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Assembly Member in Harlem Council Race Opposes ‘Sammy’s Law,’ More Bike Lanes

Assembly Member Inez Dickens, the favorite to win the primary for the Council open seat being vacated by Kristin Richardson-Jordan, said that she does not support lowering the speed limit.

2:09 PM EDT on June 20, 2023

Assembly Member Inez Dickens does not support Sammy’s Law. Photo: NY1

The leading candidate for an open City Council seat in Harlem is currently an Assembly member who opposes bike lanes as well as one of the livable streets movement's biggest legislative priorities: a bill that would allow New York City to set its own speed limits.

At a debate last week held by NY1, Assembly Member Inez Dickens boasted of her opposition to the bill, which is also called "Sammy's Law" after the young Brooklyn boy, Sammy Cohen Eckstein, who was killed by a driver in 2013.

Inez Dickens at a recent debate.

Asked about the bill by debate host Errol Louis, Dickens said her opposition stems from not wanting to hinder drivers, some of whom "just like to speed."

"I do not support it," Dickens said in the un-televised portion of the debate. "And the reason is because ... those that are going to speed are going to speed regardless of what the actual speed limit is, for whatever reason, either due to drugs is due to alcohol or just they like to speed. And they're the ones that's causing the accidents [sic]. Reducing the speed limit will only hinder those that are already adhering to the law."

She also blamed "these bikes that are going at 40 miles an hour” — though any bike that exceeds the speed limit is already subject to ticketing.

Dickens's challengers in the Democratic primary, Assembly Member Al Taylor, also of Harlem, and Yusef Salaam, who was wrongly accused and later exonerated in the so-called "Central Park 5" case, both said they support Sammy's Law, with Salaam later adding his support via Twitter.

Mayor Adams, who supports Sammy's Law, has endorsed Dickens for the seat, NY1 reported. There is only scant chance that the bill will be taken up in the closing two days of the Assembly session.

Activists were appalled at Dickens's comment.

"Assembly Member Dickens is relying on faulty assumptions to make decisions about people’s lives," said Sara Lind, co-executive director of Open Plans. "We cannot throw up our hands and set speed limits based on drivers who 'just like to speed.' The fact is, other cities that have lowered speed limits to 20 mph have seen fewer traffic deaths. We know it works. Our policies should be based on data and getting results, not conjecture."

Elizabeth Adams of Transportation Alternatives specifically pointed out that Portland's decision to lower its speed limit from 25 mph to 20 mph ended up decreasing speeding by 47 percent.

"Sammy's Law is about finally giving the City of New York the power to set its own speed limits — instead of having to ask Albany for permission," added Adams, the group's deputy executive director. "The data is clear: Lowering speed limits reduces speeding, changes driver behavior, and saves lives."

There is a crisis of safety and equity on our streets. Passing Sammy's law is necessary to address that crisis. At the same time, Mayor Adams must empower the Department of Transportation to transform our streets so that the phenomena that Assemblywoman Dickens is describing become impossible in every neighborhood.

Dickens's position on Sammy's Law fits in with several other opinions she aired during the debate. During a lighting-round question, Louis asked the candidates, "Do you support more bike lanes in the district?" Dickens's answer was adamant: "No!" she said (point of fact: Council District 9 has just one protected bike lane — a short stretch of Fifth Avenue connecting Marcus Garvey Park to Central Park).

Taylor and Salaam (who identified as a cyclist) said they support more bike lanes.

Danny Pearlstein of Riders Alliance pointed out that Dickens's opposition to bike lanes is linked to her fight against Sammy's Law.

"There is a crisis of safety and equity on our streets. Passing Sammy's law is necessary to address that crisis," he said. "At the same time, Mayor Adams must empower the Department of Transportation to transform our streets so that the phenomena that Assembly Member Dickens is describing become impossible in every neighborhood."

Setting lower speed limits could reduce crashes in the very district that Dickens hopes to represent. As Streetsblog previously reported, upper Manhattan is filled with 25-mile-per-hour streets that have been the site of a disproportionate number of crashes:

So far this year, there have been 758 reported crashes just in District 9 alone, or more than four per day, according to city stats. Those crashes have injured 63 cyclists, 87 pedestrians and 229 motorists, or more than two people every single day.

Dickens was also unsupportive of congestion pricing, which promises to bring in $1 billion per year for transit, which is the main mode of travel for her constituents (earlier in the debate, she said she rarely rides transit. A spokesperson once told Streetsblog that Dickens used to take public transportation until she had a kidney transplant in May 2022).

"I supported it, but I had problems with it because it will lead to additional vehicles being brought into the community and taking away the parking," she said.

Taylor said he emphatically supported congestion pricing. Salaam, oddly, was not asked.

It's not the first time Inez Dickens has exasperated street safety advocates. Earlier in the campaign season, she parked illegally on Fifth Avenue in Midtown during another debate taping. A Streetsblog source spotted Dickens's 2019 Mercedes S560, with a placard on the dash, in the travel lane in a clearly marked “No Standing” zone outside the CUNY Graduate Center near W. 35th Street.

The car seen in the video — which is Dickens's personal car — has been caught on camera either speeding or running red lights 17 times since April 2017, after Dickens joined the Assembly, according to city records via How's My Driving. Dickens previously served as a Council member in the same neighborhood between 2006 and 2016.

During her time in the Council, Dickens opposed bus improvements on 125th Street and traffic-calming measures on Morningside Avenue.

Dickens is believed to be the front-runner in the race to succeed Jordan, though it's unclear how livable streets advocates should vote, given that none of the three candidates participated in StreetsPAC's endorsement process.

"That's unfortunate, since Harlem’s voters deserve to know where [the candidates] stand on street-safety and transportation issues," said Eric McClure, the political action committee's executive director.

"And while Assemblymember Dickens may well be correct that some people may just 'like to speed,' many of us New Yorkers don’t appreciate that speeding, and a proven-effective means of curbing that need for speed(ing) is to make sure that the offenders are cited for their transgressions."

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