Brooklyn is the deadliest borough for cyclists. Here’s how drivers and riders can stay safe

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We’re gonna need a bigger #bikenyc refuge island – Second Ave/59th St

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This story has been updated to reflect the most current number of cyclist fatalities.

It has been a lethal summer for New York City cyclists, with two riders killed in July in the span of just 24 hours, on Brooklyn’s McGuinness Blvd. and Clove Road in Staten Island, followed by another cyclist fatality in Sunset Park the same month, and again in August in Coney Island. These deaths are the latest in a string of 19 cycling fatalities to strike the city this year, a number that already vastly outstrips 2018’s 10 deaths. Brooklyn has been hit particularly hard, with 14 of the 19 cycling fatalities happening within our borough.

With the recent surge in fatalities threatening to reverse years of incremental improvement in NYC bike safety, the cycling community is on high alert and demanding action. In response, the de Blasio administration announced last Thursday that it will rapidly deploy a new $58.4 million plan designed to better protect riders. The plan promises to boost the number of protected bike lanes added each year from 20 to 30 miles and expand lanes in 10 “bike priority districts” across Brooklyn and Queens. It will also implement changes at 50 intersections that experience a high volume of crashes to maximize the visibility of cyclists, and extend the Vision Zero “Green Wave” pilot program, which uses timed lights to sync up riders and drivers to discourage speeding and running red lights.

There is still no definitive explanation for this year’s spike in cyclist fatalities, but experts believe it is due, in large part, to a steep increase in riders and vehicles on New York City streets. Thanks to improved cycling conditions and the continuing decline of the subway system (cringe), among other factors, the number of New Yorkers who bicycle a few times a month grew by 26% between 2012 and 2017, with current estimates putting the number of regular New York City cyclists at nearly 800,000. Planners have long concurred that when it comes to cycling in the city, there’s safety in numbers, with more riders on the road increasing both visibility and awareness. But this increase in ridership is occurring alongside the rise of ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, which dispatched about 15,000 drivers in New York City in 2015 compared to 128,000 today. An even bigger culprit, perhaps, is the unprecedented growth in the number of delivery trucks on the road, carrying our collective online orders.

“There are more cars, more trucks and more riders on the streets. We don’t have causal data on this yet, but roughly 30% of the bicyclist fatalities this year have involved trucks,” says Bike New York spokesman Jon Orcutt. To him, this suggests that the convergence of these changes is putting cyclists at increased risk.

 

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In the past 2 months, NYC has had 5 cyclist deaths; and that’s 50% of ALL deaths last year. Aurilla’s death in a hit-and-run last week was tragic and preventable had there been a bike lane on Broadway (an initiative that was dismissed by the city 4 years ago). If you would like to enact change in YOUR neighborhood reach out to @transportationalternatives to find ways to help. Please share your love or any more information regarding this incident. #ripaurillalawrence . . #transportationalternatives #brooklyn #brooklynnyc #nyc #newyorkcity #broadway #bikelanes #bikesafety #bikestats #cycling #brooklynbybike #bikeculture #bikeaccident #memorial #ghostbike #wburg #williamsburg #deblasio #nycgov #activism #bushwick #bedstuy #fortgreene #greenpoint #manhattan #newyork

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De Blasio’s current plan signals an increased commitment to cycling safety, but the administration’s ability to deliver on its promises to riders will depend on implementation, says Orcutt. “Right now, [the city] seeks community board approval to do bike lanes on the street and that can result in months or even years of going around the block on the issues. We don’t see how you get 30 miles of protected bike lanes per year if you keep doing that. If you respond to every complaint, you’re going to bog down.”  The city is under no legal obligation to continue haggling with boards, however, and Orcutt hopes the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) will adopt a new approach that accelerates progress.

Vincent Riscica, a senior planner with Arup, an engineering and consulting firm that helped the DOT design and implement the Vision Zero program, believes that there is good reason to be optimistic when it comes to cycling in the city. He counts the City Council’s recent decision to allow cyclists to follow pedestrian walk signs as a major win. As part of Vision Zero, the city rolled out a number “Leading Pedestrian Intervals,” to give walkers a head-start on cars when crossing the street. Cyclists quickly realized these intervals provided a prime opportunity to get ahead of traffic—a move that will become officially sanctioned starting this November thanks to the Council’s decision. 

“It’s not just a convenient trick for getting moving earlier. It’s also safer for cyclists to be ahead of turning vehicles and ahead of general traffic so drivers can see them,” says Riscica, who frequently rides in the city himself and discovered the benefits of intervals firsthand. Riscica applauds the Mayor’s decision to accelerate efforts to keep bikers safe, especially the push to install additional protected bike lanes, the most sure-fire method of shielding cyclists from danger.

