The Next Battle of Brooklyn: Keeping Bikers Safe in the City
by Kristin Berberich
New York City’s Transport Alternatives coalition has been celebrating #BikeMonth in May by hosting a Bike-to-Work-Challenge. But the cycling community in the city, particularly in the borough of Brooklyn, has been shattered by a recent surge in the number of fatal bike accidents. In a busy city like NYC, traffic safety has always been a big concern. After 2018’s record-low of ten cyclist fatalities in one year, the city has reached the total number of all of 2018’s fatalities earlier this month.
In South Brooklyn, three cyclists died in three separate accidents in the third week of May, one each in Crown Heights, Borough Park and Marine Park (Lampen 2019). Five out of the 10 city-wide cyclist fatalities this year happened in South Brooklyn alone. In all three cases, heated discussions about who or what may have caused these accidents ensued soon after. In the Crown Heights case, investigators are accused of blaming the victim, who is said to have sped through the intersection as the light switched from green to red, rather than the driver of the car involved in the fatal accident. The Borough Park incident, in which a 16-year-old fell victim to a van, is a classic case of dooring: a cyclist either crashes into a car door that was opened on the bike lane in front of them, or, as in this case, is hit by traffic in the main lane when swerving out of the door’s way. But why is cycling in Brooklyn so dangerous?
Although the rising number of cyclists (especially from the Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American communities) and an extension of bike infrastructure in NYC have contributed to the safety of cyclists over the past decade, there is still a severe lack of bike lanes in minority neighborhoods, such as Crown Heights and Borough Park in South Brooklyn Studies show that for such neighborhoods, there is not only less or less safe bicycle infrastructure, such as painted instead of protected lanes. The risk for riders in minority neighborhoods to be involved in an accident is higher, too (Lusk 2019). By the same token, riding one’s bike down a quiet side street to avoid facing heavy traffic at night might have different implications on cyclists’ perceptions of personal safety. Lusk and colleagues (2019) thus conclude in their study on Boston that in neighborhoods with a higher criminal activity, for instance, bicycle infrastructure would best be improved on larger and busier roads than on quiet side streets. There are half as many bike injuries on protected bike lanes as on unprotected ones. Bicycle activists have been complaining about the lack of bike lanes and the lack of willingness by council members to improve the situation. Throughout the city, double parking continues to be a safety hazard. Furthermore, bicycle activists claim that the NYPD is biased against cyclists, issuing summons and tickets in cases where the cause of an accident was really the drivers’ negligence. In an interview with the Gothamist, an attorney confirms that the police often don’t know that dooring, for instance, is against state law. However, drivers repeatedly state that they didn’t see a person on a bike as a way to avert blame after clipping a bike with their car.
The availability of bicycle infrastructure aside, bike safety also depends on predictability of behavior, visibility and the kind of bike you’re on. As an avid cyclist, I would never dare to cycle Brooklyn streets a) on a road bike and b) without a helmet, as a large number of cyclists do. In addition to the masses of hip people riding on their fixies, a great many cyclists depend on bike share services which, when looking at the bike geometry, are almost constructed to be safe. The biggest bike-sharing service in NYC, Citi Bike, took a few precautions in bike design and setup. Their bikes are equipped with lights and have a frame geometry that makes for a more stable seating position through having the saddle lower than the handlebars – contrary to all the road bikes zipping past you on Brooklyn’s streets. Moreover, a stable seating position may even prevent cyclists from falling in dangerous situations (Martin et al. 2016).
Citi Bikes are also known to be heavy, so they can only reach moderate speed. A study of 22 million Citi Bike rides confirms that they reach 8.3 miles per hour on average, as opposed to 11-12 miles per hour on regular bikes observed in St. Petersburg, Florida. This and the bikes’ wide tires can make for a really annoying clunky feeling while riding a Citi Bike – trust me, I know what I’m talking about – but also decrease the chance of crashes in intersections with little visibility and the likeliness to crash when riding Brooklyn’s notoriously patchy asphalt. Earlier this spring, Citi Bike rolled out 1,000 electric models for their popular bike-sharing service, getting up to 18 mph. Although very popular with commuters, the pedal-assist bikes were too fast and the front brakes could not handle the speed, with the back wheels spinning up, causing many riders to crash. After only two months in use, the company took all of these bikes off the streets in April. Throttle-controlled bikes that can go up to 20 mph, often used by delivery workers, are actually banned by the city (although on a regular day, you’re still forced to move out of the way of a delivery bike every other block). Despite all of this, riding a Citi Bike through congested parts of the city like Manhattan’s Midtown is faster than taking a taxi.
But not only cyclists are affected by the unsafe traffic conditions. New York City streets are notoriously unsafe for pedestrians, too. Local activist groups are fighting for new legislation to be passed to protect Brooklynites, and to provide access to cycling to residents from all socio-economic groups. One of these is Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Restoration Corporation which also offers Community Bike Rides to improve residents’ health, advocacy, and traffic safety skills. From the official side, NYC Mayor De Blasio started the Vision Zero initiative in 2014 to eliminate the number of traffic-related injuries and deaths by 2024. This plan includes the introduction of speed limits, criminal charges against some traffic violations, slow zones, and measures to improve pedestrian safety through traffic lights with countdown timers. New legislation also makes it a crime to not yield to a pedestrian or cyclist. Advocates also hope to introduce a design template for safer streets into the plan this spring. A small success, to some, was that a bus driver was found guilty in a Citi Bike death trial in October 2018 after running over a bike-share user in June 2017 (here’s an article about the agency-obscuring ways of framing bike accidents in newspaper headlines).
Now, I won’t get into the city’s eroding public transport system or the ongoing fight over congestion pricing for drivers on Manhattan’s streets. But as the deputy executive director of Transportation Alternatives, Marco Conner, said in a New York Times piece in April, “E-bikes have been shown to replace car trips, and in New York City, where the average car trip is about 2 miles long, bike share and e-bikes are a great alternative to replace those short trips. When you decide to take a bike trip instead of a car, you’re not putting your fellow New Yorkers in danger.” Plus, you’re neither producing carbon-dioxide nor are you contributing to the abomination that is traffic in New York City. In order to reduce the number of cyclists’ injuries and deaths, the city does not only need to install more bike lanes. While e-bikes are a great alternative to cars, the number of fatal head injuries both on electric and regular bikes could be reduced by changing the transportation law that, as of now, only requires children up to the age of 13 to wear a helmet. While beat cops certainly have enough to do on a regular shift and are reported to crack down on cyclists in dubious ways, it would be necessary for them to be trained in accordance with new laws, such as the Right Of Way Law introduced in Vision Zero. Together with a fast improvement of bike infrastructure in all neighborhoods, a stronger grip on reckless drivers in Brooklyn from the authorities could at least play a part in keeping cycling Brooklynites safe in the currents of everyday urban mobility.
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Kristin Berberich is a doctoral researcher at the HCA’s graduate training center “Authority and Trust” (GKAT). Her project focuses on the linguistic construction of neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York.
Kristin received her BA and MA in English Philology/Linguistics from Heidelberg University and is interested in sociolinguistics, (critical) discourse analysis and all things urban.
Feel free to get in touch on Twitter: @k_berb