The Battle for Bike Lanes
To protect its cycle set, New York must enforce its bike lanes, say advocates.
As Gelasio Reyes pedaled home to Queens from his food delivery job in Manhattan just before 3 a.m. on April 11, 2017, a drunk driver careened into his bike at 43rd Avenue and 39th Street in Sunnyside.
Reyes, a 32-year-old father of three, was pronounced dead at Elmhurst Hospital Center. Cristian Guiracocha, the driver, is now serving the first year of a one-to-three-year sentence.
Reyes’ death prompted some locals to push for protected bike lanes, separated from traffic lanes by sturdy physical barriers, on 43rd Avenue and Skillman Avenue. Under Vision Zero, the city’s initiative to reduce traffic deaths to zero, the Department of Transportation has considered these two corridors a priority, as 61 pedestrians and 34 cyclists were injured here from 2012 to 2016.
Vision Zero has indeed helped reduce traffic fatalities in New York City to their lowest recorded level in 2017. But while total pedestrian deaths decreased, the number of cyclists killed increased from 18 in 2016 to 23 in 2017. In 2014, the year Vision Zero launched, 20 cyclists died in traffic. But over the next four years, the number of cyclists rose by 140,000, to 800,000, according to the Department of Transportation.
Most fatal crashes involve bikers riding parallel to a vehicle – side by side (29 percent), in front of a vehicle (27 percent) and on a vehicle turn (21 percent), according to the department’s 2017 Safer Cycling Report.
Gelasio Reyes was 32 when he was killed by a car in an unprotected bike lane in Queens. Credit: Family Picture
With a protected bike lane in place, many of these crashes surely would not have happened, safety advocates say.
“A protected bike lane is better for safety reasons and for attracting more riders,” said Ralph Buehler, associate professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech, and co-author of the study “Safer Cycling Through Improved Infrastructure,” published in November 2016 by the American Journal of Public Health.
New York has more than 1,100 miles of bike lanes, but only 74 miles are protected with some kind of barrier that prevents vehicles from entering the lane. The city has been too slow to build protected bike lanes, said Thomas DeVito, director of organizing for the nonprofit Transportation Alternatives.
Parking place used as a buffer for bike lanes at 8th Avenue have a space protection so people can open the door without hitting bicyclists. Photo credit: Paula Moura
Bike Lane Obstacle Course
Number of blocked bike lane complaints to 311
Number of blocked bike lane tickets issued by the NYPD
The Transportation Department’s plan calls for adding 10 miles of protected bike lanes a year, but DeVito says the ideal would be five times that number, as New York has more than 400 miles of “demonstrably dangerous Vision Zero corridors.” Last year, the Department of Transportation added a record 25 miles of protected bike lanes, but only half were in dangerous areas, the report said.
Indeed, in its Vision Zero Report Card 2017, Transportation Alternatives criticized the Department of Transportation’s decision to build protected bike lanes on streets where community boards are more likely to approve them, rather than on the most dangerous streets for bicyclists. The city sometimes bows to small, vocal groups of residents who oppose the lanes, often because of concerns about losing parking spaces or pedestrian safety, bicycling advocates say.
In Manhattan, protected bike lanes have reduced crashes and pedestrian injuries.
After Reyes’s death, local activist groups asked for protected bike lanes to connect Skillman and 47th Avenues to Queens Boulevard, but Community Board 2 in Sunnyside rejected the Department of Transportation’s plan for the area. Ultimately, though, a community board’s role is advisory; the mayor and the transportation department could override their rejection and simply build the bike lane. The department didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In Transportation Alternatives’ Bike NYC 2020 Survey, released in November 2017, 92 percent of former bicyclists said that more protected bike lanes would encourage them to ride again.
Protected bike lanes have benefited pedestrians, too. In areas in Manhattan with protected bike lanes, crashes causing injury fell by 17 percent, and pedestrian injuries decreased 22 percent, according to a Department of Transportation report.
