Steadying his breath instinctively, David Sonenberg soared down the Park Drive bike route in Prospect Park one day last June. His feet pushed the pedals — first the right, then the left — taking less than a second to complete each revolution. His senses became heightened, his body more alert, to the curves of the path as he coursed over the pavement. But Sonenberg’s senses weren’t quick enough to avoid a collision with a pedestrian.
Dana Jacks was walking “outside of the crosswalks and recreation lane designated for use by pedestrians” when Sonenberg hit her, according to the lawsuit he filed against her in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn. Sonenberg’s complaint read that he had attempted to alter his path to avoid Jacks, but his bike slammed into her, knocking them to the ground and sending both cyclist and pedestrian to the hospital. Jacks, whose legal papers contended that Sonenberg’s negligence caused the crash, suffered brain injuries while Sonenberg tore a ligament in his clavicle.
In the following months, Jacks and her husband, Forrest Cicogni, filed a civil suit against Sonenberg in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, demanding reimbursement for medical expenses and monetary damages for the physical and mental pain the crash caused Jacks. They later filed a suit against the City of New York, declaring that the city was also at fault for the accident that landed her in the hospital for three weeks.
At that point, in response to Jacks’s suit against him, Sonenberg answered with his own lawsuit, denying her allegations and stating that her “willful or wanton negligence” caused the crash. Sonenberg’s complaint, in which he charged that Jacks owed him compensation for physical and mental suffering from the crash, also stated that Jacks “owed a duty” to him to have walked more carefully along Park Drive.
As this flurry of legal activity demonstrates, the increase in bicycling in New York over the past decade has also ratcheted up the conflict between riders, pedestrians and motorists. New York has recently increased its enforcement of traffic laws on bicyclists, issuing thousands of tickets after prior years with very few.
Recent data from the Department of Transportation found that commuter cycling in New York City has more than quadrupled in the past decade. Traffic counts gathered from landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge, Queensboro Bridge, and the Williamsburg Bridge tallied nearly 19,000 bikes in 2011 compared to 4,839 in 2001.
Many pedestrians, like Will Leitch, an entertainment blogger for Gawker and editor for Deadspin, view this emergent group of cyclists as largely “rude, dismissive of everyone who isn’t on a bike, and smug that no matter what the traffic interaction, they’re in the right.” He concluded, “Bike riders have taken over this city.”
Amid the remarkable rise in the number of cyclists in the city, serious bicycle-related injuries have stayed fairly consistent within this time-frame, hovering around 400 per year. In comparison, more than 7,000 pedestrians and cyclists were injured in a crash with an automobile in the first six months of 2012, according to New York City Police Department data compiled by Streetsblog.
“What you see is that as the number of bicycles goes up, the number of crashes goes down,” Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, told The New York Times in June. “There seems to be a safety-in-numbers effect.”
Bicycle safety and education, along with transparency in the city’s enforcement practices, have become increasingly important to many individuals, especially to victims of accidents. Nancy Gruskin, whose husband died after a delivery bike messenger traveling the wrong way on a street in Midtown hit him in 2009, believe that responsible, respectful cycling is an absolute must for all cyclists.
“I’m not saying to get all the bikes off the road, I’m just saying to follow the laws,” she said.
Gruskin established an organization called the Stuart C. Gruskin Family Foundation in memory of her husband shortly after his death. This foundation recently announced a campaign called PEDAL, which targets businesses that employ delivery bikers and asks them to train these cyclists to follow five rules — put pedestrians first; stop at every red light; ride in the right direction- with traffic; stay on the asphalt, not the sidewalk; and pick a lane and stick with it.
“If we’re putting more cyclists on the road, then we need to make sure they’re safe,” said Gruskin. She referred to the absence of data on accidents between bicyclists and pedestrians before the passage of TrafficStat, a program that was signed into law in 2011 and tracks these types of accidents, as a “real missing link.”
“Premium Rush,” a feature film released Aug. 24, paints an idealized picture of cyclists who live for speed, flout the rules, and put themselves in danger every minute they ride in traffic. The film’s protagonist – a bike messenger named Wilee, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt — weaves in and out of rush-hour traffic, makes split-second decisions at intersections to avoid collisions, and rides alongside taxicabs with his palm resting on the roof of the car on his way to deliver a time-sensitive envelope to a restaurant in Chinatown.
“Fixed gear, steel frame, no brakes,” Wilee says in a voice-over as he runs a red light and propels his bike through a few feet of space between two cars in the movie. “Can’t stop. Don’t want to.”
When Wilee does get into an accident, a resentful NYPD officer rides with him in the ambulance, saying, “This whole city hates you!” to the injured messenger.
That sentiment resonates in a city where some residents embrace the bicycling culture but others are offended by cyclists like the character Wilee, who bikes from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible — even if that means breaking more than a few traffic rules along the way. Yet the city’s bicyclists consider their two wheels a greener and more enjoyable way of getting around than a private car or mass transit.
“The way the streets of the greatest city in the world are being used is changing fundamentally,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a NYC group that advocates for the use of other forms of transportation than cars and the subway. “People are beginning to understand that it is entirely possible — and really, very desirable — to lead a life without being tethered to an automobile.”
New York City bicyclists are subject to the same rules as motor vehicles; they must abide by all applicable traffic signals, signs, and pavement markings. Cyclists are also not allowed to ride on sidewalks unless the rider is 12 years old or younger, and many bridges, highways, and expressways prohibit bike-riding. Other rules that apply solely to cyclists include the regulation that requires riders to signal a right or left turn, operate bicycles with working brakes, and ride on the right hand side of the road.
