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One City, By Bike: Getting It Done, or Why the Bikelash Is Behind Us

This is the final piece in a five-part series by former NYC DOT policy director Jon Orcutt about the de Blasio administration’s opportunities to expand and improve cycling in New York. Read part onepart two, part three, and part four.

New bike lanes geared to Citi Bike expansion, bringing safer and more appealing cycling conditions to more neighborhoods, integrating the Harlem River bridges into the city cycling network: It all sounds great. But is it on the radar of new leadership at NYC DOT? Does the consensus-oriented de Blasio City Hall have the chops to make it happen in New York’s NIMBY-rich environment?

Antonio Reynoso, Brad Lander, and Carlos Menchaca are part of a large and influential bike-friendly cohort on the City Council. Photo: StreetsPAC

To a surprising degree, NYC’s cycling future looks bright regardless of the answers to these questions.

The main reason for that is today’s City Council. The Council slates elected in 2009 and 2013 included strong advocates of safe and bike-friendly streets, and their ranks grew from one election cycle to the next. Most of these Council members represent areas that are natural territory for the next phases of bike network growth. Many of them have already been vocal this year in demanding Citi Bike expansion to their districts.

Equally important, the de Blasio administration wants city agencies to work closely with and meet reasonable requests from local elected officials. If Council members want bike-share and additional bike lanes, City Hall will listen.

And finally, the cycling community today enjoys strong relationships with City Hall and much of the Council. The deft work of Transportation Alternatives led directly to the inclusion of Vision Zero and ambitious cycling goals in Mayor de Blasio’s campaign agenda. StreetsPAC, a new force in the city’s electoral landscape, endorsed and stays in touch with most of the Council’s bike-oriented cohort.

Last month, the Daily News chronicled the cycling habits of Brooklyn Council members Antonio Reynoso, Carlos Menchaca, and Robert Cornegy. In addition, consider the Council members representing areas spotlighted in parts twothree, and four of this series:

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With Albany AWOL, Council Bill Proposes Fines Against Hit-and-Run Drivers

With perpetrators having little to fear from police and prosecutors, a new City Council bill aims to deter drivers from fleeing crash scenes by attaching civil penalties to hit-and-run.

Proposed by Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer and transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez, Intro 371 would levy fines of $250 to $5,000 against drivers who leave the scene of a crash, with fines ranging from $500 to $5,000 in cases where a driver “knows or has cause to know” an injury has occurred. Fines at the higher end of the scale would be applied to drivers who inflict serious injuries and deaths.

At a transportation committee hearing today, Van Bramer and Rodriguez stressed that the proposed fines are not intended to place a value on lives, but to deter drivers from leaving crash victims to die. Van Bramer noted that hit-and-run drivers have killed three pedestrians in his district alone in the last 18 months.

Motorists have “a moral responsibility to stop and not flee, to see if those people who were just struck can be saved,” Van Bramer said.

Under New York State law, drivers who may be impaired by alcohol or drugs have an incentive to leave the scene, since the penalty for hit-and-run is less severe than causing death or injury while intoxicated. State legislators have repeatedly failed to fix the law. ”We must act where Albany has not,” said Van Bramer.

Transportation Alternatives offered recommendations for bill amendments. TA’s Noah Budnick testified that higher fines would be a stronger deterrent, and said fines should be increased for drivers who hit pedestrians or cyclists, who account for the majority of hit-and-run victims. Repeat offenders and drunk and unlicensed drivers should also be subject to more severe penalties, Budnick said.

Rodriguez said the proposed fines may be increased.

Another issue, not discussed during the hearing, is the ”knows or has cause to know” provision. Many New York City hit-and-run drivers are not charged criminally because prosecutors must prove the driver “knew or had reason to know” a collision occurred. This is a surprisingly high burden, and many times DAs don’t pursue cases if a driver claims he or she “didn’t see” the victim.