When the Citi Bike program started in May 2013, some expected more accidents. The only Citi Bike-related death, so far, occurred in 2017. Citi Bikes, which account for 10 percent of bicycle trips in New York, are placed in areas with heavy pedestrian traffic, which make cyclists more alert, Buehler said. The iconic blue bikes are also heavier and have wider tires than most bikes, slowing the riders.
Beyond increasing the number of protected bike lanes, activists are pushing for stricter enforcement of existing bike lanes — especially non-protected ones, which cars often use as a parking lane, forcing cyclists to merge with car traffic.
In 2017, the New York Police Department ticketed 23.4 percent more drivers for parking in the more than 1,000 miles of bike lanes compared to 2016, according to Transportation Alternatives. But activists say it’s not enough. In 2018 through April, there were 886 calls to 311 regarding blocked bike lanes – surely a small fraction of the actual instances – but police issued only 131 tickets for the violation in the same period.
“The bike lanes don’t take care of themselves, they need help. And that help is enforcement,” said Denise Katzman, an activist with Bike Walk Tompkins in Ithaca, N.Y., who used to live in New York and advocated for Vision Zero enforcement. “You can’t just put a regulation in place and simply walk away from it.”
The NYPD still does not track serious injuries in traffic, though the elimination of these injuries is a component of Vision Zero. The department also doesn’t collect data about the ethnicity of people who are being punished for parking on bike lanes or other traffic violations, even though national research points to instances of bias against minorities. Stanford University’s Open Policing Project analyzed data from 31 state police agencies and found that traffic police are more likely to stop and ticket black and Latino drivers.
“Enforcement is a two-sided item,” Buehler said. “On one hand you would want more enforcement to protect the cyclists,” he said. “On the other hand, we have heard anecdotal evidence that enforcement can also be used against minorities, poorer people.”
Claudia Corcino, founder of the New York City activist group Ciclistas Latinoamericanos, said a concern of her group is that while the city has miles and miles of bike lanes, they don’t connect often enough. In the boroughs, she noted, many immigrant cyclists can’t afford the subway so they bike to work, and traveling between boroughs, particularly between Brooklyn and Queens, can be difficult and dangerous.
Corcino said she used to travel between those two boroughs but gave up because she had to ride alongside trucks. If the city is to reach Mayor de Blasio’s goal of doubling its number of active cyclists by 2020, it will be crucial to keep riders like Corcino in the saddle.
“As bike lanes grow, more people cycle,” said Buehler. “I think acceptance of bike lanes will increase because more people will be cyclists themselves.” — Paula Moura
Dave Gentile and Sarah Matusek contributed reporting.
Right of Way or Right to Maim?
The Right of Way law changed the way drivers can be penalized for failing to yield to pedestrians in New York. But four years after its passage, a vanishing minority of motorists face criminal charges for the offense.
When police showed up at the Guy R. Farmers Laundromat in Queens this spring, it was not to wash their clothes. There had been a crash on the street outside and police were canvassing businesses along the broad, acute-angled intersection in search of video of the collision.
It was not clear to a laundromat employee which crash they were investigating. “There’s a lot of accidents that happen around here all the time,” said the employee, who identified herself only as Miss B.
But this crash had made headlines. At about 9 a.m. on March 16, police said, a 2011 white Ford ambulette driven by Ivan Rybiy, 61, had been heading east down Guy R Brewer Boulevard when he made a sharp left onto Farmers Boulevard. Rybiy turned into a marked crosswalk where a woman in her 50s was crossing the street with the right of way. Rybiy hit the woman with the driver’s side of the van, critically injuring her.
When first responders arrived, the woman was unconscious. She was taken to Jamaica Hospital, where her condition stabilized. Rybiy remained at the scene, where he was arrested and charged with failure to exercise due care, which is a non-criminal infraction, and a misdemeanor: failure to yield.
Photo credit: Dave Gentile
Under the Right of Way law, a driver who causes serious injury may be fined $250 and potentially face 30 days in jail.