Most of these same laws apply in San Francisco, where two recent instances of pedestrian fatality at the wheels of a cyclist influenced how the city handles serious accidents where cyclists are found at fault. Two charges of vehicular manslaughter were brought against these bike riders.
Randolph Ang was cycling to work one morning when he ran a red light and collided with a 68-year-old woman named Dionette Cherney, who hit her head on the pavement and died a few weeks later of what the coroner described as “blunt force injuries to the head.” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon charged Ang with a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charge, to which he pled guilty. Cherney’s husband did not seek jail time for Ang, who was ultimately sentenced to three years of probation and 500 hours of community service.
Less than three weeks after Ang was sentenced, another bicyclist in San Francisco ran a red light and struck an elderly pedestrian who died shortly after. This time, the cyclist was charged with a felony.
Chris Bucchere, who police officials say was speeding down a hill at close to 35 miles per hour, slammed into a 71-year-old man named Sutchi Hui in a crash that put both in the hospital. Bucchere, who awaits trial, crossed an intersection as the traffic light turned red when he hit Hui, according to witnesses. He was admitted to the hospital and released shortly after; Hui died in the hospital four days later.
After these crashes sparked public debate on what city officials were doing to ensure that aggressive bikers were abiding by the law, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency implemented bicycle projects like signage improvements and added more bike lanes and drive-separated bike paths. The SFMTA plans to redesign several other streets in the city this summer.
New York City officials have also intensified their effort to ensure safety for cyclists and pedestrians. The collision between Sonenberg and Jacks and the subsequent lawsuit against the city led to the creation of a Prospect Park Road Sharing Task Force and the implementation of several safety measures along Prospect Park’s West Drive.
These initial measures included the strategic placement of orange traffic barrels that were introduced to separate cyclists and pedestrians on the path and new signage that alerts cyclists and pedestrians to the rules of the crosswalk. In Central Park, electronic signs were installed during August to inform bicyclists they must follow all rules for motor vehicles.
As part of a continued effort to improve the safety of those who walk, bike, or drive along Park Drive in Prospect Park, the Department of Transportation painted new lane stripes in June as part of a lane reconfiguration program. The new stripes created an isolated pedestrian and child cyclist lane, cyclist lane, and car and service vehicle lane.
Law enforcement officials also started ticketing cyclists who disobey the park’s 25 mph speed limit more frequently. News reports from The Brooklyn Paper’s “Mean Streets” section found that the number of tickets issued in Prospect Park from December 2011 to March of this year reached 188, while the number of tickets distributed there during the same period of the previous year was zero.
John Cassidy, deputy chief of the New York Police Department’s Transportation Bureau, said that NYPD officers issued 48,556 tickets to cyclists in 2011. Almost 35,000 of these tickets were for criminal activities like running red lights.
The addition of more bike lanes in New York City — the home of the first bike path in the United States, Ocean Parkway — has also been observed over the past several years. During Bloomberg’s second term as mayor, he created 250 miles of bike-only lanes. The New York City Bicycle Master Plan, which is a product of the Department of City Planning’s Bicycle Network Development program, has set the goal of creating a 900-mile network of on-street bike lanes and off-street paths. According to the Department of Transportation, New York City currently has more than 700 miles of bike lanes.
A recent poll conducted by The New York Times found that 66 percent of the city’s residents agree that bike lanes are a good idea. Another study, released in August 2011, found that 44 percent of participators thought that the amount of bike lanes in New York is sufficient.
Soon, a global phenomenon in bike culture known as community bike-sharing will become a reality for residents and tourists in New York City, releasing thousands of bicycles onto the streets for public use next spring. The bike-share concept’s goal is to make short transits quicker and easier, allowing people to pick up a bike at one station, cycle to their destination, and return the bike to another station.
Citi Bike, which was first scheduled for a release this summer, aims to eventually install 600 stations and 10,000 bikes around the city. The program is in the planning stage for a March 2013 release in New York, according to a Department of Transportation press release. Citi Bike was originally delayed because government officials wanted to ensure that the program ran flawlessly on the first day, said Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner for the Department of Transportation.
Some critics believe that Citi Bike presents a liability issue for the city and could lead to a significant increase in cyclist injuries, since the bike-share program will likely put inexperienced riders on the streets.
“Safety concerns about Citi Bike stem from frequently blocked bike lanes, poor street conditions, inexperienced bicyclists, lax enforcement of traffic regulations, and the inevitability that some users will ride on sidewalks,” said John Pucher, author of “City Cycling” and professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. “On the basis of these traffic dangers, I would expect at least a doubling and possibly even a tripling in injuries and fatalities among cyclists and pedestrians during the first year of the bike share program in New York.”
While other cities such as Portland, Ore., and Boston have rolled out similar bike-share programs, the scale of the completed Citi Bike initiative will make it the third-largest program of its kind in the world, trailing Hangzhou, China, and Paris.
When a former friend asked Wilee what he had been up to lately in “Premium Rush,” he sarcastically replied, “Running reds, killing peds.” But for many, there is no room for humor when discussing the dangers of walking, riding a bike, or driving in New York City.
“What’s very hard is that- and I am literally caught right in the wind with it- it feels like a civil war between cyclists and pedestrians and motorists and everybody screaming at each other,” said Gruskin. “Personally, it makes me feel really bad because my family suffered the ultimate tragedy.”