Home Asides On misplaced and misguided priorities

On misplaced and misguided priorities

by Benjamin Kabak

If anything defines the year in New York City transportation politics, it concerns misplaced and misguided priorities. We’ve seen politicians wring their hands over minor issues while ignoring systematic problems with transit policies. We’ve seen residents rise up against bus lanes and subway station entrances that would cause, at worse, minor inconveniences. We’ve seen ongoing construction at Fulton St. and a push to realize Moynihan Station, two billion-dollar projects that barely increase transit capacity. As money grows scarce, politicians prefer to invest in tangible monuments of their largesse rather than in behind-the-scenes increases to capacity.

Here, though, is a tale that takes the cake: James Vacca is about to take a hard line against a danger facing all New York pedestrians. He’s going after “rogue bicyclists.” Said the New York City Council Transportation Committee chairman, known for his windshield perspective, ““I get a lot of phone calls and a lot of concerns about rogue bicyclists. Too many bicyclists are going the wrong way on a one-way street. Too many of them are ignoring existing bicycle lanes and driving as they wish, and I think that we have to address that issue.”

Now, it’s true that a certain breed of bicyclists — mostly, I’ve found, delivery guys — are not respectful, but rogue bicyclists are hardly the problem Vacca makes it out to be. Rogue drivers, meanwhile, are responsible for over 75 deaths this year, but Vacca and his ilk could care less about making roads safer for all. Vacca, though, tries. “My priority is protection of the pedestrians, and my mantra is that the pedestrian is always right, even when the pedestrian is wrong. Everything I do is governed by that basic foundation.,” he said to The Post. When he starts working to curtail dangerous driving and giving pedestrians back more street space, I’ll believe it. In the meantime, we’re just seeing another example of misplaced and misguided priorities in a year full of them.

You may also like


Kevin Walsh December 28, 2011 - 2:56 pm

I disagree Ben, too many bicyclists go right through red lights and pose a great danger to pedestrians — especially those who aren’t looking for them. I applaud Vacca’s effort to at least rein in this behavior.

I now know enough to look before I cross at the green for bikes, but why do I have to do that?

Benjamin Kabak December 28, 2011 - 3:04 pm

I’m not saying that cyclists shouldn’t be more responsible or have their behavior regulated, but to target cyclists as opposed to drivers is completely misguided. Drivers pose a far greater threat to your personal safety and well being than bikers do.

Al D December 28, 2011 - 3:09 pm

It’s no different than when a speeding car is headed for the red light. Do you just cross and close your eyes saying I have the green, I have the green.. I stop and make sure that the car is actually going to stop in time and then stops before I proceed.

But bikes are just a very small portion of the much larger transit and OK, pedestrian picture. I disagee with Mr. Vacca, by the way, that the pedestrian is always right, no matter what. What if you are walking in on the Gowanus Expressway. OMG, I was hit, but I am right! Ridiculous example, maybe, but then what’s the difference between that and walking in the middle of Madison Ave.? It’s the same thing.

Bolwerk December 28, 2011 - 6:27 pm

If you applaud Vacca’s approach on this bicycle almost non-issue and ignore how Vacca seems indifferent to the the multitude of drivers who risk killing people daily, there is no benign alternative: you’re either being a hypocrite, incredibly ignorant/myopic, or plain stupid. Seriously, the numbers speak for themselves: how many pedestrians were killed by drivers and how many by cyclists?

Vacca is being sanctimonious here, and sanctimony usually is a bedfellow with hypocrisy. There are few people in NYC government more hostile to pedestrians than Vacca. He cares about pedestrian safety about as much as Mengele cared about medical ethics.

Andrew December 29, 2011 - 12:10 am

You don’t look for cars before you cross?

Al D December 28, 2011 - 3:01 pm

Perhaps he should impose and strictly enforce a 15 mph speed limit on Queens Blvd. Otherwise, they are going to need much taller fences to keep idiots from darting across that thoroughfare in the middle of the block!

Kevin Walsh December 28, 2011 - 3:16 pm

And, I am not saying that there are idiot motorists who break regulations and shouldn’t be dealt with. However, I’m super cautious as a pedestrian and always make sure there’s nothing coming at the crosswalks before I even go past the gutter, whether the threat comes from a car or a bike. As a result, I’ve never come close to being hit by a car while walking. Plenty of times, though, by bicyclists.

And, when I’m ON a bike waiting for a red and there’s a car alongside, I wait for the driver(s) to make his move, and then when it’s all clear, I proceed. I don’t know why TA or Streetsblog or whatever won’t promote that eminently simple way to avoid getting clobbered by a motor vehicle.