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Council Members Van Bramer, Levin Come Out on Top in TA Report Card

Which members of the City Council have made transportation a priority this term? A new report card from Transportation Alternatives [PDF] ranks each borough’s delegation on whether its members sponsored 15 key transportation bills and resolutions signed by the mayor in the first six months of 2014. It found that, while a majority of council members are working for street safety, a smaller number have carried the banner for livable streets by sponsoring multiple pieces of legislation so far this year.

"How'm I doin'?" A new report card from Transportation Alternatives shows which council members are leading on street safety. Photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council

“How’m I doin’?” A new report card from Transportation Alternatives shows which council members are leading on street safety. Photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council

Most of the legislation TA used as a measuring stick was passed in May as part of a package of Vision Zero bills and resolutions. The report also included a resolution urging the state to take action on the Sheridan Expressway plan, among other bills. The report card tallied co-sponsors, not just the primary sponsor who introduced the legislation.

The average council member signed on to just two of the 15 bills. ”A select group of Council members sponsored significantly more,” TA says in the report, with Jimmy Van Bramer, Steve Levin, Maria Del Carmen Arroyo, and Helen Rosenthal led the way, each signing on to ten or more bills.

While most boroughs had their leaders and laggards, council members Vincent Ignizio, Steven Matteo, and Debi Rose of Staten Island all ranked poorly. Rose sponsored only one of the 15 pieces of legislation, to mandate speedy repair of broken traffic signals. Matteo and Ignizio did not sponsor any of the bills or resolutions.

The report card is a useful, if limited, snapshot of City Council activity. It did not look at the votes of council members, which are typically lopsided once a bill makes it to the floor. It also did not consider whether, of all the bills a council member sponsors, he or she is more or less likely to sign on to a transportation bill when compared to bills on other issues. One more flaw: Despite being a big street safety supporter, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito ranks very low in the report card because, as the Council’s leader, she did not co-sponsor any of the 15 bills TA examined.

Council members do more than just sponsor legislation. They also make sure city agencies are putting street safety policies into action in their districts. Following up on last year’s campaign questionnaire, TA staff reached out to the 51 council members and their staff to learn what they’re doing. Council Members Inez Dickens, Andy King, Ruben Wills, Vincent Gentile, Jumaane Williams, and Mathieu Eugene did not respond to TA’s inquiries.

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City Council: Drivers With Free On-Street Parking Have Suffered Enough

It may be the Vision Zero era, but some things never change. If you’re looking for cost-free, consequence-free storage of your private automobile in public space, the City Council still has your back.

The bill under consideration today by the City Council’s transportation committee, to nibble away at alternate side parking restrictions, may not be as egregious as previous council ideas like free time at unpaid meters or changing city law to mandate parking permits for teachers. But it did offer an opportunity for council members to inveigh on behalf of put-upon “real New Yorkers” who store their cars on the street for free.

Although the average car owner in New York City has a much higher income than a car-free counterpart, that didn’t stop council members from constantly referring to parking tickets as a tax on the middle and working class.

“It’s the anger of real New Yorkers who feel that the city is using them as a piggy bank and that the middle class is being squeezed by unnecessary tickets,” said Council Member Costa Constantinides of Astoria, who signed on to the legislation after seeing illegally-parked drivers on a swept street get tickets before the parking restriction ended. ”It felt as if it was just for revenue,” he said.

The bill would allow drivers to park during prohibited hours so long as they are “in the vehicle and ready to move” when the street sweeper comes through. ”We should not be going after the working class or middle class,” said Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez, who has pushed the legislation for years. ”[It's] a struggle New Yorkers are all too familiar with.”

The city’s sanitation and police departments testified today in opposition to the bill. ”The signs are put up there for a reason,” said NYPD Inspector Dennis Fulton. “The streets need to be cleaned.”

