Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White was riding his cargo bike along Spruce Street in downtown Manhattan this morning around 8:45 a.m., when he says he witnessed a driver with city-issued license plates turn right on to Spruce from Nassau, cutting through a "fresh" walk signal and passing within a few feet of a startled female pedestrian in the Spruce Street crosswalk, honking his horn.
"It was definitely an invasion of her safe space," White told us this afternoon, speaking of the right turn. "He was within a couple feet of her. Definitely too close for safety. To be fair he didn't actually touch her, but it was close enough for her to be disrespectful."
White says the driver identified himself as one "Tony Brown" of the Department of Homeless Services, although DHS does not employ anyone by that name. The above picture was taken on Spruce Street just after the driver's blue SUV turned left. Yellow city plates are visible.
According to White, the driver defended himself—not only did he have a green light, he said, but the pedestrian was on her cellphone.
About minutes after the incident, White documented the "heated" argument that ensued on Facebook. He recalls that his response to the driver's defense went something like this: "It's your responsibility to fucking YIELD in that situation, asshole, not honk and keep on going!"
White says he proceeded to bike down Spruce Street alongside the driver, yelling at him at three consecutive stoplights and calling him an asshole more than once. "I was screaming myself hoarse and he was screaming," White said.
Eventually the driver asked White, "Why are you so angry?" to which he replied, "Because I work on this all day and I lose patience sometimes."
Ironically, White says he and the city employee quickly realized that they were both scheduled to attend a Vision Zero event later that day in Queens—the second annual Fleets Safety Forum, where reps from various city agencies discuss "best practices" for city vehicles when it comes to pedestrian and driver safety.
According to city data, crashes involving City-owned vehicles decreased 30% in FY 2015 over 2014—351 crashes in 2015 versus 504 in the year previous.
This afternoon White told us that, now that he has young children, he no longer makes a habit of "stepping up" to drivers. When he saw the city license plate this morning, he figured it was safe to approach. Still, White says that public shaming, as long as its done with some discretion, is a Transportation Alternatives-approved approach to dealing with unsafe drivers.
White says that by next year, Transportation Alternatives is hoping to "make it easier for New Yorkers to call out insane drivers"—possibly with a smartphone app that would take and post pictures of reckless drivers, or their license plates.
"We can't always count on law enforcement officers," White said. "We don't have the authority to ticket them [reckless drivers], but we can publicly shame them. The more people who do this, even if it's a quick scowl at a motorist who's parked in the crosswalk, it works."
As for his run-in this morning on Spruce, White admitted that the driver deserved some credit for deescalating the situation. "He actually cracked a smile," White said. "And that's when we both admitted some wrongdoing."