Around 9:30 a.m. on June 24 in Manhattan, cyclist Robyn Hightman rounded the corner from 23rd Street onto Sixth Avenue, where they were struck by a large white delivery truck and thrown off their bike into the middle of the street. A photo from shortly after the crash shows a mangled, black, single-speed bicycle lying torn up in the street alongside a flopped open messenger bag, a cracked helmet, and a narrow river of blood.
Hightman, who preferred they/them pronouns, was in the process of moving to New York City from Richmond, Va. when they were hit by the truck. They were sleeping on a friend’s couch in Bushwick and had just started working as a delivery person for Samurai Messenger Service. The day before they were jolted from their bike onto the concrete, they raced on the track at a velodrome in Queens. Hightman had just signed as an ambassador with professional women’s cycling team Hagens Berman—Supermint. Things were looking up.
Officers responded to a 911 call shortly after the crash, and took Hightman to a nearby Bellevue hospital. Hightman was already dead by the time they arrived.
The driver, Antonio Garcia, continued for a few blocks, until someone ran him down and got him to return to the scene. He said he never saw Hightman. The NYPD issued him five citations, all related to truck maintenance, and let him go with a conciliatory pat on the shoulder. Presumably, he went and finished his deliveries.
You’ve seen this sort of story before. A cyclist is riding down a city street when they are struck by a driver, suffering a violent death. Sometimes it’s right there in the street; sometimes it takes days. The community mourns the sudden loss of life, organizes vigils, and memorializes them with a placard or a ghost bike, a spectral reminder that someone died here, on this corner, on a bike. The driver says they didn’t see the rider. Nothing happens to them.
The police express nominal remorse, while reminding the public that the cyclist could still be alive if they had followed all the rules, if they had stayed in the bike lane, if they had protected themselves better. Sometimes, they follow that up with a brief, quixotic show of force by cracking down on all possible bicycling violations near the crash site. Better living through enforcement. Local politicians offer their condolences, and sometimes they even protect the lane where the rider died.
And then another cyclist is killed by another driver and the cycle starts all over again. As shocking as their death was, Robyn Hightman will not be the last cyclist to die in the street.
This is not merely a New York City problem, though Hightman was the 13th cyclist killed by a car this year in the city. That total is already three higher than the 10 cyclists who were killed throughout the course of 2018. Across the nation, more people have started riding their bikes regularly, and the percentage of bike commuters in large cities in particular has exploded over the past two decades. The League of American Bicyclists estimates increases of up to 500 percent in certain American cities, with steady upticks across the board. The increase in riders has also come with an increasing number of dead cyclists.
A database kept by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that the number of dead bike riders has been rising since the relatively peaceful late aughts, when only 628 and 623 cyclists died in 2009 and 2010, respectively. According to an estimate made by the NHTSA earlier this month, overall traffic fatalities in 2018 declined by one percent from the previous year, though the number of cyclists killed by cars increased by 10 percent. By their calculation, last year looks like it will wind up as the deadliest on record for cyclists, topping the previous high of 852 dead riders in 2016. Meanwhile, 2019 is already off to a bleak start.
Considering that more people, especially in cities, are riding their bikes, it makes a degree of grim sense that the number of cyclists dying would also increase. What does not square is the ugly fact that roughly even percentages of cyclists are getting killed on the streets of cities that have supposedly taken bold action to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe.
New York City and San Francisco implemented Vision Zero in 2014, with the goal of eliminating traffic deaths over a 10-year timespan. The initiative was first rolled out in 1997 in Sweden, where it helped reduce the rate of traffic fatalities to three per 100,000 people. That’s four times lower than the U.S.’s rate of approximately 11.2, even as an increasing number of Swedes are driving and cycling.
New York City built several miles of protected bike lanes last year. San Francisco converted some high-use road lanes into mass transit-only zones. Los Angeles constructed larger, more visible crosswalks at dangerous intersections. Cities are trying, and yet, broadly speaking, it’s not working fast enough. Traffic deaths are spiking in New York this year after decreasing every year since Vision Zero was rolled out, and more pedestrians and cyclists have been dying every year in L.A.
It is too early to call Vision Zero a failure, even in L.A. or New York where the slow rollout of improved bike infrastructure has made it safer for certain riders on certain roads. But it hasn’t shown any meaningful signs that it will break the cycle of death. Two veteran New York riders said riding in the city feels as dangerous as it ever has. “[Hightman’s] death really hit me hard because they remind me of what I was like at that age,” writer Sarah Goodyear said. “I grew up in Manhattan. Even with the new bike lanes, it’s gotten worse. I feel less comfortable now than I did riding a few years ago.”
