Testimony of Michael Smith

Committee On Transportation

New York City Council

10 February 1998

(You can lead a horse's ass to water, but you can't make him think. The following represents an attempt on our part to talk sense to the New York City Council's Transportation Committee, chaired by the unspeakable Noach Dear. The occasion was a hearing on a bill to castrate sidewalk cyclists, or confiscate their bikes, or some such thing. A similar, more recent experience fared no better.)

Good afternoon. My name is Michael Smith, and I'm a pedestrian.

I occasionally encounter cyclists on the sidewalk, and they can be annoying. But for every encounter I have with a lawbreaking cyclist, I have a hundred or more with lawbreaking drivers: speeding, "squeezing" the light or simply ignoring it, bullying me out of the crosswalk in order to make their turns, blocking the crosswalk and forcing me into traffic. I even encounter drivers on the sidewalk!

My daily commute is a gauntlet of little games of "chicken", in which the other party wields some tons of steel, and some hundreds of horsepower, and I have only leg-power and chutzpah.

Sadly, the numbers prove that these qualities, valuable as they are in New York, aren't enough. In 1996, 245 pedestrians and cyclists lost one of these little games of "chicken," with fatal results. In 1997, shockingly, this already appalling total was surpassed by almost a quarter -- up to 302.

These numbers come from the Police Department; I understand that the Mayor has recently been offering a revisionist version. I suspect it's safe to assume that his numbers have the same basis as his claim of a 20% speed improvement for cars in Midtown, after the pedestrian barriers were put up; that basis being, of course, wishful thinking. In any case, it's mildly amusing to see the most police-mad Mayor in our city's history claiming, in effect, that the force can't count.

Whatever the numbers turn out to be, one thing is clear: these hundreds of New Yorkers were not killed by bicycles. Yes, it is true that sidewalk cyclists are annoying. A mosquito bite can be annoying, too. But you ladies and gentlemen are like an emergency-room doctor, treating a patient who presents with a mosquito bite -- and a severed artery. Why on earth are you fussing around with the mosquito bite, and letting the artery bleed?

Allow me to offer you some advice about the appropriate treatment.

First, and most important, is strict, and I stress strict, enforcement of existing laws about speeding, stop lights and stop signs, blocking the crosswalk, and pedestrians' right of way.

Second, as a backdrop to enforcement, an educational campaign is sorely needed. Drivers must be made aware that pedestrians, and yes, cyclists, are entitled to their space on the street too. (It should be obvious that if you want bicycles off the sidewalk, you need to make the streets less dangerous and hostile.)

Third, over the longer term, we must reduce the number of motor vehicles clogging our streets, rather than attempting to increase that number, as the Mayor is doing with crackpot schemes like the midtown barriers. Admittedly, this will require considerable effort and enlightened political leadership -- leadership which understands that shoehorning more cars into Midtown is not the be-all and end-all of transportation policy. Obviously, this degree of enlightenment is not to be found, at present, on the executive side; it is up to you to compensate.

Which brings me to my last recommendation: stop trying to distract the public with empty stunts like this bike bill. Attacking marginal, minority groups like cyclists is always fun and frequently popular. But in the context of an already intolerable, and yet sharply rising, body count, it is criminally irresponsible. Rome is burning, ladies and gentlemen, and at the moment, you are fiddling.

You have the power to focus public attention; you have the power to hold hearings on the Mayor's, and the Police Department's, dereliction of their duty to enforce the law; you have the power to expose Mr. Giuliani's blame-the-victim gambits, like the jaywalking campaign, and the midtown barriers, as the boneheaded follies they are. You have, in short, the power to lead. You must use that power; or the blood of who knows how many New Yorkers, who will otherwise be slaughtered in the streets this year, will be on your hands.

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