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Tears for Em Samolewicz, Jeers for the Slow Pace of Road Safety Improvements

12:09 AM EDT on July 31, 2019

Mirza Molberg holds a sign reminding drivers that they killed another person on Third Avenue on Monday. Photo: Ben Kuntzman

Em Samolewicz
Em Samolewicz
Em Samolewicz

About 50 cycling advocates and Sunset Park residents gathered on Third Avenue on Tuesday night to mourn Em Samolewicz, a "gentle soul" who was killed by a truck driver a day earlier — but the mourners also lambasted city officials who have done nothing to improve road safety on a speedway where two cyclists and two pedestrians have been killed this year.

"These are lives. These are our neighbors," Rep. Nydia Velazquez said, recalling that she got Congress to allocate funding for a protected bike lane and greenway along Third Avenue in 2005. "I'm told they're in a 'design phase.' Well, we need the DOT and the mayor to hurry up and finish this route."

Samolewicz was doored by a van driver and then hit by the driver of a huge tractor-trailer when she veered into traffic. Council Member Brad Lander, who only recently had cheered the very beginnings of a protected bike lane on Fourth Avenue nearby, pointed out that the route has been delayed, so there are only small portions of it completed.

Nydia Velazquez. Photo: Ben Kuntzman
Rep. Nydia Velazquez. Photo: Ben Kuntzman
Nydia Velazquez. Photo: Ben Kuntzman

"We don't know if Em would have taken a completed Fourth Avenue bike lane instead of Third Avenue," he said. "But we know we were not urgent enough in getting it done. And this is a metaphor for how we aren't acting urgently enough citywide."

Samolewicz was the 18th cyclist killed so far this year — up from 10 all of last year.

Though politics was front and center, many friends came to mourn Samolewicz, an artist and employee at Jaya Yoga who was well-known in the neighborhood.

"I'd come to Jaya with anxieties and I'd be a little frazzled, and she would hear me out and look at me and smile and say, 'Isn't it all better that you're hear now?'" said Council Member Carlos Menchaca, veering into advocacy. "I knew her. And I also know these roads are dangerous."

A co-worker at Jaya said Samolewicz had just finished her training and was looking forward to a career as a full yoga instructor.

"There is nothing quite like coming off of a beautiful class," Samolewicz had written to her friend, Lea Bender, a teacher at Jaya. "I've felt that many times and I hope to be able to offer that. To use what I know in a healing fashion, to make space for transgender and gender non-conforming people in yoga, for poor people in yoga, and for self-discovery."

"She was such a gentle soul," added Bender, but also veered into the issue at hand. "I bike on this street. It's incredibly dangerous."

Council Member Carlos Menchaca led the vigil. Photo: Ben Kuntzman
Council Member Carlos Menchaca led the vigil. Photo: Ben Kuntzman
Council Member Carlos Menchaca. Photo: Ben Kuntzman

Community Board 7 Chairman Cesar Zuniga said that his board has been asking the city for a truck study that will prove that there are too many large vehicles using Third Avenue as a conduit.

"How many more will have to die before we get that study?" Zuniga asked. "Most of these trucks don't have to be here."

Sunset Park is one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. Between Jan. 1 and June 30, there have been 1,433 crashes causing injuries to 41 cyclists, 71 pedestrians and 275 motorists, in addition to two dead cyclists and two dead pedestrians. That’s roughly eight crashes per day in a single neighborhood.

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