“New Yorkers want what they want, when they want it, but that doesn’t excuse the disregard of safety—this is not the Wild West.”
Bronx Councilman James Vacca was sitting behind the long desk inside the 14th floor hearing room at 250 Broadway as a hearing of the Transportation Committee, which he oversees, was just getting started. He had taken the reins, or rather the handlebars, as he so often does when the committee turns its focus on the state of cycling in the city, a subject that gives Mr. Vacca, along with a few million New Yorkers, a great deal of consternation.
Today, the committee was tackling commercial cyclists and deliverymen—figuratively, though they probably would not mind actually tackling a few scofflaw two wheelers if given the chance.
Specifically, the committee was taking up four commercial biking bills aimed at furthering the education of commercial cyclists and enforcing current regulations. The focus—and when it came to Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, the target—was certainly the DOT and Intro. 910, a proposed law that sought to give the department enforcement power.
So what’s the issue? Well, nobody likes unsafe delivery or messenger cyclists terrorizing pedestrians and causing havoc with motorists (not even regular bikers). At the same time, everyone wants their take-out delivered the moment they hang up the phone and their documents whipped across town in the blink of an eye. Even Ms. Lappin accepts that “New Yorkers want their hot food in a hot minute”—yet we also need to feel safe on the streets. With commercial cyclists now weaving in and out of traffic like yellow cabs, what’s a wise government to do? Whose job is it to keep us safe? Won’t someone think of the children?
To address transportation concerns related to commercial cycling, the DOT launched a unit of six deputized inspectors in July to educate restaurants and other businesses about the city’s rules of commercial bicycles, and to issue summonses to repeat offenders. So far the unit has targeted the West Side of Manhattan; by the end of the year it plans to have reached the entire borough and, in addition, Sunset Park, Brooklyn. (It is the borough’s Chinatown, so those little cardboard boxes of rice are no doubt causing much havoc.)
Although advertizing themselves as a force seeking to both educate and enforce, from the looks of things—and from the sounds of the rumblings in this morning’s meeting—the DOT are doing a lot, even too much, of the former and not enough of the latter. Kate Slevin, assistant commissioner for intergovernmental affairs, assured the committee that enforcement will come in January and that, for now, focusing on educating the businesses that send forth these delivery bikers day in, day out is the best way to proceed.
Ms. Lappin, however, disagrees, arguing that enforcement, and not education is what the city vitally needs. Yes, preaching about the importance of fluorescent vest-ware, another piece of legislation discussed during the meeting, is all well and good, but it’s not what the city ought to be focusing on. “People see cyclists—sight isn’t the problem!” Ms. Lappin complained. Councilman Vacca appears to agree. He argued the action the department has taken thus far is not enough. “I need to make sure that this cooperative relationship is bearing fruit,” he said of the work between DOT and the NYPD. “I’m not aware of any fruits from the co-operation—beyond education.”
And while we’re on the topic of that fruitful—or fruitless—relationships: Is each partner holding up its end of the bargain? Upper West Side Councilwoman Gale Brewer suggested, first half-joking, then quite seriously, that the NYPD is probably the better positioned agency to be tackling this problem. “They order from the restaurants everyday,” she said of cops walking the beat. “The know the owners, they know what’s going on.
But this debate also gets at the heart of cycling enforcement in general (which, let’s not forget, has been on the rise). The big question seems to be if we want our officers, of whom there are fewer and fewer every year thanks to budget cuts, to be turning their attention away from other crimes and onto those of bikers.
Much of the testimony this morning placed blame for the commercial cycling crisis on the riders’ employers. Upper East Side Assemblyman Brian Kavanaugh joined Mr. Vacca, among others, in leveling such claims. There is a feeling that not only do commercial cyclists knowingly break the law in order to perform to the standards expected by their employers, but also that employers encourage such behavior. There is, however, no general consensus. City Hospitality Alliance founder Robert Bookman spoke up in defense of the businesses under attack, the majority of which he assured the committee encourage their employees to comply with the law, and certainly to do so “without a wink and a nod.”
And what about recreational cyclists? The issue of cycling safety is only increasing as the city encourages non-commercial cyclists, too, to follow the fad. Susan Suskind, director of the New York Alliance for Pedestrian Safety, rightly what’s being done to educate those two-wheel travelers?
Mr Vacca insists: “Once cyclists know the rules of the law, there’s no excuse for breaking them.” But tell that to all the jaywalkers and speeding drivers. Maybe this is a problem of humanity that will never be solved? Will four City Council bills really be enough?