Speaker's on the Wrong Bike Path

By Michael Smith

June 24, 2002

(Originally appeared in the New York Daily News)

Connoisseurs of the bizarre can relax now. The new City Council may well be even deeper in the Twilight Zone than its predecessor. Its first spasmodic gesture in the direction of traffic safety is a bill to criminalize ... riding a bike on the sidewalk.

The Council, whose speaker, Gifford Miller, is the bill's biggest backer, is set to vote on the proposal Wednesday.

Dodging bikers on the sidewalk is one of the classic low-level urban annoyances. New Yorkers love beefing about such things -- it's less painful than thinking about, say, the city's multibillion-dollar budget gaps as far as the eye can see. Or the up-and-down, color-coded war on terror. Or, since we're talking about traffic safety, the fact that one person a day is killed in the city by a motor vehicle.

To be sure, sidewalks are for pedestrians. But maybe it's time we told that to the drivers.

In one recent five-day span, we had three vehicle crashes on sidewalks, with horrifying results.

On June 9, a police car jumped a curb in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and sent three pedestrians to the hospital.

Two days later, a pedestrian lost a leg when an SUV careened off Park Ave. in midtown and pinned her against a fire hydrant.

Two days after that, a car drove into scaffolding on E. 47th St. and injured three more pedestrians.

Also on June 9, a bicyclist was killed when an SUV turned into his path at 46th St. and Fifth Ave. In this case, though, the cyclist was not on the sidewalk -- unfortunately for him.

In a typical year in New York City, cars kill a dozen pedestrians on our sidewalks. By contrast, over the past decade, pedestrian deaths from run-ins with bicycles occur not even once a year, on average, on streets and sidewalks combined.

So why is Miller pushing this bike-bashing bill?

The short answer: cheap, easy grandstanding.

Sidewalk cycling is already a misdemeanor, punishable by a hefty fine and jail time, when it poses "a significant risk of harm to another person."

Miller's bill would blindly impose penalties on anyone cycling on a sidewalk, regardless of the circumstances. A half-block ride, at a walking pace, from your doorstep to the nearest curb cut could land you in jail for 20 days if Miller's bill becomes law. Ditto a midnight detour to escape the 18-wheelers hurtling toward the Holland Tunnel.

Meanwhile, no more than a handful of the drivers who mow down 200 pedestrians here each year ever see the inside of a jail cell. This fact apparently vexes Miller not at all.

His priorities would be cockeyed in any case. What makes them, well, bizarre, is the fact that not so long ago, he witnessed a bicycle tragedy -- but in this case, as in the vast majority of cases, the cyclist was the victim rather than the killer.

A truck killed his girlfriend, Priscilla Glickman, 21, a college senior, while the two were cycling on Martha's Vineyard in the summer of 1991. Miller recently said in an interview that Glickman's sudden death propelled him into public service. "You know, you've got to try and get done everything you can as quickly as you can," he said, "because you may run out of time."

Well said, and Miller is by all accounts a smart guy. So why doesn't he direct his energies toward making our streets -- and sidewalks! -- safer from the real menace, rather than the minor nuisance?

Safer for people like the girlfriend he lost?

Safer from people like the driver who killed her?

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