Blood on the streets

After a rash of cyclist deaths, the mayor calls for a new bike safety plan

  • Street safety advocates gathered last fall to dedicate a “ghost bike” in memory of Madison Jane Lyden, a cyclist who was struck and killed on Central Park West near 67th Street. Photo: Michael Garofalo

  • Cyclists on a memorial ride along Central Park West last August in honor of Madison Jane Lyden, a 23-year-old Australian tourist who was killed by a truck as she biked on the avenue. Photo: Michael Garofalo

  • Mayor Bill de Blasio at the NYPD graduation ceremony on July 2. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography

“We lead the world in a lot of ways, but definitely not in bike safety.”

Joe Cutrufo, a Transportation Alternatives spokesman

Hours after a cement truck killed a 29-year-old cyclist — the third bike death in a week and 15th of the year — Mayor Bill de Blasio declared an “emergency,” ordered an NYPD crackdown on reckless motorists and told transportation officials to develop a new bike safety plan.

“We absolutely have an emergency on our hands,” the mayor said, calling the rash of deaths “a dangerous surge.” He said his Vision Zero strategy has been working, “but what we’ve seen these last weeks and months is not acceptable. We’re going to do a full court press to stop it.”

But some bike safety advocates were skeptical.

Marco Conner, interim co-executive director of Transportation Alternatives, said de Blasio’s words “are only as good as the tangible action they produce.” Connor urged the City Council to pass a “Vision Zero State of Emergency Omnibus Bill” to upgrade safety measures and use new technologies to protect bike lanes. He said the mayor “must have the courage to say that every New Yorker’s life and limb is worth more than any of the three million free parking spaces (in New York).”

Gersh Kuntzman, editor of, was equally blunt. “The devil is in the details,” he said. “We have heard this mayor talk like this before. It’s a matter of persistence, not just a reaction ... He must make this the norm.” Kuntzman also noted that the NYPD’s “crackdown” is just a three-week ticketing blitz focusing on moving violations and cars that block bike lanes.

The war of words erupted shortly after a cement truck crushed Devra Freelander in Brooklyn. She was the 15th cyclist killed on city streets this year — five more than in all of 2018. The horrendous three-death week started June 24, when bike messenger and aspiring Olympian Robyn Hightman, 20, was killed on Sixth Ave. and 24th St. in Chelsea. Three days later, a driver struck and killed cyclist Ernest Askew, 57, in Brooklyn.

The deaths sparked outrage, “ghost bike” protests and a vigil where more than 100 cyclists blocked traffic and condemned what they called “legal murder,” because drivers are not charged with vehicular homicide unless they were drunk or high.

The Most Bike-Friendly Cities

The deaths also came shortly after a Danish-based urban design company issued a list of the 20 most bike-friendly cities in the world: New York was not one of them.

The three safest cities for cyclists, according to Copenhagenize, which has issued the biennial bike-friendly list since 2011, are Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Utrecht. No U.S. city made the list. New York made the 2011 list but has not made the cut since because, a company spokesman said, the city “has not seen the same sustained investment and development” as those on the list.

“We lead the world in a lot of ways, but definitely not in bike safety,” says Joe Cutrufo, a Transportation Alternatives spokesman.

The city’s Department of Transportation says it has installed 83 miles of protected bike lanes since de Blasio took office in January 2014 as part of Vision Zero. It called the latest death “another senseless tragedy on our roads,” and said the agency would redouble efforts to “engineer safer streets and add more bike lanes.”

Advocates and people who have lost loved ones or friends to fatal collisions say it’s outrageous that community boards, including some on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side are “playing the NIMBY game” and giving in to residents who oppose losing parking space to bike lanes. At a raucous meeting on July 2, Community Board 7 voted to approve a protected bike lane on Central Park West.

Every new death brings back “horrific” memories for Mary Beth Kelly, whose husband, Dr. Carl Henry Nacht, was hit near the city tow pound at 38th Street and the West Side Greenway right in front her eyes 13 years ago.

“We had the green light and were in the middle of the intersection when a tow truck suddenly veered in and killed my husband,” she said. “The city is moving at a snail’s pace as far as Vision Zero is concerned. This will continue if community boards put parking spaces over lives.”

Jason Lewis, a friend of the young woman killed in Chelsea last month, said Hightman was a “tremendous athlete who was on the way to a career as an Olympics competitor ... Robyn was an accomplished cyclist and the safest rider we all knew.”

He said the carnage won’t end until Albany legislators toughen up the vehicular homicide laws.

“It’s crazy that drivers can’t be charged with manslaughter unless they were drunk or high.” Lewis said. “If you kill a cyclist you should go to jail. 100 percent.”

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