Sam Goater was riding to work along the 2nd Avenue Protected Bike Lane in Manhattan, to the Street Plans office in Brooklyn last month, when he encountered a car parked in the bike lane. This happens frequently in New York (and nearly everywhere else). Like he often does, as he rode by, Sam told the driver that he should not park in the bike lane because it’s illegal and endangers people’s lives.
Unbeknownst to Sam, the angered driver followed him as he continued to bike to work, waiting for a gap in the parking lane protection. He found it in a construction zone at 2nd Ave. and E. 2nd St which lacks a protected bike lane.
The driver accelerated and veered into the back of Sam’s trusty Brompton, sending it flying. Sam bounced off the windshield of the car and into the street, nearly landing on a fire hydrant. .
Watch the video below (procured from security footage from a nearby building) to see it happen:
As you can see, the driver speeds away while Sam is left lying in the street. Unable to move for a few seconds, he says a few people walking shouted to see if he was okay and that one person suggested he call the police, but that no one in a car stopped. He called 911 and a fire truck was there within minutes. Then two police officers showed up to hear his story, and an ambulance crew patched up the scrapes on his arms.
In filling out their ‘Accident’ Report Sam says one officer asked him immediately, “Did you run a red light? Were you in the bike lane?” (despite the fact that there is no bike lane at this location) and “Are you sure it happened here?” presumably assuming Sam must have been at fault. It took several days for the police department to assign a detective to Sam’s case and in the meantime, he did his own detective work, collecting the video footage above.
Luckily, the bike survived and Sam was able to ride the rest of the way to his office. At the moment, he’s working with the police department to try and identify the perpetrator, but he’s skeptical they’ll be able to catch him without a license plate—something CCTV footage doesn’t show.
Let’s pause for a minute and consider a different version of this scenario: What if Sam had been driving to work and was cut off by another driver, whom he exchanged some words with? Then 20 blocks later, the same person pulled up next to Sam, stuck a gun out the window and shot him? If gunshots rang out during the morning commute in lower Manhattan, you can be sure that the police would have been on the scene in seconds—and they would not have asked Sam “Did you run a red light?” Car drivers and pedestrians in the area would be rushing to take cover, to assess the danger, and hopefully to help Sam escape safely. There would probably have been an immediate search for the shooter and he would be treated as an active threat.
Instead, because Sam was on a bike and the perpetrator was in a car, we get a slow response time, a shrug of the shoulders, and the assumption that the bike rider was probably in the wrong.
Even in a city where protected bike lanes are on the rise (see a map of New York bike lanes) and cyclists are a frequent presence, many drivers treat pedestrians and cyclists with disregard or outright disrespect.
Moreover, riding in New York is a particular challenge, especially in areas without protected bike lanes. Sam reports that drivers are “regularly speeding, blocking bike lanes and crosswalks, accelerating and braking hard. There is good reason that behavior is so prevalent,” he says. “The streets are set up to reward drivers who drive aggressively and change lanes to jockey for position. On a bike you are constantly aware that your life is in the hands of the drivers around you.”
This is actually not the first time Sam has been hit by a driver. Last year he was biking next to a cab and the driver suddenly changed lanes directly into him. That time, Sam says there was no malicious intent, just a case of the driver not looking out for bikers, but it still exemplifies the problem.
In America, there are few systems or laws in place to catch and punish drivers who hit pedestrians and cyclists—even when it’s clear that the driver did it on purpose. Sam’s experience also illustrates the general attitude that pervades so many American cities: that cyclists don’t belong in the street, that it’s probably their fault if they get injured, and that prosecuting crimes committed against them isn’t a priority.
We hope that the perpetrator of this crime against someone just trying to get to work is caught. Even more so, we hope that the climate in American towns shifts in a direction where bike riders are seen as people with equal rights to the street, to safety and to the justice system.