Bike lanes can’t save cyclists who won’t protect themselves

Ignoring a dedicated bike lane, a cyclist dangerously splits lanes down San Vicente Boulevard in West Los Angeles in mid-day traffic.

The video out of Brooklyn, New York on July 1 is as gut wrenching as it is heart wrenching. A cyclist speeds down the sidewalk and into a blind intersection, against the light, without slowing down. Tragically, she tries to cross the street just as a cement truck enters the intersection. She swerves at the last second, but it’s too late – she hits the front of the truck, falls off her bike, and is crushed under the truck’s back wheels. A surveillance camera caught the accident (warning, the video is extremely graphic and will be disturbing to some readers). The victim was a 28-year-old woman named Devra Freelander, an artist who lived in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.

In Manhattan on June 24th, a 20-year-old bicycle messenger collided with a delivery truck in morning traffic. Robyn Hightman was riding in traffic when they* hit the truck from behind. The driver, who continued to drive several more blocks before being flagged by a taxi driver, claimed he never saw them.

The accident occurred near the intersection of Sixth Avenue (aka Avenue of the Americas) and 24th Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. Ironically, in response to pressure from bike activists, in 2016 the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) installed a protected bike lane on Sixth Avenue between 8th and 33rd Streets. In December of that year Streetsblog NYC gushed that “the new protected bike lane on Sixth Avenue … has turned one of the city’s most stress-inducing bike routes into one of its best.”

The protected bike lane, left, on Sixth Avenue at 24th Street, near where a cyclist was killed in an accident on June 24. The cyclist wasn’t using the lane at the time of the collision.

According to CBS affiliate WKTR, “police determined [Hightman] was not in the bike lane and was traveling between vehicles when they were struck.” Likewise, the New York Post reported Hightman “was pedaling between cars” when the crash occurred. Eyewitnesses, including the cab driver who stopped the truck driver, confirmed that Hightman struck the Freightliner truck from behind. Images of the scene show a mangled bicycle in the middle of the street, several dozen feet from the bike lane.

The response to the accident was predictable to anyone familiar with bike activists and their radical agenda. Rather than using the tragedies of Freelander’s and Highman’s deaths as a teachable moment New York’s bike activists (all 37 of them) went into full outrage mode. Instead of taking a hard look at the circumstances, they raged about “reckless truck drivers,” “dangerous drivers,” and of course, “traffic violence.” These are the same cohorts who gleefully boast about bike rage, and howl about evil school bus drivers (seriously). They even claim to be an “oppressed class” (again, seriously).

In short, they do everything but take responsibility for their own lives.

Yet the simple fact is that cyclists often are their own worst enemies. They routinely blow through red lights and stop signs. They lane split in rush hour traffic while listening to music and checking texts. They ride the wrong way down one-way streets. They ride at night with no lights or reflective gear. They bait and taunt motorists. These are all incredibly risky actions yet they are the norm for far too many cyclists. If cyclists don’t take responsibility for their own safety, there’s little the rest of us can do. Indeed, in the name of speed and convenience many riders routinely ignore roadway features specifically intended to protect them.

A memorial gathering for Hightman the night of the accident was a prime example of the activists’ warped ideology. What started as a (relatively) peaceful vigil quickly turned into a protest that ultimately erupted into an Antifa-style riot. Several activists dragged two men from their car and beat them in the street. They also damaged the men’s car along with multiple others. Nothing calls sympathy to a cause like intentionally, violently assaulting innocent individuals (not unlike the Antifa riot in Portland last weekend that left journalist Andy Ngo with a brain hemorrhage).

This man, with visible injuries, claims he was attacked by rioting bike activists.

Despite the activists’ self-righteous outrage and violence, Freelander’s and Hightman’s deaths are tragic illustrations of how bike lanes cannot prevent every single accident and death, particularly when cyclists themselves don’t obey traffic rules. A reporter from the New York Villager visited the scene of Hightman’s death a few days after the accident. He observed, “several cyclists…veering out into car lanes near the intersection to avoid heavy pedestrian traffic and slower bicycles, and then turning back into the bike lane midway up the block.” Cyclists swerve out into traffic in order to maintain their preferred speed rather than slowing for pedestrians (as required by law). That, in a word, is unsafe. If they won’t prioritize their own safety, Vision Zero and all the bike lanes in the world can’t help them.

Activists often point to confounding factors like cars, trucks, and buses parked illegally in bike lanes. They point out that some drivers are simply oblivious to bicycles and sometimes overtly hostile, with dangerous consequences. Those are valid points. Again, however, the law requires bicycle riders to observe the rules of the road. If a driver encounters a double-parked car, the solution isn’t to swerve into the oncoming lane without slowing down. Given their inherent vulnerability cyclists should be even more cautious. If they encounter a slower rider ahead of them they have to slow down themselves until it is safe to pass. These are the rules of the road.

Alas, a drive through most any downtown core these days involves navigating among a constant scrum of law breaking velocipedians. As bike lanes and other “bike infrastructure” proliferate nationwide, attitudes among cyclists have shifted from self preservation to privilege. Even though they comprise a vanishingly small proportion of road users (with the exception of few college towns no U.S. city has a bicycling rate higher than 4%), they wield outsize influence in city planning offices and even city halls. Groups like New York’s Transportation Alternatives are extremely well-funded and dominate the narrative over traffic safety. In their narrative, cyclists are never responsible for their own actions, much less their own safety.

If someone decides to drive drunk and ends up crashing into a tree and dying, we don’t blame the tree. Yet in every single cyclist death the activists blame everyone and everything but the cyclist, even when that cyclist flouted traffic laws intended to protect them.

A cyclist ignores the protected bike lane and weaves through traffic on Spring Street in downtown L.A.

The fact that riders like Freelander are responsible for their own accidents doesn’t make it their fault. Even when they’re 100% responsible, they’re still victims. Victims of an increasingly entitled and aggressive lobby of bike activists who blame everything on cars and drivers even when the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. It’s the only message young people like Hightman have ever heard. They have grown up in an era in which American cities collectively added tens of thousands of miles of bike lanes, routes, and paths, giving riders a sense of primacy. Cyclists are taught to ride aggressively rather than cautiously and defensively. The ultimate tragedy is that it’s the bike activists themselves who lure innocent people to their doom by imbuing them with a false sense of priority and safety.

The fact of the matter is, choosing to ride a bicycle is choosing to take certain risks. Cycling on city streets, particularly major thoroughfares, is an inherently dangerous act, one made inestimably more dangerous by many cyclists’ own conduct and decisions. When it comes down to it there’s nothing between a rider’s body and the pavement.

Unless and until the bike activists are willing to acknowledge so much as a scintilla of these realities people will continue dying on the streets.

  • *Robyn Hightman went by the pronouns they/them.
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