Of course the bike lobby wants to promote bicycling, and that means going lightly on traffic regulations for them, while tightening them up for motorized vehicles and even pedestrians.

After all, they say, you’ll only break bones when you’re hit by a bike.

Bolwerk December 28, 2011 - 6:38 pm

Who in the “bike lobby” is demanding going easy on cyclists? The closest to that I’ve seen is pointing out – quite fairly, IMHO – that cyclists are subject to stricter enforcement than motorists for the same offenses. And then you see other cases of rather flagrant over-enforcement, where the letter of the law may have been followed and the spirit wasn’t; say, getting ticketed for riding on empty sidewalks or biking up on a curb before dismounting.

After all, they say, you’ll only break bones when you’re hit by a bike.

Perhaps one thing that deters bikers from acting like sociopaths the way motorists often do is bikers can be subjected to vicious beatdowns that would be hard to escape if they actually do hit someone. It’s just one more reason we know Jimmy Vacca is full of it.

Chris December 29, 2011 - 4:54 pm

Enforcement is a mixed bag in my experience. I suspect that there is tougher enforcement on cars for offenses like “driving blocks and blocks against traffic” and “cruising down an avenue running every red light” or both of the above at the same time (at least, I’ve never seen a cop turn a blind eye to a car cruising southbound on 1st Ave, while having seen the same happen with cyclists too many times to count).

There’s also many (very significant) regulations to which only cars are subject, like liability insurance minimums, which by definition are enforced more heavily on cars.

I’m a bit confused on the spirit of the law here is. What do you think is the spirit of the law “you can’t bike on the sidewalk” and how does it differ from the spirit of the law “you can’t drive on the sidewalk”? Or do you believe that drivers shouldn’t be ticketed for mounting the curb, if the sidewalk is empty?

Bolwerk December 29, 2011 - 8:02 pm

Presumably the spirit of the law to banning bikes from sidewalks was protecting pedestrians. In those cases where there are few or literally no pedestrians, I have trouble seeing what problem cyclists are going to be if they use a sidewalk. Enforcement of the rules in those cases only punishes someone, but it doesn’t achieve any useful outcome.

OTOH, I can see a drawback to forcing cyclists off empty sidewalks: the result is cyclists are the ones stuck in potentially dangerous traffic – and places with empty sidewalks often have the worse traffic. Goes back to what I said below, about how there are simply times when it’s safer to break the rules. Either the rules are stupid, or they were never intended to be enforced the way they are.

Or do you believe that drivers shouldn’t be ticketed for mounting the curb, if the sidewalk is empty?

Um, in the case where sidewalks are actually empty and obviously no malice or ill intent or negligence occurred – say a really bad parallel parking job? Sure. That’s a completely forgivable matter. The NYPD would probably feel the same way (as long as it’s not a cyclist doing it).

I think drivers need to be held to a higher safety standard because motor vehicles are more dangerous by a factor in the hundreds or thousands (or hundreds of thousands?), but I really don’t like the idea of a society where everybody just gets punished for every unintentional infraction.

Christopher December 28, 2011 - 3:16 pm

Do we have bicycle / pedestrian death statistics? I’m going to say probably not because they are nearly zero. There’s quite a bit difference from being hit by bicycle and a 2 ton vehicle. Do bicycles run red lights? Yes and they probably should be allowed to. We should allow the Idaho stop where a red light is a yield sign.

Bikes and pedestrians can and do co-exist in ways that cars and pedestrians don’t. Even mixed right on the street. We must, must, must make it more difficult to drive and own cars. That’s a 40 year project admittedly but we need to stop the giveaway of land to vehicles. Take back our streets and our communities from cars.

Period. Our health and our national security and our communities depend on it.

Kevin Walsh December 28, 2011 - 3:23 pm

Sure, but make it tougher for bikes and pedestrians to interact. The bike lanes help with that but something needs to be done about the Brooklyn Bridge path. It’s insanity there.

Getting back to Vacca’s point why not rig cameras in certain spots that could catch rogue bicyclists like they catch bad drivers?

Kevin Walsh December 28, 2011 - 3:27 pm

The motorized vehicle has been, and should continue to be, the prime mode of transportation. Research alternate power sources like electric and solar, sure, and decrease our reliance on fossil fuels that pollute the atmosphere.

But many people aren’t in shape to make bikes their prime means, and never will be in that kind of shape no mater what they do.

Andrew December 29, 2011 - 12:14 am

If by “motorized vehicle” you mean private automobile, most New Yorkers don’t even own one.

