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.

  • r

    How cool that Phillips must get paid a ton of money for his job in “crisis PR” but kept lecturing a bunch of people who had just attended a die-in at which they were grieving for lost family members and friends. Brilliant strategist, that guy! De Blasio sure knows how to pick ’em!

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The cops should do more and don’t culturally feel it like they should.”
    Perhaps having the police give out more tickets isn’t the solution, as ham-handed as they are.
    I have more hope for automated enforcement, even with public shaming taking the place of fines (good job done by Streetsblog here), street design, and motor vehicles designed to prevent drivers from breaking the laws and making death-causing mistakes.
    Some of this is on the manufacturers. They are the ones putting wifi in the vehicles, and selling those more likely to kill a pedestrian in a collision. And they are the ones who could prevent the vehicles from going more than 5 mph over the speed limit and more than 5 mph period in a turn at an intersection.

  • Maggie

    I’m really uncomfortable with giving Eric Philips a pass for his beyond inappropriate comments.

    They were viscerally disturbing. I am actually wondering what’s the matter with him. Like seriously, when a former city flack is taunting safe streets advocates at a safety-focused event in his city that they are possibly Russian bots, things with this guy are just acutely, 100%, irredeemably off the rails.

    Therefore, I was hoping someone would write a measured point by point rebuttal of everything that he did wrong, which is obviously a LOT. This was totally unacceptable.

  • Agreed. The lecturing and “bothsiderism” on the very night people attended what amounted to a funeral struck me as completely disgusting.

    The other part was the “Bike Twitter” comment, as if 1,200 people hadn’t just come together thanks to offline organizing in the real world to grieve, protest talk about what to do next.

    This was all very revealing. To people in politics, this is a game. A clash between warring tribes online. Not people’s lives being broken or families being ripped apart. To them it’s all just sniping. And that’s why people keep getting injured.

  • Philips’ problem is not that he is a murdering monster, far from it. It’s just that he isn’t a clear, thoughtful communicator & clearly fails at (or, doesn’t even attempt) de-escalating situations on social media. It’s not helping his popularity. But his views are not the reason why we have the problems that we have.

    He can call out “bad cyclists” all he wants, but are bad cyclists really the reason why DOT installs infrastructure that fails to protect cyclists (and then drags on expanding it)? DOT does what it does because it feels that its mission is to preserve automobile volumes and LOS. It will not take space from cars that will impact LOS. Clearly the mayor and DOT management are complicit in that goal. That goal is not contingent on cyclists “getting better” or “being bad”. It’s entirely because drivers unconditionally demand to keep the space to themselves. (The discussion about the NYPD tracks along the same lines – NYPD cooperation is not conditional on any cyclist behavior or attitudes, they’re just doing what they feel like and disregarding the law)

    So anyone who brings up the whole “cyclists are bad too” thing is arguing with you, personally, about being a hypocrite… they are not engaging in a good faith debate about the city’s priorities. That is scummy and I would choose not to engage (much). You will not find positive change by convincing these people, and they don’t want to be convinced if they’re coming into the conversation with that kind of attitude.

  • From a more positive point of view, I’ve lately found a few people who are not Eric Philips who saw what I have pointed out to them (without ad-hominems, but pulling no punches in terms of criticizing the IDEA of the whattaboutism)… and they have relented, apologized, and agreed.

    I’m always surprised! I don’t expect that from anyone on the Internet. But it is happening here and there. Keep your expectations tempered if you are attempting this at all.

  • Urbanely

    Agreed. I used to own a Honda Fit which was great for the Brooklyn -Queens-Long Island trips I do frequently with family members. The transmission died when it was 10 years old, and I was disappointed to find that most of the controls in the newer model are via touch screen. Why are screens like that even allowed in cars? Why encourage people to be even more distracted? I have never been inside a modern pickup truck but I hope they don’t have screens for controls. It’s hard enough for people to see over the high front grille.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I got a Toyota Corolla last weekend. It had a touch screen that required you to agree to not look at it before driving. CYA.

  • Maggie

    It was galling to have him say advocacy only happens on Twitter, less than a week after this highly contentious, really ugly, community board meeting. It’s unbelievable he could be so dismissive of how much time and advocacy the city can demand before they finally, grudgingly, too sparingly, do the right thing and make our streets incrementally better. https://twitter.com/jessiesingernyc/status/1146217682884280321?s=21

    I don’t especially love going to CB meetings and spending hours getting yelled at, or even going to vigils or getting asked, “oh are you with TransAlt?” like that means I’m not part of the community. But the reality is that TransAlt is effective at getting improvements we all need. It’s shitty that the city hasn’t acted to make the UWS streets safer where a Columbia University dean was killed. I wish these fixes didn’t require huge amounts of organized advocacy, but this is on the city and on DOT.

  • Teofila

    You can simply leave your less paying 9 to 5 job and start gaining checks monthly approx 12000 bucks working on-line. Let’s be real, no matter where you’re doing the job that: working. While working from home you get Extremely flexible daily routine – you can take breaks at any hour, feel absolutely no rush to hang up on your friends any time they contact you, and consume meal at any odd time you choose, Forget crowds and heavy traffic – Absolutely no stuffing yourself into a rickety transportation tube, having people scuff your new shoes, or walking behind agonizingly slow individuals who apparently don’t know what a straight line is, Much more time with loved ones -Take good care of a sick significant other at your home, be ready for kids earlier in the daytime, get extra snuggles in with your doggo, or simply get some relaxing time to your self! Check it out, what it is about… nanosecondcodger.fuer-alle.de

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