“Since 2014 or so, it’s started to get worse again,” Streetsblog founder and longtime NYC cyclist Aaron Naparstek told Deadspin. “Not much has changed in the growth rate of the city’s bike infrastructure. [Mayor Bill] de Blasio repackaged [former mayor Mike] Bloomberg’s program as Vision Zero, and he’s continued to build out some decent bike infrastructure.”
More infrastructure is not a perfect a solution on its own, especially considering the systemic flaws that hamstring the effectiveness of that infrastructure. Most bike lane projects need community board approval, which means convincing residents to part with parking spaces, a tough ask. A protected bike lane is exactly what it sounds like, a physical barrier between cars and cyclists, and it’s the simplest way to keep riders safe, though it necessarily requires removing parking or road space for drivers. From a construction standpoint, at least, protecting a bike lane can be done quickly.
Tess Rothstein was riding a bike on Howard Street in San Francisco this March when she was forced into the road by a car’s door swinging out into her path. She was hit by another car in the road and killed. The city protected that part of the bike lane days later.
“You end up with new bike lanes pretty quickly after these horrible fatalities,” Naparstek said. “It’s almost like the best way to get a new piece of bike infrastructure in a big city right now is to have someone killed, which seems like the wrong way to design your bike infrastructure, just waiting for fatalities.”
He continued, “Street design is super important, but it’s bullet-proofing.” Focusing only on street design, “is like telling kids to wear bulletproof backpacks to school instead of making sure there are fewer guns on the street.”
Cyclehawk’s Kevin Bolger has been a bike messenger in New York for 27 years, since before there were bike lanes, and he told Deadspin that cycling has gotten safer through the time he’s been riding, though it’s still dangerous. “I was almost run off the road this morning by a UPS driver,” he said. “I don’t get mad at people anymore. You try and make eye contact and wave at people and say, ‘Hey look there’s someone else out here.’” He added, “If you’re paying attention to what’s going on, you have a higher rate of survival.” Cyclists, of course, have a responsibility to pay attention to their surroundings, though their margin for error is zero, because a car is always going to win in a collision.
New York City bragged about adding 21 miles of protected bike lanes in 2018, when the actual number was closer to 16. Sam Bleiberg, a Manhattan-based cyclist and volunteer with Transportation Alternatives, told Deadspin that even the protections on those lanes are often undercut by cars and construction. “There’s one cross-town route in Midtown,” he said. “There was construction on that the other day, and as a result, there was no safe way to get across town.”
“The big change has been in cars and drivers,” Naparstek said. “Around 2014, Uber and Lyft start rolling into the city and traffic congestion started ratcheting up really significantly. So you have more crowded streets, more frustrated drivers, and simultaneously you have the advent of mobile phones, so drivers are more distracted as well.”
“It feels like there are more vehicles on the street,” Goodyear said. “There’s just this pervasive attitude that people who ride bicycles are scofflaws, they’re a pain in the ass, that they need to be placated but not really taken seriously ... The streets are fundamentally not just unfriendly, but hostile.”
“Fundamentally, it’s a fear of change,” Naparstek said of anti-bike sentiment. “There’s been a lot of change in cities, and when the new condo comes in or your favorite restaurant goes out of business and is replaced by some fancy new restaurant, you don’t really get any say in that at all. Every time a bike lane goes in, there’s a public process, and that’s a flashpoint where people can express all kinds of concerns about the way their city is changing. The bike lane becomes a symbol for all of the things that are changing in this neighborhood that I didn’t have a say in, that I don’t like, that aren’t serving me, and many of those complaints are legitimate. Usually, the complaints about the bike lane, in my view, are not.”
“You’ll always see articles about how bicycling is gentrification, how it’s for white male Spandex junkies, but that’s erasing people who work with their bikes and people in lower income neighborhoods, which tend to have more traffic fatalities anyway,” Bleiberg said.
He’s right. Of the 14 people who have now died on their bikes this year, 10 have been killed in Brooklyn, where there is a less developed bike infrastructure. “[F]rankly, the lack of protected bike lanes in East New York sends the message that our Mayor is not willing to invest equally in already disenfranchised neighborhoods of color,” Transportation Alternatives Interim Co-Executive Director Marco Conner said in a statement. “Wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods, not only have more bike lanes, but more of the safe protected bike lanes we know save lives. This modern inequity sits atop historically unequal investment in infrastructure in black neighborhoods, making streets in East New York doubly unsafe.”
The data also proves Naparstek and Goodyear correct on cars. There have never been more cars on New York City’s streets. Motor vehicle ownership has increased through every year of the de Blasio administration to a figure 19 percent higher than when he took office in 2014. That trend has been encouraged by Andrew Cuomo presiding over the slow crumbling of the subway system, but also by de Blasio swelling the city fleet and making it easier to park in the city.
“On my block [in SoHo], I’ve seen someone get hit because the lane is not protected,” Bleiberg said. “A rideshare car was parked in it. They went around, they were hit, and went to the hospital for a head injury.”
