Experts to DOT: Here’s How to Protect Cyclists NOW

The NYPD is forced to protect the Sec
The NYPD is forced to protect the Sec

The time to hesitate is through.

Last week, the mayor finally responded to this year’s blood tide of carnage against cyclists, calling on the NYPD and the Department of Transportation to solve the problem. The NYPD responded with a paltry three-week crackdown on reckless drivers (which apparently extends to cyclists, too!), while the DOT has promised a comprehensive “bicyclist safety plan” before the end of the month.

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg is under pressure from advocates to unveil a truly revolutionary plan to put the zero back in Vision Zero — but her interview with Streetsblog Editor Gersh Kuntzman last week offered very little evidence that she would move boldly.

So we decided to encourage Trottenberg to act forcefully by reaching out to some of the best (livable streets) minds of our generation for all sorts of ideas — big ideas, such as having DOT take over basic traffic enforcement to better focus on hotspots, to small ideas, like having bike lanes not simply run out because someone complained of losing parking.

Caveat: All of the ideas for improving street safety presented below are eminently reasonable, but may suffer from a tragic flaw: the Department of Transportation is not the only agency with the power to make Vision Zero live up to its name — but it does seem to be the agency Mayor de Blasio expects to wave a magic want to end road fatalities — yet do so with little inter-agency cooperation and while still making sure cars aren’t inconvenienced.

“Whatever memo you write should be to the mayor, who controls the agencies,” said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany and a longtime adviser to Streetsblog. “The DOT commissioner can’t tell other agencies what to do. Polly can’t actually do much without City Hall political approval.”

Kaehny pointed out that the spate of cyclist deaths this year — 15 and counting, up from 10 all of last year — is an epidemic that should be treated like other fatal outbreaks.

“They should put together a task force that included public experts and City Council and stop fooling around,” he said. “Vision Zero is a framework for inter-agency coordination on traffic safety. If it was working properly, Vision Zero would already have produced an analysis of causes of the increase in bike crashes and fatalities and countermeasures. We should be hearing from the Health Department’s analysts, who look at causes of trauma and prevention. Where are they?”

Former Streetsblog Editor Ben Fried, now with TransitCenter, shared Kaehny’s concern that street safety advocates are pinning too many of their hopes to Polly Trottenberg.

“A fish rots from the head and NYC driving culture rots from city government on down,” he said. “The key to progress is de Blasio getting his own house in order — the disdain police and other city employees show for cyclists, bike infrastructure, and general public safety through their own parking and driving behavior is atrocious.”

OK, caveat aside, here are the best ideas we heard. Get out your notebook, Commissioner Trottenberg!

A driving problem

Adjust the driving school curriculum to include more information on sharing the road with cyclists. Elderly drivers should need sensitivity training around sharing the road with cyclists, and anyone who drives for a living should also have advanced training on sharing the road with cyclists.

— Geneviève Mumford, a leader of NightCAP, a social ride for trans, gender non-confirming, queer folks, and CIS women allies

Vision Zero is pretty good at identifying and improving dangerous streets. Vision Zero should get better at identifying and improving dangerous drivers. … Vision Zero, as currently conceived, has a strong location-based bias. It is heavily oriented toward figuring out which locations and street typologies are most dangerous and then deploying engineering and enforcement tactics to make those spots safer. This approach is good and necessary, but it is also has limitations. Redesigning even a fraction of New York City’s 8,000 miles of streets will take a long time. It will cost a lot of money. And, in our current, car-oriented transportation paradigm, street redesign is often politically difficult. Inoculating New York City’s entire street grid to protect against every potential vector of Reckless Driving is a herculean, long-term task.

Fortunately, a new generation of technology and transportation services [can help]. On-street sensors, in-car CANceiver devices, smart phone apps, big-data analysis tools and an increasing number of car-sharing and e-hailing companies make it more possible than ever to conceive of a Vision Zero program that identifies and reaches out to the most reckless drivers before they do harm. Autonomous vehicle technology will create more opportunities. But there’s a lot of technology already available on the street, in our cars and on our phones that we can use right now.

