Blind and visually impaired people are adamantly opposed to the suggestion that bikes in NYC should be allowed to roll through red lights (“Idaho stops”) when they see no pedestrians or traffic — and would like to see more bikers complying with traffic regulations already on the books.
Vicki Acopulus, who is severely farsighted and has an astigmatism, has been hit and knocked down twice in Hell’s Kitchen by delivery guys shuttling food on bicycles. Luckily, says the 72-year-old, she had on a puffy, padded winter coat that cushioned her falls or “I could have broken a hip.” A resident of senior housing in Hell’s Kitchen, she says she often runs errands for elderly neighbors who tell her they’re terrified of being run over by rogue cyclists.
Bike use in the city has exploded, with 10 times as many bicyclists on city streets as there were in 1980, according to cyclist counts conducted by the DOT. And while pedestrian-car accidents are far more likely to be lethal, lawbreaking cyclists inspire unique fear in the 53,000 NYC adults between the ages of 18 and 64 who identify as blind or low vision. (Other surveys say 172,484 people with “vision difficulty” reside in NYC, a city hall spokeswoman noted.)
“When we’re crossing streets, we’ve been taught to listen for cars, but you can’t hear bikes,” explained James Champion, 23, an administrative intern who lives in Williamsburg and suffers from retinitis pigmentosa. Cyclists are often unaware that many pedestrians on the streets of New York rely on auditory cues and are not able to see them approaching and move out of their way, Champion said.
Adam Linn, 43, a writer who lives in Chelsea, has had “two canes shorn off!” by bikes flying past him while waiting to cross and crossing the street. “I find it highly ironic that with Vision Zero (the city’s plan to eliminate traffic fatalities and injuries) I, as a blind person, experience violations of the law every single day: Where are the cops?” to enforce bike laws, he asked. NYC is a phenomenal city in many respects for the visually impaired, but “when you’re blind, you really need to rely on law and order,” to stay alive, Linn explained.
Despite increases in bike usage, ticketing is down for at least some bike-related infractions, according to 2007– 2015 data provided without comment by the NYPD: “Bicycle infractions” issued to the riders of commercial bikes dropped from a recent high of 6,287 in 2011 to 1,727 last year. Tickets for bicycling on a sidewalk cratered from 32,190 in 2011 to 3,845 last year. And 0 tickets were issued last year for failing to have bells, brakes, lights, or reflector vests, according to the info supplied.
No one has teased out what percent of the people hit by bikes have low or no vision, though the City notes that only about half of one percent (.45%) of all pedestrian fatalities since 2000 involved a bike-pedestrian collision. Additionally, the city notes that three years after the installation of a bike lane, pedestrian injuries drop 22%. According to city DOT data, only 305 pedestrians and 47 cyclists were injured, and four pedestrians died, in bike-pedestrian accidents last year.
But some experts say those numbers, based on emergency room data, under report the bike-pedestrian problem, failing to document all the people injured or those who eventually die: “Those are only the immediate deaths, as opposed to the injuries that ultimately lead to death,” said Dr. John Getsos, an internist and gerontologist and a member of the faculty group practice at NYU-Langone Medical Center.
Many elderly people have low vision due to diabetes, cataracts, macular degeneration and retinopathies while simultaneously suffering from osteoporosis (meaning their bones break more easily) and vascular problems as a result of being on multiple meds. They are not only more likely to fall when hit by a bike, but at greater risk of injuries that lead to long hospitalizations or rehab stays that result in a cascade of catastrophic — and sometimes fatal — medical consequences. “I can think of 10 to 15 (patients) in my office alone,” who were hit by bikes, said Getsos.
The emergency room data used in such studies reflects only a fraction of the pedestrian injuries and fatalities and “the statistics on elderly people who die one year after a fall are just staggering,” added William Milczarski, an associate professor in the Dept. of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College and one of the nation’s leading researchers in bike-pedestrian injuries and fatalities. It is a law that bikes in NYC be equipped with an “audible signal” but many riders do not use it if they have it, he added.
“The Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and the Department of Transportation are constantly working to improve the safety and accessibility of New York City’s streets. To that end, MOPD and DOT host quarterly meetings with the PASS [Pedestrians for Accessible and Safe Streets] Coalition,” a coalition of visually impaired New Yorkers, the city and DOT said in a statement.
NYC street safety is uniquely complicated by the fact that 3.5 million people enter the city’s center every day, Milczarski said. In addition to having exponentially more bike riders, there are also more pedestrians (many of them “distracted walkers”) and vehicular traffic than other major cities have.
And while cyclists are increasingly compliant with traffic laws, the explosion of bicycling in general means more accidents.
“The percentage obeying the law is improving, but if only 10% are rogue riders, and there are 50,000 cyclists, that is 5,000 cyclists,” Milczarski explained. “Even the commercial riders are getting better, but they’re still the worst offenders: They go the wrong way, they ride on the sidewalks and they don’t stop for the red lights.”
Food delivery is not as prevalent in other cities as it is here, Milcarski continued: “When you’re in a business in which your livelihood depends on tips, the more deliveries you make the more money you make. That’s why] they’re more likely to flout the law.”
The three “Es” — education, engineering (good street design) and enforcement — are essential, but enforcement is currently sporadic, said Milczarski. While the NYPD declined to comment on the statistics it provided, a spokeswoman for City Hall said the DOT “educates cyclists on safe cycling behavior all throughout the city.”
Getting hit by bicycles (not to mention electric cars) is something that many blind people fear, said Annalyn Courtney-Barbier, an orientation and mobility specialist at VISIONS Services for the Blind in Manhattan. “They can’t see them and they don’t hear them: That’s the scary thing,” she said.
Some blind people trade in their canes for guide dogs, as the dogs are trained to keep them out of the way of moving objects. Others, said Courtney-Barbier, confine themselves to crossing only small side streets or ask sighted people for assistance when crossing and some increasingly just stay home, fearful of the peril they can’t hear.
Bikers, said Sarah Baez, 23, a legally blind teacher’s assistant who lives in Brownsville “just don’t realize how many of us there are out there.”