NYC bicyclists win another round

A small tentative step in the right direction—a little counter-vortex against the general downward spiral of global civilization towards ecological hell, permanent war and petrochemical totalitarianism. From amNewYork, Sept. 13:

City puts forth ambitious bike plan

After a series of high-profile bicycle rider deaths this summer, the city Tuesday unveiled its most ambitious plan ever to improve cyclist safety and access across the five boroughs.

The plan calls for 200 additional miles of bike paths in the city and greater enforcement of fines for drivers blocking cyclist lanes.

“Virtually all bicycle deaths are preventable,” said Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden. “We call them accidents, but accidents don’t just happen, they are a result of specific conditions.”

So far, 11 riders have been killed this year, including a doctor who was riding in a bike lane on the West Side Highway and a young filmmaker on Houston Street.

Bike accidents took the lives of 225 people in the city between 1996 and 2005, an average of almost 25 cyclists each year, according to a multiagency report released yesterday. In this context, the recent bike deaths are hardly an anomaly, but simply a reflection of the dangers of cycling in the nation’s largest city.

And that, officials said Tuesday, is just not acceptable. To address the problem, four city agencies — health, parks, transportation and the NYPD — will work together to make urban bike riding less like an extreme sport and more like any other form of commuting.

In their report, the agencies found that in the 10 years studied, only one of the 225 bike rider deaths occurred while the cyclist was in a designated bike lane.

Such findings make a strong case for the 200 additional bike lanes, which will be added in the next three years. While some of these lanes will be nothing more than a painted strip of asphalt near the curb, Frieden said new street signs will remind drivers to share the road.

“Automobile drivers need to recognize that bikes have just as much right to be on the road, and that they should be treated like other cars,” he said.

NYPD Chief of Transportation Michael Scagnelli promised more enforcement of laws against blocking the bike lanes. While he said that taxis loading passengers in a bike lane would probably not be ticketed, regular cars already face a two-point, $90 violation for driving there.

“This is the most ambitious plan to make bicycle safety improvements in the city’s history,” said Noah Budnick of advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. “The fact that four agencies are working together shows that city hall is finally making bikes a priority.”

While city law only requires helmets for riders under the age of 14, Tuesday’s report found that riders without helmets accounted for 97 percent of the bike deaths.

The report suggested the city should extend the helmet law to all ages, and launch a free helmet distribution program.

“What do you call a bicyclist without a helmet,” asked Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. “An organ donor.”

See our last posts on the bicyclists struggle against the death culture.

  1. More good news
    Sarah Ferguson writes for the Village Voice, Sept. 13:

    Still No Traction for City in Critical Mass Bike Busts

    Bike activists are boasting of back-to-back court victories this week. On Monday, a New York City judge dismissed charges of parading without a permit for four cyclists arrested during a January 27 Critical Mass ride, reaffirming a previous court ruling that found the parade law unconstitutional.

    New York Supreme Court justice Ellen Gesmer argued that the city’s parade permit scheme was too vague and overbroad and appeared to be selectively enforced. She noted that in this case, two of the defendents were charged with unlawfully “parading” even though they were riding in a group of four—far below the “20 or more” threshhold that the NYPD has been using to define events requiring a permit.

    Judge Gesmer also dismissed charges of disorderly conduct brought against three of the defendants, ruling that riding side by side on bikes was not a criminal form of disruption, even if some cars are forced to slow down or change lanes because of it.

    Judge Gesmer did however uphold the disorderly conduct charge against one woman accused of running a red light with 50 other cyclists during the ride.

    Reached late Wednesday, a lawyer for city insisted the parade law was constitutional, but said the city was working on amending the provision in order to “eliminate any possible ambiguity as to the type of activity that constitutes a parade and is thus required to obtain a permit.”

    In another win for the Critical Mass crowd, a New York City traffic court judge dismissed charges against a volunteer legal observer who was yanked off her bike and dumped on the ground by Assistant Police Chief Bruce Smolka during last February’s mass ride.