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De Blasio Signs Traffic Safety Bills, Says 25 MPH Will Go Into Effect This Fall

Mayor de Blasio signs 11 traffic safety bills this morning at PS 152 in Queens, surrounded by families of traffic violence victims. Photo: Stephen Miller

Mayor de Blasio signed 11 traffic safety bills earlier today at PS 152 in Queens, surrounded by families of traffic violence victims. Photo: Stephen Miller

Earlier today, Mayor Bill de Blasio returned to the schoolyard where he launched his administration’s Vision Zero campaign in January, just feet from where 9-year-old Noshat Nahian was killed last December while walking to PS 152 with his sister. A little more than six months after announcing his intent to eliminate traffic fatalities within 10 years, the mayor signed bills that suspend the licenses of dangerous taxi drivers, require the installation of 20 mph Slow Zones, and make it a misdemeanor to strike a pedestrian or cyclist with the right of way, among other changes.

While today’s press conference struck a celebratory note, the mayor made clear that Vision Zero is a continuing effort. “The vision is to end traffic fatalities in this city. It’s not easy. Nobody said it was easy,” de Blasio said. “When you think about Vision Zero and all its components, fundamentally it comes down to reducing speeding, reducing reckless driving.”

“A special thanks to all the family members of all the individuals who have turned their pain into action and who have had a huge impact in this city and in this state,” he said. “[They] have been fantastic advocates, particularly in Albany.”

With Families for Safe Streets members in Albany last week, the State Senate and Assembly passed legislation to lower the default speed limit in New York City to 25 mph. De Blasio said that the new limit will likely go into effect this fall after Governor Cuomo signs the bill and the City Council passes its own speed limit legislation.

The package of bills that the mayor signed today focuses on TLC, DOT, and NYPD.

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City Council Passes Home Rule Message for 25 MPH. Is Klein Listening?

Update: The Daily News reports that Klein will be introducing legislation by the end of the week to lower speed limits to 25 mph only on streets with two lanes or less. Streets with more than two lanes would remain at 30 mph, and the local community board would be required to make a request for a lower speed limit before the city could make the change. This would effectively tie the city’s hands on arterial streets, where DOT can already set the limit at 25 mph under current law.

This afternoon in a 44-4 vote, the City Council passed a home rule message asking Albany to pass legislation to lower New York City’s default speed limit from 30 to 25 mph. Now it’s up to the State Senate to introduce a companion bill to legislation sponsored by Speaker Sheldon Silver, and advocates are hoping Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein will step up.

The City Council wants the State Senate to step up for a lower speed limit. Will Jeff Klein take it on? Photo: NY Senate

“We’re requesting that we be given the authority to establish a citywide 25 mph speed limit, while also making it easier to sign 20 mph speed limits in select locations,” said Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Streetsblog asked Klein spokesperson Anna Durrett this morning if the senator had a reaction to the home rule message. “I will get back to you,” she said. (So far, she hasn’t.) The window for action from Klein is closing: This year’s legislative session ends a week from tomorrow.

The home rule bill, which unanimously passed the transportation committee yesterday, received wide support at the full City Council this afternoon. Council members were accompanied on the floor by students in the “Council Member for a Day” program, and one of them had a message about the speed limit bill.

“Traffic in the city is dangerous, and by lowering the speed limit from 30 to 25, police can ticket more people who are speeding,” said Christopher Gerbasi, a student at P.S. 128 in Middle Village who was spending the day with Council Member Elizabeth Crowley.

Not all council members agreed with the majority. The four “nay” votes were from Vincent Ignizio and Steven Matteo of Staten Island, Eric Ulrich of Queens, and Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn.

“I am very much in support of the vast majority of Vision Zero, but I’m not convinced that we need to lower the speed limit to 25 mph across the entire city,” Williams said, adding that he supports Slow Zones. Williams said he is aware that people are much safer in crashes at slower speeds, and noted that 20 is even safer than 25 mph, but somehow this did not lead him to vote for the bill. Instead, he said there should be more tickets for drivers violating the existing 30 mph limit. “I am not convinced that it’s not an issue of enforcement,” he said.

After his vote, Williams said on Twitter that “it’s possible” he misunderstood the bill and “would be happy to learn more” — but the issue is out of the City Council’s hands now. It’s up to the State Senate.