Bolwerk December 29, 2011 - 1:59 pm

One gets the impression from his rants that Kevin isn’t very familiar with the situation in New York. Not that it excuses a hamfisted defense of the status quo elsewhere.

Andrew December 29, 2011 - 8:15 pm

Kevin gets around this city a lot more than most of us – he’s the forgotten-ny.com webmaster. I strongly disagree with him here, but he knows New York well.

Bolwerk December 29, 2011 - 8:26 pm

If he has experiential data proving himself wrong in front of his nose, that’s only worse.

(Though I really don’t know who these people are who are supposedly trying to turn bikes into a primary mode of transportation. Larry Littlefield is the only person who I ever see arguing it might happen, and he only thinks that because he thinks a debt crisis is going to knock our transportation system back to the Stone Age.)

Andrew December 29, 2011 - 10:33 pm

There seem to be a few people on Streetsblog who seem to have that approach, but they’re in the distinct minority. (I don’t read any of the hard-core cyclist blogs, where there are probably more.)

Bolwerk December 29, 2011 - 11:34 pm

Surely someone who thinks anything can be found, but an organized movement to make bikes a/the primary mode of transport? Even SB falls far short, from what I can tell as an occasional reader.

Kevin Walsh December 29, 2011 - 4:40 pm

Motorized vehicles also include buses, railroads and subways, cabs, and ferries, which remain the prime modes of transportation in NYC to get to work. Commuting by bike may increase as a percentage but will never be the majority.

Andrew December 29, 2011 - 8:25 pm

So treating “motorized vehicle” as a single mode, as you did yesterday, isn’t entirely honest.

Besides, what does that have to do with the price of tea in China? Focusing on strict enforcement for bicyclists while motorists get a free pass is like asking your doctor to treat a paper cut after suffering a heart attack.

UESider December 28, 2011 - 3:28 pm

i agree that changes are needed regarding bikes in the city – most are a tragedy waiting…

bikes should require permits, some sort of license, and lights – at the very least

i’ve seen or been involved in dozens of near-miss situations and people just shouldn’t have to walk around with that sort of risk out there

these guys do crazy things because there are no laws compelling even marginally rational safety measures

delivery guys ride the wrong way up busy avenues (see 2nd Ave) at night with no lights (and usually dark clothing on). as a driver, it would be horrific to hit one of these guys, but who would be to blame? the driver? or the guy in dark clothing riding a junker against traffic with no lights (and in a construction zone!) at night to deliver a cheaper pizza?

not sure how much traction mr vacca will garner suggesting that pedestrians are right even when wrong. everyone needs to be accountable. but i commend the efforts

Erik December 28, 2011 - 4:08 pm

He is correct that the “rogue bikers” need to be controlled. As a biker myself, it’s infuriating when I see another biker riding against traffic, or worse, riding on the wrong side of the street when there is a protected bike lane on the other side. For traffic to flow smoothly and safely, “vehicle” types (be it car, bike, or pedestrian) need to remain within their prescribed areas. It’s a different story on a road with no bike lanes, but as a motorist I have nearly struck bikers who ignore the protected lanes on 8th and 9th avenues. And it seems to be mostly food delivery people and couriers, but there are plenty of others in this category as well. If bikers ever want to be truly accepted and win over the hearts and minds of the city and end the war with people like the NY Post, we need to see the biker flaws honestly and go after those that pose a danger. Otherwise we will all be dragged down. Whether cars are more deadly is irrelevant or pose a greater risk is irrelevant.

John Telesca December 28, 2011 - 4:58 pm

Wow, a lot of heat on a politician responding to some complaints! He’s the chair of the Transportation Committee so this would be typical of stands that a member would make, perhaps to offset critizism of the many bike lanes added in the past few years.

It’s just give-and-take to me, nothing to get worked up over. In January it will be too cold for most bikers and the issue will be fogotten.

Chris December 28, 2011 - 5:49 pm

It’s not at all fair to attribute every traffic death involving a car to “rogue” drivers. Just to hit the first name on the list, it sounds like a construction company was more at fault than either party on the road. That’s in addition to others where the details of the story indicate the only person clearly flouting the law was the victim (e.g. cyclist running red light hit by cement truck).

These incidents are tragic and obviously reforms to reduce/eliminate them are desirable. But part of that is enforcing existing traffic laws, including forcing bikes to travel with traffic, and to keep them on the road/off the sidewalk. If there’s a case for changing these laws campaign for them to be changed, but as long as they are policy they should be enforced.

