Note: This story was originally published in response to a crash that occurred in October 2016. It has been updated to focus on the general unsafe design of the intersection at Jay and Tillary Streets in Brooklyn.
The intersection of Jay and Tillary Streets in Downtown Brooklyn is a busy one for bike commuters, as it provides a direct route to both the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. It’s also known to be hazardous: from the beginning of this year through August 31, according to the city’s Vision Zero Tracker, thirteen people have been injured in traffic crashes here, including three cyclists and three pedestrians.
This summer, the DOT added protected bike lanes, which are buffered from traffic, to Jay Street. Plans to similarly improve the safety of Tillary were approved in 2011, but have yet to come to fruition. In the aftermath of October’s crash, safe streets activists were encouraging cyclists to call their elected officials and demand action.
While we wait, I asked New York City cyclists what everyone who uses the intersection — be it on two, four or eighteen wheels — can do to make it safer for themselves and others.
Best practices for drivers
Speeding, suddenly changing lanes, and swerving into and blocking bike lanes are all driver behaviors that cyclists say make them feel less safe on the road, including at Jay and Tillary.
“Cars taking a right routinely cut into the bike lane,” said Jacob Berman, who works and bikes near the intersection. Where bike lanes aren’t protected by barrier or lines of parked cars, it’s on drivers to make wide turns.
Along with staying out of bike lanes, cars need to be aware of obstacles that may cause bikes to merge into their lanes. According to Mallory Bulkley, whose morning commute takes her through the intersection, there is construction blocking the bike lane on Jay Street leading up to Tillary; often, she added, NYPD vehicles block the lanes on Jay and on Tillary. Drivers often fail to see cyclists, and so by clearly signaling before stopping, merging lanes or turning, they can help cyclists anticipate their actions.
Cyclists making a left onto Tillary from Jay Street have a “bike box,” which allows them to wait in front of cars when the light is red and get a head start when the light changes. It also makes them more visible to drivers. However, cyclist Evo Cho said she sees motorists stop their cars directly on those boxes, occupying a space reserved for bikes.
Many of these issues are behavioral problems that demand structural solutions. For example, giving cyclists and pedestrians a separate crossing signal from motorists would prevent everyone from entering the intersection at the same time. (Here’s more on this idea from Brooklyn Spoke.) Cho also argued that the bike boxes on Jay Street should be painted green like the bike lane, making them more visible to both drivers and cyclists.
Meanwhile, as Streetsblog reports, “it is illegal to operate a tractor-trailer carrying boxed or other loose cargo on New York City streets if the total truck length exceeds 55 feet,” a rule that is not always enforced. It is unclear whether the truck involved in Tuesday’s crash was over the legal limit, but the NYPD did not ticket or arrest the driver.
Best practices for cyclists
The construction worker quoted in DNAInfo complained that cyclists “don’t use their designated bike lane and instead wait to turn in the same lane that other vehicles use.”
The cyclists involved in Tuesday’s crash does not appear to have been turning. Regardless, the city’s official guide to cycling in New York asserts that “you have the right to ride in the center of a travel lane when necessary for your safety” — including when you’re preparing to turn.
“There are a lot of heavy duty vehicles in this area of Brooklyn as it is a major bus hub, there are lots of stores that get deliveries by truck, and there is a ton of construction,” said Bonnie Harper, who’s been biking in this area for about 14 years. “I see bikes frequently run the lights, they don’t even slow down or at least stop and evaluate what is going on.”
Bulkley disagreed. “There is not a protected left turn signal so you have to either turn quickly before oncoming traffic or wait in the middle of the intersection as cars speed past you on both sides through the intersection,” she explained, adding that she’s never seen anyone run a red light in this spot. “I’m pretty sure even the ‘bravest’/most reckless cyclists wait at this intersection.”
But in order to get ahead of traffic, she added, she’ll sometimes run an earlier light that occurs right before the bike lane becomes blocked by construction, giving her space to use the entire traffic lane and be first to arrive at the intersection.
“Taking a left from Jay to Tillary, the best way is to take it as a two-stage crossing — go straight through to the far side of Tillary and then use the Tillary light,” advised Berman. “There are enough people turning left that just going into the intersection is a hazard.” Switching from “driver” behavior to “pedestrian” behavior doesn’t always feel intuitive — Berman was under the impression that it wasn’t legal to make turns this way — but these “pedestrian-style” turns are actually the recommended way for cyclists to make difficult lefts.
“I strive to be as visible as I can, as predictable as I can, and I respect others’ right of way,” said Cho. Her other rule of thumb: “Give all unpredictable actors tons of epic clearance.”
Everyone I talked to was quick to point out that cyclists shouldn’t be singled out for unsafe behavior, as they reportedly were the day after the October crash. “There are a lot of reckless people in all areas (drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, boarders/skaters),” said Harper, “and I would like to see more even-handed enforcement.”
Even though they have a legal right to be on the road, some cyclists have concluded that the only way to stay safe on Jay and Tillary is to avoid the intersection altogether.
So now what?
It’s easy to see how bad feelings compound in situations like these. Cyclists waiting to turn as traffic whizzes by them can’t help but experience motor vehicles as a menace; those who move aggressively to get in front of traffic, perhaps violating traffic laws in the process, are seen as reckless dangers by drivers. (And this piece didn’t even get to pedestrians!)