Likewise, new technologies are making it more possible to communicate with drivers in new ways beyond just a traffic ticket. … Vision Zero could communicate with drivers in real-time, on the dashboard, in the moment that an act of potential reckless driving is taking place. Vision Zero could evaluate and score drivers over time. Vision Zero could push companies that own and operate fleets of cars and trucks on New York City streets to provide their drivers with meaningful financial rewards (and disincentives) to encourage safer driving.

— Aaron Naparstek, co-host, “The War on Cars” podcast

Hilda’s wish list

  • Allow citizens to report double-parking and parking in bike lanes with an app.
  • The city should enforce the length limit on trucks and truck permits. Fine the trucks and the company being delivered to. Enforce truck routes by working with tech and online expiring permits for any oversized vehicles, with off hours permits 1/3 cost of business hour permits.
  • State legislators should pass a law that automatically puts 12 points on someone’s driver’s license if he or she hits any person with a vehicle.
  • Design a full Citi Bike network and implement it within five years. Require a review and update every three years after that.
  • Create a Department of Active Transportation. It could even be that this department regulates parking in active transportation lanes. Instead of a Bicycle Mayor, the head of this department would be Active Transportation Mayor, strengthening the roles of different forms of transportation modes, including walking.
  • One way residential streets should have a speed limit of 15-20 mph, with designs to accommodate.
  • Some streets should be a dead-end for vehicles, but through streets for active transportation, and emergency vehicles.
  • Any residential street sidewalk that is less than five feet wide should be flagged and mapped. Street space/parking lane should be absorbed in order to create minimum width sidewalks on all residential city streets.
  • Bring substantial bike education to NYC schoolkids. Make it a second-grade program. Repeat it in sixth grade.

Public school students typically study transportation and city systems in second grade. Adding an education component on pedestrian and bike safety could add to this curriculum. It could be all taught in class, and if city invested in a bike education park in each borough, there could be on-hand bike education in designated parks with space set aside for bike education. Japan is a good example.

— Hilda Cohen, StreetsPAC board member

Enforcement done right

  • Some or all of traffic enforcement activity should be transferred to DOT. They used to be under DOT instead of NYPD and got transferred because DOT was a corrupt cesspool, but those days are long gone. Now under NYPD the traffic enforcement agents mainly seem to function under a “keep traffic flowing” mandate. Time to move it back to DOT, and to emphasize priorities like clear bike lanes and truck route compliance.
  • The Stipulated Fine Program really has to go, or else a lot of the enforcement activity will be useless.
  • Government employees are the worst offenders when it comes to bike lane blocking. There have to be consequences for police who flout the law, figure out a way to penalize precincts where squad cars routinely park illegally. Revoke city cars from people who abuse parking privileges, etc.

— Ben Fried, TransitCenter

Work far more closely with the NYPD to enforce double-parking rules on two-way streets with painted lanes, especially roadways with bus lanes. Last year, the DOT redesigned two-way Vanderbilt Avenue in Fort Greene, for example, to remove one of the painted bike lanes, but now, whenever anyone double parks, the roadway is actually more dangerous than it was before. Does anyone at DOT alert NYPD to critical changes in design that require different enforcement strategies? If not, see Fried’s point one above.

— Streetsblog

Three strikes and you’re out for moving violations (license suspension, vehicle impounding, etc).

— Mike Lydon, urban design expert and principal at StreetPlans

Komanoff’s wish list

There’s no one single thing, of course. Nor is there any one proposal/avenue that stands head and shoulders among others. Here are nine, for starters:

  • Massive conversion of cops in patrol cars to cops on bikes — with mission of targeting dangerous driving.
  • Pledge to use remaining 18 months before startup of congestion pricing to enhance bus travel, biking and walking throughout NYC.
  • Massive investment in bikeshare including e-bike fleets to solve last-mile travel to rail, subway, express bus and bus lines in transit deserts.
  • Embrace and pass the Brad Lander bill authorizing NYC to sequester cars owned by dangerous drivers [with five or more moving violations in 12 months].
  • Public release of all Collision Investigation Squad forensic investigations of fatal and serious-injury bike and pedestrian crashes. And there must ben an annual report distilling those forensics, to be conducted by the Department of Health and DOT, with NYPD relegated to a subsidiary role.
  • All police precincts must be accountable to reduce the number of crashes that have killed or seriously injured cyclists and pedestrians in their precincts.
  • No more coddling of community boards blocking street redesigns and reallocations.
  • Shrink City Hall parking lot and charge Council and Mayoral parking against their budget lines.
  • End the mayor’s regular drive to Park Slope Y, once and for all.