    Adrienne Wheeler was ticketed for riding the wrong way up Seventh Avenue in Times Square. But the judge tossed the ticket when the officer who wrote it admitted in court that he did not personally observe Wheeler doing that.

    “Falsely swearing in a complaint—even a traffic ticket—is an actual crime punishable by up to a year in jail,” noted Wheeler’s lawyer Simone Levine.

    At the hearing, Lieutenant Joseph Caneco, head of operations for the NYPD’s Patrol Borough Manhattan South, demanded he be allowed to testify against Wheeler, saying he had witnessed the incident. But the judge refused because Caneco did not write her ticket.

    More than just a technicality, Gideon Oliver, a lawyer who has represented the bulk of the more than 650 people arrested during Critical Mass rides over the last two years, said the dismissal of Wheeler’s ticket underscored the “widespread” problem of police officers being asked to arrest and testify against demonstrators for things they did not actually see.

    “This is the same thing the NYPD was criticized for during the mass arrests that took place during the RNC,” Oliver said, speaking of the 2004 Republican National Convention, when many legal observers, bystanders, and protesters were rounded up, whether they were doing anything illegal or not.

    Most of the more than 1800 RNC cases have been dropped.

    The Civilian Complaint Review Board is still investigating a complaint of excessive force filed against Smolka by Wheeler.

    In other good news for city cyclists, the Department of Transportation announced plans to add 200 miles of bike lanes on city streets over the next three years.

    The move comes after a citywide study showed 225 cyclists have died in traffic accidents over the last 10 years (including three on Manhattan’s Houston Street over the last 13 months).

    The city is also pledging new streets signs and a public outreach campaign to encourage bikers and motorists to “share” the road.

  2. In San Francisco too…
    From the Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 12 (link added):

    Bicyclists winning a war of lanes in San Francisco

    SAN FRANCISCO – By day, they are sober-minded city professionals – teachers, doctors, lawyers – who forgo cars and buses to commute by bicycle.

    One Friday night a month, they gather in this liberal bastion of activism for the cause of cleaner air and quieter and safer streets. One thousand to 2,000 strong on average, they pedal through traffic lights and stop signs like a diminutive band of Hobbit cyclists out to conquer the armies of Sauron (car owners of San Francisco).

    “It has taken a decade of organizing and lobbying, but bike riders in San Francisco have put themselves into the forefront of city politics,” says Supervisor Chris Daly, one of 11 supervisors who last year gave a unanimous thumbs up to a five-year plan to create skeins of official pathways for bicyclists all over the city.

    About 40,000 residents say they commute by bike regularly, which is less than 10 percent of the city’s 450,000 registered car owners. They are led by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC), which has secured backing from the public and the city to develop plans for more bike lanes, official bike routes, bike parking, and bike racks on buses.

    But not all residents are embracing the city’s five-year plan. Critics filed a lawsuit to put the brakes on it. And in June, a San Francisco Superior Court judge put the plan on hold, preventing it from going forward until the court rules on the case. The hearing is scheduled for Sept. 13.

    “We are about to redesign the streets of San Francisco on behalf of less than 2 percent of the population – based on a fantasy prophesy that people will get out of their cars and start biking….” says Rob Anderson, an activist and blogger, citing 2000 census figures of bike commuters.

    The lawsuit, filed by Mr. Anderson and others, doesn’t challenge the plan’s merits, but invokes a state law which requires a study to be done on the environmental impact. “When people look at what it will mean to their neighborhoods to lose parking and lanes for cars and buses, they will say, ‘Hey this is over the top, I don’t want it,’ ” says Anderson. Some shopkeepers, too, worry that replacing parking spaces in front of stores with bike lanes could hurt business.

    But bicycle coalition organizers, including Leah Shahum, director of the SFBC, counter with a recent study by David Binder Research, which found that 73 percent of San Francisco residents favor creating more bike lanes in the city.

