getting around

It Was One of the Deadliest Years for Cyclists in New York City

But pedestrian traffic deaths are reaching historic lows. What’s going on?

Photo: Hugo Yu
Photo: Hugo Yu

On a recent evening in November, 3-year-old Quintas Chen was crossing College Point Boulevard in Queens with his father when a parked car pulled off from the curb and struck and killed the toddler. (The driver, who left the scene and abandoned his vehicle, was later found and charged with manslaughter.) The scene was painfully familiar to Hsi-Pei Liao and his wife, Amy Tam, who lost their 3-year-old daughter, Allison, just around the corner in 2013. She was also crossing the street while holding her grandmother’s hand when the driver of an SUV hit and killed her. One year later, Allison’s parents co-founded Families for Safe Streets, an advocacy organization made up of people who have lost family members to traffic violence, the same year that then-Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Vision Zero, a plan aimed at eliminating all traffic-related deaths and severe injuries. Still, they relive their nightmare whenever stories like Chen’s surface in the news. “This is constantly happening on a regular basis,” said Liao. “It’s kind of expected, and it’s not acceptable.”

Nearly a decade after Vision Zero’s launch, the numbers look like they have plateaued. According to the city’s Department of Transportation, 245 people have died in traffic crashes this year, either on foot, on a bike, or in a vehicle, as of December 7. In 2014, the number that de Blasio was calling unacceptable was not much higher, at 250. But it’s not all bad news: While the rest of America — already a global underachiever on street safety — is reversing yearslong progress in reducing traffic deaths, New York City will likely end 2023 with one of its lowest pedestrian death rates in 114 years, or as long as the city has been recording that data. Yet for cyclists and other riders on two wheels, the exact opposite has been true: This year has seen one of the highest fatality rates in 20 years. It’s a wildly uneven scorecard for Vision Zero that’s worth looking into. What’s working to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe from traffic deaths, and what’s not?

One of the deadliest years for cyclists: 27 deaths

The year began on a low note: The first few months of 2023 were the deadliest since the city started keeping closer track of bike fatalities in 2011. Fortunately, that rate slowed in the second half. So far, the total number of traffic deaths for cyclists and e-bike riders is up to 27, and it rises to 48 if one includes e-scooter and moped riders, who also compete for space in bike lanes and face the same visibility problems in shared roadways with cars. The uptick isn’t entirely because of the pandemic “bike boom,” when more New Yorkers began taking up bicycling. It’s more of a flashback to the past, since this year’s number ties 2018, a time of constant ghost-bike dedications and “die-in” protests that prompted de Blasio to declare the situation an “emergency” and propose an ambitious plan for cycling infrastructure.

Data provided by the NYC Department of Transportation, up to December 6, 2023. Bike totals also include e-bike, moped, and e-scooter riders.

Examining the trends within the data is more revealing. City officials pointed out that almost three-quarters of the bike deaths this year were e-bike users, or 20 out of 27. Last year, that number was less than half — just nine out of 20. That spike might be related to the faster speeds that these vehicles often go, which contribute to more deadly collisions. That’s coinciding with record-high ridership; according to the latest figures, 610,000 cycling trips a day were made in 2022, which seems like a low estimate.

For bike advocates, high ridership should bring safety in numbers, which is clearly not happening. That would require a bigger paradigm shift, said Sara Lind, the co–executive director of Open Plans, a livable-streets advocacy organization. It would mean creating a transit landscape that would “reduce driving and rebalance the way our streets are used. These decisions should be based on data and strategy, not just checking off the ‘more bike lane’ box.”

On that front, the DOT says it’s on track to reach an all-time high in installing protected bike lanes in one year, with a record number in the Bronx, which has historically lacked them. Beyond that, as we reported last week, New York has made some headway in improving the design of bike lanes, with wider corridors, “bike boulevards,” new bollards, and traffic calming at turns, a common culprit of crashes.

