In Brooklyn, Deaths Provoke Debate Over Bike Lanes

On the evening of May 15, Yisroel Schwartz, 16, left class at Yeshiva Novominsk, an Orthodox Jewish day school in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and began riding his bicycle to his Kensington home for supper.

He never made it.

While riding north on 17th Avenue near 53rd Street in Borough Park, Yisroel ran into the open door of a parked car and flew into the street. He was struck and killed by an oncoming van.

Ken McFarlin for NYT Institute

Yisroel is one of five cyclists to be killed in South Brooklyn so far this year. Five years into the Vision Zero campaign — Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to eradicate traffic deaths by 2024 — the fatalities are rekindling discussion and debate about street safety and infrastructure.

In 2018, 10 cyclists died in New York City. Not even halfway through this year, the city has met that fatality count. According to data from Vision Zero and the New York Police Department, 10 cyclists have been killed in New York City this year, eight in Brooklyn, one in Queens and one in Manhattan.

All the deaths involved motor vehicles. Some cyclists crashed into open car doors, flew into the street and were run over. Some cyclists ran red lights. Only one was riding in a protected bike lane — a path separated from motor vehicle lanes by barriers. South Brooklyn does not have any protected bike lanes yet, but the city Department of Transportation plans to install its first ones in Bay Ridge this year.

Dulcie Canton, an advocate for bicycle safety, said recently that when she heard of Yisroel’s death, she thought, “Oh, boy, South Brooklyn, here we go again.”

She added: “It really says that there is something inherently wrong with the bike and pedestrian infrastructure. South Brooklyn, it needs to catch up.”

Ms. Canton is the Brooklyn organizer for Transportation Alternatives, a street safety advocacy organization. She said that while South Brooklyn’s political situation is now friendlier to increased bike infrastructure than it was in previous years, there also must be change within the borough’s community boards, whose appointed members advise elected policymakers.

“Some of these members were appointed decades ago,” she said. “And as far as they see it, it’s about cars, it’s about parking. Nobody bikes.”

A bicycle lane in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. This year, 10 bicyclists have been killed in New York City. Ivan Armando Flores/NYT Institute

In Borough Park, where Yisroel and another cyclist died, a preliminary proposal by the Department of Transportation to install even unprotected bike lanes is heightening tensions between residents and city officials.

At a May 28 meeting of Community Board 12, which represents Borough Park, the board’s district manager, Barry Spitzer, announced that he and the board’s chairman, Yidel Perlstein, had met with officials from the Department of Transportation on May 9. He said they discussed a proposal to install bike lanes throughout Borough Park.

To Mr. Spitzer, the proposal disrespects the norms of the majority Hasidic Jewish population of Borough Park. In an interview, he said that after age 13, it is culturally inappropriate for Hasidim to get around by bicycle, though it is not forbidden.

“This proposed network of bike lanes is meant to service people outside the community,” he said. “It’s not actually meant to serve the community.”

The proposal also notes that the installation of bike lanes in Borough Park would not involve removing parking. But Mr. Spitzer said there were so many cars on the streets that bicycle lanes would make all types of transportation dangerous. He said that the neighborhood was built to accommodate a large population in housing, but that it did not have the parking to match.

Mr. Perlstein said he believed that the city would proceed with the bicycle lanes against the wishes of the community.

“It’s very important to us to make a lot of noise and to let the community know: ‘We yelled and screamed against this. This is what they wanted to do anyhow,’” he said.

The Department of Transportation did not respond to a request for comment about the Borough Park lanes.

Borough President Eric Adams of Brooklyn, said in an email that he believed that bicycle safety in Brooklyn “should be a paramount concern.”

“We can’t be reactive,” Mr. Adams said. “We need to take a proactive approach to street safety.”

Meanwhile, bicycle advocates have accomplished some of their agenda items. State Senator Andrew Gounardes, who represents South Brooklyn, sponsored a bill requiring pedestrian and cyclist safety education to be a part of driver’s education. The bill has passed the Senate, but needs approval by the Assembly and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Carlos Menchaca, a City Council member who represents parts of Borough Park, said he was sponsoring a bill to permit bicyclists to proceed through intersections along with pedestrians when crosswalk signals allow extra time before a green light for vehicles.

“Bike riders actually have found it very safe to use those on their commute,” Mr. Menchaca said.

At a City Council meeting on Wednesday, Speaker Corey Johnson introduced a five-year master plan that would require at least 250 protected bike lanes to be built over the next five years, with at least 50 built each year. Last year, about 20 miles of protected bike lanes were created in all five boroughs.

A ghost bike signifying a bicyclist’s death at 28th Street and Third Avenue in Brooklyn. Eight cyclists have been killed this year in the borough. Ivan Armando Flores/NYT Institute

For Rabbi Lipa Brennan, the executive director of Yeshiva Novominsk, Yisroel’s school, the focus is on helping his community heal. He said that Yisroel’s death, however tragic, was not for nothing.

“It’s an opportune time for everybody, Jew, non-Jew, all the world over, just to take a moment to pause and to think of the sanctity of life, and to do something good for another person,” he said. “That’s all. That’s all this will bring.”