We do need to step up enforcement of auto laws as well (e.g. with cameras) but existing enforcement there is vastly tougher. Not just police enforcing laws, but requirements for licensing and insurance. It’s easily forgotten but imagine someone hit by a bike who tweaks his ACL, vs. someone hit by a car who breaks his leg entirely. It’s easy to say the bike accident victim came away better, but I would guess it’s more likely his accident was an unaccountable hit and run – running is a lot riskier for drivers whose plates are likely being captured on one camera or another in this city – and it is without doubt vastly more likely that there is no insurance money that can be tapped to cover his medical costs.

Bolwerk December 28, 2011 - 6:52 pm

I’m puzzled by the general bias here towards punishment and enforcement. Talking about needing to control the “rogues” sounds more like white male power anxiety than meaningful problem solving. It is by default the most expensive solution: more cameras to maintain, more cases for courts to deal with, and more police to train and pay – hardly factors that are friendly to civil liberties or public safety. Since the general agreement is this is totally an understandable accident and running a red light in Central Park calls for moral indignation if it’s done on a bike, you can bet enforcement won’t even cover its own costs and will be just punitive.

Seems simple enough to me: do more to accommodate pedestrians, bikers, and transit alike. Some reactionaries like Jimmy Vacca will play the “anti-car” card, but since fewer drivers means less traffic for the remaining drivers to contend with, it’s rather hard to defend that argument. It’s downright pro-car.

Kevin Walsh December 29, 2011 - 10:21 am

“I’m puzzled by the general bias here towards punishment and enforcement. Talking about needing to control the “rogues” sounds more like white male power anxiety than meaningful problem solving.”

Ridiculous, I’m a white male and I have always followed traffic regulations and exercised caution while bicycling.”Meaningful problem sounding’ consists of everyone following traffic regulations. Bicyclists shouldn’t get a pass because they aren’t evil polluters or whatever. Stopping at reds and looking around to see if people are in the way is meaningful problem solving.

If you blow thru a light or ride on the sidewalk, be prepared to risk a ticket.

It’s not a power trip. For me, it’s survival. For some bicyclists, flouting traffic regs is a raison d’etre for bicycling in the first place.

This bicyclist is tired of the sanctimony that has arisen around bicycling. I expect no special treatment and if I break the rules I expect to pay the consequences.

Bolwerk December 29, 2011 - 1:31 pm

Just expecting people to do what you want (“following traffic regulations”) flies right in the face of reality. It has for decades. It guarantees failure and more death. Regulations still need to be sensible or people will break them, sometimes with tragic results. No amount of enforcement will change that.

If you blow thru a light or ride on the sidewalk, be prepared to risk a ticket.

Admittedly, some of the problem here is that is only a meaningful concern for cyclists. You practically need to be drunk before the NYPD cares about your erratic driving. However, that kind of rigidity doesn’t work either. Sometimes when you’re a cyclist it’s safer to run a light and sometimes sidewalks are so meaningfully empty that, well, so what if someone rides on them? Likewise, horn honking is illegal in NYC (and antisocial 99 times out of 100), but there are legitimate times when a motorist should do it.

A follow-the-rules-at-all-costs attitude is a recipe for banality.

For some bicyclists, flouting traffic regs is a raison d’etre for bicycling in the first place.

You say ludicrous, indefensible things like this and pretend you don’t have any power/control issues?

Kevin Walsh December 29, 2011 - 4:45 pm

“Regulations still need to be sensible or people will break them, sometimes with tragic results. No amount of enforcement will change that.”

I get it. The red is inconvenient for you, so go through it and hope that pedestrians crossing with the green will stop for you. I understand.

“Likewise, horn honking is illegal in NYC (and antisocial 99 times out of 100), but there are legitimate times when a motorist should do it.”

You have a point there and I’ve always had problems with the incredible honking you have to put up with here. I was in Pittsburgh a few years, downtown near the hotel, and even when the light went green there was a blissful absence of drivers honking. Here, if the lead guy doesn’t peel off like it’s the starting line at the Indy 500, you get an earful of honking.

Bolwerk December 29, 2011 - 7:37 pm

I get it. The red is inconvenient for you, so go through it and hope that pedestrians crossing with the green will stop for you. I understand.

Uh, where did I say anything about me? I never said this was about me. I’m not close to a regular cyclist myself, but I know enough about the circumstances to know there are times when it is more dangerous to not run a red. Like when you’re at a busy intersection and a Hummer is bearing down on you at several times the speed it should be going; are you going to tell me drivers never miscalculate their own stopping distances?

