For a number of years, when I was covering wars in places like Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, I would wake up in the morning and conduct a risk assessment of what I planned to do during the day. I carefully considered the dangers ahead — ambushes, land mines, bombings, kidnapping — and how to avoid or mitigate them. I ran endless scenarios through my mind, and when I headed out into the insanity of the day, I was extremely vigilant to signs of trouble.
I never expected that the risk-assessment skills I developed in war zones would be relevant to my life as a Brooklyn dad with a desk job in Manhattan, but that was before I started biking to work. It’s not that the hazards of biking in New York City are reminiscent of the frontlines around Sarajevo, but let me say this — I was kind of crazy to do the things I did back in my war reporter days, and I am kind of crazy to ride a bike in New York City. This time, the leader I blame for the mayhem around me is not a warlord or a war criminal: He is Bill de Blasio, the supposedly progressive mayor of New York who says all the right things about the need to respond to the world’s climate emergency yet refuses to do the one thing in his own city that would save the lives of his constituents and the planet we all live on.
As you might have heard, there has been a spike in cyclists killed in New York City; the count is up to 22 so far this year, more than double the amount for all of last year, and the latest victim, killed by a truck just a day ago, was a 14-year-old boy. There have also been more pedestrians killed by cars this year, including a 10-year-old boy who was waiting for a bus earlier this month when the driver of an SUV plowed over the sidewalk and killed him, and a 1-year-old girl in a stroller who was killed just days ago by yet another SUV driver who jumped a curb. There’s not just the death toll: Last year, nearly 11,000 pedestrians were injured by cars in the city, according to the Department of Transportation, and the number of bikers hurt was close to 5,000. That’s not even a full accounting, because it’s based on reports to the New York Police Department; lots of biker and pedestrian injuries go unreported, because why bother? A few years ago, after I had to jump out of the way of a bus that still grazed me as it illegally turned into a crosswalk, a police officer on the scene asked me to not file a report — I assume because he didn’t want the hassle of the paperwork. I filed a report.
If you regularly ride a bike, you know all too well the bloody story that soulless mortality spreadsheets don’t convey. During any ride, there will likely be a couple of occasions on which, if you did not quickly brake for a car that illegally crossed into your path at an intersection, or did not shout at the oblivious pedestrian walking into your bike lane, or pull aside to avoid a biker going the wrong way, or swerve to avoid a suddenly opening car door, or notice the 5-inch pothole just ahead, you would end up as another digit in the statistical category that the city describes as KSI — which stands for “Killed or Seriously Injured.” I never expected that a phrase I often whispered to myself at the end of a busy day in a war zone — “I could have died today” — is one I continue to whisper at the end of a two-wheeled journey home. And I’ve got it easy, because I don’t ride a bike for a living, all day long, as legions of low-wage workers must do in the messenger and food-delivery trades.
There’s a particularly demented nightmare that haunts the cyclists of New York City (or at least me): getting doored. That’s what happens when you’re biking on one of de Blasio’s unprotected lanes, and someone in a stationary car, just inches to your side, opens their door without bothering to check whether a cyclist is coming. You were riding along and following the rules and trusting de Blasio’s encouragements to ride a bike in the great metropolis of New York when suddenly, like a flipper in a pinball machine — but this isn’t a pinball machine, it’s a street, and it’s your life — a door opens and smacks into you. The injuries you suffer at that moment can be quite severe, but the worst may be just ahead. When cyclists are doored by parked cars, they tend to fall into the street, where they can get run over by a moving vehicle. In New York, eight cyclists have been doored to death since 2014.
There’s a point of commonality between the chaos of New York biking and the mayhem of far-flung war zones. Chaos is not a condition that just happens like an act of God or magic. It must be created. Societies are not always or naturally at war – most are at peace most of the time, if not all the time. When war happens, it is largely the product of decisions and actions by powerful leaders who create the destabilization required for hostilities to break out. That is what is happening in the streets of New York under the neglectful and hypocritical rule of Mayor de Blasio.
When de Blasio was elected mayor in 2013, he inherited a city that was quickly moving to a future much more free of cars than its past, thanks to the surprisingly forward-looking policies of his predecessor, the billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who was terrible in most ways but was great on the issue of cars, pedestrians, and bikes. Bloomberg, who famously took the subway a fair amount (de Blasio prefers his city-provided SUV), infuriated drivers and businesses by speeding up the installation of bike lanes and, among other things, turning Times Square into a pedestrian-friendly zone — a move that has ended up being immensely successful.
Bike lanes have expanded in de Blasio’s time but at a shameful pace and in a frankly dangerous way. Most new lanes are not protected. Instead of a firm barrier that moving cars are unable to cross, all that separates bike riders from their deaths is a painted line or a plastic stick every 20 or 30 yards. This has been referred to as a “paint and pray” policy: painting bike lanes and praying nobody will get hurt. It might be sufficient if several other things existed that do not. They include the following:
- Drivers respecting the lines and not driving into bike lanes.
- Delivery trucks and other vehicles not parking in bike lanes.
- Drivers not opening their doors in front of bikers.
- Police enforcing these rules.
These things do not prevail, which is the main reason bikers and pedestrians are being killed and injured by the tens of thousands every year. On my daily commute, it’s not unusual to encounter several delivery trucks, Ubers, or other vehicles parked in unprotected bike lanes on a single block, requiring me to merge into moving car traffic. Often the vehicles, rather than being stationary in the lane, are moving into it. Not long ago, I was riding in an unprotected lane near Union Square in Manhattan and a truck cut into it, forcing me to the curb to save my life. “This is a bike lane,” I shouted at the driver, to which he yelled back, “I don’t fucking care.”
