What Should Happen to Drivers Who Kill Cyclists?

So Danielle started looking for a different kind of justice. In our conversations, both she and Lana returned again and again to the circumstances that had put Lauren on that street on that day. It wasn’t her usual route to work. “She had called me the night before—she was telling me how the normal road she rode on, which was a street over, was being ripped up, and how it was really messing up her bike,” Lana remembered. Danielle began to think that the street itself was to blame.

Classon Avenue, where Lauren was killed, is a well-known, signed cycling route, but it wasn’t painted with bike lanes at the time. Instead, most bicyclists rode along the extra-wide parking lane on the left-hand side. “That was the basis of everything that happened,” says Danielle. “There wasn’t a designated bike lane.” Danielle decided to do something about it.

A community board had advocated for one in 2011, but Classon Avenue sits on the boundary between two community boards, and the second board opposed the change, with its president later telling the transit-news site Streetsblog NYC that street safety “is not an issue in our community, by and large.” In 2012, the New York Department of Transportation (DOT) considered the bike lane but decided against it. Instead of a bike lane, the road got the wider parking strip.

Danielle wanted to right those past failures. “What does it take?” she says. “It takes a little bit of perseverance and tenacity.” She pestered elected officials and became an expert in street infrastructure. “I would take voluminous notes on the average cost of a bike lane, what bike lanes do to protect cyclists and also protect cars and pedestrians,” Danielle says.

A current look at the intersection of Classon and Lexington Avenues on Google Street View, with bike lanes painted on the left side of street

In the end, it took a stroke of luck. In June 2017, Danielle was at a protest in the state capitol, and the then New York City DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg, who Danielle had written letters to before, was there. Someone pushed Danielle forward. “I told her about Lauren,” Danielle says. “And I just repeated the same information, and she told me personally it was going to happen. I heard it straight from Polly Trottenberg’s mouth.” (Trottenberg is now the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation under Pete Buttigieg.)

More than a year after Lauren’s death, Classon Avenue had bike lanes installed. But it should be said: Those bike lanes aren’t separated from traffic, they are lines simply painted on the road. They provide more visibility and legal protection than an expanded parking strip, but they don’t physically separate bicyclists from car traffic, the standard that safe-streets advocates push for.

Kevin Daloia, a volunteer with Street Memorial Project, which places ghost bikes and organizes memorial rides in the Bronx to honor cyclists killed by drivers, says that Danielle’s story is pretty typical of what it takes to make a street safer in New York. Three years ago, he told me, two pedestrians were hit by cars in his neighborhood on the same stretch of East Tremont Avenue within a few months: an 85-year-old woman was killed outside her apartment, and a 28-year-old man was left in a coma by a hit-and-run. Daloia circulated a petition to ask the DOT to review the street design, gathered hundreds of signatures, and got the community board’s support.

A year and a half after the crashes, the DOT decided to implement a “road diet” to the street, reducing the number of driving lanes and adding bike lanes. The project broke ground in September 2020, but then the community board reversed course and tried to halt construction. It eventually got back underway, and the project was completed by the end of 2020. “That’s what it takes to do 0.6 of a mile,” says Daloia. “What makes bike lanes happen is somebody has to die.”

In the spring of 2021, however, New York City took a step toward making that system more just. As part of a larger police-reform package, the New York City Council quietly passed a bill that would “require [the DOT] to create a crash investigation and analysis unit,” which would “be required to make recommendations for safety-improving changes to street design and infrastructure.” In other words, the DOT would still be acting after, not before, serious crashes, but it would automatically take on many of the responsibilities that Danielle shouldered herself. At the beginning of this year, the DOT implemented the Serious Injury Response, Tracking and Analysis Program and completed 436 investigations, but only took immediate action at three of the sites.

“What makes bike lanes happen is somebody has to die,” says Kevin Daloia.

When it comes to making streets safer for bicyclists, “design change to the street is far more important than education and enforcement,” says Marco Conner DiAquoi, the deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, a New York safe-streets advocacy group that has called for similar proposals. “The best thing is to design for the behavior that you want.”

This approach has already been adopted overseas in places like the Netherlands. “Traffic safety there is seen as an engineering problem, not an enforcement problem,” says Chris Bruntlett, marketing manager for the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a government-funded nonprofit. “If there’s excessive speeding on the street, if there’s a problem with collisions happening, if there is especially a serious incident where someone is severely injured or killed, there’s always a postmortem on whether the street could have been engineered differently to avoid that outcome.”

That’s the direction that Washington Bikes and its partners are moving toward as well. They’re now pushing to redirect state funding into projects that will build safer infrastructure—sidewalks, bike lanes, speed bumps—in low-income communities. “We need streets that are going to be taking better care of people,” says Alston. That approach represents a rethinking of where blame lies in a crash. Rather than reacting to fatal crashes by trying to establish fault and mete out punishment, it focuses on preventing the crash in the first place. “People are fallible, we make mistakes,” says Clarke. “So we need to build our transportation such that when people make a mistake, they don’t cost somebody their life.”

And for Danielle, the bike lane is something else: a way of making Lauren present again on the street that had erased her in so many ways. “I was interviewed when the bike lane was being installed by somebody from a news channel,” Danielle says. “And he said, ‘Would you say this bike lane is a silver lining?’ And I said, ‘No, there’s no silver lining. My sister is dead, and she’s never coming back.’” But the bike lane might save another life, and in that way, Danielle says, “it feels like a mark of Lauren’s life on the neighborhood.”

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