By Eric Schmid
Donned with a GoPro on his helmet, Connor Artz rides his bike to school every day. The 11-year-old Long Beach resident faces a little over 1 mile of road, but that short distance does not mean he’s safe. Some days he has to dodge traffic just to get to his school without a scratch.
In 2015, Long Island saw more than 700 bicycle crashes according to data from the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research. Of those 700, 11 crashes were fatal making Nassau and Suffolk counties account for 30 percent of the bike fatalities in New York State that year.
“That’s a really bad number to have in this space; totally unacceptable” Allison Blanchette, Long Island chapter coordinator of the New York Bicycling Coalition, said.
The New York Bicycling Coalition (NYBC) is one organization working to make Long Island safer and more accessible for car alternatives, like bicycles or public transportation.
Right now they are working toward a three-foot passing law, which would require motorists to leave three feet between them and a cyclist when passing from behind, Daniel Flanzig, NYBC board and executive committee member said.
“There are 26 states that have [a three-foot passing law]; New York does not,” Flanzig adding The passing law is one step that would make cycling safer on Long Island by ending the conversation and controversy over who belongs on the road. With a three-foot law drivers would have to respect cyclists, something that does not always happen now.
“One time, I’m riding with my friend Ava and a car goes right in between us almost hitting her,” Artz said.
Most days when he is riding are not as dangerous, something he attributes to the GoPro he wears on his helmet. Unless he forgets the camera, Artz films his commute to school every day.
“There is a major difference between the behavior [of drivers] when I’m wearing my GoPro and when I’m not,” Artz said. “People are different when they’re on video and when I’m not videotaping they’ll be a little rude.”
People like Connor, who use their bikes for transportation everyday not the more common weekend club riders, are the ones who Flanzig sees benefiting the most from a three-foot law.
“I try to get legislators to picture a 10-year-old or a 12-year-old riding their bike to school when they think about a three-foot law,” he said. “It’s not just for protecting club riders, it’s about protecting Connor.”
Yet, much more than one law is needed to make the island more accessible and safer to car alternatives.
“This really is about culture change,” Blanchette said. “We need people to change how they view streets. Streets are not there to move the most amount of cars in the most efficient manner. Streets are moving people and people are in various modes.”
Part of this change includes sharing roadways.
“Cyclists have a right to the road.” Mark Hoffacker, member of the New York Coalition for Transportation Safety said. “Too many car owners think they own the road; if a bike gets in the way they get annoyed. That’s ridiculous.”
Flanzig, Blanchette and other alternative transportation advocates turned to education to change the commuter and car-centric culture of Long Island to make cycling safer.
“We need more education,” Blanchette said. “That goes from not just educating bikers but also drivers, pedestrians and even law enforcement on how to handle situations.”
For Flanzig, this education starts with the youngest drivers on New York roads.
“On the New York State driver’s license test, there is one question that has to deal with cyclists and pedestrians,” Flanzig said. “We want to increase education on the initial level with the young driver learning more about cyclists.”
Another organization focused on cycling and pedestrian safety is the New York Coalition for Transportation Safety. Hoffacker works for that organization to educate cyclists and pedestrians about how to safely navigate the island by teaching them about traffic safety and establishing safety programs.
“We have a program about biking and walking to schools and planning your route safely,” he said. “It’s all safety related stuff.”
Safe Routes to School is that program. The state program assists local communities by helping them develop and implement projects that encourage and make walking and bicycling to school safe and appealing.
Connor Artz is one student who benefits from that program. Although his route can be treacherous, Safe Routes to School is what first introduce him to cycling, Katie Artz, his mother, said.
Ever since he started riding Katie Artz immersed herself in the program and advocates for other Long Beach children to ride to school.
“It isn’t as dangerous as some people think it is; it could always be safer” she said. “We need to change how kids are getting to school and how they’re getting there safely.”
Katie Artz often talks with parents who deem cycling too dangerous for their children. Artz tries to combat their feelings by showing them video of how drivers react to cyclists, mainly her son who rides his bike to school with a GoPro.
But education can only go so far. One major obstacle to change is Long Island’s deep rooted car culture and tradition.
“Long Island epitomizes the car life-style—we are the home of the strip mall, the parkway and the suburb,” Sylvia Silberger, founder of Car-Less Long Island, an organization that works to make alternative transportation easier and safer to use on the island. “Long Island drivers don’t care about, at best, and resent, at worst, pedestrians and cyclists. Most of us don’t consider the bus system a viable alternative to ourselves.”
The car-centric culture has led to infrastructure that, advocates say, limits people from cutting car usage.
“The biggest problem is the already in place infrastructure; car-centric roads, bridges and pedestrian areas,” Aaron Watkins-Lopez, organizer of the Long Island Bus Riders Union, said. “Robert Moses created the highway in such a way that public transportation, specifically buses, can’t utilize it.”
The Long Island Bus Riders Union fights to improve public transit, specifically the bus systems in Suffolk and Nassau county. Improving the bus system on Long Island also benefit cyclists because alternative forms of transportation are all connected.
For Watkins-Lopez riding the bus or using a bike is a no brainer.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize if we have fewer cars on the road you’re going to need to fix the road less,” he said.
One of the ways the car-focused culture is being changed is through complete streets programs. These kinds of programs require municipalities to consider all users of roads when planning public work projects.
“Roads where there are population centers, downtown areas in particular, have to incorporate more than the needs of the automobile” Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island, an organization that focuses on smart growth for Long Island, said. “Most of the road are designed really for fast moving travel. That has decimated our existing downtowns.”
One of Vision Long Island projects is Long Island Complete Streets, which helps revitalize downtown areas in both counties.
“It’s very important when you connect to downtowns,” Jon Siebert, program coordinator of Vision Long Island, said. “People like to walk through downtowns.”
Aside from pedestrians and cyclists, local communities see benefits from complete streets and downtown revitalizations. When more people are out walking local businesses see more people, Seibert said. “You get a payoff.”
But right now road infrastructure that incorporates pedestrians and cyclists is not abundant on Long Island.
“There are bike lanes in Nassau County, there are some but they’re disjointed, they’re not connected,” Hoffacker said. “They’re poorly planned out, sporadic.”
That means those who want to cycle as their main form of transportation largely cannot.
“I think biking for commuting is dangerous,” Silberger said. “I will often go way out of my way to avoid certain areas because there is no good safe way to go.”
For Long Island cycling safety is not urgent.
“Nobody has quite made it a priority on Long Island to do something about pedestrian or bike safety,” Hoffacker said.
“Our leaders need to recognize that this is an issue, it’s not a leisurely thing,” Blanchette said. “These are our lives.”