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The DOT's Incrementalism Has Failed. NYC Needs To Break Car Culture Now

Cyclists ride during Summer Streets
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Cyclists ride during Summer Streets Scott Lynch / Gothamist

On Sunday a bicyclist was crushed against a building wall on Coney Island Avenue after a car driver sped through a red light, striking another vehicle and catapulting it, and the cyclist, over the curb. With this latest death, bicycle fatalities in New York City this year are on pace to exceed 30, carnage not seen since 1999, when drivers killed 35 riders.

Sunday’s fatality closely followed another in Brooklyn, on Third Avenue in Sunset Park. In that incident, a driver opened the door of his pickup, forcing a cyclist to swerve into traffic, where she was hit by a tractor-trailer traveling in the adjacent lane.

As I wrote a quarter-century ago in Transportation Alternatives' “Bicycle Blueprint” book, “On any given day, a routine ride can turn into a heart-stopping struggle for survival” — a fact fatally repeated 19 times in our city in just seven months.

I get around New York by bike, as I have for over forty years, since my twenties. During some of this time, I was in the forefront of activism that wrung cycle lanes on roads and bridges from successive mayors and transportation commissioners. Yet today we seem no closer to a humane balance on our streets between bikes and motorized vehicles.

With my long perspective, I believe that bicycle incrementalism — the patient winning of selected space on selected pieces of selected streets — has run its course as a strategy for making cycling safe in New York.

Cruelly, each gain in safety conferred by the piecemeal addition of bike lanes has been cancelled by the latest automotive encroachment: hulking SUVs in the nineties, device-distracted driving in the aughts, and now a tsunami of digitally summoned for-hire vehicles and delivery trucks.

Twenty years ago, I set out to determine how bicyclists were dying in traffic crashes here. Reviewing NYPD forensic reports, I found that the dominant factor was driver misconduct. Speeding (as in Sunday’s deadly crash), “dooring” (last month’s) and aggressive passing topped the list.

But these particular crash modes are merely the proximate causes. The wellspring of cycle fatalities lies deeper, in driving’s culture and sheer volume.

Of late, several prominent officials, most notably City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, have begun speaking of “breaking the car culture.” In my many years campaigning to undo the rule of cars, I never heard that phrase. And yet it strikes me as exactly right.

What does breaking the car culture mean? It means fewer cars, whether in motion, where they can inflict harm, or parked, where they consume space needed not just for bicycles but for transit buses, people on foot and as buffers from the motorized noise and violence.

Breaking the car culture means less deference to car owners and less political placating of reactionary community boards and car-cozy police.

It means less patience for car and truck emissions and space-appropriation. It means making drivers pay increasingly for those costs, starting with congestion pricing. It means making the “green modes” — transit, walking, biking, urban proximity — the default in city planning and policy.

If safer cycling seems too small a reason to throw off New York’s car culture, consider that the objective isn’t just safer cycling; it’s a city where everyone is safer because fewer people drive and egregious driving behaviors are stigmatized. A healthier city because the air is cleaner, the streets don’t pulsate with aggression, and more of us reap walking and biking’s many benefits.

The policies to bring this about may not be fully apparent. New York transportation habitually lurches from crisis to crisis, leaving scant room to think big. But here are some elements of a program to break the car culture in New York:

  • Replace indifferent traffic enforcement by police with automated summonses for speeding and red-light running.
  • Identify chronic traffic violators and intervene to modify their reckless behavior.
  • Institute “road diets” that reduce not just vehicle volumes but rampant traffic disorder.
  • Abolish elected officials’ parking perks, including public employees’ “placard abuse” that undermines law enforcement.
  • Experiment. Try new things.

A city that acts on cycling safety — not with mere road tweaks but with a reboot of street design and traffic rules — will be a better city.

Komanoff, an economist, has headed several street-safety organizations including Transportation Alternatives.

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