Hello, my name is Tris, and I do not drive. I have a license, but I don’t have a car. I can operate one if I need to, but as a dweller in a pedestrian-intense area of an East Coast city, I’ve never deemed it wise to have four wheels.
Two wheels, on the other hand, are mandatory. I take my bicycles everywhere. I’ve got a nice copper-colored Trek that’s a good option if I’m going to leave town and contend with gravel roads. But if I’m sticking to local routes, I will always choose to ride my Brompton folding bike — a wiry little hop on/hop off guy not that much bigger than a scooter. To the endless dismay of those foolish enough to care for me, I do not wear a helmet. When implored to do so, I politely demur. I don’t want any impediment standing between me and my ride; I want the act of getting on and off the bicycle to feel as natural as it would be if I’d decided to walk down the street. A helmet, I’ve often reasoned, isn’t going to save me from the worst dangers of the road. Should I be struck by a speeding SUV, I expect to die.
But maybe I wouldn’t. Andy Black didn’t die. On July 19, 2022, he was broadsided by a black Nissan Rogue at the intersection of Forrest Street and MLK Drive; a few days later, he was giving interviews. It was no glancing blow he took. His trajectory was intercepted by a front grill that came on like an All-Pro linebacker. Initially, Black told the press that he had the right of way. Footage posted on New Jersey Globe (don’t watch if you’re squeamish) demonstrates that he went through a red light.
Incidents like this happen in the city all the time. Those painted-white ghost bicycles chained to fences and signposts testify to the risks we run every time we take to the streets, and they remind us of the terrible anonymity of tragedy. The world isn’t going to stop if we get run over. They’ll come out with the sweepers if there’s anything obstructing traffic; forty-five minutes later, it’ll be like nothing ever happened. The only reason that Andy Black’s accident drew attention was because of the identity of the driver: city councilperson Amy DeGise, daughter of County Executive Tom DeGise. The Councilwoman did not brake to investigate what she’d done. She left a man down on the pavement and kept on driving.
This has become a metaphor for the relationship between City Hall and the citizenry. More specifically, it feels like commentary on the disposition of Grove Street toward the part of the city where the accident happened: Bergen-Lafayette, a poorer neighborhood that has often been neglected by the authorities. Here is a working stiff, on his way to take an Uber Eats delivery order; there is a gas guzzler with tinted windows blowing down the block as if it was the Autobahn. A man lies bleeding on Ward F pavement. The city official who put him there won’t even stop. Does she not care about his pain? Or, shielded by steel, speed, and the arrogance of those on official business, did she somehow fail to even notice?
I can’t speak to the legality of what she did. She left the scene of an accident, which seems like a pretty big deal to me, but I’m no attorney. That Black ran a red light is salient to the legal case, but exactly how meaningful it is, I’ll leave to the traffic cops to decide. It doesn’t particularly surprise me that many locals on social media have refused to express any sympathy for Black: he wasn’t following the rules of the road, and he found out the hard way that disobedience has consequences. Fair enough, I suppose. If you want to be a stickler for the specifics of the code as it’s written and enforced, I’m sure you might even find yourself with the tacit blessings of a local hanging judge or two.
But I don’t think you’ve got to be a Green Party voter to believe that it’s absurd to apply the same rules to a bicyclist that you’d apply to a motorist. An SUV is a five-thousand-pound assembly of steel with an internal combustion engine that can achieve speeds unimaginable for most of human history, and can reach those speeds as easily as you can depress your foot. A bicycle goes no faster than ordinary leg power and sweat can take it. Any encounter between a machine like that and a human being, is, quite literally, weighted massively in favor of the machine. In most of Jersey City, the cyclist must share the street with motor vehicles moving at terrifying velocity. Navigating that street is an act of faith: we have to believe that the people behind the steering wheels are rational actors in full possession of their faculties. To make matters worse, those streets where we must practice that faith are designed to accommodate the driver, not the cyclist. The system of signals and procedures that govern conduct assume that road-users are in cars, and are therefore protected from the elements and the vagaries of their neighbors. The cyclist must accommodate that system, and work with it, even as he knows that any departure from that system by a driver might be the end of him.
