2019 — with 15 cyclists and 53 pedestrians dead already — did prompt Mayor de Blasio to order the NYPD and the DOT to devise a bicycle safety strategy. The NYPD said it would conduct a three-week ticketing blitz against reckless drivers — but the blitz has also resulted in many tickets to cyclists and a horrifying incident in which an NYPD cop used his SUV squad car as a battering ram to take down a defenseless Citi Bike rider who had allegedly run a red light and was biking with earphones. On Monday, NYPD Commissioner O’Neill and Mayor de Blasio sent a discouraging message of safety to all cyclists by saying they supported the cop’s use of deadly force in that instance.

Months of outrage will culminate on Tuesday night, when Transportation Alternatives hosts a “die-in” to focus attention on the bloodshed on our streets. Mourners will certainly grieve over the loss of Aurilla Lawrence, Devra Freelander, Robyn Hightman, Robert Spencer, Ernest Askew, Victor Ang and many others who were killed this year.

But what they will also be saying, even as they lie silently next to their bikes in Washington Square Park is this: “Mr. Mayor, we don’t feel safe.”

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  • Blwndrpwrmlk

    Same bot in two different posts. Got I.T., @Streetsblog?

  • Simon Phearson

    Okay, Streetsblog. Chill the fuck out. You’re not helping.

    I’m not going to say the streets are “safe for cycling,” because that would be obviously false, but this extreme alarmism is out of proportion with the risks, and will only help to dissuade even more cyclists from venturing out there.

  • qrt145

    “Citi Bike has been a bright spot for cycling, with the bike share system racking up 17.6 million trips last year, but many users are tourists.”

    What is the point of saying many users are tourists? Do you want to help perpetuate the myth that Citi Bike is “just for tourists”? Sure, you only said “many”, which is vague enough to be true, but it sounds dismissive of the overwhelming majority of Citi Bike users who are not tourists.

    From the last operating report, “There were 1,960,855 trips in May […] Annual members completed the majority of trips, recording 1,662,501 trips, compared to 298,354 trips by casual members.”

    Let’s just say all annual members are non-tourists (probably largely true) and that all casual members are tourists (probably far from true). If that were the case, 85% of trips would be by non-tourists.

  • PDiddy

    I think the alarmism is warranted. Letting things stand as they are is not getting anywhere. And I would never lie to someone and say cycling in NYC is safe, it is demonstrably UNSAFE.

  • Daphna

    I understand the desire to raise awareness, but protesting something so sad and negative is not usually effective. There is a time to mourn and all those lost should be mourned. But in terms of incentivizing political action and incentivizing more riding, celebrating all that is good about cycling might be a better idea.

  • qrt145

    Safety is not all or nothing, but falls on a continuum. The fact is your chance of getting killed in a year if you are one of the 700K+ bike users in the city is, on average, close to 1/40,000. Not ideal, but nowhere near the death wish many people seem to think.

    People die in bike crashes in the Netherlands too. I know their rate is much better. I’m too lazy to look it up right now, but lets say it is 1/400,000, or whatever, but it’s definitely not zero. Would you call that “SAFE”? If so, where exactly do you draw the line?

    Alarmist coverage is a double-edge sword. On one hand, maybe it can spur action for the good. But on the other, it can frighten people into giving up. I’m of the “strong and fearless” type with 20 years of bike commuting experience, but sometimes all this negative coverage does bring me down emotionally. Even though rationally I say I’m willing to take those 1/40,000 odds, sometimes I just say, heck, let’s take the train today. And if I took the train yesterday, I’m more likely to take it today, too, out of inertia.

    This can hurt the “safety in numbers” effect and also the demand for infrastructure.

  • PDiddy

    This is the same nonsense that the Bicycle League of America says on their site. “Please don’t stop cycling, even if you feel unsafe”.

    Motherfucker, that is not something you can demand from people, these are people’s lives you are gambling with. Your statistics do not take into account the amount of close passes and near collisions that commuters face on a daily.

    There are plenty of bike couriers that have stopped their hustle because of the uptick in deaths.

    Again, the alarmism is warranted. And if you think it isn’t go ahead and YOU SHOW US THE WAY. Tell all your friends and family to ride with you. My feeling is, they won’t.

  • PDiddy

    Your rhetoric is the same bullshit that NRA and their ilk keep spouting.