— Charles Komanoff, “re-founder” of Transportation Alternatives in the 1980s and long-time Streetsblog contributor

Real bike lanes — and more of them

Paint is not protection. As such, many of our experts called on DOT to create truly protected bike lanes.

“Paint and plastic sticks were good tools for getting bike lanes on the ground quickly, but they were never meant to be the end point of bike lane design,” said activist Doug Gordon. “New York should follow the lead of Montreal, Chicago, Cambridge, Seattle and countless other cities by protecting bike lanes with concrete. The crosstown Manhattan lanes on 26th and 29th streets, for example, should have more than a painted buffer separating flesh-and-blood cyclists from cars and trucks. … Paint and plastic can still be used for quick and temporary fixes, with an emphasis on ‘temporary.’ No bike lane should be proposed without a plan to build it out in concrete within, say, a year following installation.”

Adam Mansky, a Transportation Alternatives board member, also called for no new bike lanes to be built unless they are truly protected. And Fried said that DOT needs to triple its budget for expansion and maintenance of the bike network so it could be built out into areas that are currently unsafe.

“We also need a new Bike Lane Inspection unit to organize systematic maintenance of bike lane surfaces and markings, enforce construction permits that affect bike lanes, create bike traffic detours where necessary and call in enforcement where needed,” added Jon Orcutt of Bike New York. “DOT is pretty good at making new bike lanes, but no one is presently tasked with caring about bike lanes after they’re implemented.”

Lydon of StreetPlans, echoed those demands.

“Transform every 5-foot bike lane with a 3-foot travel buffer that is currently located between curbside parked cars and the travel lanes into a parking protected bike lane,” he said. “Need a good example? Lafayette Avenue through Fort Greene, along with its pair DeKalb Avenue. Similarly, every curbside bike lane with a 3-foot striped buffer that does not have vertical barriers should include some form of additional protection, ideally something as robust as what they did next to City Hall coming off the Brooklyn Bridge.

“And stop replacing vertical plastic delineators and start installing more robust means of protection, again, like they did at City Hall,” Lydon added.

Seriously: ignore community boards

“The city needs to treat community boards like the advisory bodies they are. Presentations to CBs about bike lanes should be informational. DOT can and should modify plans if CBs make worthwhile suggestions, but implementation of lanes shouldn’t be delayed by CB dithering.”

— Eric McClure, StreetsPAC

“The basic premise that a bike lane is coming can’t be contested by community boards. DOT should inform them, but not ask for permission. Political energy should go into winning over council members, whose support is actually helpful to prevent revolts.”

— Ben Fried, TransitCenter

Daylight again

Intersection are dangerous. Daylighting can be the cure. Blanket the city with bike corrals at every single intersection so that cycling infrastructure becomes a unified part of every streetscape. It would improve visibility for pedestrians on foot and drivers behind the wheel while also giving cyclists a proper place for bike parking. Make it so that cycling infrastructure is no longer an afterthought but rather a standard part of street design.

— Dave Paco Abraham

Just as Citi Bike stations are used as a means of bike lane protection, the city should increasingly use standard bike corrals for block-long lengths to protect high demand protected bike lanes. Cars out, racks in. Add daylighting neckdowns at all intersections. The standard design for all intersections should include daylighting, curb extensions, and median refuges, to make for the shortest possible pedestrian crossing distances and minimum vehicle turning radii. All intersections without these features should be considered substandard (like a crossing without an ADA ramp). DOT should have an aggressive program to roll out this design, prioritizing areas with pedestrian crashes.

— Mike Lydon, StreetPlans

Fix key bike lane gaps

Too many parts of the bike network have gaps, where riders are cycling along relatively safely only to have their protected lane turn into a sharrow — and then a row of parked cars. It happens all over town, but one of the best examples is on Greenpoint Avenue just west of McGuinness Boulevard (photo below), where cyclists simply lose all protection simply to avoid removing 12 parking spaces.

Greenpoint Avenue is an unnecessary choke point.
Greenpoint Avenue is an unnecessary choke point.

