The Real Menace on Our Sidewalks

As irritating as it might be sometimes to encounter sidewalk cyclists, pedestrians are at much greater risk from curb-jumping motorists, like the SUV driver who killed UPS worker Mike Rogalle in Lower Manhattan last month.

So it looks like the City Council is pondering legislation that would raise the fine for biking on the sidewalk (currently $100) and possibly establish a new squad of enforcement agents dedicated entirely to ticketing commercial cyclists.

At a hearing earlier this week, transportation committee chair James Vacca framed the riding habits of commercial cyclists as a safety “crisis,” reported the Daily News:

“But when it comes to the crisis, and it is a crisis, of people’s safety, pedestrians’ safety, that many of the commercial bicyclists do not have regard for, then this city has a legal obligatioan to protect the law-abiding citizens, who only want to cross a street.

“Commercial bicyclists treat it as the Wild Wild West,” added Vacca, chairman of the Council’s Transportation Committee. “That has to stop.”

He demanded “civil and criminal penalties” — though how harsh remains unclear.

The less sidewalk riding and wrong-way cycling, the better, but the only promising policy proposal that surfaced at the hearing seems to be a measure that would hold restaurant ownership liable for the traffic infractions of their delivery cyclists. As Times reporter David Goodman conveyed exceptionally well with his profile of delivery cyclist Lin Dakang this March, these guys are risking their necks in traffic every day and dealing with intense financial pressures to get food to people while it’s hot. Having restaurant owners absorb the cost of the traffic tickets would create the same incentive structure that exists in other workplaces.

“If you run a hair salon and your employee isn’t wearing a mask, you get the ticket,” said Juan Martinez, general counsel at Transportation Alternatives, pointing out that contractors get fined when workers don’t wear hard hats at construction sites and businesses like FedEx pick up the tab for parking tickets incurred by their on-the-job drivers.

As for the rest of the package, does anyone serious about street safety actually believe that a separate force of bikes-only ticketing agents is going to improve matters? The NYPD already racks up a fair amount of bike citations in hotspots like the Upper East Side. Nearly half of the 19th Precinct’s summonses for failure to obey traffic signals in 2011 went to cyclists, a stunning percentage when you consider the high rates of injury and death caused by motor vehicle drivers in the neighborhood.

A more effective sidewalk riding deterrent is coming to the Upper East Side this year: the new protected bike lane on First Avenue. Sidewalk cycling has declined dramatically where redesigns have made people feel safer biking on the street. The more streets that get this treatment, the less pedestrians and cyclists will fight over sidewalk scraps, and the more protection everyone will have from reckless motorist behavior.

Turning to the purported safety “crisis” posed by commercial cyclists, let’s take a moment to put things in perspective. If you’re walking on the sidewalk in New York City, curb-jumping motorists pose a greater threat than scofflaw cyclists. Last month, UPS worker Mike Rogalle was killed by the driver of an SUV while performing his rounds on a Lower Manhattan sidewalk. Motorists plow into sidewalks and injure pedestrians with shocking regularity in New York City.

But after a landmark hearing on NYPD traffic enforcement and crash investigations this February, the City Council has so far failed to produce the follow-up legislation promised by Vacca and Peter Vallone, Jr. The genuine lethal threat of dangerous driving is going unaddressed while the council shifts into overkill mode on the scofflaw cyclist front.

The least the City Council can do to make up for this new round of counterproductive grandstanding would be to pass a resolution endorsing a bill that will actually save lives: Albany’s speed camera legislation, which for the first time has sponsors in both houses.

Noah Kazis contributed to this post.