Volume 76, Number 13 | August 16 - 22, 2006

With deaths and clampdown, cyclists feel deflated

By Gerard Flynn

With four more cyclists killed in traffic accidents in New York over the past 10 days, biking enthusiasts are questioning whether their safety is a priority for the Bloomberg administration. The fatalities come as the Police Department is currently pushing new rules restricting public assembly, which the cyclists claim will endanger their lives even further.

If a number of rules proposed by the Police Department are adopted, cyclists traveling in groups of 20 or more will require a parade permit from the Police Department. The law would also require a parade permit for groups of 35 or more protesters, even if they restrict themselves to the sidewalk, as opposed to marching in the street.

But it’s the curb on group cycling that is putting a dent in the spokes of biking advocates. Bill DiPaola, founder of Time’s Up, a grassroots environmental group that advocates bicycling to reduce pollution in urban areas, noted the cyclists killed in recent weeks were solitary, and he attributed their deaths to insufficient cycling lanes and careless driving. DiPaola said there’s safety in numbers and that the mayor should be encouraging not limiting cyclists’ numbers through a permit requirement.

“The Bloomberg administration is more interested in arresting law-abiding cyclists who ride in groups than creating safe streets for cyclists and pedestrians,” he said.

“Drivers are notoriously able to flout traffic laws without the threat of punishment,” DiPaola continued. “Even when a reckless driver severely injures or kills a cyclist, the N.Y.P.D. rarely investigates the cause of the crash or even tickets the driver unless there is alcohol involved. It makes sense to ride in groups; it improves safety and reduces pollution, but [Police] Commissioner Kelly doesn’t want that,” he added.

The youngest victim in the latest string of traffic accidents was Shamar Porter, a 10-year-old from Brownsville, Brooklyn, who was killed on Sat. Aug. 5, when he was hit by a minivan while returning home on his bike from a Little League game.

The following night, Jonathon Neese, a bike messenger, known throughout the city as “Bronx John,” was seriously injured in an accident at the entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. He was taken off life support on Sat. Aug. 12.

The morning after that accident, Darren Lewis, also a bike messenger, was killed in Chelsea at the intersection of 29th St. and Ninth Ave.

“Lewis was hit by a truck when he was riding in the far-right lane and the vehicle was to his left, and he was on the truck’s blind spot when it took a right hook and killed him,” said Rachael Myers, who monitors and records cycling accidents for Time’s Up.

Myers said that she has also received reports from Grand Ave. in the Bronx, also of a child, who was hit and killed while cycling on the street in recent days. She has not yet received confirmation on this from the Police Department. No charges have been filed against any of the drivers.

The Police Department’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, which fields questions from the media, did not respond to questions on the new parade-permit law nor on issues of cyclists’ safety.

Kay Sarlin, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Transportation, however, countered that the city had improved safety for cyclists, adding that deaths had been down significantly since this time last year.

“In the last few years, the Department of Transportation has opened a brand-new Manhattan Bridge bike path; worked to connect the Manhattan Greenway so bikers can take a ride around the entire island and provided free bicycle safety courses to thousands of children,” she said.

“Several bike lanes have been added, most recently on Eighth Ave., and while more people than ever are riding their bikes, bicycle fatalities are significantly lower this year than they were at the same time last year,” she added.

Although Sarlin didn’t provide numbers, Judy Ross, another Time’s Up outreach volunteer, said that last year 28 cyclists were killed; so far this year, 10 deaths have been reported.

Despite the trend so far in this year’s statistics, Time’s Up volunteer Naomi Renek said that New York City is still far from safe.

“All of New York is dangerous for cycling because the city prioritizes the movement of motorized vehicles above all else,” she said. “Motorists understand that this is the prevailing attitude and behave accordingly, on the assumption that their right to the road trumps our right to the road.

“If I must be specific, I think Sixth Ave. is really dangerous,” Renek said. “Riding in the bike lane means riding in the door zone, so you ride in the street but motorists curse and honk and buzz by you because there’s the perception that you are required to ride in the bike lane. New cyclists may not know to ride outside of the door zone, so the bike lane is an illusion of safety,” she added.

Time’s Up has decided to challenge the new permit regulations and is planning a town hall meeting at St. Mark’s Church at Second Ave. and 10th St. on Thurs. Aug. 17 at 7 p.m. Over 100 cyclists are expected to attend. Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, Councilmember Rosie Mendez, U.S. Senate candidate Jonathan Tasini and representatives from the New York Civil Liberties Union will also be there.

Time’s Up plans to protest outside Police Headquarters at 6 p.m. on Wed. Aug. 23, when a public hearing will be held by the Police Department to discuss the new permit rules.

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