Even on the crowded, chaotic streets of New York City, it is a rare occurrence for a person riding a bicycle to strike a person on foot. Rarer still is for that collision to result in serious or fatal injury.
But last week, on the road that loops around Central Park, it happened.
Jill Tarlov, who was crossing the park's West Drive on foot, was struck by a cyclist—reportedly riding a high-end road bike and traveling at high speed— and knocked to the ground with such force that she was left brain-dead. She later died in the hospital.
It was the second fatal bike-pedestrian crash in the city in just two months, and the second to happen in Central Park. At the beginning of August, Irving Schachter, a retired physics teacher, marathoner, and a member of the New York Cycle Club himself, was hit and killed in the park road’s jogging lane by a teenager on a bike who reportedly swerved to avoid a pedicab.
The day after the latest crash, cops were out in force to remind people on bikes of the rules of the road.
Almost immediately after reports of the crash involving Tarlov hit the media, a wave of passionate response broke out online, with people who love to hate bikes in New York predictably jumping on the incident. New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser’s notoriously overheated rhetoric went into overdrive as she railed against “terrorists on wheels” and “[a]ssassins in Spandex.”
But the crash prompted many in the bicycle community to speak up as well. Eben Weiss, who blogs at Bike Snob NYC, condemned the high-speed bike racing culture that is frequently on display in the park, writing, “There's no reason to be doing hot laps in the middle of the goddamn city.” He called for competitive road cyclists to go the whole weekend without using the popular app Strava, where the rider in the Tarlov case was apparently in the habit of tracking his times.
The bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group Transportation Alternatives issued a statement citing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan, saying, “As the most vulnerable users of our streets, pedestrians must be safe from reckless cycling, just as they need to be protected from reckless driving. This is particularly true in our parks.”
Others, however, seemed more focused on downplaying the significance of what happened to Tarlov. In Facebook forums and on comment threads, these people called out the initial coverage as sensationalist and biased, saying that the media goes relatively easy on drivers who kill or injure pedestrians, which they do on a depressingly regular basis.
They have a point: Any fatality involving a bicycle does garner a disproportionate amount of attention. There are a lot of people just like Peyser, who are eager to issue blanket condemnations of everyone on two wheels whenever a single person riding a bicycle does something wrong, or even appears to, and those same people often seem oblivious to the much more prevalent mayhem wrought by drivers. Although injury-producing bicycle-pedestrian collisions in New York rose between 2012 and 2013, from 244 to 316, before Schachter’s death, the last pedestrian fatality involving a bike rider was in 2009. In contrast, 156 New York pedestrians were killed by cars in 2013 alone, and thousands injured.
But people who ride bikes need to accept their responsibilities as road users just the way that people who drive cars do. If you are traveling at a high rate of speed —25 miles per hour is the speed limit for all vehicles in the park, and it is not uncommon for road cyclists to achieve it—you have to acknowledge that you can kill someone or grievously injure them, just as you could if you were driving a car. That unshakeable reality means you should be prepared to stop and yield where you know that people are quite legitimately walking in a relaxed, non-vigilant mode.
And yet every New Yorker who has cared to notice has seen people on bikes riding at competitive speeds in environments where pedestrians behave unpredictably—on the Central Park and Prospect Park loop roads, on the tourist-crammed Brooklyn Bridge, on the West Side Greenway. Way too often, these cyclists are yelling, “Get out of the way!” or similar words as they whiz through the crowds, missing pedestrians by inches.
Saying that people on foot just need to be careful and keep their wits about them, that sometimes “accidents just happen,” is a sad echo of what people who defend reckless drivers say.
Many road cyclists in New York acknowledge the problem. The Century Road Club Association, one of the city’s top bike racing clubs, issued a statement after the crash saying, “Actions likely to endanger the wellbeing of others will not be tolerated. Identified CRCA members will be held accountable for violations of our Code of Conduct pursuant to the CRCA Bylaws…. Most members are doing the right thing, but we know it only takes one moment of bad judgment from one individual to cause major problems for all of us.”
When piloting a vehicle at high speed through city streets or a crowded park, “one moment of bad judgment” can also be fatal.
“Many of us see cyclists as potential victims of cars,” wrote Irving Schachter’s widow, Hindy Schachter, on the New York Cycle Club forums after his death. “And we are. The city still needs to do much more to secure our safety on Manhattan’s streets…. But we are also potential predators. One careless move on a bike and we can take down a runner, a walker, a child skipping along. As we want car drivers to be alert to our rights, so too we must act to protect the rights of other people.”
If anything good can come out of the death of Jill Tarlov, it would be an increased realization of the responsibility we all have toward each other as human beings, all of us trying to use the limited resource of street space in New York or any other crowded city. People in cars, people on foot, people on bikes: we are all just people, fragile and vulnerable creatures of flesh and blood. We should take care of each other.