— Streetsblog

Street design wish list

Ban left-turns in large areas of the city, left-turns can only happen where posted.

— Mike Lydon

Most streets are not going to get bike lanes, but car speeds can be controlled on them. The DOT neighborhood traffic calming toolkit should be expanded. Speed humps are not enough. The city should use chicanes, diverters, anything.

— Ben Fried, TransitCenter

Implement shared low-speed streets where the geometry doesn’t allow for physically separated lanes, such as on crosstown residential streets in Manhattan or Brooklyn. There’s no good reason why people need to drive 20 mph, let alone 30 or 40, as plenty are wont to do, down my block in Park Slope. Ten mph is plenty. Install raised intersections, mid-block curb extensions, or chicanes to slow traffic, and enforce the lower speed limit electronically.

— Eric McClure, StreetsPAC

Build 100 miles of protected bike lanes per year.

— Ydanis Rodriguez, chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee

Car-free zones

Parts of the city need to be car-free. The first neighborhood pilot should be in DUMBO, which is basically one big cul-de-sac that has lived out the familiar arc of gentrification from industrial zone to artist colony to residential boomtown to tourist destination. Cars have ruined DUMBO.

— Streetsblog

Time for a bike mayor

Hire a Cycling Mayor this summer that is actually empowered to coordinate and lead all of this work, answering only to the mayor and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill.

— Mike Lydon

Get rid of cars!

As a long-term strategic goal, Vision Zero should aim to reduce the number of motor vehicles on New York City streets, with a particular focus on reducing the number of personal cars parked for free at the curbside.

In a theoretical world, the best way for a city to get to zero traffic fatalities would be to get rid of motor vehicles. Of course, we don’t live in a theoretical world. But there’s a point to this intellectual exercise: Reducing the number of motor vehicles on New York City streets, would almost certainly reduce the number of serious crashes, injuries and fatalities. And, yet, as far as I know, no U.S. Vision Zero program has articulated vehicle reduction as an explicit goal. It’s time to start introducing the idea and building the case for it.

The biggest thing standing in the way of the development of the protected bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes and pedestrian safety improvements necessary to achieve Vision Zero is free on-street parking. It’s not necessarily the moving cars that are preventing safer, more efficient streets. It’s the parked cars. But times, technology and transportation services are changing and three new points of leverage are rapidly emerging:

1. Car-Sharing: Car-sharing, such as Car2Go, makes it possible for a large number of urban residents to share a relatively small number of cars rather than each owning their own. Given the right set of policies, incentives and marketing, it is conceivable that car-sharing could help convince a significant number of New York City residents to give up ownership of the personal, private cars that currently spend the vast majority of their time parked, unmoving on nearly every inch of residential curbside. Car-sharing makes it more desirable and feasible for the owners of those cars to get rid of them. How might New York City policy push that process along and, in doing so, free up physical and political space on the curbside?

2. Curbside competition: Competition for access to New York City’s curbside is fiercer than ever. The e-commerce boom has massively increased the number of daily deliveries in recent years. E-hailing, car-sharing, Citi Bike, Street Seats, swales, day-lighting and traffic-calming for pedestrian safety — all of these newcomers demand access to the curb. New York City needs a new Curbside Coalition — a group of private companies and non-profit organizations who need access to the curbside and have a greater public interest and purpose than those who simply want to store their personal, private motor vehicles for free on public streets. UPS, FedEx, Amazon, FreshDirect, Motivate, Car2Go, ReachNow, Uber, Lyft, Transportation Alternatives, companies interested in on-street electric car charging spots … the list goes on. DOT needs to create a political counterweight to the All-Powerful On-Street Parking Lobby.

— Aaron Naparstek

Fire Oleg

NYPD Executive Director of Legislative Affairs Oleg Chernyavsky is an impediment to street safety cooperation among the NYPD, the City Council and the Department of Transportation. He has testified against Council bills that would crack down on placard abuse, resisted other attempts to curb illegal parking, lied to the Council that the NYPD investigates all 311 complaints, and helped spread misinformation about e-scooters. The NYPD needs to have a leader who works with the Council on street safety, not someone who defends NYPD perks and car culture.

— Streetsblog