    “This isn’t the time to be talking about gun reform”.

    Yes, this is the time. If you don’t want to do it, then get out of the way.

  • Simon Phearson

    When I talk to people who are interested in cycling but afraid, I tell them the truth: Sometimes it can be dangerous. But with some practice, good bike sense, and awareness of the key risks, it’s manageable.

    What I will not do is tell them: You know what, don’t. It’s not worth it, it’s too risky. And the reason I don’t tell them this is because my safety increases, the more cyclists are out there. They don’t have to be putting their lives on the line – no one should do more than they feel comfortable doing – but the more of us that are out there, and the more confidently we ride, the more of a constituency we have, and the more drivers get used to us.

    So I would prefer that an ostensibly advocacy-oriented website like Streetsblog not devote substantial amounts of its coverage trying to terrify cyclists, out of a misplaced belief that this will somehow make politicians more willing to act.

  • Vooch

    Simon,

    I think Streetsblog is arguing that unless we create a PBL network of say 600 miles – we will never increase cycling mode share beyond its current level.

    BTW – Citibike ridership is setting big records every year. like huge growth. Manhattan below 34th; 15-20% of traffic is bikes.

  • Joe R.

    The NRA’s no regulations at all stance is probably the biggest impediment to getting sane firearm regulations. Those would be somewhere in between none and NYC’s overly strict gun laws. I’ve thought something like you have to demonstrate proficiency with a particular weapon before you’re allowed to carry it or take it home but you don’t need to give any reasons for carrying the weapon or owing it. Of course, if you’re mentally ill or have a felony history you’re not allowed to own a firearm at all.

    If there’s anything we should regulate more strictly it should be motor vehicles and driver licensing, not guns. I find it amazing it’s virtually impossible to get a carry permit in NYC, but we’ll let an 18-year with little training drive a 6,000 pound SUV in the city. The SUV can do far more damage than the meanest assault rifle.

  • PDiddy

    Make your own website or blog and advocate in the way that you like then.

  • r

    Nope. Politicians can only be bothered to change things if they’re made uncomfortable. Celebrating cycling would only be used by de Blasio and DOT to say, “Look how good things are!”

    Protest works.

  • Simon Phearson

    No u

  • qrt145

    I’m not demanding anything from anyone. All I’m saying is these decisions are emotional, and alarmist coverage can feed into those fears even when the data points in an opposite direction. The fact is that cycling in the city has been getting consistently safer over the last two decades, and the latest “blip” is–sorry if it sounds insensitive–still within the level of statistical noise. When numbers are so small (statistically speaking), it is normal to see large relative increases or decreases from one year to the next. I hate to see both politicians and advocates “ride the noise” by claiming credit for random decreases or raising the alarm for random increases, respectively. Feel free to read the DOT cycling risk report and draw your own conclusions: https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/nyc-cycling-risk.pdf

    Believe it or not, many of my friends and family do bike, and I think I contributed to it in at least a couple of cases.

  • PDiddy

    You talked about a continuum. If I had to grade NYC where 1 is New Delhi, London is a 5 and 10 is Utrecht, then NYC is probably a 3. Pretty bad IMO but I’ll leave that to others to mull over.

    Anyways, this isn’t a statistical aberration and it’s not noise and it’ll continue to get worse as projects keep getting stonewalled/redtaped/lawsuited to death.

    Vision Zero is reversing as NYC/BDB/PT are refusing to make the hard decisions to take ridership safety to something that will actually allow women and children to feel safe.

  • r

    “But with some practice, good bike sense, and awareness of the key risks, it’s manageable.”

    I agree with you that riding is not as scary as it’s made out to be sometimes, at least depending on where you are, but I find this advice to be strange given that Robyn Hightman, a highly skilled cyclist, was just killed. Deva Freelander biked every day. Ernest Askew, too. There are countless examples of practiced bike riders with “good bike sense” who have been killed or injured all over the city.

  • Simon Phearson

    So what’s your advice, then? Be terrified? Don’t bike?

    I’m not familiar with the specifics of Askew’s death, but I can definitely say that I wouldn’t have been biking like either Hightman or Freelander, when they were struck.

  • r

    That’s a gross comment. Plenty of people are killed doing everything right.

