If there’s one group of road users virtually immune to being cowed by a lowly act of terrorism involving a motor vehicle, it’s cyclists. We’re reminded every day — through rolled-down car windows, on too-narrow roads, via social media — that we “share” the roads with people who actively hate us and that our interests (including safety) come behind theirs. Every one of us knows what it’s like to stare death in the grille. Daily riders have all had drivers aim their cars at us as if they were about to plow us down, whether because of run-of-the-mill inattention or out-and-out road rage. This reality is priced into our decision to ride.
Cyclists also know all too well that our most cherished “protected” spaces are not truly protected. In 2006, Eric Ng was killed on his bike on the same block and in the same bike path as Tuesday’s attack, when a drunk driver steered his car into the lane; advocates nationwide have been calling for better safety measures ever since. Even the scale of the Halloween incident is hauntingly familiar. In June 2016, authorities say, Charles Pickett Jr. killed five cyclists and injured four more in Kalamazoo, Mich., when he rammed them from behind.
Unlike in Kalamazoo, government and law enforcement officials have declared what happened in New York an act of terrorism. This ensures that it won’t get lumped in with all the other standard-issue road deaths to which our culture has become inured — 722 cyclists were killed in 2016 across the country — and also guarantees a tweet (or nearly 20 tweets and counting) from the president. But this distinction hardly factors into anyone’s decision about whether to get on a bike in the morning. Consider Dan Hanegby, who was killed by a charter bus driver while riding a Citi Bike in Midtown Manhattan this summer. According to the criminal complaint, the driver told a bystander after the incident that he had honked at Hanegby before choosing to fatally overtake him.
Carnage like this is far more frightening to cyclists than terrorism, because these sorts of conflicts happen literally every day. When a cyclist is behind the handlebars, the only difference between a misdemeanor right-of-way violation and an act of terrorism is whether the driver tooted the horn or shouted “Allahu akbar” during the act. Yet still we ride.
Another reason New Yorkers will never be frightened off their bicycles is that no one is more appreciative of our little slice of the cityscape than cyclists. Sidewalks? People take them for granted. Highways? We think about them only when we’re stuck in traffic; then we hate them. But cyclists are all too aware of what it took to get those hard-won and too-few bike lanes, and we’re reminded of what’s at stake every time some crackpot political candidate promises to rip them out because it plays well in the tabloids. Sure, half the time the bike lanes are full of parked cars, but they’re our lanes, dammit! So if you think some nut in a rented Home Depot truck is going to scare us away, guess again.
Of course, despite our casual acquaintance with danger, I’d never suggest that cyclists are any braver than our non-cycling fellow New Yorkers. If anything, we’re merely less tolerant of subway delays, which is really nothing to be smug about, especially these days. The fact is that all New Yorkers are similarly unbowed in the aftermath of this tragedy, regardless of how we choose to get around. We’ve been through this before, and it’s at times like these that we become our best selves.
What’s the real difference between an act of terrorism and the vehicular mayhem we see every day? Terrorism unites us in both our condemnation and our resolve, while ordinary traffic violence against bicycles often comes with victim-blaming. Immediately after Hanegby’s death, media reported that he “lost control of his bike.” When a driver hit and killed Lauren Davis, a 34-year-old Brooklyn resident, in April 2016, the New York Police Department perpetuated the false narrative that she had been riding against traffic. That same month, the driver of an 18-wheeler on a residential street where such trucks are banned killed another Brooklyn man, James Gregg; police attributed his death to a “wind force” that sucked the bike into the truck.
Let’s hope we can reconcile our cognitive dissonance and regard all traffic violence as abhorrent across the entire spectrum of unacceptable excuses — from the Islamic State to “I didn’t see him.”