Legislation approving the misdemeanor charge and penalty was hailed as an early victory of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero effort to reduce traffic fatalities to zero. But enforcement has been spotty. A fine remains the most likely legal consequence of a crash caused by a motorist’s failure to yield, even when someone gets injured.
Failure to Yield Enforcement (Misdemeanor Arrests)
Safe streets advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives illustrated this in a recent analysis of New York State’s Department of Motor Vehicle data on crashes. According to Transportation Alternatives’ 2017 Vision Zero report card, at least 10,080 people were injured in 2017 in failure to yield–related crashes. Similar crashes in 2016 injured 7,610. Last year, only 34 people were arrested for the offense, while 2,221 were issued summonses.
Failure to Yield Enforcement (Traffic Tickets)
“Enforcement on the Right of Way law is very low, certainly compared to how often that particular infraction happens,” said Thomas DeVito, senior director of advocacy at Transportation Alternatives.
The new failure to yield law, known as the Right of Way law, results from a well-documented fatal collision that occurred in Flushing, Queens in October 2013. Three-year-old Allison Liao was crossing the street holding her grandmother’s hand — in a crosswalk, with the right of way — when a black SUV turned left into the intersection, running over the little girl with both front and back wheels.
The dashboard camera of another driver recorded horrific footage of the crash. It would have been damning evidence in a criminal case against Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh, the driver of the 2000 Nissan that hit Liao.
But Abu-Zayedeh’s tickets weren’t for criminal court. They were for traffic court, where the tickets were voided by an administrative law judge 10 months later.
All of this coincided with the advent of a new mayoral administration. The Oct. 6 date of the Flushing collision was almost exactly one month before New York’s 2013 mayoral elections. Two weeks after his inauguration in January 2014, new Mayor Bill de Blasio would announce his administration’s commitment to Vision Zero.
Advocates have characterized the Right of Way law as a cornerstone of Vision Zero. They hoped it would prevent reckless drivers from escaping responsibility for injuring and killing pedestrians. So far, that mostly hasn’t happened.
But at the same time, traffic law professionals have noticed the uptick in the number of non-criminal failure to yield tickets that have been issued.
“It feels like there are more people calling with questions about this particular violation over the last couple of years,” said Scott Feifer, a partner at Feifer and Greenberg, LLP, a legal firm that specializes in traffic law. On busy days, his firm handles as many as 60 tickets of all kinds, he said.
Indeed, some — specifically, cyclists — say the NYPD over-enforces the Right of Way law, using it to penalize the wrong people.
A.J. Nichols, a former bicycle courier and owner of Harvest Cyclery in Bushwick, said that his employees and other friends in the cycling community regard Vision Zero as a whole with suspicion.
Nichols recalls the 2016 death of fellow bike business owner Matthew Van Ohlen. On his way home from a bartending job late one night, Van Ohlen was hit and dragged by a car, which then sped away, in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Though Van Ohlen’s death was not the result of a failure to yield misdemeanor, NYPD officers subsequently issued many failure to yield tickets at that intersection — to cyclists.
“He was hit in a protected bike line and died, right? And you remember what the Vision Zero implementation was the day after? It was to ticket everybody at that intersection on a bike for not stopping,” said Nichols, his voice charged with emotion.
“So that’s about how most people think of Vision Zero: It tends to criminalize the people riding bikes first. Until that gets addressed, who knows how it’s going to be?”
As police continue to integrate the new Right of Way law into their traffic enforcement strategies, supportive video recordings can make failure to yield enforcement easier.
As security cameras become more affordable and proliferate throughout the city, precinct officers have been able to work with the public to obtain and study footage from privately owned cameras. This footage has been instrumental in many kinds of cases, traffic incidents included.
After the crash on Farmers Boulevard, Rybiy awaits a June 5 trial date in Queens Criminal Court. If the police found surveillance cameras that effectively documented the crash, it could well be instrumental in determining the case’s outcome.– Emilie Ruscoe