So Danielle started looking for a different kind of justice. In our conversations, she and Lana went back over and over to the circumstances that put Lauren on that street that day. It wasn’t his usual route to work. “She had called me the night before – telling me how the normal road she was riding on, which was a street away, was being torn up and how it was really messing up her bike,” Lana recalled. Danielle began to think that the street itself was to blame.
Classon Avenue, where Lauren was killed, is a well-known and signposted bike path, but it was not painted with bike lanes at the time. Instead, most cyclists rode along the extra-wide parking lane on the left side. “That was the basis of everything that happened,” says Danielle. “There was no designated bike lane.” Danielle decided to do something.
One community council had advocated one in 2011, but Classon Avenue sits on the border between two community councils, and the second council opposed the change, with its chairman tell later transit-news website Streetsblog NYC that street safety “isn’t an issue in our community, overall.” In 2012, the New York Department of Transportation (DOT) considered the bike lane but decided against it. Instead of a bike lane, the road has a wider parking lane.
Danielle wanted to fix those past failures. ” What should be ? she says. “It takes a bit of perseverance and tenacity. She harasses elected officials and becomes an expert in road infrastructure. “I would take voluminous notes on the average cost of a bike lane, what bike lanes do to protect cyclists and also to protect cars and pedestrians,” says Danielle.
A current view of the intersection of Classon and Lexington Avenues on Google Street View, with bike lanes painted on the left side of the street
In the end, it took a stroke of luck. In June 2017, Danielle was at a protest in the state capitol, and New York DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, whom Danielle had previously written letters to, was there. Someone pushed Danielle forward. “I told him about Lauren,” Danielle said. “And I just repeated the same information, and she told me personally that this was going to happen. I heard it directly from Polly Trottenberg. (Trottenberg is now the U.S. Under Secretary of Transportation under Pete Buttigieg .)
More than a year after Lauren’s death, Classon Avenue had bike lanes installed. But it must be said: these cycle paths are not separated from traffic, they are simply lines painted on the road. They provide more visibility and legal protection than an expanded parking lane, but they do not physically separate cyclists from vehicular traffic, the standard that safe streets advocates are pushing for.
Kevin Daloia, a volunteer from Street Memorial Project, which places ghost bikes and organizes memorial rides in the Bronx to honor cyclists killed by drivers, says Danielle’s story is pretty typical of what it takes to make a street safer in New York City. Three years ago he said to me, two pedestrians were hit by cars in his neighborhood on the same stretch of East Tremont Avenue within months: an 85-year-old woman was killed outside her apartment and a 28-year-old man was left in a coma from a hit-and-run. Daloia circulated a petition asking the DOT to redesign the street, garnering hundreds of signatures, and gaining community council support.
A year and a half after the crashes, the DOT decided to implement a “road diet” on the street, reducing the number of traffic lanes and adding bike lanes. The project started in September 2020, but the community council then backtracked and try to stop building. It eventually resumed its course and the project was completed at the end of 2020. “That’s what it takes to do 0.6 of a mile,” says Daloia. “What makes bike lanes exist is that someone has to die.”
In the spring of 2021, however, New York City took a step forward to make this system fairer. As part of a broad program of police reform, the New York City Council quietly passed an invoice which “would require [the DOT] create an accident investigation and analysis unit,” which “would be required to make recommendations to improve the safety of changes to street design and infrastructure.” In other words, the DOT would continue to act after, not before, serious accidents, but it would automatically take on many of the responsibilities that Danielle had taken on herself. Earlier this year, the DOT implemented Serious Injury Response, Tracking and Analysis Program and completed 436 investigations, but did not take immediate action at three sites.
“What makes bike lanes exist is that someone has to die,” says Kevin Daloia.
When it comes to making streets safer for cyclists, “street design change is far more important than education and enforcement,” says Marco Conner DiAquoi, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, a New York safe streets advocacy group that has called for similar proposals. “The best thing is to design for the behavior you want.”
This approach has already been adopted abroad in places like the Netherlands. “Road safety is seen here as an engineering problem, not an application problem,” says Chris Bruntlett, director of marketing for the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a government-funded non-profit organization. “If there’s speeding on the street, if there’s a problem with collisions, if there’s a particularly serious incident where someone is seriously injured or killed, there’s always a post- mortem to find out if the street could have been laid out differently to avoid this outcome.”
This is also the direction Washington Bikes and its partners are heading. They are now pushing to redirect state funding to projects that will build safer infrastructure – sidewalks, bike lanes, speed bumps – in low-income communities. “We need streets that will take better care of people,” says Alston. This approach represents an overhaul of accident liability. Rather than reacting to fatal accidents by trying to establish fault and impose penalties, it focuses on preventing the accident in the first place. “People are fallible, we make mistakes,” Clarke says. “So we have to build our transport in such a way that when people make a mistake, it doesn’t cost someone their life.”
And for Danielle, the bike path is something else: a way to make Lauren present again on the street that had erased her in so many ways. “I was interviewed during the installation of the cycle path by someone from a news channel,” explains Danielle. “And he said, ‘Would you say that bike path is a good side? And I said, ‘No, there’s no silver lining. My sister is dead and she’s never coming back.'” But the bike path could save another life, and in that way, Danielle says, “it’s like a mark of Lauren’s life in the neighborhood.”