The report late last month that a 67-year-old woman walking in a crosswalk across 57th St. suffered a skull fracture and fell into a coma after being hit by a bicyclist who ran a red light is a grim reminder of a truth I’ve resisted: Some cyclists in New York are posing a public safety risk.
Even as the number of cyclists, bike lanes and proposed additional lanes have reached an all-time high, and even though cars overall remain a much greater risk to life and limb, in far too many cases, bikes have not been safely integrated into the flow of cars and pedestrians.
I write as someone who has commuted to work by bike for (really!) more than 50 years. That’s meant innumerable car doors opened right in front of me; getting hit from behind while stopped at a light (sent me to the ER); and all sorts of driver insults. Through it all, I’ve remained hardcore pro-biking.
But there’s no getting around the fact that with the increase in cycling in this dense city — by commuters, Citi Bike renters and delivery cyclists, some of whom zip around on motorized ebikes — so, too, has traffic chaos in the city increased. It takes but a short walk around Midtown to spot cyclists going the wrong way on one-way streets, speeding through red lights, failing to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, sometimes all at the same time.
According to NYPD data, in March alone, there were 325 collisions citywide involving bicycles. Drivers were surely to blame in some — but 101 of those collisions did not involve cars at all. Cyclists, in other words, are putting themselves and others at risk.
Violations are such that the NYPD has found reason to issue a significant number of traffic tickets — summonses — to cyclists. According to previously unpublished data provided to me by the NYPD, moving violations issued to cyclists have increased over the past three years and remained at a high level.
There were 30,238 summonses issued to cyclists in 2015, 28,592 in 2016, and 34,096 in 2018.
The most common bicycle traffic infractions between 2015 and 2018 include the following: operating a bicycle on the sidewalk, not stopping at red lights, failing to yield right-of-way to pedestrians, and leaving the scene of accident.
Such enforcement has, unfortunately, not been welcomed by some cyclists and their advocates. After a food delivery cyclist was killed in February by a hit-and-run driver, cycling and immigration policy activists protested what they saw as an unwarranted crackdown by police on cyclists, instead of drivers.
Said City Council Member Carlos Menchaca of Sunset Park: “The mayor refuses to tell his NYPD to stop focusing on immigrants, the people of color, the people who are delivering our food to our apartments.”
Police don’t help themselves by blatantly targeting cyclists right after a fatal crash caused by a driver. But well-targeted moving-violation enforcement is, in the long run, the best way to protect, not harass, cyclists.
Of course government regulation can go too far, but consistent traffic safety enforcement is not an example of such. Enforcement can help minimize the current free-for-all, in which low-income cyclists whose livelihoods depend on their bikes are in a race to the bottom, one in which, too often, anything goes because speed is the overriding goal.
If no one is allowed to run a red light, or ride the wrong way on a one-way street, every cyclist will be safer, and pedestrians will be too.
New York City Council members are competing with each other to champion the construction of new, protected bike lanes across the five boroughs. I largely support that effort. But truly integrating bicycles into the streets they share with pedestrians and cars — to make safe cycling a norm in New York — will take something more: It will require that police regularly issue moving violation tickets to cyclists who break traffic rules.
What’s more, cyclists need to welcome such enforcement.
This piece originally appeared at New York Daily News
Howard Husock is vice president for policy research and publications at the Manhattan Institute.
Photo by Marco_Piunti / iStock