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Council Bill Would Fine Drivers for Leaving the Scene of a Crash

Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Ydanis Rodriguez have introduced a bill that would impose civil penalties for hit-and-run crashes.

Intro 371 would attach escalating fines, based on injury severity, for violating Section 600 of the state traffic code, which deals with leaving the scene. Fines would begin at “not more than” $250 for drivers who leave the scene of a crash, $500 to $1,000 for a crash resulting in physical injury, $1,000 to $5,000 for a serious injury crash, and $2,000 to $5,000 for a fatal crash.

The bill refers to Article 10 of the state penal law for definitions of injury — “impairment of physical condition or substantial pain” — and serious injury — “injury which creates a substantial risk of death, or which causes death or serious and protracted disfigurement, protracted impairment of health or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ.”

Unlike Intro 238, a bill passed by the council last week that applies a strict liability standard to cases where motorists strike pedestrians or cyclists who have the right of way, Intro 371 would apply only when a driver ”knows or has cause to know that physical injury has occurred.” This burden of proof gives rise to the “I didn’t see her” defense, often employed by hit-and-run drivers who avoid prosecution, even in cases where the victim dies.

Current state law gives drivers who have been drinking an incentive to flee the scene, as the criminal penalty for hit-and-run can be less severe than for causing injury while driving drunk. Albany has repeatedly failed to pass legislation that would toughen criminal penalties for leaving the scene.

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For Cooper’s Law to Work, NYPD Must Change Its Approach to Traffic Crashes

For Cooper’s Law to be effective, ticketing reckless drivers will have to become the rule for NYPD, rather than the exception. Graphic by Carly Clark. Citation data via Transportation Alternatives.

One of the most substantive traffic safety bills passed by the City Council Thursday was Intro 171 — “Cooper’s Law” — which allows the Taxi and Limousine Commission to suspend or revoke hack licenses of cab drivers who cause critical injury or death as a result of breaking traffic laws. The effectiveness of the law, however, depends on NYPD, which often does not ticket drivers involved in serious crashes.

The driver who killed Cooper Stock, the law’s namesake, was cited for failure to yield. But the cab drivers who fatally struck Kelly Gordon and Timothy Keith, for example, were reportedly not summonsed for those crashes. Nor was the cabbie who severed the leg of Sian Green. Even with Cooper’s Law in effect, all of those cab drivers would theoretically remain in good standing with the TLC.

It is too early to know whether NYPD is ticketing more drivers who injure and kill since the advent of Vision Zero, but another item on yesterday’s agenda might be instructive. The council passed a resolution asking Albany to elevate violations of the state’s vulnerable user law to misdemeanor status, which would let cops ticket drivers based on probable cause. NYPD has said it can’t cite drivers for mere traffic violations unless an officer personally witnesses the incident.

Hayley and Diego’s Law — also named after children killed by a driver who avoided criminal charges — was meant to give police a middle ground between a traffic violation and a crime. Because the department only issues careless driving citations if the crash is investigated by the Collision Investigation Squad, NYPD has for years failed to enforce the law as intended. As a result, fewer than 1 percent of New York City drivers who injure and kill pedestrians and cyclists are cited for careless driving.

Another potential hindrance is that NYPD investigates a fraction of serious traffic crashes. Though Ray Kelly purportedly retired the “likely to die” rule, only CIS personnel are trained to do more than check off boxes on the state-issued collision report form. In 2011 NYPD investigated just 304 of 3,192 fatal or serious collisions, according to the office of former comptroller John Liu. Even with reported additions to CIS, the unit has nowhere close to the staff it needs to properly investigate all serious crashes.

If NYPD limits enforcement of Cooper’s Law to CIS-investigated collisions, or does not change its approach to traffic crashes in a meaningful way, dangerous cab drivers will remain on the job.

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City Council Passes Several Bills to Reduce Reckless Driving

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and other reps before today's meeting. Photo: ##https://twitter.com/willalatriste/status/472067061028777984##@willalatriste##

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and other reps before today’s meeting. Photo: @willalatriste

The City Council today passed a slate of bills and resolutions aimed at improving street safety.

