As the news cycle has been laser focused on the terrorist attack on the West Side bike path I was reminded of a lesser terror thousands of New Yorkers face every day: of being a pedestrian or cyclist in a city that has consciously decided to support the supremacy of the automobile at a terrible human cost. I am familiar with this sense of fear because each weekday I throw my leg over a bike and commute three short miles to work followed by the same ride home at the end of the day. Those two rides - less than forty minutes in total - are without question the highest risk and most frightening part of my day.
They are that way because we have a Mayor that speaks in platitudes about Vision Zero but is happy to criticize cyclists at every turn while encouraging drivers to block even our most meager cycling infrastructure. They are that way because we have community boards who with some false sense of nostalgia fight tooth and nail to defend every parking space at the expense of even the most basic pedestrian and cycling improvements. They are that way because, despite a dense urban environment yearning for human powered and mass transit, our civic leaders are entangled in some sick and never ending ego battle at the expense of their shared constituents who just want a functioning transit system. They are that way because we as a city have decided that the dead and broken bodies that fall on our streets on a regular basis are acceptable casualties in what is supposedly the greatest city in the world.
So each morning when I get on my bike and navigate those three miles - including the barren streets of midtown where cycling infrastructure is woefully and neglectfully limited - I know that I am risking my life. I wear a helmet (despite the fact that it will be scant protection against a twenty ton bus), use a headlight/taillight and ride defensively. But I am sadly familiar with all of the various ways this city has ended lives even when cyclists did everything right. From failures to yield when crossing protected bike lanes, to aggressive bus drivers on streets they’re not allowed on to hit-and-run drivers that are seldom identified.
And based on those precedents I am amply aware of what follows if I am killed on the streets of the city I call home the NYPD will almost certainly blame me for my death, leaving loved ones to not just pick up the pieces of what was my life but to also scour for witnesses and surveillance video that might absolve me of responsibility in my own death. But even if that evidence is found and the driver is determined to be at fault, the punishment will be almost non-existent compared to the physical and emotional toll imposed by ending a human life. Meanwhile life will go on in the city at large as time passes until the next acceptable casualty falls to a distracted driver. Perhaps there will be a headline or two in the local press inspired by one of these deaths but local government, the NYPD, and the NYDOT will mostly just move on.
This reality inspires the twinge of terror that I feel twice each day when commuting to work. It is the same twinge of terror I feel each time a friend or loved one is on a bike just trying to get from point A to B. And I feel it each time I read about a new ghost bike getting installed somewhere in our fair city.
And yet I still ride. I ride because it is the fastest and least expensive way to get around, especially as our mass transit system crumbles. And I ride because I am doing everything right despite the lack of protection this city, in its current form, affords me as a commuter. And I ride because I hope that one day, as part of a larger movement, New York City will realize that the broken bodies and devastated families are not worth the toll imposed by our transit policy. I just hope I am there to see the day.
Want to help drive change in New York City? Consider getting involved in Transportation Alternatives, an organization dedicated entirely to promoting bicycling, walking, and public transit in NYC. If we, as a City, are ever going to get safe streets advocates like @TransAlt will play a leading role in that progress.