Is This NYT Article on NYPD Traffic Safety Priorities From 1997 or 2013?

Last week, we brought you the story of Sam Shankman, a cyclist who got caught up in NYPD’s bike ticket blitz by legally turning on a green light. Shankman, who isn’t the first cyclist to get a ticket for not breaking the law, sent along this New York Times account of NYPD targeting cyclists for tickets, dating to August 1997:

Without a data-driven focus on what's actually killing and injuring New Yorkers in traffic, this is what NYPD traffic enforcement looks like. Photo: ##

While the Police Department declined to provide citywide figures for bicycle summonses, officials said at least 1,168 riders received tickets in July alone in the 19th Precinct on the Upper East Side, half the total number of tickets issued in the precinct this year…

”This is an egregious case of harassment disguised as public safety,” said Gian-Claudia Sciara, the program director at Transportation Alternatives, a cycling advocacy group. Ms. Sciara and others complain that compared with cyclists, drivers seem to get off easy. Only 31 speeding tickets were issued in the 19th Precinct from July 1 to 24, the police said. In 1995, 20 cyclists and 236 pedestrians were killed by cars in the city. No pedestrians died from injuries caused by cyclists. ”It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that cyclists aren’t the ones mowing down pedestrians,” Ms. Sciara said.

But many people, including Councilman A. Gifford Miller, who represents the Upper East Side, applaud the crackdown. Until recently, he said, cyclists were rarely given tickets. ”Reckless riders are the number one complaint in my district,” he said, adding that his office receives up to a dozen calls each week from frightened pedestrians.

While it’s amazing in itself that this article could be written nearly word-for-word today, some of its statistics are worth repeating. From January to August of 1997, cyclists received half of all tickets issued in the 19th Precinct on the Upper East Side. During most of July 1997, the precinct issued 31 speeding tickets.

Sixteen years later, NYPD hasn’t changed its approach to traffic. In July 2013, the same precinct issued only four speeding tickets. Last year, NYPD issued fewer moving violations summonses than at any time since 2002. And what speeding enforcement the NYPD does is usually performed by the Highway Patrol, with precincts leaving speed limits on local streets virtually unenforced. Even though speed enforcement is up slightly this year, it’s still dwarfed by the number of tickets NYPD issues to cyclists.

But even the total number of moving violations, reported each year in the NYPD’s section of the Mayor’s Management Report, is a poor barometer for measuring traffic safety, since it doesn’t take compliance into account. Whatever tickets NYPD does issue are a drop in the bucket, and drivers make countless violations each day that go unpenalized.

It’s difficult to know how often NYPD is ticketing bike riders because the department still refuses to break out the number of cyclist citations, and its compliance with open data laws that it opposed has been marginal at best.

The way New York City manages its streets has changed a lot in recent years. DOT has transformed from a backwater of political patronage to an agency that has systematically implemented street safety improvements and evaluated their effectiveness.

Meanwhile, at a police department that prides itself on using data to transform New York into the nation’s safest large city, efforts to improve street safety with data-driven traffic enforcement have withered. As motorists for the most part still break the law with impunity, NYPD continues to target cyclists for low-risk offenses — and sometimes, just for being on a bike.


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