    If more lanes were available, 33 percent said they would commute by bike more often, the study found. When bike lanes were added to Valencia Street – a key corridor for bikers cutting through town- bike riding there went up 144 percent in the first year, Ms. Shahum says.

    “This is a case of, if you build it they will come,” says Shahum, whose organization has about 6,000 members and five full-time staffers. It has a yearly budget of about $500,000 raised from membership dues, donations, foundations, and events.

    The size and influence of the SFBC has made it a model for large cities such as Miami and St. Louis, which also seek ways to ease traffic, parking, noise, and air pollution.

    “This movement is spreading to cities all across America,” says Dave Snyder, director of program development for the Thunderhead Alliance, a national coalition of state and local bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups. “Organizers call and want to know how San Francisco has done what it has done in creating membership, raising money, winning public support, and pushing legislation.”

    By most accounts, it has done much through an articulate base of members who care about personal health and reducing dependence on foreign oil.

    “Ten years ago I was working too hard and started riding my bike to the office on weekends to get exercise,” says Jean Fraser, a married mother of two and CEO of San Francisco Health Plan. “I found it was cheaper, faster, and more fun than driving or riding the bus.”

    Commuting this way saves her $250 a month in parking fees and $2,000 a year on gas, Ms. Fraser says.

    She rides about 30 minutes each way from her home in the Richmond District to her office south of Market Street. She often bikes to meetings midday – carrying a briefcase in a bike bag, and wearing a pants suit, including cuff clip to keep her pants away from the oily bike chain.

    Urban planner Gabriel Metcalf also rides daily to work wearing a suit, with a briefcase strapped to the back wheel as he has done for 12 years since moving here from Colorado. He relies on a chain guard, and keeps his hair cut short to avoid the imprint of his plastic Bell Helmet. “The planet is in an environmental crisis, and I think our solutions are going to have to be things like biking that actually make our lives better,” he says.

    The power of bike riders here stems from savvy leadership and a willingness to compromise with city leaders, observers say. In one example, Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed Shahum to the Municipal Transportation Agency’s board of directors even after the SFBC supported Mr. Newsom’s opponent in the 2003 election.

    Trying to behave better is another tactic that many in the coalition have tried. That means not running people off the sidewalks, not scaring crosswalk pedestrians when racing down a hill, not dodging through traffic or riding in the wrong lanes against oncoming cars.

    “Some bikers are still rude enough that it ticks you off,” says Molly Northrup, a 20-year resident. “But for the most part, it seems like they have gone out of their way to clean up their act.”

    They also have established goodwill with the last-Friday-of-the-month ritual known as Critical Mass. Between 600 and 2,500 bicyclists gather at dusk and pedal shoulder-to-shoulder through city neighborhoods, while singing, playing boom boxes, and waving flags and banners – and taking up the length of at least two city blocks. Ten years ago, riders were often treated as obnoxious scofflaws intruding on civility. Now, people mostly welcome the parade as it passes.

    “I’d say about 90 percent of the city believes in what they are doing,” says a police officer riding behind the some 1,500 bikers during the Critical Mass bike ride last month. The loosely organized event has grown over the past 10 years that a police escort is routine, he says. What is different now is “widespread acceptance … even affection,” he adds, noting applause from nearby cafes, honks from bus drivers and cabbies, and cheers from residents.

    In this supportive environment, the court case is just a speed bump, even if there is a ruling in favor of the bike plan’s critics, most observers say. City officials say the required citywide impact study would probably take no longer than six months. Each project of the overall bike plan has its own environmental review during which local homeowners and business owners can voice their concerns, they say.

    In the meantime, the SFBC has developed maps of routes through town, many of which zigzag to avoid the steepest hills. Shahum says many of the routes between key landmarks – Civic Center and City College – fall short of completion by just a few blocks, and that is enough to stop some riders from using the route.

    “It’s like having a bridge 75 percent built,” she says. “You can’t just dream yourself over that last part.”