Nathan H. December 28, 2011 - 8:23 pm

If Vacca actually believed as I do that “the pedestrian is always right, even when the pedestrian is wrong,” he would use his position to reduce the number of pedestrians killed in traffic. In NYC about 150 of us are run over and killed each year by motorists. According to James Vacca these fallen pedestrians are all in the right.­ And yet in the vast majority of cases our police claim (without presenting evidence) that there was “no criminality”. Who are we supposed to believe among these contradicting public employees? Does anyone in city government mean what they say?

Vacca says, “Everything I do is governed by that basic foundation,” but he is doing nothing of substance. He is trying to distract with demagoguery, so that the walking and transit riding majority won’t realize we aren’t even on his agenda.

Richard L December 28, 2011 - 11:24 pm

Rogue bicyclists are a serious problem – particularly if you are walking a dog. I’ve had more close calls in the past year with bicycles than with cars and I am a very careful pedestrian. Bad bicyclists go through intersections whenever they feel like it even when the light is against them and there are pedestrians in the crosswalk.

There is an apartment building for the blind near 23rd and Seventh in Chelsea and it can be truly terrifying to watch a blind person try to cross the street with all the bicyclists whizzing around them – even when someone or their seeing eye dog is trying to guide them.

Now I would likely survive an encounter with a bicycle, but that does not make the problem any more of a concern. And targeting rogue bicyclists doesn’t mean we have to stop targeting bad drivers.

Bolwerk December 29, 2011 - 12:38 am

And targeting rogue bicyclists doesn’t mean we have to stop targeting bad drivers.

But if we’re going to be sanctimonious, we should probably start with the bad drivers and then worry about the cyclists. You know, prioritize?

Andrew December 29, 2011 - 12:26 am

A few months ago, I watched two police officers ticket a bicyclist for running a red light.

While they were issuing the ticket, two cars ran the same light. The police officers didn’t seem to care.

Tsuyoshi December 29, 2011 - 11:05 am

I would like to see more traffic enforcement of both cars and bikes. But I have to assume, since the city has been cutting the budget for the past few years, that there is no new revenue being allocated for either. So more bike enforcement probably means less car enforcement.

Bolwerk December 29, 2011 - 1:57 pm

It’s hard to buy that. If they’re interested in general enforcement, a single cop can ticket either with no additional training.* The banality of current enforcement tactics can’t even be explained by revenue.† Actually capturing moving violations should be a revenue generator, and if you do it in a mode-agnostic manner without regard to threat level, there would be no discretion between cars and bikes. Selective enforcement against bikes means they’re actually spending time idling – that is, being paid their hourly wage and all the associated costs of being a cop on the street – while seeking bikes to ticket whilst ignoring the more dangerous low-hanging fruit of dangerous motorists (not to mention crime prevention).

* In an enforcement operation, the opportunity cost is that ticketing a cyclist/motorist means another cyclist/motorist committing the same violation may get away.

† And since it can’t be explained by a rational concern for public safety, that mainly leaves sanctimony.

Matt December 29, 2011 - 6:13 pm

I disagree with this post.

Just because bad drivers are a hazard doesn’t mean that greater enforcement of bicyclists isn’t needed also. Many bicyclists in NYC are a menace. They completely ignore traffic laws, run red lights, go the wrong way on streets, even ride on sidewalks!

I personally know a colleague of mine, a middle-aged woman, who broke an arm when she was struck and knocked down by a bicyclist. My colleague was legally crossing at the crosswalk, and the bicyclist was running the red light, as they so often do.

As a pedestrian and a transit user, I am *far* more often annoyed by bicycists than drivers, because the bicyclists more routinely break traffic laws, making them far less predictable than cars. I applaud efforts to step up enforcement.

Bolwerk December 29, 2011 - 8:16 pm

Okay, you are “*far* more often annoyed” by the “menace” cyclists – it’s the sanctimony thing again. Know who puts your safety at greater risk? Motorists. You are literally more annoyed by the people who are less a threat to your life and limb and, whether you consciously recognize it or not, you are probably subjected to more discrete incidences of being put at risk (greater risk, mind you!) by motorists.

And you really aren’t spending much time outdoors in NYC if you don’t encounter daily occurrences of motorists who at the very least “ignore traffic laws” and “run red lights” – and I don’t exactly see where a motorist going the wrong way on a one-way street (or, more frequently, driving on the wrong side of a two-way street) is exactly material for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not either. And to further fuel your moral outrage in the right direction, you can probably add to the list these things that cyclists can’t meaningfully do: honk horns, block crosswalks, and park on sidewalks.


Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy