Yesterday was a particularly onerous commuting day. I’m used to having near misses, due to the fact that our bicycle infrastructure is not yet complete in NYC.
It’s not often that in one day I experience three separate experiences of outright aggressive behavior on the part of motor vehicles – but that’s exactly what I experienced yesterday. The irony- all three separate incidents happened while I was in ‘bicycle infrastructure’. I am not a vehicular cycling proponent. Quite the opposite. I firmly believe in and advocate for Dutch/Danish style infrastructure. It works.
The first incident I experienced, I was pedaling north on 1st Ave just as the shared lane/sharrows end where there is no effort at infrastructure, when an SUV passed me with in inches and startled me. The driver got caught at the red light at 57th street, so pedaled up to his car and calmly tapped on the window. After he rolled the window down, I politely explained to him that his actions had scared me and when he was driving past people on bikes in the future, could he kindly give them more room, since passing too closely can startle those of us on bicycles and cause us to get hurt or killed.
I was met with a blank stare. So I calmly asked him, “Sir, you wouldn’t want to kill anyone,would you?”
His response, “Not all the time”. And he rolled his window up effectively shutting my existence out of his life.
Great, so basically it was just implied that maybe this gentlemen had just wished me dead. There happens to be a NYPD traffic cop stationed at 57th and 1st Ave daily, so when the light turned green for northbound traffic, I pedaled over to him and told him what happened. The offending driver and car was still at the light because it was still red for vehicles wishing to make a left hand turn. The officer asked me which car and I pointed out exactly which one. To my surprise, the officer walked towards the car as the light turned green, stopped it and gave him a verbal warning (traffic cops can’t write tickets, FYI). I was amazed. When the officer returned, I thanked him profusely and discovered that he too rides a bike in NYC so he understood.
The second incident occurred as I was pedaling east on 48th street between 6th and 7th Aves where the ‘lane’ goes from sharrows to Class 2 (painted lines) when a delivery truck following close behind me kept blaring his horn at me to move out of the way (even though I was exactly where I was supposed to be). When the driver felt the opportunity, he passed me within inches and not at a safe speed. Being that this was midtown close to noon, he shortly thereafter got stuck in a long line of traffic waiting for the red light. I took pictures of his truck and license plate while he laughed at me and called me names.
Laugh it up funny guy, you could have killed me.
As the motor traffic idled, I pedaled up to the light and noticed an NYPD officer on foot. I walked over to him with my bike, explained what had happened and showed him the photos.
He listened patiently. I pointed out the truck to him and he said “I’m going to go over and have a talk with him.” “Thank you officer, I greatly appreciate that.” And yes, he did walk over to the truck and have that talk.
When I got to work I was able to call the company that the truck belonged to (since the name and phone number was displayed boldly on the sides and back of the truck and I had photos of it). After explaining what had happened to the receptionist, I was promptly put through to management. I explained again what happened, and told them they can’t have drivers of their company powering 10-ton vehicles and harassing or endangering people on bikes. The person I spoke with wholeheartedly agreed, asked if I knew the truck number (I did, I had a photo of the license plate). He said he probably knew who the driver was and that he would be given a warning and written up when he returned to their offices. Once again, I was able to give a heartfelt Thank You to another human being for actually caring about my safety (and the safety of all other road users, pedestrians and other motorists included).
The third incident happened again on 48th st, between 5th Ave and Madison, where I was riding in a Class 2 bike lane (painted lines, not protected). A delivery van sped up swerved in front of me to go around a double parked car on the right hand side of the street and then another vehicle, a tow truck did the same thing. There were no NYPD nearby, it was dark at that point so I couldn’t get a photo and I had to get to a client so I had to pedal on in frustration at nearly being hit but grateful not to have been hurt.
Why take the time to recount all this publicly?
Reason #1: The NYPD gets a lot of heat and complaints about what they don’t do or what they do wrong. They’ve got tough jobs, and they knew that going into it. It’s important to say thank you and recognize when they truly show the courtesy and respect. Advocates are campaigning for more accountability by the NYPD with regard to motor vehicle traffic crashes and fatalities for vulnerable road users. As we continue this campaign, thank yous can go a long way for both sides.
Reason #2: Infrastructure is good. More infrastructure is needed. But the infrastructure we have needs to be respected by those who it is supposed to protect us from. Part of the problem I believe lies not just with better enforcement, but at the very foundation of how people become ‘drivers’. Driver education needs to change in the US. Somehow we need to make people understand more fully that driving is a privilege, not a right and that motor vehicles are potential murder weapons. Cars and trucks are not evil, but the destruction caused by reckless, inattentive drivers is too high. If you eliminate suicides from the numbers of deaths by guns in the US, then cars cause nearly twice as many deaths yearly. Approximately 32,000 nationally or one person every 10 minutes. In NYC the stats: a person is hit by a car every 10 minutes. Every 35 hours someone is killed by a car.
Reason #3: People on bikes don’t have to take things sitting down. I’ve been on a bicycle for four decades, 23 of those years in NYC. It IS getting better. But we’ve got a long way to go. When I go to community board meetings, I hear the same complaints over and over again about how all ‘cyclists’ never obey the rules. Ever. This is simply not true. (And frankly, if you really observe NYC traffic, you can observe people of every transport mode bending or breaking the rules.) But many of those people who keep repeating this mythical mantra about people on bikes are the same ones repeatedly calling 311 to register complaints. How often are people on bikes making our voices heard? Likely, most of the time, we just pedal off in a frustrated huff after being nearly hit by cars. But there is something you can do, you can speak up and speak out. Do it with respect and courtesy, and you have a better chance of getting somewhere ( granted, if you’ve just been knocked off your bike and have been hurt, I understand your need to yell and vent- been there).
Reason #4: A 60 yr old woman on a bicycle was killed today by a commercial sanitation truck on 23rd Street. My heart breaks for her. She could have been anyone of us- pedestrians and motorists included. I am lucky to be sitting here today in front of my computer rather than a statistic. I am constantly trying to convince more people to choose a bicycle for transportation. I honestly believe it’s the best way to get around NYC. But the hard reality is that there’s still work to be done (this mantra’s getting a bit boring isn’t it? Too bad, I won’t stop repeating it until we get to Vision Zero).
So when someone does the right thing, the nice thing- say thank you. In the meantime, speak up and speak out. Let’s keep changing things one little bit at a time.