Brooklyn has proven itself once again to be the most dangerous borough for cyclists in New York City.
Preliminary numbers released by the Department of Transportation on Feb. 1 indicate that more than one-third of all automotive crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists in 2012 in the city occurred in Brooklyn. These resulted in the deaths of seven bicyclists. The finalized numbers won’t be released until later in the year, but unless amendments are made, 2012 would be the fifth year since 2007 that Brooklyn has led the city in cyclist fatalities. 2011 was especially tragic, with half of the city’s 22 bike deaths occurring in Brooklyn. Queens and Manhattan were second for most deaths over the two-year period, both with nine. The Department of Transportation did not respond to calls for comment.
A report done by the University of New South Wales examined data from 17 countries, including the United States, and concluded that areas with higher biking populations actually experience less accidents than those with less riders. Brooklyn, which has the most cyclists in New York City, defies the trend. The city’s 2011 bike commuting census reports that nearly 19,000 riders hit the streets every day.
The environments in more open boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens (the fatality leader in 2009) encourages riskier behavior from drivers, leading to more accidents and more deaths, said Peter Engel, a communications coordinator with the Five Borough Bicycle Club and Brooklyn resident.
“A lot of cars accelerate more aggressively,” he said. “They can’t do that in Manhattan due to traffic.”
Engel emphasized that if the NYPD were to step up its ticketing for traffic violations, dangerous driving behavior would lessen, but the lack of attention to cycling deaths prevents local leaders from drawing a connection.
“These cases don’t get mainstream coverage, like other forms of violence,” he said. “It doesn’t get enough media or town hall attention because it’s not headline news.”
Brooklyn Bicycle Deaths: 2011/2012
Blue markers represent deaths from 2011, and red markers represent 2012 deaths. Click the markers to see incident details.
David Meltzer, the vice president of the Five Borough Bicycle Club and a Park Slope resident, acknowledged the dangers inherent in big city riding, but pointed to some issues specific to the Brooklyn landscape that can lead to dangerous conditions. One, he says, is the Brooklyn Bridge.
The bridge has long had separate lanes for walkers and cyclists, but that doesn’t mean either side pays the painted line much mind. Tourists become obstacles when they step into the cyclist lane to get that perfect snapshot of the landmark. Meltzer had his first accident when a man backed in front of him suddenly to get a photograph.
“He got up and started screaming at me,” Meltzer said. “Would he have backed up into traffic to take a picture? It’s really a fiasco for bikers.”
Still, accidents on the bridge have yet to cause a fatality. The biggest cause of injuries and accidents in Brooklyn, according to Meltzer, is the unsafe riding habits of “hipsters.”
Meltzer complained of young riders in DUMBO “salmoning,” or traveling against traffic, weaving through cars stuck at lights. He also cited the tendency of the hipster culture to skip wearing a helmet. The Williamsburg neighborhood has had seven cyclist deaths over the last two years.
Regardless of social scene, a lack of protective headgear has been strongly correlated with bicycle fatalities. According to the final reports of the Department of Transportation, 13 of the 22 people who died in 2012 were not wearing a helmet. It could not be verified if the seven other fatalities were wearing one or not. Only two of the dead riders were affirmed to have protective equipment.
Expecting drivers to behave better only gets half the job done, said David Hanna, a member of the New York Cycling Club who rides from Elmhurst into downtown Brooklyn every day for work.
“Automobile drivers must go through training, licensing and are routinely subject to enforcement,” he said. “If you want to make New York City safer from accidents, you will need to increase education and enforcement measures on bicyclists and pedestrians.”
Hanna suggested that in lieu of giving monetary fines to cyclists, the city could mandate ticketed riders watch safety videos, such as those already available on the Department of Transportation’s website. The Department of Transportation has placed emphasis on new bike path options, including the release of plans for the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway project in June last year. The 14-mile path will connect from Greenpoint to Sunset Park.
The Five Borough Bicycling Club requires leaders of its group rides to undergo safety training, which includes lessons on adjusting into traffic and group dynamics. Leaders plan routes based on personal experience, and conduct a “two-minute bike check” before all rides. Participants examine tire pressure, test their brakes and other elements to make sure their bike is up to code. Those who aren’t ready to ride have to come back next time.
Meltzer doesn’t want Brooklyn natives to give up on cycling however. When done right, the borough can be a great place to ride, he said.
“It’s like ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,’” he said. “The good is that there are a lot of new bike trails. I can go from Park Slope to Astoria, no problem.”