BY BILL WEINBERG | Two all-too-telling recent incidents.
On the afternoon of Aug. 31, I was biking down the Bowery, and as I passed Broome Street, I saw an elderly man lying in the road, with a small group of passersby gathered around him. A Chinese gentleman, probably in his 70s — with his hands on his heart, crying in pain, a look of shock and disbelief on his face. He had evidently been struck by a car, breaking one of his legs. The driver stayed on the scene, and I was told that an ambulance was on the way.
I retrieved the old man’s glasses, which were thrown several yards away, placed them beside his head, and rode on.
I don’t know what became of the old man, and as far as I know the horrifying incident never received any media coverage. Just another example of the daily terror of the private automobile that we all accept as “normal.”
The next day, I was about to hop on my bike for my daily errands around the Lower East Side, and one of the tires was flat. To my infuriation, the offending object proved to be a tack. I assume some anti-bicycle vigilante was putting tacks in the bike lanes. This had happened to me once before, with staples sprinkled on the Manhattan Bridge catwalk.
Such vigilantism has actually won some media coverage, with CBS-NY in January 2019 reporting of a “backlash against bicycles” after shards of glass were found sprinkled on Greenwich Village bike lanes.
What is driving this backlash was poignantly crystalized by the killing of Chelsea resident, finance entrepreneur and Singaporean immigrant Gavin Lee, 44, by a hit-and-run bicyclist while crossing Eighth Avenue on Aug. 11.
As a bicyclist, the first thing I must say about this is shame, shame, shame on the bicyclist in this case, who was emulating the very worst behavior of motorists. I appeal to him to come forward and face the consequences of his actions.
And if he turns out to have been a delivery worker, there should also be legal consequences for the employer or app pressuring the cyclist to put speed ahead of safety — a question that has received little consideration in this age of instant online gratification.
But the exploitation of Lee’s death by anti-bicycle Internet partisans has been unseemly. The selectivity of their outrage betrays its utter hypocrisy.
Gavin Lee was the first New Yorker killed by a bicyclist since 2019. More than 255 people were killed by motorists in the city last year. An average of 230 people have been killed by motorists each year since 2013, the year before Mayor Bill de Blasio initiated his “Vision Zero” plan to eliminate traffic deaths entirely.
Despite this dismal record, Vision Zero is not as utopian as it seems. Zero annual traffic fatalities has already been achieved over the past years by some European cities, including Oslo and Helsinki. Obviously, these are much smaller cities than New York. But there is a cultural factor at work here, as well.
The quotidian terror of the automobile on the streets of New York did, briefly, get a human face after the June 2019 death of Robyn Hightman, a 20-year-old bicycle messenger who was run down by a truck on Sixth Avenue. Her death, among three slayings of bicyclists within a one-week period, sparked protests that summer — including a “die-in” by bike messengers in Washington Square Park.
But, overwhelmingly, the near-daily casualties of automotive terror on our streets rate but a brief nod of attention from the media, and then their names go forever down the Memory Hole.
Here are a few examples just from the past months:
On Aug. 14, Be Tran, 74, a DoorDash delivery driver and provider for an extended family of Vietnamese immigrants, was killed by a hit-and-run motorist in Ridgewood, Queens.
On July 27, Carling Mott, 28, a production manager for Nickelodeon, was killed by a truck while riding to work on a Citi Bike on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. No charges were brought against the truck driver.
On July 3, Christian Catalan, 21-year-old delivery worker, was killed by a hit-and-run driver in the Bronx.
On June 25, Lynn Christopher, a 67-year-old grandmother, was killed while crossing a street with her 8-year-old grandson in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. The grandson was critically injured. The motorist, who was arrested, had apparently been attempting to flee a traffic stop.
On May 6, Karina Larino, 38, a mother and M.T.A. stock worker, was killed by an SUV while crossing an intersection in Astoria, Queens. The driver was charged for failure to yield.