What this means — and every city cyclist knows this — is that there will be times when, in order to survive, the person on the bicycle simply must bend the rules. If he’s chugging along on a busy street with no bike lane, and with cars speeding by, it might not be the wisest thing for anybody to wait at a light as if he’s sitting in a monster truck. If he tries to get ahead of the cars, he’s not doing this because he’s stunting, or flaunting the law, or engaging in an act of petty civil disobedience. He’s trying to find a safe place for himself in the rhythms of traffic — rhythms that are established by the motor vehicles around him, and which he can do very little to influence.
Andy Black had a tough task. Circumstances put him on MLK Drive at 8 in the morning. There’s not much space to ride on that street when the road is deserted; during rush hour, it’s an obstacle course. Ride too close to the curb and you’re liable to be doored. Go too close to the central dividing line, and you’re going to bother every driver you pass. Black had cars in front of him obstructing his vision, another car pressing him from behind, and many other cars parked on the side of the street, making it impossible for him to let any cars pass. Pedestrians are in the crosswalk. Everybody is hurrying. He is acutely aware that he’s not going fast enough for the liking of the drivers around him, and they’re viewing him as an obstruction to their designs. To make things easier for everybody, he tacks toward the center of the road. He does this to improve his own recognition of the streetscape, and as an acknowledgment that his presence is an annoyance to the motorists.
Black slows at the light. Then he accelerates into the intersection. He sees daylight and a car-free stretch of pavement, and he takes advantage of that. He receives the red light as a blessing for everybody: he can have a few seconds of relative calm, and the cars behind him can be free from his presence. What he did not anticipate was a City Councilwoman racing down a residental street at speeds best left for the highway. Struck full on, he spins in space, tumbles over, lands right on his side in the middle of the road. Then, even before the bent bicycle stops bouncing, he retrieves a sandal, picks himself up, and limps to the sidewalk.
As for Amy DeGise, she’s already long gone. The consequences of her actions — or her inaction — will catch up to her later, but for now, she’s speeding to her destination. Yet, to me, a cyclist there but for fortune on the MLK tarmac, the inaction of the rest of the motorists is just as meaningful, and just as telling. Yes, DeGise doesn’t stop. The other cars don’t, either. The moment the light turns green, they roll through the intersection without hesitation. Some of the pedestrians on MLK Drive try to assist. One makes him comfortable on a cooler, while another (the rascal) defies the light to bring him his other sandal.
But the drivers remain indifferent. Right before their eyes, a man is nearly killed — a man with whom they’d just been interacting in an attempt to navigate a crowded street. Yet that man is not a fellow driver, which means he is to be treated as an enemy: an interloper in a zone that belongs to them and them only. He was using a modality of transportation imported from communist Czechloslovakia or somewhere like it, and who was likely supportive of new rules meant to protect his fellow two-wheeled commies. He got the beating that was coming to him, and that that beating came from another motorist simply absolved them from any legal responsibility for their unarticulated feelings. He could have a concussion, he could have broken bones, he could have damaged pride, whatever; that was his problem, not theirs. They’re home free.
This, to me, is an extension of the hit and run. Not quite as dramatic or irresponsible as what the Councilwoman did, but a completion of her nearly-lethal gesture of contempt for cyclists. The message board and social media posts dismissing Andy Black are the final flourishes of that same gesture. It’s a wave of dismissal that those of us who ride bicycles are all too familiar with. And on behalf of all of us two-wheeled characters — those struck physically by city officials, and those who’ve merely been slighted by them — I’d like to remind non-cyclists that our manner of getting around is not merely legally valid and therefore entitled to protection and special accommodation. It’s the logical way to negotiate distance in a city like ours. Moreover, pedestrian-friendly cities like this one were not meant to accommodate fleets of sport-utility vehicles. SUVs are loud, they’re noisy, they’re right in your face, they’re spacehogs, they’re ugly, they extract a social and environmental cost. They desensitize drivers to the vulnerabilities of other citizens who are not so protected. And sometimes, as Andy Black learned, they run you right down. So if you must drive in Jersey City, please find a nice garage in Somerset County to stash your unstoppable death machine, and ride something more sane. And if you are elected to public office in Jersey City, boy oh boy should you know better.