In NYC, Cycling Deaths Increase But Gears Turn Slowly On Safety Measures

10 hours ago
Originally published on August 14, 2019 4:17 pm

Jennie Jo Marine is 49 years old and has lived in New York City for her entire life. During her more than 20 years working as a bike messenger, she has been in more traffic accidents than she can count.

She's flown up on windshields and has been sucked underneath vehicles. Some of her most frequent accidents have been doorings — when a bicyclist is struck by an abruptly opened car door or rides into one that has been left open.

During her most recent dooring — almost a year ago — she injured her shoulder and broke her collarbone. She is still recovering and has had to cut down her bike messenger work from full-time to part-time in order to heal.

But, Marine says she's one of the lucky ones. Despite all of her accidents, she is still alive.

Is it making a difference?

In New York City, eight people have been killed while riding their bikes since June, bringing the total number of deaths so far this year to 19.

"My friends [and I] ... we are really in a weird time right now," Marine said. "No one really wants to go ride even though it's the thing we love to do most. So we do it and hope we make it home safe."

Bike deaths are on the rise across the United States, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. They recorded 840 cycling fatalities in 2016 — the highest they've been in 25 years.

In New York City, cycling fatalities have continued to fluctuate without a clear trend. Last year the city reported an all time low of 10 cyclist deaths, down from 24 deaths the prior year.

A memorial site in Manhattan, where Robyn Hightman, a bike messenger was hit and killed by a truck this summer. People have tucked messages of support in the spokes of a bike wheel.
Aubri Juhasz / NPR

But the recent surge has led cyclists and transit safety advocates to ask whether the city's ambitious plan to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries by 2024 — known as Vision Zero — is making a difference.

In 2014, then newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio — now a Democratic Presidential candidate — made New York the first U.S. city to adopt Vision Zero. Since then, the number of pedestrian and motor vehicle deaths have steadily decreased. That hasn't been true for cyclists, despite the construction of more than 300 miles of bike lanes.

Researchers say that in order to bring down the number of cycling deaths, cities need to have a complete network of bike lanes, with as many separated from cars as possible.

Building a new bike lane can take weeks or months and the process can be delayed even further when communities resist these efforts.

Polly Trottenberg, the city's transportation commissioner, told NPR that they are taking the necessary steps to prevent future deaths and that the circumstances the city is facing are not unique.

"We are all facing a lot of the same challenges," Trottenberg said referring to Vision Zero cities in the U.S. "Years where we see fatalities go down. Years where tragically we see fatalities on the rise. Dealing with all the demands on our roadways."

New demands are also a part of the equation. Uber and Lyft as well as big-box trucks — fueled by the booming e-commerce industry — pose added dangers for cyclists and put added strain on an already over-congested system.

Many months, many years

Leah Shahum, executive director of the Vision Zero Network — an independent nonprofit that assesses progress in Vision Zero cities across the U.S. — agreed with Trottenberg's assessment and said the state of cycling infrastructure in New York has less to do with flaws in current policy and more to do with prior decades of inaction.

"When [a city] commits to Vision Zero ... everything doesn't change on that day. Their systems don't change, their funding models don't change. It's going to take many months for some things and many years for some things," Shahum said.

At the same time, Shahum said the deaths may be evidence that New York is not doing enough to keep pace with the city's growing number of cyclists.

"For most cities we were seeing slower progress to date than New York was seeing. New York was really ahead of the game in that way," Shahum said. "And now do you see New York in some ways kind of falling back? We do, but I wouldn't say that that's unexpected because there is so much literal territory to cover on the ground redesigning streets, but also the policy change."

Disappointing and disorienting

With more people cycling than ever before, setbacks are leading to accidents. According to the NYDOT, the number of daily bike rides more than doubled between 2012 and 2017. Today, nearly half a million cycling trips are made every day.

More people are choosing to cycle for a variety of reasons — concerns about their impact on the environment, frustration with public transit and desire to improve their physical health. The city has also been instrumental in encouraging people to bike, including the massive rollout of Citibike bike shares.

Over the last few years, the city has on average built 62 miles of bike lanes each year — the largest increase anywhere in the country. But, in a city with more than 6,000 miles of streets, fewer than one in five has a bike lane.

According to the New York Department of Transportation, the number of daily bike rides more than doubled between 2012 and 2017. Today, nearly half a million cycling trips are made every day.
Aubri Juhasz / NPR

Sophie Maerowitz and Todd Martino live in Manhattan's East Village and rely on their bikes to get to work, run errands and visit friends — logging more than 50 miles a week each.

They've found the city's fragmented network to be particularly frustrating.

"When you get these incomplete networks you have this situation where great, you have this fresh new bike lane, you're excited you know?" Maerowitz said. "This infrastructure is working for you and then suddenly it's gone and you have to go back out into traffic again."

Not only is it disappointing when a bike lane ends, it can also be disorienting.

"There's no consistency. One second the lane is there and then it is on the other side of the road. Then it's gone completely," Martino said. "You have to be keeping an eye on this, while watching for other cars and keeping pace with traffic."

Car culture and other opposition

Marco Conner, co-deputy director of the New York City-based advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, says the city isn't being aggressive enough when it comes to both policy enforcement and the speed of bike lane construction.

"We have the resources for both. It is strictly a matter of political will or lack thereof," Conner said. "We are only using half measures. We are still seeking the approval of local community boards for far too many projects when we know those projects will save lives."

He cites two big challenges. The first is addressing car culture and the controversy of removing street parking to make room for bike lanes.

Conner says projects often get postponed — sometimes indefinitely — because of opposition from local community boards. This opposition is not surprising given the United States' dependence on cars and deference towards policies that protect this dependence. This is often referred to as "car culture."