On May 5, Eric Salitsky, 35, an idealistic architect who had designed multifaith worship spaces with the firm ESKW/Architects, was struck by a garbage truck while riding his bicycle in Borough Park, Brooklyn. The truck driver fled the scene.
And on May 2, 21-year-old N.Y.U. student Raife Milligan was killed by an apparently drunk driver while crossing Houston Street in the East Village. The motorist was charged with driving under the influence.
Nor are we safe from automotive terror while on the sidewalks or even in the parks — as demonstrated by the Aug. 16 incident in which an allegedly drunken motorist actually drove through Tompkins Square before crashing into a fence.
But all this is accepted as “normal,” the inevitable cost of transportation. For anti-bike partisans, it is only the rare case of a pedestrian casualty of a reckless bicyclist that merits opprobrium.
Reckless bicycling is a problem, and one that we bicyclists need to take responsibility for. But it also needs to be seen in context: domination of the streets by toxin-belching death machines that force bicyclists into a Darwinian struggle.
An analogy can be drawn to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine, held by Russian forces and repeatedly coming under bombardment. The Russians and Ukrainians have blamed each other for the shelling. Kyiv charges Russia with using the facility as a shield from which to fire missiles at Ukrainian-held areas. If this is the case, then even if the Ukrainians have shelled the facility, the blame ultimately lies with the Russians.
Now, bicyclists in New York are not faced with any moral dilemma such as that of Ukrainians under enemy shelling from a nuclear plant. And contrary to the French saying that “to understand all is to forgive all,” context does not let anyone off the hook for their actions. I repeat my call for the killer of Gavin Lee to surrender.
But this doesn’t alter the fact that bad bicyclist behavior is rooted in a system designed to accommodate the automobile, and an atmosphere in which reckless motorists overwhelmingly have impunity. Nor does it alter the reality that bicyclists are an oppressed and stigmatized class in New York City.
And this is all the more perverse given that bicyclists ultimately represent a big part of the solution to our urban and global dystopias. The quote attributed to H. G. Wells — “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race” — holds even greater truth a century and a quarter later, as we face devastating destabilization of the planet’s climate.
The efforts to accommodate bicyclists put in place by city Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan during the Bloomberg administration (following years of activist pressure), and since expanded upon, are only problematic inasmuch as they don’t go nearly far enough. For instance, bicycle lanes seem to have conditioned some motorists to view cyclists outside the lanes as fair game for roadkill — even on streets that don’t have bike lanes.
A dramatic and thorough reworking of the city’s entire transportation infrastructure to ultimately phase out cars altogether and make bicycle traffic the norm — this is what is urgently mandated.
In a rational city, the streets would be filled with bicycles — as they were in China before its capitalist conversion a generation ago. The dedicated lanes would be for the few cars that would remain necessary, such as emergency vehicles, and for public transportation, whether buses or trolleys. And these few cars, ideally, would be electric — not burning fossil fuels. In such a system, buses and ambulances would move far more freely and rapidly, rather than being mired in gridlock.
And getting there begins with expanding the space dedicated to bicyclists. Far from giving up an inch of our hard-won space, we intend to fight for more. Much more.
Traffic fatalities in the United States, which dramatically dropped during the pandemic lockdown two years ago, have since soared to a 20-year high of 46,000 last year, reversing a downward trend since the 1970s. The current zeitgeist of recklessness certainly isn’t confined to bicyclists. Turning this around begins with dethroning the cult of the private automobile.
In New York City and on planet Earth, bicyclists represent the future — if there is one. And you intransigent bike-haters and motor-heads, who are petitioning against bike lanes, and resorting to dangerous vigilantism…as the Sex Pistols once sang: No future for you.
It’s just a question of whether you’re going drag down the rest of us with you. We bicyclists intend to fight you for all we’re worth — by demanding our right to public space in defiance of your normalized terror.
See you in the streets.
Weinberg blogs at Countervortex.com.