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Opinion: Bring Back ‘Give Respect/Get Respect’ Campaign

If cyclists don't throw their own bad apples under the bus, we won't get safer streets, argues this West Side advocate.

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After a delivery cyclist struck and killed a 68-year-old man on an Upper West Side sidewalk in 1997, there was a large outcry including then-Mayor Giuliani saying, ''Bicycles are a very big quality-of-life problem.” In response, Transportation Alternatives launched the “Give Respect/Get Respect” campaign targeting sidewalk and wrong-way cyclists, as well as “outlaw motorists.” As TA’s magazine said at the time, “Although cycling is evoking wildly disproportionate public censure, the core criticism is valid. Cyclists should not ride on the sidewalk or intimidate pedestrians.”

It is time to revive this campaign and for the cyclist community to once again call for cyclists to be courteous, especially to vulnerable pedestrians. 

City cyclists, who depend on NYPD enforcement to keep our streets safe, are frustrated when police officers defend and refuse to take action against the “bad apples” — especially police or police-adjacent drivers who abuse their positions, their courtesy cards, or their placards by speeding or parking illegally, making our streets even more dangerous.

But by refusing to call out bad actors on two wheels, cyclists are, symbolically at least, doing the same thing — and it's causing great damage to the safe streets movement.

Anyone reading Streetsblog is likely to know that cyclists cause a tiny fraction of the injuries and fatalities on New York City streets, and that cyclists get a disproportionate amount of blame for our streets being dangerous in the media and at public forums. Unfortunately, as a result, elected officials, who face constant complaints about bicycles from their constituents, are less likely to advocate for protected bike lanes.

Respect goes both ways.File Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

The sad reality is that one cannot avoid the bad apples on two wheels. There are often cyclists riding on the sidewalks and riding the wrong way in bike lanes. These rogue cyclists endanger both cyclists riding legally and pedestrians who don’t think to look for bikes going the wrong way. Our streets, parks, and sidewalks are overwhelmed with mopeds, scooters, and quasi-motorcycles that are not licensed or street legal, such as the one that killed actress Lisa Banes. As one of many examples, the nation’s most used bike path in Riverside Park is a fatality waiting to happen, with an assortment of motorized vehicles and Spandex-clad racers plowing through, yelling at the pedestrians to get out of their way ... as they ride 25 miles per hour or more.

Many of our neighbors — and especially the elderly — are terrified of bikes, fearing that getting knocked over on the sidewalk or while crossing with a walk signal could cause a catastrophic injury. At politicians’ town halls, precinct meetings, and community board meetings, there is a chorus of people who have been almost hit by bikes. It is easy for the safe streets community to dismiss these people as being alarmist, especially as 200-300 New Yorkers are actually killed in motor vehicle crashes every year, and tens of thousands more are injured by motor vehicles annually, according to NYPD data. Virtually all of these deaths and injuries are, in fact, caused by the drivers of cars and trucks.

Yet we cyclists ignore the fear felt by New Yorkers at our own peril.

As one of many examples, a recent petition, “NYC PEDESTRIANS DESERVE SAFE SIDEWALKS AND STREETS,” was started by a concerned citizen and has amassed over 5,500 signatures. It states, “Today, there is complete disregard of our right to walk and cross the street in safety without the stress of having to gauge whether a moving vehicle (bike, e bike, scooter, moped, etc.) on the sidewalk or in the pedestrian crosswalk will strike us, leave us hurt or hospitalized, or dead.” The petition cites that cyclists have killed seven people in the past 10 years. Of course, this number is a minuscule fraction (roughly 0.2 percent) of the 2,600+ people (99.8 percent) who have been killed by motor vehicles in the same time period, but to those that fear bikes, statistics do not matter. Even if the statistical risk is minimal, the fear is not.

Ignoring this fear is bringing great damage to our community by making it much harder to get approval for new safety initiatives for cyclists and pedestrians. Ensuring that cyclists are respectful of pedestrians is essential if we want more New Yorkers to care about making streets safer for cyclists.

In 1997, I wrote in a letter to the New York Times: “I applaud the efforts of Transportation Alternatives to promote courteous riding in the group's ''Give Respect, Get Respect'' campaign. More police summonses issued to reckless cyclists (and to the business owners employing them) would also help.” Of course, enforcement of the rogue cyclists is a big challenge for the NYPD, and too often calls for crackdowns result in them ticketing cautious cyclists slow-rolling through red lights after stopping when no pedestrians are nearby, as recently documented in Streetsblog by Ken Coughlin.

Nonetheless, I would love to see TA and others once again call for cyclists to be courteous, considerate and respectful. Such a campaign can help our perception problem, easing the way for more safety improvements for cyclists and pedestrians. Some important areas for information campaigns and eventually summonses of rogue cyclists should include:

  • Working to get all bikes off sidewalks, which need to be a safe space for pedestrians, and especially the elderly. TA should work with Los Deliveristas Unidos, DOT, the NYPD, and delivery companies to reach cyclists when they stop at restaurants or delivery hubs to stress that riding on sidewalks is never acceptable.
  • Stopping wrong-way cyclists, especially in bike paths.
  • Ensuring that commercial cyclists wear ID and have ID on their bikes as required by New York City law.
  • Enforcing non-street-legal motorcycles and mopeds, which can be stopped on bridges into Manhattan and where possible (such as in Riverside Park).

I recognize the severe financial challenges deliveristas face, and see the need for companies like DoorDash and Uber, as well as regulators to allow them to make a living wage without endangering themselves and others. I personally discovered that it is impossible to earn a liveable wage working for DoorDash without breaking traffic laws and endangering themselves and others. Of course, the outrageous conditions imposed on delivery workers by DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Grubhub, which currently avoid all responsibility and liability by classifying their workers as “independent contractors,” is a much bigger issue that must be addressed ASAP. 

We often criticize DOT for not making safety changes until after there is a fatality. In the same way, we should not wait until another highly publicized fatality to bring back the Give Respect/Get Respect campaign, communicating to all cyclists the need to be respectful of pedestrians, as TA did 25 years ago.

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