I may not know the exact time or place but I’m pretty certain of how I am going to die, at least if I remain a New York City resident to the end.
I will be laid out by a bicycle, likely one delivering dinner to one of my neighbors on the Upper West Side. There will be just enough time to register the breath-stealing collision that pounds me head-first into the street, with the smell of Teriyaki beef hitting my nostrils as I discern the menu-stapled bag flying overhead and instantaneously form my final thought: “I knew it.” Then lights out, forever.
Morbid? Perhaps. Statistically refutable? To a point. Demographically unfair? Maybe. But every night, as I walk home from work amidst a mad blur of cyclists clocking their dinner runs from all directions, I come face-to-handlebars with my own mortality.
It wasn’t always so. A New Yorker for 41 years I have long co-existed peacefully with bicyclists, including the hypersonic, leather-gloved messengers who first appeared in large numbers in the 1980s, blowing through Midtown intersections like Road Runner. At least they stayed on grid and rarely ventured into residential neighborhoods.
Central Park doesn’t scare me, despite having become a super-highway for bikes, not to mention skateboards, roller blades, pedicabs, hoverboards and those oversized Elliptigo machines that look like runaways from the gym. You either avoid the flow or cross the Park Drive with head-swiveling caution when the peloton swooshes by.
But with their numbers surging, along with special lane accommodations and bike-sharing stations, many riders—especially those who do it for a living—have acquired a license to be, well, dangerously oblivious.
Recent cases in point: I was crossing Amsterdam Avenue a couple weeks ago, looking south at the flow of one-way traffic heading uptown ahead of a light change, when I was clipped hard by delivery guy cruising the wrong way, downtown. The impact ripped the watch off my wrist, which swelled up later into a large welt. Another half-step into the street and I would have been flattened
On another evening my dog and I stepped off the curb at Columbus and 84th Street when a food jockey whose bike was wrapped in black tape tried to sneak past—as he braked, his front tire caught the leash and rolled onto one of my dog’s paws. I was ready to sue the Asian fusion restaurant where he works but luckily my dog walked it off, so I merely slammed my fist onto the steaming brown-bag package in his wire basket (someone had smashed prawns for dinner that night).
Then, recently while walking along 95th Street, I veered slightly to my left on the sidewalk to avoid some garbage bags and felt the sudden breeze of an electronic bike zipping by—I started to chase after it but the “rider” quickly steered back onto the street and disappeared, just another helmet and orange-and-yellow-reflecting vest gone into the night.
In fairness, food-deliverers aren’t the only two-wheeled hazards. Many tourists routinely ride in packs on sidewalks and along the paths in Central Park, despite clear universal signage instructing them to dismount. Some pedal right up to the Reservoir track for selfies, dropping their rented bikes for runners and walkers to hurdle. Or they trundle onto your heels as you’re walking down the park side of Central Park West—and why not, since Citi Bike has some of its racks mounted on the sidewalk.
There are also local daredevils popping high-speed wheelies and other stunts as they swerve along Columbus or Broadway, bad-seed Curious Georges. Meanwhile, a lot of progressive New Yorkers on fold-up bikes freely ignore red lights or cut you off with left turns, often while talking on the phone and wearing earbuds. They are more of a menace than Trump supporters who ride the subway.
Surprisingly, the number of reported accidents between cyclists and pedestrians citywide has held steady the last several years—peaking at 361 in 2015 and dropping slightly to 349 last year, as per police precinct data issued annually by the city’s Department of Transportation (virtually every reported incident is cited as a pedestrian injury). However, in 2012, the first year the DOT was required to compile bike crash data under Local Law 13, pedestrian-cyclist collisions tallied only 244 across all five boroughs. That represents a 30 percent increase over five years, which isn’t exactly comforting, trend-wise. I bet anything the 2017 number reaches a new high, given the extended mild weather and continued entitlement among the cycling set.
Still, facing death by bike appears to be a fool’s worry. In 2014 a total of three pedestrians were killed by cyclists in New York (two of them in Central Park)—with no reported fatalities since. Compare that with 1,015 homicides during the same three-year period. The near zero-sum average of cycle-caused deaths is miraculous in light of total ridership rates—DOT estimates that more than “450,000 cycling trips are made each day in New York City.” The cyclists are actually at far greater risk of being run over—nearly 4,600 riders were injured by motor vehicles across the city in 2016, including 18 who were killed.
So, why do I feel like I’m a casualty waiting to happen? For starters, there are the “protected” bike lanes introduced in 2007 by Michael Bloomberg’s former transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn. Well-intentioned to provide cyclists safe designated routes on high-traffic avenues, they now serve as straight-shot bullet corridors for many riders, especially those careening down Columbus Avenue. I’ve witnessed numerous curbside grazes and short-stops that will never show up in the DOT’s crash data but that come within inches of pumping up that low fatality rate. The danger spikes alongside scaffolding sites for anyone who dares step outside the barrier and into the street as a cyclist is going by.
The bigger concern is a general lawlessness within the cycling community, particularly those employed by restaurants whose patrons are demanding chop-chop delivery of their precious take-out, which pretty much covers all of the Upper West Side all of the time.
