ROWBACK: Mayor Was Only Joking that He’s Afraid to Bike in New York!

Mayor de Blasio (center), last seen riding a bike in August, 2018. Photo: Natalie Grybauskas
Mayor de Blasio (center), last seen riding a bike in August, 2018. Photo: Natalie Grybauskas

Mayor de Blasio said he is not ready to take his own advice about commuting via bike because his road skills need “work” — though a mayoral spokeswoman later claimed Hizzoner was only joking.

At an otherwise unrelated virus presser, Hizzoner said that he “needs to work” on his biking skills before pedaling to work in his own Vision Zero town, a comment that left reporters and activists slack-jawed given how many people are currently riding on unsafe streets where more than 220 people were killed last year, including 29 cyclists.

After initial publication of this story, a mayoral spokeswoman said the mayor was joking, and accused Streetsblog of “sensationalizing” the mayor’s comments — but reporters who were there also had the same reaction as Streetsblog. Spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie also said the mayor “needs to tune up” his own bike before taking it out for a spin. But the comment — whether serious or in jest — don’t change a thing: the mayor has only been on a bike twice in his nearly six-plus years in office. And people see the mayor’s reluctance to bike as hypocritical: if he can’t do it, why should the rest of us have to deal with the dangers?

“Mayor de Blasio is failing to lead by example and show New Yorkers that no one should be afraid to bike on their own streets,” said Bike New York’s Laura Shepard.

It goes beyond mere mayoral frailty. City streets should be safe enough that anyone — not just professional or experienced riders — could choose biking as a mode of transportation, especially in a crisis, but also every day in a waterfront city that needs to do more to combat climate change.

“What the mayor doesn’t get — and may never get— is that the goal is to build a city where no one has to ‘work on his biking skills’ in order to decide to bike to work, school or anywhere,” said safe-streets activist Doug Gordon.

De Blasio had on Sunday rightly urged New Yorkers to “bike or walk to work” if they can as a way of reducing the spread of the coronavirus — and there has been a significant surge in biking since then. But on Tuesday, even amid a surge in cycling in response to the health crisis, the self-declared bike mayor implied he’s too shaky on two wheels to practice what he’s preaching.

“I have some work to do on my bike [skills], but I think that’d be a great idea,” de Blasio said when asked if he’d follow his own advice.

The mayor’s comments were also criticized by some cyclists, who as young and healthy individuals, say they’re still more scared of dying by getting hit by a speeding truck than by contracting the coronavirus.

“Would love to bike to work, but I work in Queens and I am much more afraid of dying on Queens Blvd. than of COVID19,” Shane Ferro, a Queens public defender, said on Twitter. “Maybe there should be actual institutional response and support for these things rather than just foisting all these ‘tips’ on individuals and hoping they do them. Then again, an actual institutional response to these things might require the city to take away some parking spots.”

And others noted that their commutes don’t even welcome bikers to cross certain MTA-run bridges.

“My own most direct bike to work route, the Triboro Bridge (I go from Astoria to Harlem), doesn’t even technically allow bikes. So what would the mayor suggest?” journalist Jeanmarie Evelly said on Twitter.

And while it’s good that the mayor is now suggesting more people ride to work, biking should not only be a secondhand option in times of crisis — it should consistently be encouraged and improved to help reduce the number of cars on the road, and help combat climate change, said Courtney Williams, CEO of the Brown Bike Girl.

“It’s great that the mayor has encouraged people to opt in to riding bikes as a means of avoiding being infected by the coronavirus,” said Williams, who like Streetsblog, has extending an invitation to the mayor to bike with her. “In the same breath, however, I can’t help but to be troubled by the underlying message loaded into the endorsement’s timing — that although bike commuting is an accessible and effective lifestyle decision, it is still a secondary alternative that you only adopt during times of crisis.”

Indeed, many are seeing the coronavirus as a “crisistunity” — a chance to change people’s habits now to create a more sustainable future that lingers after the crisis has passed. And New Yorkers are already voting with their feet — or their pedals.

On Monday, March 9 — the day after de Blasio made his “bike to work” suggestion — 7,178 bikers crossed the Williamsburg Bridge — nearly 2,000 more than the previous Monday, when 5,192 crossed the bridge, according to the Department of Transportation.

On a similar warm March day — March 1, 2017, when the temperature was 69 degrees — only 3,384 cyclists crossed the Williamsburg Bridge — 3,794 bikers fewer than Monday.

The DOT noticed similarly huge increases on the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queensboro bridges, all up between 34 and 54 percent on Monday compared to the previous Monday.

Those numbers would certainly increase with better infrastructure and a mayor who leads by example. Around the globe, cycling has grown in cities where mayors have joined their constituents in biking — such as Paris, whose Mayor Anne Hidalgo once famously said, “all Parisians will be biking!”

Hidalgo didn’t just make an empty promise; she rode in solidarity (and also restricted cars in many areas of town) and her constituents followed: Since 2018, the number of cyclists in Paris has more than doubled, according to one French outlet.

That’s why Transportation Alternatives (and members of Community Board 7) has called for the mayor to immediately implement changes, including:

  • create a zero tolerance policy on vehicles — city-owned, private, or commercial — blocking bike lanes, and cease any cycling-specific NYPD ticket stings. (The mayor said earlier this year that he would create a Vision Zero Unit within the NYPD, but no details of that unit, or its efforts, have been provided.)
  • build pop-up bike lanes, like those deployed during the UN General Assembly last September, “since the Green Wave plan can’t be implemented overnight,” Harris said.
  • quickly reconfigure key East River crossings, including dedicated, separated cycling paths on the Brooklyn and Queensboro bridges. The Queensboro Bridge is especially crowded because pedestrians and cyclists share a single path on the north side of the bridge. The numbers of walkers and cyclists were increasing on that span even before the current crisis, and the numbers are certainly not easing, as Streetsblog reported this week.
  • fast-track permitting and construction of sidewalk and on-street bike parking, and require that office buildings allow employees to enter with bikes
  • expedite the expansion of Citi Bike in underserved neighborhoods, roll out more stations and bike valets in Manhattan’s Central Business District, and subsidize a Citi Bike discount program to incentivize new riders.

On Tuesday, de Blasio said he hadn’t seen the suggestions, but would take a look at them.

“I haven’t seen them. I’ll happily look at them” he said. “We’ve obviously devoted a lot of police resources to clearing out bike lanes, we’ll keep doing that. We’re dealing with a crisis here with many, many elements, whatever we can do that we deem appropriate to help make it easier now we will.”