Corey Johnson: Cyclists Make It Hard to Defend Cyclists

Yes, some bikers run through red lights, but pols need to remind cranky people like Steve Cuozzo what the real problem is: cars.

Council Speaker Corey Johnson with reporters. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Council Speaker Corey Johnson with reporters. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Let’s get back to that applause for a second.

At a New York Law School breakfast last week, Council Speaker Corey Johnson earned a smattering of cheers when he blamed cyclists for contributing to the perception among some pedestrians that two-wheeled pedalers are more dangerous than the four-wheeled, two-ton, motorized steel cages that kill and maim tens of thousands of New Yorkers every year.

I’ve been thinking about that applause all week.

Johnson had been asked a question from cyclist George Calderaro about why the NYPD summonses for passing through a red light are the same for cyclists as they are for drivers — even though scofflaw drivers are much more dangerous.

Here was Johnson’s response, which started out so well…:

There is a real issue surrounding enforcement and the amount of summonses and the fine amount for these things. We need to invest in all options, and that means biking, citi bike, building out infrastructure around the city to make it easier to bike. And so the vast majority of accidents in New York City where people are killed or seriously hurt are by trucks and by cars and by buses. They are the ones that are causing the most amount of harm on the streets for pedestrians and cyclists.

Somehow, I knew a “but” was coming…

But I will tell you — as someone who is incredibly sympathetic to cyclists and has] supported more protected bike lanes in my district than anyone else — there is a public perception problem when people see cyclists not stopping at lights. Or driving on sidewalks. Or going the wrong way down the street. It is a serious problem.

And that’s when the applause started.

Calderaro tried to steer the conversation back to summons injustice.

“But I’m not talking about that,” he said, before Johnson interrupted him.

But it has to be part of the conversation. … I think it’s totally unfair [for cyclists] to pay a much higher ticket … at a red light. So we have to look at that. But you have a problem in New York City when I get stopped all the time especially by older New Yorkers who feel threatened by bikes that don’t stop. … I get stopped constantly. We need to have some level of enforcement because we need to change behavior of some cyclists.

There was some more applause. So Johnson pivoted back to reality.

But cyclists can’t also be a scapegoat. You can’t pin this all on cyclists. Ultimately, the real things that are killing people are trucks and buses and cars. … Someone is injured by a car in New York City every six minutes. That’s not by a bike. There’s a balancing act. We don’t want to be disproportionately punitive towards cyclists. It’s good for people to bike. But we have to make sure that cyclists respect the rules of the road just like we want vehicles to respect the rules of the road.

Those words — “rules of the road” — always haunt me. They remind me of how politicians are always equating cyclists with drivers (“rules”) even though the groups represent a completely different level of danger and how politicians ignore that our very infrastructure (“roads”) is completely designed around the needs of drivers.

The cheap applause line reminded me of something Mayor de Blasio — yes, the guy who gets in an SUV to be driven to his gym — said last year at a community meeting when a Midtown claimed, “You take your life in your hands now in New York City when you cross the street.”

“What has happened — and this I can talk to because I am a lifelong New Yorker — a culture has been created in New York: Here come the bikes, everybody else get the hell out of the way,” the resident, Richard Resnick, added.

Mr. Vision Zero didn’t push back despite his own Department of Transportation’s stats showing that car drivers are responsible for 99.5 percent of all pedestrian and cyclists deaths since 2011. Rather, according to reporting by my colleague David Meyer, de Blasio agreed that a culture of disobeying traffic laws has emerged as an unintended consequence of his effort to make a “more bikeable city.” And de Blasio got his applause, too.

Now, do Johnson and de Blasio have a point that bad cyclists shouldn’t do what they do? Of course they do. But are people far too quick to applaud their easy, fact-free, slippery moral equivalence? Of course they are. (Meyer pointed out, for example, that violations like sidewalk riding decline dramatically when cyclists are made to feel safer riding on the street, but who has time for such facts?)

I stalked Johnson after the breakfast to ask him why people applauded even though cyclists are a tiny part of the problem. The text of our exchange is telling:

“It’s more than one reckless cyclist,” he said.

“You are never going to win this argument with me,” I replied.

“That’s a problem though!” he said, continuing:

I am a real friend of cyclists, but if you stand on Eighth Avenue and 15th Street [in Manhattan], you have many many cyclists going the wrong way in the bike lane, who aren’t using the protected bike lane, riding on the sidewalk, who are not stopping for red lights, and that makes it more difficult to change perceptions of people who don’t cycle. We want to protect cyclists and make it easier for them. But we also want to implore them because of perception from the public and safety reasons, we want them to obey the rules of the road, just like we ask cars to obey the rules of the road, though cars are far more dangerous.

Other reporters jumped in with less-weighty questions (something about closing Rikers Island), so I walked off. Later, I was unlocking my bike outside and spotted Johnson yet again. I told him that the very term “rules of the road” is offensive because these “roads” were set up, laid out, signalized and enforced to make everything easier for drivers at the expense of cyclists and pedestrians, who compete for crumbs. I told him that even progressives like himself are so imbued in America’s car culture that they simply can’t see roads as anything else but space for car drivers (or worse, car parkers).

Johnson may be right that the public has a negative perception of cyclists, but it’s up to “leaders” like him to challenge that perception by pushing back. Yes, one or two cyclists run a red light, but more than 4.5 million drivers got speeding tickets in just four years from just 140 cameras that were operating only during school hours. Yes, one or two cyclists salmon for a block or two because they may feel safer in a city built for cars, but virtually every bit of congestion in this city is caused by drivers who double-park, so where are the politicians when the NYPD is writing a disproportionate number of tickets to bike riders?

So I ask you, Mr. Speaker, who has the perception problem? To me, it’s the people who applauded you last week.

Gersh Kuntzman is Editor-in-Chief of Streetsblog. When he gets really angry, he writes the Cycle of Rage column. They’re archived here.