In the wake of outrageous tragedy, sometimes a community rises up to demand a change, and sometimes public officials show up to make some speeches, and sometimes, awkwardly, both happen at once.
That was what happened last Friday, when nearly 100 bicyclists and street safety advocates gathered on the corner of Second Avenue and Ninth Street in Gowanus, where 37-year-old mother of two Sarah Schick was struck and killed by a box truck on January 10. The convergence of these two groups was timed to coincide with a tour of the streetscape by City transportation officials, including Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez, contemplating what sort of safety improvements might be made to prevent further deaths by automobile on a notoriously dangerous stretch of roadway.
Rodriguez appeared uncomfortable appearing as an official at an event mostly populated by angry protesters. "I'm not here as a commissioner," he told the assembled protesters, assuring them that he has a long background as a neighborhood activist. "I've only been a commissioner for four months, but I was a student who took over CUNY in 1989."
Rodriguez told the gathered crowd that the DOT is on the job. "We are here to say that we are working 24/7 to change the culture," he said. "To redesign the street. To hear from the community."
City Councilmember Shahana Hanif pledged to hold the DOT to account to improve safety along Ninth Street, and urged those in attendance to sign up for her newsletter to stay abreast of developments. Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon spoke of the need for elected officials to collaborate. State Senator Andrew Gounardis asked why street safety initiatives seem only to be undertaken after people have died. A representative from newly elected Congressman Dan Goldman's office agreed that street safety is an important issue.
Katie Bishop, who owns Principles Coffee Shop half a block from the site of the crash, spoke after the politicians. "I'm not an elected official, so I don't have to play nice with anyone," Bishop said. "There are people who aren't on our side. And they are the ones who need to be held accountable. NYPD isn't doing well. The mayor isn't doing well. These are our enemies here."
Bishop urged attendees to hold the officials present to account over the coming months to make sure their appearance was backed with action. "It's easy to talk about what's going to happen," she said, "And it's entirely different when this starts churning through the bureaucratic machine that is the city."
The Ninth Street corridor has a long history of mortal danger to cyclists and pedestrians. After a motorist killed two children at Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue in 2004, the City finally installed a number of safety measures, including protected bike lanes along Ninth Street, but only as far west as Third Street, beyond which the route for cyclists dwindled to an unprotected sharrow along several blocks with lots of truck traffic.
"In 2018, the Department of Transportation said they weren't putting the protected lanes in past Third Avenue because past that it was a more challenging stretch," said Doug Gordon, a street safety advocate and member of Brooklyn's Community Board 6. "They said they were going to come back to the community board with other solutions for those blocks. They never did."
A DOT spokesman confirmed that the department is installing a leading pedestrian interval to allow pedestrians and cyclists to get a head start crossing the intersection of Ninth Street and Second Avenue before cars can go. Beyond that, the spokesperson said, the department is undertaking a study of further changes, which it will present to Community Board 6 this spring, beginning a process that can take months, if not years.
Street safety advocates say a delayed light isn't going to cut it. "We didn't do enough [in the last redesign]," said Kathy Park Price, an organizer with Transportation Alternatives. "We've learned a lot since then, since 2018. And we are not going to accept a bare minimum redesign."
After the speeches, Hell Gate asked Bishop whether she had much confidence that the various City, state and federal officials present would actually deliver any meaningful safety improvements in the area. "Honestly, no," Bishop said. "They have a terrible track record. They have given me no reason to have confidence."
Bishop's skepticism may be well-founded. The City staffing crisis that has characterized Mayor Eric Adams's tenure has hobbled the Department of Transportation under Rodriguez. Last year, the Department failed to construct 30 miles of protected bike lanes and 20 miles of dedicated bus lanes, as it was legally required to do.
In 2022, 255 people died on NYC streets, according to DOT figures—a six percent drop from 2021, but a 23 percent increase from 2018.
As Bishop led Rodriguez and elected officials on a tour of the hazards of the area, pointing out cars parked illegally without consequence on the roadway and even the sidewalks, the protesting cyclists assembled in the middle of the busy Fourth Avenue intersection and staged a die-in, setting down their rides and laying in the roadway. Car traffic in all directions came to a halt. Motorists began to lose their minds. A young man got out of his car and began haranguing the cyclists.
"Somebody died," one of the cyclists informed him gravely.
The motorist was unimpressed. "People die every day, bro," he said as he stalked angrily back to his car. "It’s New York City."