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Cyclists will get head start at thousands of NYC intersections

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The bill passed hours from two cyclist deaths with a third rider in critical condition

Thomas Trutschel /Getty Images

Cyclists will get the jump on cars alongside pedestrians at thousands of intersections across New York City thanks to a law passed by the City Council Tuesday.

The legislation, which was sponsored by Brooklyn councilmember Carlos Menchaca and is set to take effect in November, allows bikers to follow pedestrian signals instead of traffic lights at nearly 3,500 Leading Pedestrian Intervals.

The intervals allow bikers to partake in the few seconds head start pedestrians have before parallel traffic gets the green light, thus making the two wheelers more visible to turning drivers. The safety measure is a shift in how the city views cyclists and is especially crucial as New York City struggles with a surge in biker deaths, says Menchaca.

“The culprit in this transportation conversation is the culture that continues to privilege cars and treats cyclists like motor vehicles rather than what they are more like, which are pedestrians,” Menchaca said during Tuesday’s vote. “We blame cyclists. We blame pedestrians. This has to stop.”

Of the 51 Council members, 37 voted for the change and seven sought to block it. The bill’s passage came on a day of carnage for cyclists with 17-year-old Alex Cordero struck and killed by a tow truck in the West Brighton section of Staten Island Tuesday morning. Only hours after the vote, yet another cyclist, this time a 58-year-old man whose name has yet to be released pending family notification, was hit and killed by a truck driver in Greenpoint.

The incidents bring the city’s cyclist death toll to 17 this year—that’s up from 10 deaths in all of 2018. And that figure may soon rise after another rider, who has yet to be identified, was struck in Queens and rushed to Jamaica Hospital in critical condition early Wednesday, according to the NYPD.

“These crashes are tragic examples of what happens in a city that purports to welcome cyclists but fails to dedicate protected space for bikes on the vast majority of its streets,” said Joe Cutrufo with nonprofit Transportation Alternatives.

In the wake of recent deaths, advocates have scrutinized Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero program, which was launched five years ago to eliminate the city’s traffic deaths by 2024, and have called for added safety measures, including that the Department of Transportation (DOT) lay down 100 miles of bike lanes in the next two years, redesign streets with a history of serious crashes, and create a bike corridor pilot program.

De Blasio dubbed this year’s rise of cyclist fatalities an “emergency” and directed the DOT to develop a “cyclist safety plan” after the 15th biker of the year, Devra Freelander, was killed on July 1. The mayor said he will announce the initiative this week.

In a seven-month pilot program last year, DOT tested out permitting cyclists to follow crosswalk signals at 50 intersections in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. The city found that traffic injuries decreased when compared to data from other intersections over the same period, according to a DOT report outlining the program’s results. The agency recorded 55 traffic injuries at crossings where cyclists got head starts, compared with 72 injuries at 50 similar intersections, data shows.

The Council’s bill, which Menchaca first introduced in 2016, is a far cry from solving the city’s cyclists safety woes, but is an important step down that path, says City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

“This bill has the potential to literally save lives,” said Johnson. “We’ve lost so many cyclists in our city and recently we’ve lost a bunch of cyclists and we must do everything we can to prevent more cyclist fatalities and deaths. This is a common sense, easy solution.”