On Tuesday, December 14th, a 33 year old woman died as result of injuries caused by a biking accident on Nassau Ave. in Brooklyn, raising the death toll of New York City bicyclists to 24 this year. Gawker reported that Solange Raulston was side swiped by a flat bed truck moving the same direction as her while she was on her way to work. 2009 has been an important year for bicycle activists hoping to raise more awareness about the benefits of a bikeable city, and the importance of safety that comes along with it. More and more people are braving the streets of New York via bike. Bikes are ecological, economical, and fast, but in a city where the streets feel unsafe even in a car, is it good that more and more people are opting for bicycles?
Biking accidents have been around for a while, in fact the first ever reported automobile accident, according to the federal highway administration, was in 1896, when a motor vehicle collided with a bicyclist. But this year’s bike accidents seem especially brutal. And the politics behind biking in New York are getting more and more heated.
The bike lane fight in Williamsburg has received a lot of press around the city. Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative to make a greener city somehow involves buying hybrid cars for all public officials, but also hurries to paint over already existing bike lanes. In a telling quote from a New York Times article on biking in the city “ …the overwhelming share of the deaths, 92 percent, involved a moving motor vehicle, while only one death in that period happened in a bicycle lane.” While the Bedford community’s argument for removing the bike line to safeguard the children in the area is an important concern, does this statistic not hold its weight as well?
The city now has over 420 miles of marked bike lanes and paths along the streets in all five boroughs — half of those created in the past three years. Another 200 miles are off the street, including Central Park and the Hudson River path. Biking activists are fighting for protected bike lanes which have already popped up in areas like Chelsea and the Lower East side. The idea is that if the parked cars simply switch places with the bike lanes, the rows of parked cars will create a steel barrier between the bikes and the cars. Though protected bike lanes are a great idea, many of these lanes abruptly end forcing bikers back into traffic. Awareness of motor vehicle drivers will decrease accidents immensely, as many bicycle commuters have to use roads without bike lanes at least once on their commute. Also “being doored” has been a leading cause of biking accidents and was the actually a cause of a recent death.
As a migrant from Boulder Colorado where the weight of your bike is more important than the brand of your car, I was surprised to come to a place where biking caused such controversy. In my first three days here I had one bike stolen. A month later after saving up enough money for another commuter bike I got into the first of two accidents this year. The first accident was simply caused by an extremely large extremely invisible pothole that threw me off of my bike into moving traffic on Flatbush Ave. Luckily my bike and I were scraped off of the street by two fast acting bystanders who saved me from a car moving toward me at 40 miles/hr. The other was only two weeks ago when a car started turning into me as I was crossing East Houston. I was forced to turn into pedestrian knocking him off his feet and receiving hollering applause from a nearby crowd.
The NYC.gov website gives advice for safe riding in the city, and though some of it is common sense perhaps the most important thing for people to remember is to wear a helmet. According to the same article in the New York Times, “Only 3 percent of the bicyclists who died [in 2008] were wearing helmets, according to available data. Head injuries contributed to three-quarters of bicycle deaths.” Stupidity is also a leading cause a biking accidents. Waiting for red lights and slowing down for yellow lights are not just for cars. And for all you fixed gear riders out there, under NYC law all bikes must have working breaks. The government has even threatened to require licenses for bikes, a recent development in Chicago.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of NYC bike politics is the resistance to bikers by certain communities and even the NYPD. NYC critical mass is a monthly group bike ride that brings awareness to alternate modes of transportation in NYC. Though the rides can sometimes get in the way of traffic, two law suits have been filed against police officers for unnecessary brutality against riders. In both of these cases the police officers denied allegations of being unnecessarily rough with the bikers, that is until video’s surfaced that showed otherwise peaceful bike riders being flat out pushed off of their bicycles by officers.
It looks like biking in New York is going to continue to be a battle, and until more bike lanes are added or drivers become more aware it is going to continue to be an extremely dangerous way to get around this metropolis. New Yorkers can’t expect the city to look like Amsterdam any time soon, and If ghost bikes keep popping up all over the city, and bike lanes already in place are being painted over, maybe us bikers will have to move to cities with bike lanes already in place rather than try and paint them on ourselves.