“It’s impossible to ride for more than two or three blocks in a bike lane in New York City without encountering an obstruction,” Goodyear said. “It’s always somebody making a delivery, someone parked, even in protected bike lanes.”
Cyclist Jameson Croasdale shares that same frustration, and it motivated him to start an Instagram account chronicling cars parked in bike lanes. It quickly amassed thousands of followers. “I’m sick of every time a cyclist dies or gets injured, the NYPD blames the cyclist and cracks down on the cycling community as a whole, rather than enforce the laws for commercial vehicles and drivers,” he told Gothamist.
“The life cycle of this ‘cyclist dies, NYPD crackdown, everybody in mourning’ thing goes really quickly,” Croasdale told Deadspin. “And I knew if we could build up a foundation of content and network of support, we could keep this thing going and really get people to pay attention.”
“The city has done some great things, but they’ve done some really terrible things to traffic,” he said. “I say that as someone who drives box trucks and as someone who rides a bike. The whole implementation of [Vision Zero] is laughable.”
Croasdale said he is completely overwhelmed with submissions from all across the city, and that he would be interested in mapping bike lane obstacles to try and figure out where the most hazardous parts of the city are for riders (he noted that Sixth Avenue is a particularly dangerous road). Even on his way back from the Robyn Hightman vigil ride, Croasdale said he was cut off by a taxi in the bike lane.
So, how are cars allowed to block bike lanes so casually and regularly? Last March, de Blasio encouraged drivers to temporarily park in bike lanes for short errands, which is against his own city’s laws. Months after de Blasio said his piece, Australian tourist Madison Lyden was forced to swerve out of a bike lane when she was cut off by a cab. A garbage truck driver hit her and killed her. The cabdriver was not ticketed. The garbage truck driver, who said he had drank two beers before the incident, was fined $1,000.
Those slaps on wrists, coupled with the five summonses Garcia got for truck inspection-related offenses after killing Hightman, should not be surprising. Garcia’s truck reportedly drew 83 summonses over the past five years. The NYPD did not charge or even name the driver of a large truck that ran over Linda Douglas in Flatbush in April because he said he didn’t see her. Oil tanker driver Kenneth Jackson was not charged with fleeing a crime scene after he killed 72-year-old cyclist Chaim Joseph in February because he said he didn’t see him.
Drivers almost never lose their licenses or face criminal charges for killing cyclists. Naparstek recommended implementing a process where drivers can have their licenses suspended or stripped for repeat violations. Former Bicycling editor-in-chief Peter Flax, a tireless crusader for cyclists’ right not to get killed, told Deadspin, “I recognize that these drivers don’t wake up planning to kill someone, so murder charges will be rare unless there is extreme recklessness. But in many cases, drivers have been distracted by phones or dashboard tech, been impaired, been driving too fast, leave the scene of the crash or otherwise behave recklessly or negligently. Most people view cars as essential transportation, but in so many of these cases, where people are negligent, the vehicle becomes a lethal weapon.”
“Only by more aggressively criminalizing dangerous driving will people change their behavior,” Flax, who wrote his own hit-by-car obituary for Outside magazine in 2017, said. “So we need smarter and tougher legal protection, and law enforcement and the judicial system to uphold those laws.”
Drivers do occasionally get charged with crimes when they kill cyclists, though it’s the exception and it usually happens in more extreme cases, such as the 2016 incident where Charles Pickett Jr. was convicted of murder after he ran over five cyclists in Kalamazoo while driving on meth. Brooklyn resident Treasure Liggins was charged with manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and driving while intoxicated after she ran over Mohammed Abdullah in Brooklyn last month.
While drivers are often being protected, the NYPD also has a baffling habit of responding to the deaths of rider by ticketing cyclists, often for not wearing a helmet, which is not against the law. Sure enough, the NYPD set up shop on the street where Hightman died the next day and gave out tickets to riders. The shift in blame onto the riders themselves was made all the more absurd since it happened in the presence of an illegal 53-foot truck. When Chaim Joseph was killed in February, the NYPD did the same, and de Blasio defended the practice. “We’re going to be enforcing on anybody who we think puts other people in danger, period,” he said, somehow speaking about cyclists and not car drivers.
Officer Carlos Negron also blamed Hightman for their own death, telling Gothamist:
“As far as the female who passed away unfortunately, yesterday, I believe she was riding off the bike lane, you know. It’s sad, but it’s sad that she was off the bike lane, you know? Maybe if she had been on the bike lane, maybe she’d still be alive.”
Goodyear said Negron’s comment was “clueless in the extreme, and very disrespectful to the person who died.”