It’s hard to call out individual culprits since, speeding past in a blur, they all look identical, and many are not wearing the required outerwear identifying which restaurant they’re riding for. I’m sure most are hard-working strivers compliant with the rules of the road as outlined in an official safety poster that the city’s Administrative Code requires all businesses using bikes to display. Then again, who has time to yield to pedestrians, stay off sidewalks, follow traffic directions, wear only one earplug, and halt at stop signs and red lights when the family in 14-C is waiting for its Pad Thai?
There are also more freelance riders in the mix now, with bikes and brains built for speed and who don’t hesitate to pull cowboy moves in threading the needle at a busy crosswalk. Uber Eats, Seamless and Grub Hub all deploy gig-economy cyclists for food delivery, many moonlighting for burger, taco and ramen shops after daylong shifts for other commercial courier services, when their reflexes and judgment may not be as sharp. Surely you’ve encountered these weary night riders in your elevator or lobby—you can admire their stamina and grit, until you’re nearly split in half when you encounter one flying through the median strip on Broadway.
The recent proliferation of e-bikes—stealthy, battery-operated stallions that can overtake you without the warning of a chain bike—creates an added concern. Businesses and riders obviously love them. Consider this sales pitch from a company called NYCE Wheels: “Behold. The electric bicycle! It helps you pedal when you’re tired. It can go across the island 10 times before you need to recharge it. It helps you save energy and cuts back on stress. Restaurants can expand their delivery radius, the food arrives hot, and tips are even getting bigger. Everyone wins.”
Officially, motorized bikes are illegal in New York—the DMV won’t register them—and Mayor de Blasio recently authorized the NYPD to begin issuing fines to any employer utilizing e-bikes, starting in January ($100 for first offense, $200 for subsequent violations). But an article last year in Citylab described how confusing the laws are around electric cycles, with clashes between federal and state rules governing their usage, including “pedal-assist” bikes that aren’t prohibited in the city. So, who wants to be one to the hold up their arm and make a citizen’s arrest when a hybrid e-rider cruises by at 20 MPH?
Which highlights a key element of our free-wheeling bike culture: When was the last time you saw a cop stop a food delivery cyclist—or any cyclist whose name isn’t Alec Baldwin—for riding the wrong way down a one-way street, cutting in front of traffic with the right-of-way or owning the sidewalk? Some basic show of enforcement of cycling laws—call it old-fashioned, “broken headlights” policing—could go a long way in curbing bad bike behavior.
Don’t count on it. The New York Times reports that in light of the Mayor’s recent decriminalization of quality-of-life offenses such as public urination, littering, unreasonable noise and drunkenness, cops are opting to ignore social infractions rather than hand out either civil or criminal summons. If police are willing to shrug off a rowdy, garbage-tossing sot urinating in the street, good luck getting them to ticket or even warn a cyclist just because he happens to ride around like a Mongol warrior.
Where are all those auxiliary police you used to see strolling the beat in baggy uniforms—how great if they could be deputized to keep tabs on bike offenders? But here’s a better idea. The city should compel all bicycle-deploying businesses to join a self-regulating body—call it NYCSA (New York Cycle Safety Authority) charged with ensuring safe operating practices. Membership dues contributed by restaurants, courier services and subcontractors would pay for regular inspections of bike fleets, improved rider training, spot checks of delivery person IDs and proper attire, and most importantly, roving street monitors to keep a pedestrian-eye view on things, and to issue points against riders and their bosses for breaking code. Checkmarks would be based on a graduated safety scale—dangerous riding being the highest; members hitting certain point thresholds would be fined, face impounding of their two-wheelers, and worst offenders would be suspended from bike deliveries until they clean up their act. Consumers could also check to see how the restaurants they frequent stack in violations using an NYCSA app or website.
Impossible? Think of FINRA, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which operates on exactly the same self-policing model for registered brokers and financial advisors. As it grows, NYCYSA could even lobby the city to allow use of electric bikes for delivery, which could be a genuine improvement for the whole take-out economy, if managed responsibly.
It sounds promising but I’m not holding my breath—or maybe I am, since Daylight Savings Time is ending and my evening walk home is already in darkness, when zig-zagging bikers becoming harder to discern. As I must be to them, particularly given my tendency to jump red lights and cross avenues mid-block. I’m basically asking for it any time I enter the street staring at my phone or absorbed in some music on my headphones, though aren’t we all?
The other night I witnessed the city biker’s version of a black swan event: two messengers were stopped behind one another at Amsterdam and 82nd, legs kick-standing onto the pavement, looking patiently ahead waiting for the light to turn green. The one in front even let a woman with a walker shuffle past as the signal was changing. And damned if the second guy didn’t signal with his arm that he was turning right down 82nd Street.
I marveled at this rare display of cycle civility and wished I’d taken a video. That brief hesitation turned out to be a blessing, because in stepping forward another food hauler rode by (I won’t say for whom, but it rhymes with “Haru”) and practically barbered the hairs on my beard as he made the sharp turn, using me as a human rounding pole. Heart racing and forehead pulsing, I marched down 82nd intent on stopping at the 20th precinct right there on that very block to issue a complaint. But what really happened, what was there to say? What could I say? Oh yes, that I was walking home from work and lived to tell the tale.
Allan Ripp runs a press relations firm in New York.