A vigil for a 28-year-old cyclist killed in Brooklyn this week escalated into an emotionally-charged screaming match on Wednesday, pitting the anguished bike community against two employees of the cement truck company whose driver fatally struck the victim.
Elected officials, safe streets advocates, and cyclists had gathered earlier at the corner of Bushwick Avenue and Boerum Street, where Devra Freelander was fatally struck by a United Transit Mix driver on Monday. She was the third New Yorker to be killed on a bike in just one week, and at least the 14th cyclist fatality all year.
When two trucks emblazoned with the United Transit Mix logo passed by the memorial, those in attendance jeered, prompting one of the drivers to shout back that the incident was Freelander's fault. "Stop victim-blaming, you piece of shit," replied one protester.
"How are we supposed to see everyone?" the driver fired back, to which an attendee quickly responded: "It's your job to see everyone!"
A second driver, who declined to give his name to reporters, then got out of his truck and proceeded to argue with the mourners, at one point accusing them of not knowing the victim's name ("Devra Freelander!" multiple people shouted back).
Two cement trucks from the company involved in the killing of Devra Freelander just passed by the vigil. A really emotional shouting match ensued. One truck driver shouting back to cyclists: "[Freelander] made a mistake. How were we supposed to see her? We can't see everyone." pic.twitter.com/tP8kYolJoZ
— Vincent Barone (@vinbarone) July 3, 2019
For some in the crowd, the altercation was just the latest example of a harmful windshield perspective that has contributed to this year's spike in both cyclist fatalities and overall traffic deaths.
"Drivers think it's their right to do whatever they want—that was very clearly what we just saw," said Jack Drury, a 34-year-old cyclist who lives in Greenpoint. "They view cyclists as an impediment and an obstruction to their ability to work."
“We’ve been asking DOT for years to do something about cement trucks on Bushwick Ave, that drip cement and create hazardous conditions for cyclists.”
— Ellen McDermott (@HeyNell) July 3, 2019
This is the scene now at the vigil after more cement trucks rolled down Boerum Street. pic.twitter.com/0Dc4d2GU9D
— Julianne Cuba (@Julcuba) July 3, 2019
The family that runs United Transit Mix has freely admitted as much. On Tuesday, fleet manager Danny Mastronardi told Gothamist that cyclists "make everybody's job harder. Not just us—cars, trucks, taxis, everybody." Hours after Freelander's death, the company's owner, Tony Mastronardi, blamed the tragedy on "too many bikes on the road."
The company has also defended their driver by pointing to security camera video of the crash, which shows Freelander traveling northbound on a sidewalk and entering the intersection at Boerum Street against the light, before she's struck by the truck driver.
Advocates have countered that the roadway where a cyclist would normally ride is littered with discarded chunks of cement, and noted that the driver was not traveling on a designated truck route at the time of the crash. It is legal, in some cases, for drivers to diverge from truck routes when making local deliveries or returning to their point of origin.
Some activists are also calling for restrictions on heavy trucks, which studies have shown are involved in 32 percent of bike fatalities and 12 percent of pedestrian fatalities in New York City, despite making up less than 4 percent of total traffic. London successfully implemented similar restrictions three years ago.
This diagram shows the blind spot areas of various types of trucks. Huge areas of the street are invisible to them. pic.twitter.com/YkgZBucqzM
— Angie Schmitt 🚶♀️🚴♀️ 🚌 (@schmangee) July 3, 2019
In response to the recent spate of cyclist deaths, Mayor Bill de Blasio has instructed the Department of Transportation to release a new cyclist safety plan later this month. A spokesperson for the Mayor's Office would not say whether it might include a limit on heavy trucks.
On Tuesday, de Blasio also unveiled a promised "major enforcement action" to keep cyclists safe—a three-week initiative that critics say amounts to little more than a PR stunt.
"It's an insult to Vision Zero and it shows they never took it seriously," Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, who represents the district where Freelander was killed and attended the vigil on Wednesday, told Gothamist. "If they need to put out a notice to the police department for basic pedestrian and cyclist safety, then what is Vision Zero?"
Others in attendance were even more direct, warning that the tension between drivers and cyclists could soon bubble over if city officials don't take swift action.
"What you just saw is indicative of what's to come," said Drury. "There are going to be days of rage...unless de Blasio gets off his ass realizes he needs to pay attention in New York, and not Illinois."
De Blasio is currently campaigning in Iowa, and will be traveling to Houston and South Carolina this weekend, before returning to the city on Sunday night.
Reporting by Scott Heins.
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