That physical infrastructure clearly makes a difference, but it’s unfortunately not ubiquitous. About 94 percent of bike fatalities this year and last occurred on streets with very little cycling infrastructure, or none at all, according to Transportation Alternatives. Even where such infrastructure exists, there’s the problem of human interference and piecemeal implementation; the new bike lane on Grand Concourse is often blocked by parked cars, and Upper West Side cyclists reported finding themselves on incomplete lanes that suddenly merge with traffic, a citywide issue. Mayor Eric Adams, who promised to be a best friend to bike riders, has diluted projects at the last minute through a powerful chief of staff who blocks community-approved street improvements in favor of well-connected opposition.

A new low for pedestrians: 93 deaths

The number is certainly not zero, and recent stories about pedestrian traffic deaths name plenty of issues that are ongoing: reckless driving, speeding, bigger cars. 2021 and 2022 were especially bad years in New York City. But aside from 2020 (an outlier because of COVID-19 lockdowns and more people staying at home), it looks like pedestrian deaths in 2023 will fall below 100 for the first time in its recorded history. The streets haven’t been this safe for people on two feet since Vision Zero began, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

“The numbers are certainly encouraging,” said Eric McClure, the executive director of StreetsPAC, which endorses political candidates for their records on street safety. But he was also stumped by the pedestrian numbers dropping while biker deaths were soaring in the opposite direction.

First, what’s often good for bikes is good for everyone else, too. Data shows that streets with protected bike lanes reduce risk of injury for all road users by 34 percent. So amid a spike in crashes for cyclists, the city’s steady clip of bike-lane installation appears to be having a knock-on effect for pedestrians.

This was also the year that Albany allowed New York City’s speed cameras to operate 24/7 near school zones. In August, NYCDOT reported speeding, injuries, and fatalities all dropped where speed cameras stayed on all night. “When people get one or two speeding tickets, they tend to not get more. So clearly, they’re slowing down a bit to avoid these repeat offenses,” said McClure.

Intersections, where most crashes occur, may also hold some answers. City Hall’s promise to “redesign” 1,000 a year could be yielding results, even if most improvements to them were just leading pedestrian intervals, which give people a head start to cross the street before cars can. Other treatments include raised crosswalks and daylighting, the design intervention that makes it easier for drivers to see pedestrians and bikers at the corner via curb extensions, boulders, planters, and paint. It is credited as the not-so-secret weapon bringing traffic deaths to zero in Hoboken and Jersey City for multiple years in a row.

Last month, the mayor and the DOT said they’ll ramp up intersection redesigns from 1,000 to 2,000 a year, half of which will be daylighted. To go further, experts say the city should end its own exemption to the state law barring parking within 20 feet of a crosswalk, and be less hesitant about removing parking spots — which would effectively daylight most intersections.

Looking ahead: Lowering speed limits

For those who’ve lost their loved ones to traffic deaths, the city is still not doing enough. “Maybe some numbers are going down and that’s great news, but for me and my wife, there’s always this feeling that a lot of things are just done piecemeal,” said Liao, the father of 3-year-old Allison. For one, he thinks the city is more reactive than proactive, often installing safety measures only after someone is killed. After Allison was killed on Main Street, a leading pedestrian interval was installed at the crossing, even though residents had been telling the city that the intersection was unsafe for years.

One concrete change that they want to see is slower speeds citywide. Liao and Tam, as part of Families for Safe Streets, will lobby for Sammy’s Law in Albany for the fourth year in a row. That law, named after a 12-year-old Brooklyn boy killed by a driver while playing on his own block, would allow New York City to set its own speed limits. (It’s currently set at 25 miles per hour.) Just reducing it to 20 would reduce traffic deaths by almost a quarter, research shows. But even with the backing of the governor and broad popular support, the bill didn’t make it out of the State Legislature last year.

“We want to see more holistic change, on a larger scale,” said Liao. “If we know it works, then let’s just put it in place.”

Related Stories

See All
It Was One of the Deadliest Years for New York City Cyclists