  • Simon Phearson

    That’s a gross comment.

    Only if you interpret it as victim-blaming, which I’m not doing.

    We need to be able to acknowledge that our streets are not safe enough while at the same time acknowledging that there are ways cyclists can ride on our unsafe streets that will improve their chances.

    What’s “gross” is attacking experienced cyclists like me for speaking from our experience. We’re out there facing the same risks and trying to deal as best we can. What are you doing?

    Plenty of people are killed doing everything right.

    I realize, and I realize that it could just as easily happen to me, while I’m out there complying with traffic laws and riding super-defensively. That’s why these deaths make me angry. That’s why I train my ire on the policy makers who build substandard infrastructure and the advocates who celebrate half-measures.

    But in the face of what our streets are now like, I don’t see what sense it makes to essentially pretend that nothing cyclists can do will help to protect them from the kinds of risks on our streets. There is, in fact, a lot that they can do.

  • Joe R.

    I personally haven’t rode since last October. This has nothing to do with fear. I fell on a broken concrete bus stop on October 7, 2018. First fall in over 22 years, no injuries beyond a few scrapes and a slightly sprained hand. I was thinking of suing the city for poor pavement conditions, so I kept the damage on the bike intact for a few weeks. I inquired about taking my case on Steve Vaccaro’s website but nobody got back to me. Therefore, I repaired the bike about a month later. Anyway, the honest truth is with everything I’ve read going on in the last six months or so I just haven’t felt like riding. I don’t consider riding excessively dangerous. In fact, I never did, even back in the 1980s when lots of people told me I was crazy to ride in NYC. It’s just lately all the events have sapped the joy out of it. Now I’m worried they might start bike stings in Queens, or with the crazy driving someone might think it’s a good idea to run me off the road, or throw stuff at me.

    One thing which needs to be said here is when the NYPD declares open season on cyclists, not only does it discourage those who get tickets, but it creates a general atmosphere of animosity for everyone else riding. Not only are they afraid of getting tickets, but motorists will start being more aggressive against cyclists when they see the NYPD considers them enough of a problem to ticket aggressively. The Mayor and police commissioner aren’t helping either when most of what comes out of their mouths is that cyclists should obey the law. Again, that sets a tone such that motorists think it’s open season on cyclists. They’re free to harass us because in their minds we think we’re above the law. It’s impossible to have any kind of rational discussion in this atmosphere.

    I can’t say whether or not cycling is truly in a death spiral, but when someone like CitizenKuv, who has been riding for 18 years, decides to taper down his cycling, it’s not a good sign. If an experienced cyclist for who riding has been an integral part of their life starts to think the downsides outweigh the benefits, think how newbies feel. We’re not going to get many new riders the way things are. We won’t even be able to keep the ones we have.

    Really, the first order of business here needs to be to get the NYPD off our backs for good. They more than anything else have created a hostile atmosphere for cyclists. Remember I rode in the 1980s, long before we had much bike infrastructure. In many ways I’ll take those days over today. The best part was we weren’t even on the NYPD’s radar back them. You probably had to crash into a police cruiser before you might get a ticket. Motorist habits were better as well, even if you did still have some bike haters back then.

  • William Lawson

    Some days, I can’t face cycling and have to force myself to. I get so tired of the hostility and violent threats from power-drunk motorists. I always end up being tailgated and honked at, then the yelling and the name calling start and then they’re speeding past me in a close pass, looking back over their shoulder and yelling and I yell back. Sometimes I can’t face turning onto the protected bike lane on E13st and seeing multiple vehicles parked in it for the next 2 blocks. It just sours my mood. The NYPD boil my piss as well with their dumbass suburban macho pride passed down from father to son which will always hold cyclists in contempt.

    The most obvious priority to me is getting cars off the roads of NYC. Everything good follows from that.

  • qrt145

    I largely agree with your scale, but I might give NYC a 4 and London a 6. That said, I don’t know enough about the other cities so those are just my impressions based on what I’ve read.

    I also share your disappointment with Vision Zero so far (and especially with BDB and his “let them drive” philosophy), but still I see the glass half-full. Despite some projects getting stonewalled/redtaped/lawsuited, bike lanes have been added more rapidly in this administration than in the previous one, and I don’t think the stonewalling etc. has gotten worse.

