Fifteen Million Miles

This reflection was originally posted on July 7, 2014, roughly a year into the rollout of Citibike in New York City.

[A]s of last month, after 15 million miles traveled, the Citibike program has still caused not a single fatality for either pedestrians or riders, and fewer than 30 serious injuries, while helping to improve the overall safety of the city’s streets.

Do some bikers nearly take your head off while walking through crosswalks? Yes. Do some taxi drivers do the same? Yes. Do some pedestrians try to walk at stupid times and cause near-accidents? Also yes.

Something to keep in mind too—those PSAs about how you should drive 30mph rather than 40mph because people have an 80% chance of survival with the former compared with a 30% chance with the latter? Only the craziest cyclists are going to top out anywhere close to 30mph. A 2011 study showed roughly 500–1000 serious injuries to pedestrians in NYC as a result of bicyclists, which is certainly a large number, but various other studies put the corresponding number of injuries as a result of motor vehicles at some 70,000. Similarly, there are roughly 150 pedestrian deaths per year in NYC alone as a result of motor vehicles, but the only evidence I could find of any pedestrian killed by bicyclists in the United States were two cases in the Bay Area, one this year and one three years ago.

I witnessed an accident a block away from my apartment earlier this year. A car, turning from an avenue to a street, didn’t see a person crossing the street, and by the time the driver had enough time to react and hit the brakes, the pedestrian had started rolling underneath the car, propelled forward by the wheels. While the pedestrian was injured badly enough to warrant an ambulance, she did not seem to have hit her head or lost consciousness, and her other injuries appeared to be generally treatable, and the driver was incredibly cooperative (although quite distraught herself). The officer who took my statement while waiting for the EMTs made an offhand comment after speaking to me mentioning that with a car as large as the one being driven (it was an SUV of some sort, although I can’t recall the model), it was a good thing the driver was taking the corner slowly, as there had recently been a much worse accident, concluding to nobody in particular that “these big cars just hit anything with so much force”. The acceleration a body feels during an initial collision is a function of momentum, which itself is a function of mass, and it should be noted that by comparison, an empty Dodge Durango (with driver) will weigh over 6600 pounds, and even a Toyota Matrix will weigh in around 3000 pounds (assuming a 110-pound driver). However, even assuming a 240-pound cyclist on a Citibike (one of the heavier bikes you will find at 40–45 lbs., as the NY Post is very eager to point out) wearing a briefcase/backpack of some sort, the total weight of a cyclist in this collision would be 300 pounds at very most.

I have been yelled at on my bicycle countless times for various violations of whatever rights pedestrians think they have. I deserved several of these (maybe moreso since I yell at bikers who treat me unsafely), but more have been cases easily avoided through basic self-awareness of what stepping into a street might mean if you don’t have a walk light. Perhaps the most illustrative example, though, is when I’m in situations where I’m trying to pick my way through stopped cars to get to an intersection. (I’m sure my NY friends are well aware of some of the crazy weaving that bikers attempt here.) Without fail, if I encounter a pedestrian trying to cut the crosswalk by doing the same thing as me, they will either give me a look or make some sort of comment about how I’m being unsafe, if not worse. My favorite encounter was perhaps on 17th Street approaching 5 Av from the east—the stopped cars in the first few rows were too close together for me to chance it, so I was sitting in between two cars, completely stopped, as a pedestrian was walking in front of me (behind the closely bunched cars). When he spotted me, he decided to stop exactly where he was (in front of the car next to me) and criticize my “unsafety” for being completely stopped in the middle of a bunch of cars for long enough that the light turned and he was blocking traffic from continuing down 17th.

These people aren’t representative of the way that all pedestrians conduct their business, obviously. However, the bikers who will dart into a 10-foot gap in between cars driving in a perpendicular direction are also not representative of the way that all pedestrians conduct their business. The difference, however: Many pedestrians think that the pedestrian is at least justified in their reasoning, if not the methods that he used to show it.

We’re people too—we want to endanger you as little as you want to endanger yourself. It would be cool if you could treat bicyclists less like they’ve automatically assumed the risk of some highly destructive activity too.

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