The policies that help make cyclists — and pedestrians — safer, such as lower speed limits and eliminating street parking to build bike lanes, often inconvenience and sometimes anger drivers.

New York City has more than 6,000 miles of streets. Fewer than one in five has a bike lane.
Aubri Juhasz / NPR

Colin Browne, communications director with the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, says that in all cities this tension — sometimes referred to as "bikelash" — is a major reason why infrastructure change isn't happening faster.

"This is where American cities are struggling," Browne said. "You get a lot of pushback. People don't want to slow down. They don't want to have to look for a parking space somewhere else just because that space is needed to keep people safe. And so the process gets slowed down as people sort of grapple with the reality of what it means in their day to day life and decide that maybe they don't support it as much as they thought they did."

The other problem New York City needs to address is their lack of policy enforcement, says Conner.

The city has been successful in passing several laws that protect cyclists — like lowering the speed limit to 25 mph in most areas and making it illegal to open your car door into a cyclist's path — but violations often go unnoticed.

Conner says there needs to be more enforcement, not just more speed cameras — which the city has already pledged to install — but also automated ticketing for vehicles that park in bike lanes or fail to yield to bicyclists.

More bike lanes, better enforcement

At the beginning of July, after 15 cyclists had been killed, the New York Police Department announced a two-week crackdown on policies that protect cyclists. During this period, the police department reported that 5,673 summonses for vehicles parked in bike lanes were handed out — a 96 percent increase compared to the same period last year.

After the seventeenth cycling death this year, Mayor de Blasio announced that over the next five years an additional $58.4 million will be targeted to building more bike lanes and providing better enforcement in high risk areas.

Marine says that since Vision Zero started five years ago, she hasn't noticed the streets getting safer — the situation has simply "morphed." She argues that having bike lanes, but not having a complete network, might actually be making the streets more dangerous for cyclists.

"It's always been dangerous but now that we have [bike lanes] and people see that there's a place that we should be, we have to be there. Even if it's not there," Marine said. "There aren't bike lanes on every street. Before there were bike lanes, it was just a free-for-all and the cars knew you were there. We had to take a lane and that was it. But now if you take a lane, people want you back in the bike lane even though it's not always there."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Jeffrey Epstein has also been accused of other crimes. One of his former business partners says Epstein got away with financial crimes. Steven Hoffenberg spent 18 years in prison for running a Ponzi scheme. And he says Epstein was complicit in those crimes but was never prosecuted. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: At 74, Steven Hoffenberg spends a lot of time reflecting on his long and disreputable past. And these days, one person on his mind is Jeffrey Epstein.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVEN HOFFENBERG: There's so much going through my mind about me and Epstein. It's a lifetime of errors. How do you correct a lifetime of errors?

ZARROLI: Hoffenberg spoke this week by telephone from his hospital bed, where he was preparing for surgery. In the 1980s, Hoffenberg ran a company called Towers Financial. Around that time, he says, a British business acquaintance introduced him to Epstein. Hoffenberg says he was immediately impressed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOFFENBERG: He appeared to be brilliant, extraordinarily gifted and talented in convincing people to buy from him and a criminal mastermind.

ZARROLI: Hoffenberg says he hired Epstein, and they became very close. Hoffenberg became a kind of mentor to him. Epstein helped him raise money on Wall Street.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOFFENBERG: He knew many people in the brokerage business that sold securities, and they gave him access to investors.

ZARROLI: And he says the two of them conspired in the scheme that would later send Hoffenberg to prison. Hoffenberg's firm acquired the parent company of two Illinois insurance companies. Then, he says, they used the company's money to launch a failed attempt to buy the airline Pan Am. He says they also drained hundreds of millions of dollars from Towers Financial investors for personal use. Hoffenberg acknowledges his role in the scheme.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOFFENBERG: This was a criminal investment enterprise, so I'm not trying to state to you that there was a purpose that should be complimented.

ZARROLI: Hoffenberg would plead guilty in 1995 to mail fraud, tax evasion and obstruction of justice. He says he told federal prosecutors about Epstein's role in the scheme.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOFFENBERG: There is no question that I told him. Makes no sense. Like, his whole life makes no sense. His death makes no sense.

ZARROLI: But Epstein would never be charged. Why that is remains unclear. The federal prosecutor who handled the matter declined to discuss it, saying he never comments on past cases.

One former prosecutor who did speak was Amy Millard who's now in private practice at the law firm Clayman & Rosenberg. She came into the case late. And 25 years later, she doesn't remember a whole lot about it. But she says Hoffenberg didn't exactly seem like a trustworthy witness.

AMY MILLARD: I remember that at the point that I met him and having dealings with him, I did not believe that he was credible in his statements.

ZARROLI: Millard says thousands of people who had put money in Towers Financial were hurt when the firm declared bankruptcy after Hoffenberg was charged, and Hoffenberg's demeanor in the courtroom seemed less than sympathetic.

MILLARD: He was extraordinarily arrogant, not taking responsibility for what he had done and that there were a huge number of victims who were hurt by his behavior.

ZARROLI: Now out of prison, Hoffenberg acknowledges that his crimes cost a lot of people their retirement savings. Before Epstein's death, he says, he actually called some of the victims of his fraud. He told them Epstein had walked away with money from the fraud, and Hoffenberg encouraged the victims to sue Epstein. He even offered to testify on their behalf.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOFFENBERG: I'm the first one in line to assist the victims. At 74, I'd like to go to the pearly gates assisting the victims.

ZARROLI: One of the victims he contacted did file a class action suit against Epstein last year, and Hoffenberg sued Epstein himself. But Epstein's attorneys argued that the statute of limitations had run out on whatever crimes were committed. And the suits were later withdrawn.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUNG AN TAGEN'S "AUFRAUMEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.