The 11 bills — outlined in detail here — include Intro 238, which would make it a misdemeanor for a driver to “make contact” with a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way, punishable by up to $500 in fines and 30 days in jail; and Intro 171, known as “Cooper’s Law,” which would suspend or revoke TLC licenses of cab drivers who are summonsed or convicted, respectively, of traffic violations stemming from crashes that result in critical injury or death.

Council Member Mark Weprin, of Queens, cast the lone vote against Intro 171. Weprin said the bill comes too close to creating a strict liability standard — which, according to attorney and traffic law expert Steve Vaccaro, is exactly what New York State needs to reduce deaths and injuries. Weprin said he fears the law would punish some unfairly — that a driver’s career shouldn’t end because of one incident, and that a cabbie who rolls through a stop sign and causes a crash should not necessarily be subject to the same penalties as one who crashes while speeding. (The cab driver who killed Cooper Stock failed to yield and had an otherwise clean record.) “This is the livelihood of these drivers,” said Weprin. Council Members Vincent Gentile and Jumaane Williams abstained from voting on the bill.

Other bills would combine points issued by the state DMV and the TLC against hack licenses and set new TLC license suspension and revocation standards; require the TLC to review and report on cab driver crashes and subsequent disciplinary actions; codify the number of Slow Zones DOT implements each year; codify DOT work zone safety standards; require DOT to study the safety of arterial streets, study safety issues pertaining to left turns by motorists, and inspect and/or repair broken traffic signals within 24 hours; and prohibit “stunt behavior” by motorcyclists.

The bill to require the TLC to institute a one-year pilot program for “black box” technology to record and report taxi driver behavior was not on today’s agenda. TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi told the transportation committee in April that the agency has issued RFIs for the program, but she made no mention of the pilot in budget testimony before the council earlier this month.

One bill in the transportation committee hopper not taken up today would mandate side guards for trucks to help prevent people from being swept beneath them. DOT asked that the council hold off on legislating truck guards in lieu of a pending study already underway within the department.

The council approved resolutions asking Albany to grant the city control over speed and red light cameras, increase the penalty for driving on a sidewalk to $250 and three license points, make it a misdemeanor to violate the state’s vulnerable user law, increase the penalty for reckless driving that results in death or serious injury, and pass extant bills to increase penalties for leaving the scene of a crash.

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TLC Won’t Renew Hack License of Cab Driver Who Killed Cooper Stock

The cab driver who killed 9-year-old Cooper Stock won’t be prosecuted by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, but he won’t have a hack license much longer.

Koffi Komlani has not driven a cab since he struck Cooper and his father in an Upper West Side crosswalk in January, according to Allan Fromberg, spokesperson for the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Being a new driver, Komlani has a one-year probationary license, and the TLC will not renew it when it expires on July 5, Fromberg said.

“Obviously, while we are seeking to address issues of getting drivers that we believe are risky off the road more easily through legislative means via Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan, in the meantime, at least, we can take this action,” Fromberg told Capital New York.

The TLC says it is hamstrung by rules that make it difficult to take dangerous cab drivers off the streets. Komlani stopped driving voluntarily. The cabbies who killed 5-year-old Timothy Keith and severed the leg of tourist Sian Green, for example, also retained their hack licenses.

Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero Action Plan includes a number of taxi safety initiatives, including “black box” tech to monitor cab driver behavior. However, TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi did not mention that program when she outlined the TLC’s FY 15 budget for the City Council. Joshi has said the TLC and NYPD will form an enforcement squad that will focus exclusively on TLC-licensed vehicles.

After the news broke that Komlani would not be charged criminally, Council Member Helen Rosenthal again called for the passage of “Cooper’s Law,” her bill to suspend or revoke the hack licenses of cab drivers who are summonsed or convicted, respectively, of traffic violations stemming from crashes that result in critical injury or death. 

“Current laws are clearly inadequate, and this news affirms the need for Cooper’s Law,” said Rosenthal in a press release. “The City legislates the TLC, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that those laws are sound.”