With bicycling season upon us once again, I’m thrilled to see how many more New Yorkers are discovering the benefits and joys of commuting in the City’s growing network of bike lanes. Unfortunately, the warmer weather is also invariably accompanied by NYPD ticketing blitzes aimed at cyclists. But while these crackdowns may seem only fair, they don’t make for effective Vision Zero enforcement. That’s because they disproportionately target violations that almost never cause death or injury, even as reckless and careless drivers cause most of the carnage on our streets.
Don’t get me wrong. I know how unnerving it can be when bike riders engage in unpredictable behavior, going the wrong way, or blowing through a crowd of pedestrians in a crosswalk after running a red light. That’s why my organization, Transportation Alternatives, works so hard to get more protected bike lanes, because they create predictability by making it clear to everyone who uses our streets where cyclists are supposed to be.
But in order to protect the cyclists who do follow the rules and use the bike lanes properly, we need help from police to keep those lanes clear of vehicles. The NYPD recently took a step in the right direction with a five day enforcement action called Bicycle Safe Passage. But when Transportation Chief Thomas Chan announced this brief crackdown aimed at protecting people on bikes, one reporter after another raised their hands to ask: “But what about the bikers? Will you also be targeting violations committed by cyclists?”
Chief Chan patiently pointed out that police already do that routinely: officers issued 12,000 summonses to cyclists last year, he said.
And yet, the myth that there is no enforcement against cyclists in New York City persists, and along with it, a more dangerous myth—one I hear frequently from policymakers and people on the streets alike—“I’m not scared of the cars, it’s the bikes that are really dangerous.”
An iconic anti-bike lane moment from the Prospect Park West bike lane wars. (Zoe Schlanger / Gothamist)
These are fallacies that are not borne out by the data. In reality, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of preventable injury-related death for New York City children, and driver speeding kills more New Yorkers than drunk driving and cell phone use at the wheel combined. The statistics reveal another important fact: while 68 people died in car crashes in the first five months of 2016 in New York City, not a single person was killed in a bike crash. But even in the era of Vision Zero, many NYPD precincts continue to issue tiny numbers of summonses each month for the most deadly traffic violations—speeding and failure to yield—all the while launching ticketing blitzes where whole groups of cyclists are pulled over at once, sometimes regardless of whether they’ve actually done anything wrong.
If we look at just one type of cycling violation—riding on the sidewalk—we can see how skewed the NYPD’s traffic enforcement practices are. Brooklyn’s 79th Precinct gave out 146 criminal court summonses for sidewalk biking, the highest number in the city. But the number of speeding tickets to drivers went down 15% in 2015 compared to 2014, and enforcement of failure to yield was down by 12%. Meanwhile, pedestrian and cyclist injuries went up 13%. In the 19th precinct, which is a hotspot for pedestrian deaths and has the most pedestrian and cyclist injuries in Manhattan North, officers are cracking down on sidewalk cycling while largely ignoring speeding drivers.
In a city where motorists often face no consequences even when they have driven their cars onto sidewalks and killed children who were trick-or-treating or eating ice cream with their families, the disproportionate emphasis on cyclist infractions that are unlikely to cause death or injury represents a serious misallocation of scarce police resources. If this city is going to reach its goal of zero traffic deaths and serious injuries, the NYPD must get its enforcement priorities straight and focus on what’s killing and maiming far too many people on our streets.
Paul Steely White is the Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives.