The headline on the Gothamist website reads “Cyclist Fatally Struck by SUV Driver Near Barclays Center This Morning.” In the photograph beneath the headline, a lump covered in a white cloth lies, small and lost, in the center of a busy street. Several cop cars are visible and there is yellow DO NOT CROSS tape tied around a lamppost in the left foreground. The yellow tape heads in two directions from the lamppost: across the photo to the right, blocking Flatbush Avenue, and straight ahead (where you can’t see it because the post blocks your view), closing Fourth Avenue. In the foreground, just behind the tape, a woman with pink nail polish and a clip in her hair holds up her phone to take a photo.
This is a bad intersection. The cyclist is not the first person to die there. The city finally changed the light pattern to make it safer for pedestrians, but what you can’t see in the photograph is how awkward the traffic pattern still is. You can’t see the No Left Turn sign that drivers often miss or ignore. You can’t see the bold white arrows on the street that tell people which lane they can turn from, the arrows nobody seems to follow. The two-way street that becomes one way for a block. The crossing guards chatting in front of Dunkin Donuts while the intersection becomes clogged. The photograph only captures a moment, with none of the context.
If the photographer had turned right and crossed Flatbush Avenue, he would have been standing directly in front of Atlantic Terminal, where he could catch any number of subway lines or the Long Island Railroad to escape the scene. If, instead, he turned left and walked along the yellow tape visible on the far side of the photograph, past the vendors selling falafel and hotdogs and fresh fruit (one of whom was interviewed for the story about the cyclist), he would hit Hanson Place. There, almost lost in the corner of the photograph, is a sandy-stoned high rise – One Hanson Place, the building where I live.
Turning right on Hanson, the photographer could approach the front door of the building and enter the cool shade of the lobby. Although it is only 7:10 am, the sun is hot and bright. The air conditioning will hit the photographer like a slap, like a hurtling SUV from behind, carrying him into the elevator and up to the 23rd floor. Two right turns and he will be heading down a long hallway to a second set of elevators, which he could take to the 33rd floor and enter our apartment. From the terrace, looking down, he could see the accident from above: the crumpled bike frame wedged into the hub cap of the SUV, the white shape surrounded by cops, a bike wheel a block away at Atlantic Avenue.
My apartment building is visible in almost every photograph of the crime scene, except for the ones that focus close in on the road or the vehicles involved. My husband left for work only 10 minutes before the accident and only heard about it when he got to the office. I was on a train, returning from Cape Cod, and reading Christopher Mohar’s essay “Six Ways of Looking at a Car Crash.” I learned of the accident later that evening, after most of the glass and debris had been swept away, the body removed, and the streets reopened.
According to the article, a 37 year old man in a Honda SUV hit one car, careened through a red light and drove the wrong way up a one way street. He then hit a man on a bike, carrying the man’s limp body on the hood of his car for half a block before hitting one more car, rolling through another intersection and finally coming to rest against a metal barrier about 1000 feet from the front door of my building. The hot dog vendor expressed his gratitude that he had been late setting up his cart that morning, as the SUV would likely have sprayed broken glass all over him and his wares. When the vehicle finally stopped, the frame of the bicycle was still lodged in the front tire, one wheel was half a block away near the body and the first wheel another block farther back where the initial impact occurred. I read the comments below the article with morbid fascination.
Ed Esposito: Cyclists are talking (sic) their own lives for granted when they bike on Flatbush or Atlantic of (sic) similar streets. Be smart. There are other routes to use.¹
Lauren Cooper: Ed Esposito, really? This was a hit and run and you want to blame the cyclists (sic) choice of streets? What would your alternative street suggestion be? Have you ever tried to even ride a bicycle in NYC?
Ed Esposito: Woman, get a grip.² Where in the article did you come up with a hit and run? A cyclist with a brain would not use Atlantic, Flatbush, Bushwick, et. al. when there are alternatives…But the “it will always happen to somebody else” works usually, right?³ Yes, you might try Dean or Bergen streets…if you must know.4
The Associated Lawyer: Cyclists are entitled to expect drivers to follow the rules of the road. They may not have all the metal around them like cars, but they are still entitled to protections of the same law on the road. Sounds like this one is the fault of the Honda. “Authorities say that a 37-year-old man driving a gray Honda Pilot was heading north on Fourth Avenue when he lost control and hit a gray Toyota stopped at a red light at Dean Street, then crossed over a cement median and collided with the bicyclist. The Honda continued on and hit a black Mitsubishi that was going east on Atlantic Avenue.”
¹To give the reader a mental picture, to get from my apartment to the crime scene without riding on Flatbush or Atlantic (or any other similarly busy, bike-lane-free road) and without breaking any laws by biking on the sidewalk or the wrong way on a one-way street, I would have to bike up Hanson Place, turn right on South Portland, bike across Atlantic Avenue to 6th Avenue, turn right onto Bergen Street, turn right onto 3rd Avenue and finally turn right onto State Street. This journey is 1.4 miles and would take approximately 11 minutes. Remember that I could see the crime scene from my window.
²Why does he think he can call her this?
³Is this where our fascination with accident comes from? Yet in fact, I was thinking how easily it could have been me, how I walk through the same intersection every day to go to work and have been tapped by a car before trying to cross the street. I was thinking about the number of times I rode my bike in the narrow space between the waiting cars and the curb, feeling the hot metal breath of the engines against my bare legs.
4See Footnote 1 for Bergen Street directions.
The day before the accident, Brian bought himself a bike. He rode from our apartment, across the Manhattan Bridge and into Manhattan, up the east side, across to Chelsea Piers, where he bought himself some ice cream and a beer. Then he rode home. He wore his helmet. He assumed every car was out to get him.
When I arrive home from my weekend away, the very day of the accident, he bugs me to dust off my own bike so that we can go riding together. I haven’t been riding much lately, mainly because he wouldn’t be able to join me, but despite the dust, cycling has been a big part of my life. Brian has promised to change out the pedals – the clip in pedals I got when I decided to join Columbia’s cycling team my senior year – for regular pedals, which he purchased for me several months before.5 We search for the pedals for half an hour before they turn up in the coat closet. By then, it is too late for the ride and Brian can’t get my old pedals off anyway.
5For those who have never ridden with clip pedals, these pedals attach to the bottom of your cycling shoe. They are the pedals that racers and serious cyclists wear because they give you pull on the pedal on the upstroke. That way, you are powering the pedal through the full rotation of your leg. However, they take some getting used to. Every time you stop, you must remember to unclip one foot to catch yourself. Otherwise you just topple over in a heap of metal and flesh. The problem in New York City is that so often you have no warning when you need to stop. Someone runs the red light. A pedestrian steps out into the street without looking. A Honda hurtles the wrong way down a one-way street directly towards you. In these circumstances, it is impossible to get your foot out of the pedal in time and you are going to fall. There is no way around it.
The next day – the day after the crash – I walk my bike through the intersection of Flatbush and Fourth Avenue. The hot dog cart and fruit stand are there as always. There is some glass in the road, but that isn’t particularly unusual. I walk up Flatbush to Bergen Street and go into the bike shop there. I love bike shops. Full of gadgets and grease, they smell like fresh air blowing through my hair on a sweet downhill after a tough uphill climb. The guys change out my pedals and put air in the nearly-flat tires for $5. I slip on my helmet and bike the few blocks home, feeling the blood coursing through my leg muscles, the stale city air rushing past me.
A light rain is falling and it feels refreshing after the oppressive humidity of the past few days. Tomorrow, the sky with be blue-washed clear and it will feel like fall. A bus is blocking my turn onto Flatbush, so I go around, careful that the driver sees me and watching out for pedestrians as I bike blind into the crosswalk. I soar through the fatal intersection and bring my bike up to the apartment.6
6A memory: I awoke in Provence, pleasantly sore from yesterday’s ride and still full from last night’s dinner. My mom stirred in the bed next to me and together we began getting ready for today’s ride. It would be the toughest day of the trip. We had reached Les Alpilles, the Little Alps, and today we would be climbing to Les Baux-de-Provence. After breakfast, we climbed onto our bikes and followed the guide out. The major climb would have been far too difficult without some sustaining mid-morning wine, so we stopped for a tasting at a local vineyard before proceeding onward. The climb started slowly, steadily increasing in difficulty as the scenery changed around us. The lush vineyards gave way to scrubby pines as we reached the mountains. I am not a climber. I can go for miles on a flat, but my legs are too weak for long climbs and my gear changing is terrible. Still, I was determined not to get picked up by the van. My mom dropped out when the incline started to increase and several others also got into the van. Soon, I was alone, plugging away up the hill. My legs were aching, but I refused to give in. I needed to downshift, but I was going so slowly, I feared the chain might fall off the gears if I tried to shift. Just when I thought I was out of luck, one of the guides appeared around the bend. He pulled up alongside me and asked if I needed the magic hand. I didn’t know what the magic hand was, but I knew I needed help, so I said yes. Still pedaling his own bike, he gently placed a hand on the small of my back and gave me a push. It was just enough velocity for me to get into the low gear and give my legs a short rest. Then I was off chugging up the hill again. The guide gave me a thumbs up and took off ahead to check on the one other person in our group who was still making his way up to Les Baux. About 15 minutes later, I came around a bend and stood in the pedals to push up the last 100 feet of the climb. The whole group was there, cheering for me. I broke into a huge smile as I crested the hill and jumped off my bike for some water. I had done it. The downhill after that was pretty awesome.
I get home and tell Brian that my pedals have been replaced and he is eager to get out on the street. We ride over the Manhattan Bridge, into the wilds of Manhattan, where there are fewer quiet streets. We bike around the Lower East Side, heading for the Williamsburg Bridge to get back into Brooklyn. We are in the bike lane on Bowery Street, to the right of the traffic, but we need to make a left. We signal and a gray minivan stops to let us turn. I wave in thanks and begin turning, when out of the corner of my eye, I see a second car swerving onto the wrong side of the street to go around the minivan on the left. I turn my bike back to avoid the car, ramming Brian’s bike before I can stop.