“It just makes me angry that after what we’ve gone through in the last 15 years, where there’s been this renaissance of public space that everyone agrees is great, there’s still this hostility—it’s baked into the police department. I don’t understand why their resistance to bicycles is so deep and persistent.”
It’s hard to dispute the factual basis for Goodyear’s fury. After bike messenger Aurilla Lawrence was killed by a hit-and-run driver in March, not only did cops ticket bikes where she died, they also showed up to a group ride a month later and ticketed riders again, confiscated some bikes, and even arrested the leader on the pretense of following up a 2015 open container citation.
In the best of circumstances, to ride a bike is to be free. It does not require gas, it does not require a MetroCard, it does not require deference to schedules. It does not hurt anyone, or pollute the air. It is, somehow, often the quickest way to get around. It makes you strong. It is the closest you can get to flying in everyday life, which Robyn Hightman knew better than anyone. Croasdale told me that they had made the journey from Virginia to New York on their bike.
Hightman’s former pro team shared an excerpt from their ambassador application on Instagram this week:
As a homeless youth deeply entrenched in the trappings of poverty and parental abuse and neglect, my first bicycle offered a way to seek respite from the horrors of my surroundings and human experience, if only for a few glorious minutes. My bicycle established a sense of independence, strengthened my ability to be self sufficient, and provided me with the confidence necessary to advocate for myself, my rights, and my needs in public space. My bicycle enabled me to leave our encampment every day to access education, seek out food, and fulfill my basic needs. Eventually, my bicycle allowed me to provide for myself when I began working a full time job at the age of fourteen. My bicycle provided me with the socioeconomic mobility necessary to escape. My bicycle saved my life.
And so, let us consider the forces aligned against Hightman on that final ride on June 24.
An experienced, professional-level rider set out into a city making an honest, albeit misguided effort to keep them safe. That rider traversed bike lanes in-name-only that were too often clogged with cars and other obstacles. They had to navigate around drivers who didn’t know or didn’t care that they were there, drivers who have little legal incentive not to hit cyclists. They were protected by a police department more interested in keeping cyclists in line than the people that kill them.
It might not be possible to save every life, especially in a city as dense and chaotic as New York. But that doesn’t mean the city doesn’t owe more to its riders. “You’re probably never going to eliminate deaths completely,” Croasdale said. “It’s tragic, but I think making deaths the exception as opposed to the norm is where we should be headed.”
I reached out to the NYPD to ask how they knew Hightman was to blame for getting struck and killed by a truck, and all I received was this statement: “The preliminary investigation revealed that the bicyclist and the truck were traveling northbound on 6 Avenue when they collided.”
That statement made this week’s comments from NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan all the more surprising. At a press conference on Thursday, Monahan said of the ticketing strategy, “We’re looking at that strategy and it’s something that we’re looking to adjust. It’s something we want to take a look at, how we’re responding to it. What sort of enforcement we’re going to do. We’re speaking with [NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas] Chan about how to respond after a fatality accident.”
That’s noncommittal, and presupposes plenty more accidents and deaths, but it’s at least an admission that cracking down on living riders does nothing to prevent them from becoming dead riders. City Councilor Carlina Rivera successfully introduced a bill that forces construction companies to build temporary bike lanes when they block the street, and that bill went into effect last month. There may not be a future out there where nobody dies on a bike in New York City ever again, but there can be a future where it’s a significantly more rare occurrence.
In May, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson rolled out an ambitious “master plan” for NYC streets, which includes five- and ten-year benchmarks that would rapidly expand the city’s bicycling infrastructure and make every intersection in the city ADA compliant. When asked about Hightman’s death, he sent the following statement:
The death of cyclists in cities is a crisis. In New York, we are working really hard to promote biking as an alternative mode of transportation to break our car culture. But we need to protect cyclists too. All 21st century cities have to design transit infrastructure with pedestrians, cyclists, and mass transit users in mind. We especially have to keep in mind the safety of each of those groups. Sadly in New York City right now, our bike infrastructure is just not good enough and cyclists are paying the price with their lives. We know the solution to this is to build an interconnected network of protected bike lanes, we just have to get it done.
People are not going to stop riding their bikes, even in Manhattan. The subway system is disintegrating in real time, the planet is dying, and a cheaper or more convenient mode of transportation still doesn’t exist. “Bicycles are the future of cities and, as such, smart city leaders need to embrace safe streets for cycling,” Doug Gordon wrote in an op-ed for the New York Daily News in the wake of Hightman’s death. “How many more people should die before this inevitable reality arrives? Let’s hope the mayor agrees that the answer is zero.”
Slightly improved policing and community anger aside, there are no guarantees anything gets better without change on a systemic scale. After all, Hightman wasn’t even the most recently killed cyclist in New York City for a period of a week.
Only hours after Hightman’s vigil ride, 57-year-old Ernest Askew was killed in Brooklyn. The car driver was not charged.