It wasn’t until I started cycling that I got interested in popularizing and expanding cycling infrastructure. It wasn’t until I started following multiple blogs and news sites devoted to cycling that I started learning about the broader “livable streets” agenda, “new urbanism,” and pedestrian/bike advocacy more generally. And it wasn’t until I moved to the City that these causes became so deeply meaningful and personal.
Despite all the recent advances in cycling infrastructure and traffic calming, riding a bike in New York City is still seen as an inherently dangerous activity. On the one hand, it is easy to see how people arrive at this impression. Commuting by bike for over a year, I’ve had my fair share of accidents, most notably just last week at Bike MS. But in all of my collisions, even the ones with cars and where I was not at fault, I managed to at least get up and walk away unassisted, with only minor “road rash” (scrapes and bruises). Minor injuries may indeed be more common on the bike, but it is an unjustified leap to assume cycling is more likely to lead to serious injury.
Taking my daughter to school on the bike has also changed my perspective. When I am alone, I admit I enjoy the thrill of going fast, but there is no doubt I ride much more slowly when she is on the bike. Furthermore, I go out of my way to be on a route that minimizes interaction with automobile traffic. Nevertheless, I know it is just a matter of time before a dog off its leash or an errant tree branch causes us to take a spill. But my daughter has also gotten hurt riding a kick scooter or jumping around on a playground or even just walking, so really this should be no different.
In all forms of active transportation, though, the greatest danger is not from the fall itself but from the danger that it will happen in the path of a car. Falls at inopportune moments while crossing the street have already happened to us, and the immediate instinct at that moment was not to see if our daughter is OK, but to get her up and out of the street NOW! Just last Saturday we observed a mother scold her young child on a scooter after he failed to stop at the end of the sidewalk. “Do you want to get run over by a car,” she said. “Do you want to die? No, you don’t, so always stop at the end of the sidewalk.” I’m not sure a 3-year-old is capable of fully understanding that message, but the mother’s fear for her child was palpable.
The fact is that, sadly, children really do die from traffic violence on the streets of New York City on a far too regular basis. Three children’s lives came to an abrupt end after collisions with a motor vehicles on NYC streets in just the past week. Is this really how we want to raise our children? The police commissioner seems to think these kinds of “accidents” are just a fact of life. But what is the impact on our children? Hundreds of lives cut off, thousands forever altered. Even those that survive may grow up with a mortal fear of walking and biking for the rest of their lives.
What is one to do? Some say screw broader society and just protect yourself and get inside a car. While it is certainly true that the steel shell of a car offers considerable protection from minor injuries at low speeds, it is also true that car crashes tend to occur at much higher speeds. In fact, statistics clearly show that, despite the abysmal rate of pedestrian fatalities just discussed, New York City actually has among the lowest rates of overall road deaths in the US.
On a national scale, Northern European countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany have just a fraction of the road fatality rate of the US. Even Canada has a little over half our rate of traffic fatality. Traffic violence is, as the Pulitzer Center labels it, a “curable disease,” and Northern European countries have figured out how to cure it.
What do the Northern European countries mentioned have in common? For one, they are all famous for having excellent fully segregated cycling infrastructure and relatively low mode shares for private automobiles. I recently read some of my wife’s journal notes from a family trip to Amsterdam 10 years ago, and even she noticed how quiet and nearly car-free the city was. She is certainly not a bicycle enthusiast, and she also noted that she thought the bikes were causing mayhem for pedestrians. Granted, the rate of minor injury while commuting is probably higher in Holland, but the statistics prove that the end result is drastically lower rates of major injury or death.
The United States may be a world leader when it comes to automobile adoption and use, but there was a time when post-war Europe was quickly catching up. Then, in the 1970s, as a rising number of children were being killed in traffic crashes, a popular uprising known as Stop de Kindermoord (Stop the Child Murder) took over the streets and demanded change. Private citizens demanded that their government take back the streets from cars and give it to bikes and pedestrians. Large portions of major cities were made car-free. Transportation infrastructure prioritized bike and pedestrian flow over automobile flow. Not surprisingly, car use went down, bike use went up, and the rate of child mortality due to traffic plummeted.
Now, with overall road traffic taking the top spot of causes of death for children by a margin of over 2-to-1 nationwide, and with pedestrian injury-related death rising to the top of all causes of death of children in NYC, the time has come for a similar movement here. Last weekend Right of Way, a group of activists affiliated with Transportation Alternatives‘ efforts to ensure pedestrians can safely exercise their right to the streets, stenciled impromptu memorials to the recent victims. With a mayoral election looming, the time is ripe for action. The movement is underway and gathering steam. Will you be a part of it?