Michael Vitti is a long time and successful cycling advocate in Long Island. I don't know him personally, but I am friends with him on Facebook. When I was asking people who to contact to work with on cycling and pedestrian safety issues on Long Island, his name came up a lot. I have been told that he is responsible for getting the Wantaugh Parkway bike path extended along Ocean Parkway to Tobay Beach as well as making significant progress for mountain bikers on Long Island.
All I can say is, "thank you, thank you, thank you, Mike." I have ridden the Tobay Beach bike path more times than I can count and I love it. We need more Mike Vitti's on this island.
Yesterday Mike linked to an article about the Tobay Beach bike path on Facebook. The path dead-ends. Cyclists enjoy a beautiful ride with beach views (and often quite a bit of wind). But they then arrive at the end and simply turn around. There are bike racks and a turnstile there. Cyclists are able to park their bikes and then walk to the beach or use the bathroom, but ultimately the cyclist will return back the same path he or she took down. Since I like to think of my bike as a means of transportation and hence would like to think of bike paths like the Tobay Beach path as a beautiful, bike friendly way to get from point A to point B, the fact it just stops has always bugged me.
The article Mike linked to was about a disabled cyclist who is suing the Town of Oyster Bay because the turnstile at the end of the Tobay Beach bike path limits his access to the facilities there. He is bound to his bike and has to call someone to come let him through the locked gate to get to the bath building. I wish this cyclist, Peter Hawkins, a favorable ruling in his suit.
The town claims that the fence is there to keep cyclists out of the parking lot for Tobay Beach, where they might be hit by motorized traffic.
Although many individual Long Islanders disagree, the general Long Island attitude towards pedestrian and bicyclist safety seems to be:
Pedestrians and cyclists get killed because they are doing stupid things and the only change Long Island needs to make in order to reduce the number of pedestrian and cyclist crashes is to keep them from doing these stupid things.
After a pedestrian or cyclist death makes the news, I often hear people say things like:
- "The other day I was on Sunrise Highway and I saw a pedestrian crossing the road in between lights. They always do very dangerous things like that!"
- "The other night I saw a cyclist on Old Country Road cycling on the shoulder in the wrong direction. No wonder there are so many cyclist deaths!"
Sometimes it seems many Long Islanders believe that simply the act of being a pedestrian or cyclist on a certain road was reason enough for them to have been hit:
- "What was she doing riding her bike on that road anyway? Of course she was going to get hit!"
The photo above is of a fence that was erected between the eastbound and westbound lanes on Hempstead Turnpike near Nassau University Medical Center to keep pedestrians from jay-walking. It was an unfortunate irony that patients left NUMC, only to return to NUMC because of a traffic crash immediately thereafter.
The basic assumption is that the only way we can possibly curb these crashes is to make it impossible for pedestrians to cross at the wrong spot.
Of course, this reaction to pedestrian and cyclist safety issues completely ignores the fact that there are many pedestrians and cyclists that are killed in crashes without having done anything that would be considered risky other than merely deigning to try to be a pedestrian or cyclist in the wrong place. But also, the design of our streets, which has catered to cars since Robert Moses, has made it difficult for pedestrians and cyclists to share the road. Given this, they are bound to do things eventually that will put themselves at risk.
For example, when lights are few and far between and a pedestrian needs to get from some place in the middle of a block to some place directly across the street from them, it is really tempting to cross the road between lights. It takes a long time to walk to the light, wait (often a very long time) for the light to change, then wait for turning traffic (even though turning traffic is legally supposed to yield to pedestrians), hoping turning vehicles leave you enough time to cross and dodging traffic once the space is finally given to enter the intersection, and then walk back to the intended destination.
It takes time on foot, and turning traffic is so dismissive of pedestrians in crosswalks that it doesn't even seem much safer.
It is not surprising to me that such a pedestrian may be tempted to jay-walk.
Cyclists face similar issues. Imagine a dishwasher who gets off work at 1 am on one side of Old Country Road, dead tired from a full day of work, and commutes by bike. If he has to get to a side street or business half a block down on the same side of Old Country Road against traffic, it would be really tempting to ride against traffic on that side of the road. Sidewalks are not made for cyclists. They are poorly maintained, obstructions such as bus stop shelters force cyclists to dismount periodically, and motorists pulling out of or into parking lots rarely look for pedestrians, let alone faster moving cyclists, on sidewalks. Sidewalks are dangerous for cyclists.
The alternative for such a cyclist would be to cycle in the direction opposite his destination, wait for the light (again, sometimes for a very long time), to then maneuver against turning traffic, ride back to the next light and wait (again, for a very long time) and finally head back with traffic to one's destination, recognizing that he is still in exposing himself to risk riding with traffic.
Such a cyclist might be tempted to ride on the shoulder on the wrong side of the road.
Although one does run into the occasional dare-devil who doesn't care about his or her own life, most dangerous pedestrian and cyclist behavior that I hear people railing against are from people just trying to get by in a world that has been constructed to hinder them.
The risky behavior that is killing pedestrians and cyclists is designed into the system and we need to design it out.
Simply making it harder to be a pedestrian or cyclist is not going to help curb the pedestrian and cyclist fatality rate on Long Island. Those who have to rely on alternative modes of transportation are still going to be tempted into risky behaviour after a long day's work. What is more, making it harder to be a pedestrian or cyclist on Long Island will discourage those with the financial means to own a car from trying to use alternative means of transportation at all, which only increases traffic congestion as well as our carbon footprint.
There are alternatives to car-centric communities. Friday afternoon I attended a webinar on the benefits of the "complete streets" initiative. There have been a number of municipalities of all sizes around the country that have engaged in dramatic redesigns of their streets to make them more pedestrian, cyclist and public transportation friendly and have found significant economic advantage from that change. Not only do fewer pedestrians and cyclists die, more people opt for that form of transporation, businesses flouish, increasing revenue from sales tax, property values go up and people actually interact with each other more.
Of course, it is a given that complete streets designs also significantly benefit the environment and individual health.
Long Island needs to stop making it harder to be a pedestrian or bicyclist. It needs to redesign itself to make it safer and easier to do so.