Orcutt agrees that de Blasio’s new plan is a victory for cyclist advocates, but is quick to note that, “As with all plans. The devil is in the implementation.” Moreover, even if the city overcomes its bureaucratic inertia and the roll out goes smoothly, city riders will continue to face daily risks until more broad scale changes are made, warn biking advocacy groups like Transportation Alternatives. Making cyclists truly safe will necessitate the introduction of policies that actively disincentivize driving, thereby leaving more street space free for public use. Orcutt believes that the passage of initiatives, like Governor Cuomo’s congestion pricing plan, indicate that we are headed in the right direction, but he does not see a true modal shift away from cars taking place until the city’s transit system is brought up to modern standards. 

“The city is growing—we have more people and more jobs than ever before— but transit ridership is going down and that’s never happened before in an economic expansion. The fact is the transit system has been collapsing, so we’re shifting the transportation growth into cars.”

If these changes come, they will be incremental and hard won. In the meantime, the city’s drivers will have to keep their wits about them and cyclists will need to do everything they can to protect themselves. Below are some tips from Riscica, Bike New York and Jacqueline VanDusen of @brooklynbybike to help make our streets safer for everyone.

Cycling Safety Tips for Riders and Drivers

Image: Wikipedia

Master the Dutch Reach

So-called “doorings” are a daily hazard for cyclists, who are frequently injured and killed while attempting to dodge a car door opened in their path. (It was in the process of avoiding a dooring that a cyclist was killed two days ago.) Drivers can help improve their awareness by adopting a habit, originally popularized in Holland, known as the Dutch Reach. It’s simple: rather than opening the door with your left hand, reach over your body with your right hand to pull the latch. This movement angles you towards your side mirror and behind you, increasing your chances of spotting an oncoming rider. 

Be Bold, Be Visible, Especially at Intersections

The majority of bike fatalities have occurred at intersections, according to city data compiled since 2014. Those odds mean it’s important for cyclists to be among the first to cross at one. “Getting to the front of the queue at an intersection can be tricky and seem daunting, but it’s much safer to be at the front of the intersection when the light is red than to be in the mix of traffic,” says Riscica. 

If you want to further improve your chances of catching the attention of drivers, equip your bike with a flashing light, for daytime and nighttime use. 

Be On Guard

Jacqueline VanDusen, a New York City bike commuter and creator of the @brooklynbybike Instagram feed, documenting her mission to bike and photograph every Brooklyn block, recommends always keeping your eyes peeled. “The best advice I have for cyclists is to anticipate everyone’s move around you—assume doors are going to open, that buses won’t be looking for you, that kid/dogs can run out before their guardians…any and everything. Your eyes should be darting around like a squirrel at all times.” Biking is no time for screens, in other words. “Cyclists should be ticketed for being on their phones while moving—just like drivers.”

Photo: Bike New York

Take a Skills Class

Defensive riding is a necessity for cyclists on congested city streets. To boost your riding IQ, take a skills class like the one offered by Bike New York and make sure you’re fluent in the rules of the road.

Avoid Heavily Trafficked Streets and Bike Lanes 

“I personally don’t like bike lanes in certain areas,” says VanDusen. “If I feel like a bike lane isn’t the safest option (e.g. 1st, 2nd  and 6th Avenues) due to pedestrians, delivery trucks and randomly parked cop cars, I have no problem biking in traffic as long as I stay in one lane.” Likewise, she avoids busy NYC thoroughfares like Houston, Delancey, Atlantic, Bedford, Manhattan Ave, Flatbush, McGuinness and “anywhere in the 40s/50s” in Manhattan.

Note the city’s 10 most dangerous intersections

The city data and real estate site Localize.city combed through the numbers of bike fatalities and injuries at NYC intersections between 2014 and 2018. These are the most dangerous ones, which they detail on 6sqft.com:

Sixth Avenue and West 23rd Street, Chelsea: 21 injuries

Jay Street and Tillary Street, Downtown Brooklyn: 20 injuries

Atlantic Avenue and Bedford Avenue, Crown Heights: 20 injuries

Third Avenue and East 13th Street, East Village: 18 injuries

Chrystie Street and Delancey Street, Lower East Side: 17 injuries 

St. Nicholas Avenue and West 141st Street, Harlem: 17 injuries 

Allen Street and East Houston Street, Lower East Side: 14 injuries

Graham Avenue and Grand Street, Williamsburg: 14 injuries 

Jay Street and Myrtle Avenue, Downtown Brooklyn: 14 injuries 

Share the Road

Understand that all drivers, cyclists and pedestrians have one shared goal: getting to their respective destinations as efficiently as possible. A little politeness can go a long way in improving relations between drivers and cyclists. 

VanDusen, who is a driver as well, notes how hard it can be to see a cyclist in a car, so she tries to be visible to the bikers. “I can’t always see cyclists, so I always use a turn signal for extended periods and use my headlights on cloudy days.”

The courtesy should go both ways, though. “Drivers need to stop parking in bike lanes (especially Grand Street in Brooklyn). Period,” she says. “It causes cyclists to have to cut into traffic where other drivers are often caught off guard. Drivers also need to be more forgiving on roads that are ‘shared.’ Cyclists have the right to bike down the middle of those roads if they are too narrow to go side-by-side. Drivers need to respect that.”

More important still, says Riscica, is prioritizing the most vulnerable among us: pedestrians.

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