CYCLE OF RAGE: In Defense of Fast-Fingered Former Mayoral Aide Eric Phillips

Cops don't care — and the roads are poorly designed, says a former mayoral aide.
Cops don't care — and the roads are poorly designed, says a former mayoral aide.

We reporters like to say a gaffe is when a politician mistakenly tells the truth.

Well, former mayoral aide Eric Phillips made a gaffe on Tuesday night — but in doing so revealed the essential truth to activists’ claims that the de Blasio administration doesn’t care about really fixing the problem of road fatalities.

It all started Tuesday night, when Twitter exploded with live reports from Transportation Alternatives’ “die-in” in Washington Square Park. Cyclists and their advocates were obviously on edge at an event designed to memorialize the 15 cyclists who have been killed this year, which is already five more than all of last year.

Many elected officials attended the somber vigil — but it was also telling how few were actually on hand. Even Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who has fashioned his inevitable mayoral run in 2021 on a platform of street safety, was not there to watch 1,000 cyclists lay down with their bikes to symbolize the all-too-comment image of road death.

Tensions were high, of course. Then Phillips — who, remember, used to be the top communication official inside Mayor de Blasio’s City Hall before joining the Edelman public relations firm — dropped a bombshell.

“The cops should do more and don’t culturally feel it like they should,” he said. “And a not small portion of NYC cyclists act like lunatics on the road and want the rights of drivers without the responsibilities. And our streets suck.”

Naturally, bike Twitter went ballistic on Phillips, but I am declaring victory: In one tweet, a person who spent several years helping Bill de Blasio spin his Vision Zero shortcomings admitted that the administration has no control over an intransigent police force and has not done nearly enough to design streets in a safe manner. (Sure, he equated cyclists with drivers who kill, but he did qualify it as a “portion” of cyclists — and we can all take a deep breath and admit that there are some rogues among us. Though, reminder, Eric: A rogue cyclist cannot kill a pedestrian with anything close to the likelihood of a rogue driver.)

Of course, many observers reminded Phillips that he should have sat out this particular Twitter debate.

“You were in a position to do something about this,” replied Doug Gordon, who tweets as BrooklynSpoke. “You’re not just Joe Q. Citizen. Besides, is there a point at which you look at over a thousand people in mourning, many of whom are pissed at your old boss and think that you should keep responding? Are you that dumb?”

It got increasingly Twitter ugly after that, but I’ll defend Phillips for several reasons. Obviously, he has a right to his opinion and, more important, I’m happy he went public with his dissatisfaction with some of what he saw when he was at City Hall. The issues he raised are central: The NYPD is not doing enough — nor does it really want to do anything. We saw that this week when NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill even defended a cop who used his SUV squad car as a battering ram. And we’ve seen it countless times as cops park in bike lanes, write tickets to cyclists for not wearing a helmet (even though that’s not illegal) and continue to treat that small portion of rogue cyclists as if their destructive power is equal to that of the very large portion of drivers whose roguish behavior is actually the source of all traffic crashes and fatalities.

Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation does what it can, but it’s clearly not enough. The pace of installation of protected bike lanes is slowing, the urgency of Vision Zero is waning, and, when confronted with this year’s fatality crisis, Commissioner Polly Trottenberg is quick to point out that her agency must always ensure that drivers don’t feel inconvenienced.

If Eric Phillips, a mayoral flack, failed to fix the problem in his years serving Mayor de Blasio, that’s not on him. That’s on the boss.

Phillips’s “gaffe” reminded us anew who the main impediment to change is:  The tall man with the corner office at City Hall.

Streetsblog reached out to City Hall for a comment on Phillips’s allegations. We will update this story if we hear back.

Gersh Kuntzman is editor of Streetsblog. When he gets really angry, he writes the “Cycle of Rage” column. Prior posts are archived here.

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