I slam into the ground, catching most of my weight on my left thigh and elbow. The heel of my hand is smarting and I can already feel a bruise forming on my thigh as I get up and brush myself off. Brian quickly checks that I am ok before screaming a few obscenities at the offending car. He is so thoughtful and protective during a crisis. We continue home without incident and I immediately hop in the shower to wash the NYC road grease off my leg, arm and back.
A year before the accident, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio began his Vision Zero campaign. The full plan begins with a letter de Blasio addressed to the people of New York.
A life lost is a life lost.
And it is our collective responsibility to save every life we can, be it a life taken in a violent crime or in a crash with a motor vehicle…
…The fundamental message of Vision Zero is that death and injury on city streets is not acceptable, and that we will no longer regard serious crashes as inevitable. These tragedies happen in every community in our city, to families from every walk of life—from the Upper West Side to Woodside; from Park Slope to Edenwald. They happen to people who drive and to those who bike, but overwhelmingly, the deadly toll is highest for pedestrians—especially our children and seniors.
We won’t accept this any longer. I make that pledge as a parent, and as your mayor…
… Drunk driving and failure to use seatbelts, once commonplace, are now socially unacceptable. Today, we must bring the same concerted effort against dangerous and careless driving on our streets.
Better designs and regulations are already making our streets safer, and we will expand these efforts. We will bring more resources to enforcement and public outreach. In Albany, we will seek control over the City’s speed limits and use of enforcement cameras.
We will save lives. And that work begins in earnest today. But just as this effort has grown from the grassroots, its success will depend on everyday New Yorkers, neighborhood groups and communities coming together and working in common purpose.7
We need your ideas to improve street safety, to identify problematic locations, and to hammer out site-specific solutions that match realities on the ground. We need your support and collaboration as our agencies take action. We need you to talk to your neighbors, speak up at community boards and block associations, and help foster a broader understanding that it is within our power to prevent tragedies on our streets.8
Together, we will make this City safer.”
7The New York Times, in covering the story of the cyclist’s death, noted that indeed pedestrian deaths have fallen in recent years, while cyclist deaths have increased.
8A list of my ideas for preventing cycling deaths: mandatory helmet law, more ticketing of small traffic violations, get the crossing guards to actually do their job of directing traffic rather than eating donuts.
Two days after the crash, they release the name of the man who was killed: Alejandro Moran-Marin. Scouring the internet, I can find nothing about him. I suppose his family came forward when he didn’t return home from work and identified the body. He was not carrying any identification. There is no publicly visible Facebook page, with RIP messages from friends and family. The numerous queries from news outlets for memories of him seemed to come up blank.
Without details, I must fill them in for myself. I imagine he was fit and handsome, on his way to work that morning, perhaps as a school teacher like me or a techy like Brian. Just before he died, he was relishing the blood pumping through his veins and the exhilaration of the wind blowing his hair. He smelled the stale garbage on the corner and the fresh dough rising in the pizzeria down the street. Riding that bike, he was happy.9
9I cannot be sure that this is what he felt. He may have been stressed, late, anxious about something at home. But, in the absence of evidence, I choose to think he didn’t have time to feel the impact. He was relaxed and riding easily. At first, the accident made me scared of riding, but I feel Alejandro would have wanted me to ride on.10
10 Reality check. Unless he was listening to his iPod really loudly and not paying any attention to the road (something any cyclist worth his salt knows not to do), Alejandro heard the impact of the SUV on the first car a block away from him. He most likely slowed and turned to see what had happened and determine whether it was safe to proceed. He watched the car careen away from the accident scene and barrel towards him. His heart began racing, while his mind silently screamed at the asshole driver of the SUV. As the SUV approached, one can only assume he tried to get out of the way. He died, most likely, in a panic, his heart fluttering in his throat, his mind blank of anything other than a primal flight response, his legs churning at the pedals in a desperate attempt to escape. Thinking otherwise is merely selfish and does not give proper tribute to a fellow cyclist.11
11 What is proper tribute for such an event? The day after the accident, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams biked to the scene and gave a stirring speech about the need to make our streets safer. Several weeks later, the event has all but vanished from the news. The traffic cops are still found at Dunkin’ Donuts. People still run the red light. Why do I continue to memorialize this event? Why do I search for answers that have long been swept away and seek Alejandro’s permission to enjoy a sport I love? At what point does it become inappropriate to make art out of someone else’s misfortune? Can you honor someone you never knew and will never know? One of the reasons I love cycling is that it clears my head. I don’t listen to music or audiobooks, I don’t chat with my partner. There is nothing but the straining of my sinews, the bare thoughts coursing through my brain. Things seem simpler. Perhaps, then, there is no way to offer tribute to this man I never knew, but there is a way I can work through my own sadness and confusion. Just put my foot on the pedal, kick off the curb and shift into gear.