As an excellent article by Aaron Gordon in Jalopnik noted about unprotected lanes, “Instead of directing cyclists to a few carefully designed, safe, protected routes, it spreads them out among dozens of lazy, dangerous, and haphazard ‘bike lanes’ inviting conflict.” Honestly, it feels like the de Blasio administration is luring us into a trap: “Here’s a new bike lane, please come and use it, you’re going to love it, ha ha ha.” But don’t take my word for it. Earlier this month, when someone on Twitter noted how dangerous it is to bike in New York City, the official account of Google Maps tweeted back, “Biking through New York isn’t for the faint of heart, my dude.” That tweet was later deleted and I suppose a social media intern at Google was sent packing for telling the truth.
At this point, you might be thinking, Hold on, cyclists are a menace, too; they scare and injure pedestrians all the time. My response is that I totally agree. The moment I get off a bike I have to keep an eye out for cyclists – the ones who ride on the sidewalks, the ones who ride the wrong way on a street, the ones who speed through crosswalks. Bikers can be assholes. The nearest I came to an accident in recent months was when a guy on an electric bike came roaring at me going the wrong way in a protected lane. I swerved to avoid a crash and shouted at him, prompting him to turn around and threaten to punch me out. The guy was maybe 20 years old and totally high, but I found a way to shame him from actual violence. “I’m 59 years old,” I announced. “And you want to take me on? Really? Really?”
But let’s remember a key thing: Asshole cyclists are not the main problem. Last year, car drivers killed 115 pedestrians in New York City, while bicycle riders killed zero. Please don’t fall for the anti-bike propaganda of publications like the terrible New York Post, which loves to portray bikers as antifa horsemen of death. It’s an own-the-libs distraction.
Let’s stand back and look at what’s going on. The problem is the absence of an infrastructure that gives bikers, pedestrians, and even delivery trucks what they need so they don’t go to war against each other for the rat-infested crumbs of asphalt the city has them fighting over. Cyclists need protected lanes and prioritized lights all over the city. Give that to them and they won’t swarm the sidewalks, they won’t drive the wrong way all the time, and they won’t go through intersections when they shouldn’t. Give pedestrians the wide and safe sidewalks they need, the benches their weary legs desire, the trees that make shade in the summer, and calm streets in which the majority of space is devoted to the majority of people who are not in private cars. This has been proven to work — it’s not a risky leap, it’s been ridiculously successful in cities across the world, particularly in Europe.
This isn’t happening, and instead we’re pitted against each other. Honestly, I don’t hate the truck drivers parking in bike lanes; they are victims too. They can’t afford to not park there. The city — meaning Mayor de Blasio — has given them no choice, because so much curb space is taken up by parked cars. And their bosses at UPS, FedEx, and Amazon haven’t given them a choice, either: How can low-wage drivers possibly meet an unrealistic quota of deliveries unless they break the law and park in bike lanes? It’s time to wake up and realize this is a new sort of class warfare on the streets of our city. Let’s unite against our political and corporate bosses, not squabble among ourselves.
Let’s also remember that this should not be turned into a law enforcement problem addressed primarily by giving the NYPD yet more power over our lives. This is a design problem. The streets are chaotic and dangerous because they are badly configured, and there are too many cars, not because the NYPD isn’t handing out enough tickets. If protected bike lanes are built and more streets are designed so that private cars cannot travel on them or are discouraged from doing so, there will be no need to pray that the NYPD will do the right thing (after all, they have shown little interest in doing much with the powers they have — just go on Twitter and perform a search using the phrase “police parked in bike lane“).
Am I overreacting? Well, look at who’s doing the biking. About 75 percent of the riders of Citi Bike, the bike sharing program in New York, are male. A lot of women do not feel comfortable riding bikes in this city, and that’s fundamentally unfair. And look at the ages of the males who ride: Most are relatively young. I rarely see bikers who are old enough, as I am, to shame 20-somethings into not punching them. It’s “Logan’s Run” out there, and it’s a vast discrimination against anyone who is not a man in the physical prime of his life. This is a tragedy because New York City is ideal for short hops on bikes by people of all genders and ages, including children; it’s a flat and high-density city. Yet since 2014, the number of bike riders has fundamentally stalled; nobody new is showing up to the party, because the word is out that it’s not a party, it’s a death race.
A final word, if I may, for Mayor de Blasio and his central role in not doing the one big thing that is within his power to save the planet. You will not find a mayor who is more devoted to talking about the urgent need to fight global warming. He publicly celebrated the courage of Greta Thunberg when the 16-year-old environmentalist arrived in New York on a sailboat earlier this month, and he has piously warned that humanity has only 10 years left to save the planet. He has made some helpful changes, like announcing new guidelines on pollution levels for buildings. But these are the easy things. Getting cars and their lethal exhaust off the streets is the most important thing he could do and also one of the most difficult — because of a vocal minority of drivers with outsized clout. They are like the NRA, except their weapons weigh 4,000 pounds and are turning the planet into cinders (and there is no constitutional right to store your car for free on public streets).
The slightly good news is that de Blasio has finally ended his much-derided run for the Democratic presidential nomination, so we can hope he wakes up. It is unfathomable that during a climate emergency in which a key task is to reduce our use of cars, the allegedly progressive leader of America’s largest city has done so little to turn bike riding into an activity that’s not life-threatening.
Update: September 22, 2019
This article has been updated to reflect new reports that another bicyclist has been killed in New York City, bringing the total to 22 this year. Mario Valenzuela, just 14 years old, was killed by a truck yesterday.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets that aims to strengthen coverage of the climate crisis.