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Urban Wonk

When the Bad Guys Ride Bikes

When the Bad Guys Ride Bikes
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Last month, Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein was running on a path in Philadelphia. As she approached a curve obscured by bushes, a cyclist slammed into her. "I just remember seeing him, and all of a sudden I was on the ground," she says. She spent the night in the hospital, recovering from a head wound that reached the bone and required three layers of stitches.

"I think what happened is our heads hit and then something on his bike must have punctured my forehead," she says about the accident. The city path divides for pedestrians and bikers in certain areas, but not where she was hit.

It’s hard to know if collisions between walkers and cyclists are truly increasing and who’s to blame. They’re certainly generating more attention lately, along with vitriol toward two-wheelers.

Crashes have ignited controversies in New York, Toronto, and London. In Philadelphia, bicycle/pedestrian collisions killed two pedestrians and left another with a fractured skull in 2009. This spring, a San Francisco biker struck a 71-year old pedestrian as he crossed the street. The man died a few days later.

The death revived the argument between cyclist defenders and critics.

Cyclists flout the rules, say detractors. They ignore red lights and signs. They ride against traffic. They pedal on sidewalks where pedestrians aren’t expecting them. And they accelerate to death-defying speeds – as in Zuckerman Bernstein’s case, she says – making quick halts impossible. Police need to ticket cyclists more, say critics, and cities should try to educate bikers on road rules.

Some even call for licenses for the helmet set. 

"I know that it would cut down on cycling. But I do think that cycling in the city comes with a responsibility because it’s a moving vehicle," says Nancy Gruskin, founder of the Stuart C. Gruskin Family Foundation, named after her husband who died after being struck by a food delivery cyclist

"If you have enforcement that dovetails with a good marketing and public relations campaign, I think that can really work,” she says – something like the “Click It or Ticket” campaign.

Many bike supporters counter that cars are the road’s greatest menace. And if that’s the case, the more bikes, the better. They take vehicles off the street and force drivers to slow down. Cycling licenses would discourage potential bikers, these advocates argue. If the roads were safer for bikers – because of bike lanes, reduced speeds or better enforcement of driving violations – there would be fewer conflicts with pedestrians and vehicles.

"I think when you’re on a bike, you’re so accustomed to watching out for cars and yourself, you forget there are people on the street that are more vulnerable,” says Elizabeth Stampe, executive director of Walk San Francisco, a pedestrian advocacy group.

Stampe may speak for walkers, but she’s clearly not anti-bike. Pedestrian advocates and their cycling counterparts often collaborate on issues. Likewise, many local safe streets organizations support both groups. 

In other words: it’s hard to imagine too many harsh bike critics in established pedestrian organizations.

For now, cities are responding to complaints with a variety of approaches. In New York, Gruskin’s organization launched 5 to Ride, which teaches restaurant delivery cyclists safer biking rules, like "stop at every red light." This spring, San Francisco was developing a cycling school for first-time violators.

But there’s one thing almost everyone can support: bikers should be leading the way in taming their own.

"The worst thing for a cycling advocate is to see some other cyclist dangerously blow through a red light. It’s just the worst PR,” says Scott Bricker, executive director of America Walks. 

More savvy groups are focusing on education, says Bricker, who previously led an Oregon-based biking organization. But in general, advocates "need to do more."

As for Zuckerman Bernstein, she’s on-edge around bikers. She says she’ll never run on the same city path again. "I’m still having headaches, but it could have been a lot worse," she says.

Photo credit: SVLuma/Shutterstock

Ruth Samuelson is a freelance journalist. She previously worked at Washington City Paper and her writing has also appeared in Global Post, The Washington Post, Fox News Latino, The Washingtonian, and the Houston Press. All posts »

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