A string of recent deaths resulting from cycling accidents in New York brings the total to 14 so far in 2019, more than in all of 2018, prompting Mayor Bill de Blasio last Monday to declare the situation an ‘emergency.’
The Mayor’s ‘Vision Zero’ program has produced one of the few definitive successes of his administration by measure of the number of traffic fatalities, from almost 300 in 2013 to a low of 209 last year, but the recent uptick in cyclist deaths should recommend caution as New York prepares for an influx of electric bikes and scooters joining the traffic in the bike lanes and streets.
Following the passage of New York State’s Senate Bill S5294A, city authorities would be wise to heed the lessons of early-adopting cities with widespread use of this new form of motorized vehicle joining the traffic flow.
Tel Aviv faced its own emergency after the introduction of thousands of now-ubiquitous shared e scooters in 2018. Nineteen riders or passengers (a dangerous additional factor in the e-bike equation in lightly-enforced Tel Aviv) were killed in 2018, up from 7 in 2017, almost all of them teens and young people. This from a total population of half a million, compared with New York’s more than eight million, gives an idea of the scale of Tel Aviv’s public safety emergency. A recent visit provided some indication why.
E-scooter riders traveled at the speed of bicyclists in top gear, with perhaps too much ease, weaving in and out of automobile traffic, on and off bike lanes, sometimes on to the sidewalk, sometimes on bike lanes now painted onto and colonizing the sidewalks. Helmets were frequently eschewed. Riders conveyed passengers, too often children, some of those without headgear as well. They carried on phone conversations or swigged bottles of water; in one case a man cradled his phone with his neck while swigging from his bottle, his other arm tasked with keeping the scooter stable, responsive to what remained of his attention on the road.
New regulations went into effect in Tel Aviv on July 1st, after a six-month delay to enable riders and authorities to ‘adjust’ and prepare for the changes. Helmets will be mandatory, authorities promise more active enforcement of rules about riding on sidewalks or through crosswalks. But those without a license to drive cars will still be permitted to ride, and licenses and registration of e-vehicles will not be required. Helmets for those older than 16 remain optional. The e-scooters are massively popular with teens and the youthful and healthy, but not everyone wants or is able to enjoy the ride. The elderly, those not physically suited to the mode and anyone else negotiating erstwhile pedestrian spaces are forced into high alert, their heads on swivels, their senses piqued for the fast-moving, silent but dangerous wheels masses racing around them.
While e scooters and bikes are often touted as a people-friendly, convenient and environmentally conscientious solution to ‘car culture’ and urban traffic, the effect of throngs of e-vehicles is not restful for those out for a stroll using the original method of getting from place to place without relying on fossil fuels.
And of course, e-bikes do use electricity and contribute to pollution, though the industry shrewdly compares their impact with car traffic as a way to suggest theirs is a green alternative. They are propelled by motors with batteries, still with an environmental impact no matter the source of that power. And though they are silent ( a danger in itself), like noise pollution their presence in the public space comes at a cost to the senses and atmosphere of the city.
New regulations in Tel Aviv promise designated areas to abandon the shared e vehicles, but for now they litter the sidewalks and public spaces, leaning against traffic signs and bollards all over the city, impediments to pedestrian ease. To his credit, Council Speaker Corey Johnson has expressed concern about the safety of shared e scooters, though their presence in Manhattan, forbidden by the recent legislation, still seems more a matter of ‘when’ than ‘if.’
Recent observation suggests that they outnumber conventional bicycles in Tel Aviv, and though the industry describes a pleasant exercise of hope and joy, e-scooters provide none of the health benefits of walking or riding a bike using pedal power.
Expanding the city’s bike lane infrastructure and cracking down on unsafe motor vehicles are important as New York moves into the e-bike era, but consideration for elderly and other pedestrian New Yorkers’ safety cannot be ignored.
Bliss it might be to be alive at the dawn of the e-bike revolution, but in cities like Tel Aviv that rapidly introduced this new technology with little regulation, only for the young, healthy and heedless does it seem like heaven.
Emmett Hare is a writer and political consultant living in Brooklyn.