    But let me tell you why I think this is statistical noise. This plot shows the number of deaths per year since 2000:
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f24ba40a0784bbdffe17d8f68fccd6df424533d89c254f2e90d1930f3af13d92.png

    It’s hard to discern a trend (however, not that since the number of bike trips has increased by a lot, the risk per trip has decreased). The outlier was last year. Politicians were all too happy to claim that it proved the success of Vision Zero, but I think it was largely luck: it’s only a little bit lower than two other lucky years. After the exceptional good luck of last year, even an average year would look like a disaster; I think this year is worse than average, but still within the expected statistical variation. Note that the worst year in the plot had 140% more fatalities than the best one.

    If random variation introduces a lot of noise into annual numbers, which average 18.2, it’s even worse for semi-annual numbers, which is what has been talked about recently (15 deaths in 6 months!). Now the question a statistician would ask is, what are the odds that this apparent increase would arise purely due to chance?

    Low-frequency random events can be modeled using the Poisson distribution. It is used by physicists to model radioactive decay, and was famously used to model the frequency of deaths due to horse kicks in the Prussian army in the 19th century. Here’s a table based on the Poisson distribution with a mean of 9.1 (half the annual number of fatalities from the plot above):

    n p(x>=n)
    0 100.0%
    1 100.0%
    2 99.9%
    3 99.4%
    4 98.0%
    5 94.8%
    6 89.0%
    7 80.2%
    8 68.8%
    9 55.7%
    10 42.6%
    11 30.6%
    12 20.7%
    13 13.2%
    14 7.9%
    15 4.5%
    16 2.4%
    17 1.2%
    18 0.6%
    19 0.3%
    20 0.1%

    The second column has the probability that the number of deaths will be equal or greater than the number on the first column. For example, for 15, you have 4.5%. This is the probability of seeing 15 or more deaths in six months. Not highly likely, but not exceptionally unlikely either. On average you would see such a deathly semester once every eleven years, purely by chance, with no change to the “true” average rate.

  • I gave up

    After almost 13 years riding in the city, racing with the CRCA, membership with TA, and years of commuting, I finally gave up on biking anywhere but the riverside greenways. Having a kid was the final straw – sociopaths would gladly take me out and leave my kid parentless to shave a few seconds off of their journey. Now we’re looking to get out of the city entirely since the culture doesn’t seem capable of changing.

  • ProfSlowlane

    I’m tuned into the biking bad news, so recently advised my 20-something kids to take a break on their cycling around town. I got them into it years ago, so I feel responsible. I still commute as much as usual, as I have since about 1992. But I basically ride the same route all the time, which I have selected based on lower traffic volumes, from BK to MH over the Manhattan Bridge. I also bike a lot more slowly in order to keep a watchful third-eye on all the errant car drivers. I find the wisdome of avoiding the following on one’s headstone — “He Was Right” — comes in handy as I let myself get cut off by texting SUV-mavens in the bike lane. What can I do? This two wheeler has no airbag. WE NEED MORE PROTECTED LANES and the enforcement of speed and other traffic laws. Also, driver’s education and license testing needs to emphasize HOW to share the road.

  • Tomas Paine

    Good choice. STOP BIKING IN NYC. IT’S INSANE.

    IT ALWAYS WILL BE INSANE. Even if Bernie Sanders became mayor for life and Elizabeth Warren became permanent Speaker of the City Council.

    NYC will never be safe for biking! It’s just too big. Too busy. Maybe in small or midsized cities. But NOT NYC.

    Hehe, actually, if you move out of NYC, then you will actually become a real NYer!

  • Joe R.

    Honestly, I think telling your kids to take a break from cycling is a horrible mistake. Yes, there’s a spike in fatalities but that doesn’t mean it’s dangerous to ride everywhere. Best advice is to tell them to ride at times and places with low levels of motor traffic. I generally ride after 10 PM for that reason. Most of the cyclists who were killed were riding in congested areas during peak hours. Not only is that unpleasant, but it’s probably an order of magnitude more dangerous than picking and choosing the times/places when you ride. As much as I love cycling, if I had a job where I commuted, I most likely wouldn’t commute by bike unless my hours were off-peak. Riding during rush hours is slow, unpleasant, aggravating, and statistically less safe. You also breathe in a lot more auto exhaust.

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