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New York City’s War on Bikes Is Dangerous for Workers and the Environment

Bill de Blasio says he's environmentally friendly, but he runs a city that actively antagonizes bikers.

by Caroline Haskins
May 29 2019, 1:00pm

Image: Yana Paskova/Getty Images

In Bill de Blasio's May 16 presidential campaign announcement on YouTube, he is at one point shown at a rally for the Green New Deal, the legislative overhaul proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez which would tax rich Americans in order to pay for green infrastructure and jobs.

As the mayor of New York City, to be fair, de Blasio has introduced some progressive environmental measures. He made a promise in April to speed up bus speeds 25 percent by 2020 through measures like making new bus lanes, although it’s up to the MTA to introduce new and electric buses. De Blasio also committed to fully divesting the city from fossil fuels by 2023 (although City Hall said the Comptroller's Office has yet to hire a consultant to make specific divestment plans), and invested over $1 billion in affordable housing, which not only people’s lives but reduces urban sprawl.

Here’s the problem: Under de Blasio's leadership, New York City has remained a notoriously unsafe city for bikers, and heavily polices the people that do bike. You can’t sell your city as progressive with respect to climate change mitigation if the city doesn’t support its most low-emission commutes.

Even on a personal level, de Blasio has indicated that he’s pro-cars. As pointed out by the New York Daily News, De Blasio recently drove to an event focused on the Green New Deal, a policy framework introduced to Congress by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that aims to redistribute wealth and fund renewable energy and sustainable infrastructure nationwide.

“He gets driven to work. He gets driven to the gym. He gets driven virtually everywhere,” Gersh Kuntsman, the editor-in-chief of StreetsblogNYC wrote in the New York Daily News.

Of course, there are limits to how much attention you can place on individual choices when it comes to worldwide, structural problems like climate change. But if anyone is in a position to make “green” choices, it’s Bill De Blasio. He can afford to make choices like biking or taking public transit, and have people work around his schedule if necessary.

Five days after de Blasio’s presidential announcement, the 13th precinct of the New York Police Department posted a triumphant tweet about a "successful #ebike operation" showing five e-bikes, several of which clearly belonged to food delivery workers. (While pedal-assisted e-bikes are legal in New York, fully motorized bikes are not.)

Back in April, the NYPD confiscated the bikes of half a dozen teens because they didn’t have bells. Days later, the NYPD confiscated still more bikes from adult cyclists in Tompkins Square Park. And as reported by Gothamist, the NYPD has been ticketing cyclists for allegedly minor or nonexistent misdemeanors.

The NYPD also consistently seizes and impounds e-bikes. For low-wage delivery workers (who make money based on the number of deliveries per hour), these bikes are typically owned by the workers and not their employers.

Under De Blasio, the policing of e-bikes has intensified. In January 2018, New York started fining $100 to $200 on businesses that employ low-wage workers that use e-bikes. Some delivery workers have reported receiving $500 fines. Older delivery workers especially rely on pedal-assist or motorized bikes in order to make deliveries. When these workers have raised their concerns to de Blasio, he has dismissed them.

“You can use a car, you can use a regular bicycle, you can go on foot,” De Blasio said, according to Streetsblog. “There’s all sorts of ways to deliver food, but we’re not going to allow e-bikes.”

When reached for comment, de Blasio’s press team referred Motherboard to the transcript of an April press conference where the mayor addressed these issues. De Blasio said that ideally, the crackdown on e-bikes would be directed at restaurants and not individual workers.

“It is supposed to be toward businesses,” de Blasio said. “And I have had this conversation with the NYPD that we have to ensure that all precincts are educated on this point. Wherever the summons can be given to let’s say the restaurant, rather than the worker, we want that.”

He added that it's on restaurants to stop using e-bikes and find "other ways to deliver,” and said that they present a safety issue.

“I really have to emphasize this,” “This is a safety problem, and it’s a safety problem waiting to happen a lot of the time too,” de Blasio said.

There isn’t much research about the safety of e-bikes, but existing research tells us there’s two main factors affecting how safe e-bikes are to riders and pedestrians: one, whether there’s adequate bike lanes and infrastructure in place to accommodate e-bikes, and two, how fast the bikes are going (in other words, whether they follow the rules of the road.)

In essence, regardless of how safe e-bikes are right now, existing research tells us that in order to make e-bikes safe, we need a place to put them on the streets. The solution isn’t policing e-bikes. It’s building cities that are more friendly to bikes and less friendly to cars.

The transportation sector is one of the most pollution-heavy industries on earth. According to the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international panel of scientists dedicated to studying climate change, the sector accounts for 14 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. And emissions aren’t going down. Between 2000 and 2010, emissions from the transportation sector went up 11 percent.

Last year, De Blasio committed to fully divesting the city from fossil fuels by 2023. But City Hall said the Comptroller's Office has yet to hire a consultant to make specific divestment plans, and it’s crucial to make changes to city transportation systems in order to lower emissions.

Some of the most effective changes, according to the IPCC and other experts, are creating more biking and walking lanes and encouraging more people to bike. But there’s a huge barrier that keeps more New Yorkers from biking: the city is often unsafe for cyclists.

In 2018, ten cyclists died in New York City. In just the first few months of 2019, ten cyclists have died. Bike-related injuries are an epidemic; in January of 2019 alone, there were 14,538 reported collisions between cyclists and cars or pedestrians. Pedestrian deaths haven’t gone down at all. In fact, pedestrian deaths rose from 104 to 107 from 2017 to 2018.

One way to keep cyclists safe is to build more protected bike lanes, or bike lanes that are marked and separated from trucks and cars. Under de Blasio’s “Vision Zero” plan to eliminate biker deaths in New York City, New York City’s Department of Transportation claimed they added about 16 miles of protected bike lanes in 2018, which rose to 20.9 miles after protective barriers were added in early 2019.

However, the majority of New York City streets don’t have bike lanes, and most bike lanes remain unprotected. (In fact, de Blasio’s presidential campaign announcement video shows a cyclist pedaling, unprotected, just feet from a multi-ton MTA bus.) Unprotected bike lanes, while better than nothing, aren't as safe as protected lanes. Streetsblog recently tweeted that "his bike lane policy is mostly 'paint and prayers'” and that shared bike lanes (called "sharrows," are "chevrons of death."

Image: YouTube/Bill de Blasio.
Image: YouTube/Bill de Blasio.

Bill de Blasio's New York City remains structurally friendly to cars at the expense of bikers and walkers. We have to transition away from car use in order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.