Using a tactic that had been gathering dust on the shelf for at least a decade, safe streets activists organized an unpermitted protest yesterday, with at least 1,000 people riding their bikes down Fifth Avenue at the tail end of evening rush hour.
The ride, led by Transportation Alternatives, had five policy demands of Mayor Bill de Blasio, asking him to increase funding, redesign more streets, and ramp up police reforms under his Vision Zero initiative, which seeks to eliminate traffic fatalities by the end of 2024 — what would be the end of the mayor’s second term, if he is re-elected next year.
Traffic fatalities fell over the past two years, from 297 in 2013 to a record low 231 last year, but key stats have ticked up so far this year. According to TA, 82 pedestrians and 18 cyclists have been killed in the first nine months of 2016, more than in all of last year. Advocates say the mayor will not meet his Vision Zero goal if he continues at his current pace.
“We’ve been pretty hard on the mayor tonight. He must do more; he will do more because you’re going to stay involved,” TA executive director Paul Steely White told the crowd after the ride finished at Washington Square Park. “We are going to dog the mayor on the campaign trail to make sure he brings the real stuff, the real Vision Zero — not the sloganeering, not the promises, but the funding and the political capital.”
In advance of yesterday’s ride, the de Blasio administration launched a counteroffensive, announcing on Tuesday that it was on track to install a record 18 lane-miles of protected bike lane this year. The next day, the Department of Transportation released a strategic plan that included a number of initiatives sure to please advocates, including new protected bike lanes on Delancey Street.
“We knew they were going to toot their own horn,” White told the Voice before the ride.
The ride attracted City Council members Carlos Menchaca, Antonio Reynoso, Helen Rosenthal and Jimmy Van Bramer, as well as Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who all spoke to the gathered crowd at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue before wheels began to roll under cool, clear skies just before 7 p.m.
Kyna Scarisbrick, 30, was visiting New York for the first time and was walking down Fifth Avenue when the bikes rode past. “It’s great,” she said, adding that she doesn’t feel safe riding a bike back home in London. “I’m scared of getting hit by a big red bus,” she said, empathizing with the protesters’ demands.
“This is how you get things done,” said Kevin Curtin, 23, who was walking to Grand Central to catch a train home to Ossining. The ride reminded him of civil rights protests. “All these things have been done because people organized in the streets,” he said.
Others were not so pleased. While the slow-moving ride didn’t hold up many cars on Fifth Avenue itself during the late evening rush, crosstown traffic was stopped for at least four minutes as the large group pedaled through green and red traffic signals alike. Police escorted the ride, with a phalanx of NYPD mopeds bringing up the rear. Drivers honked, many in frustration, while they waited.
“They love us!” one of the riders yelled to the rest of the crowd jokingly. Participants were asked to wear yellow, and many donned hi-visibility reflective wear. Virtually all the bikes had red and white blinking lights. Some riders had signs, distributed by Transportation Alternatives, pinned to their backs: “Mayor de Blasio: People Are Dying,” one read. Chants arose as the protest rolled along: “What do we want? Safe streets! When do we want them? Now!”
It was a scene lifted out of a bygone era of bike advocacy. In April 1973, the New York Times reported on a ride down Fifth Avenue led by “an unorganized coalition called Transportation Alternatives.” The group wanted protected bike lanes included in the city’s plan to comply with the Clean Air Act.
Today, the focus is on traffic fatalities, not air quality. Transportation Alternatives organized the ride with a slew of co-hosts, including Families for Safe Streets, a support and advocacy group organized by TA, comprised of families who have lost loved ones in traffic crashes.
“New York City was the first American city to commit to Vision Zero. We were optimistic that change was finally coming,” said Amy Cohen, who co-founded Families for Safe Streets after losing her 12-year-old son Sammy in 2013. “Today, we demand that New York City put Vision Zero back on track.”