February 28, 2023

New York City Captures 1% of Over 6 Million Bike Lane Violations Worth $780M Per Year

Matty Schaefer

CEO and Co-Founder

Over the past year, we’ve increasingly invested both time and resources into Vision Zero and vulnerable road user safety as a core focus area and use case for our solution. Most, ourselves included, would agree with Vision Zero’s goals of eliminating traffic injuries and fatalities. As we dove deeper in the data, we were surprised to see that the funding, attention, and commitments surrounding Vision Zero have not yielded commensurate results. In 2010 traffic crashes caused 618 bicyclist deaths and 4,280 pedestrian deaths, and in 2020 those figures jumped to 938 bicyclist deaths and 6,516 pedestrian deaths from traffic crashes (Source: NHTSA). Those figures suggest an 4.3% annual increase in vulnerable road user deaths due to traffic crashes. There’s a thousand ways to slice the data but the story remains relatively constant—despite the resources and initiatives, we’ve seen a steady increase in negative safety outcomes.

To clarify, we do believe Vision Zero initiatives have had an undeniably positive impact, and that without them the number of deaths and injuries would have increased at a much faster rate. That said, the persistence of the problem leads us to believe the solution is incomplete. While there are proven ways of increasing safety such as physically protecting bike lanes and reducing speed limits, the proven solutions are likely impossible to scale to ubiquity in a reasonable time frame (if at all). Given we’re a curb management company, our first thought to find a missing piece of the solution was to look at how parking behavior may impact the problem.

We already had some experience using our wireless cameras and computer vision to detect vehicles parked in bike lanes, so naturally our initial focus was on bicyclist safety with the hypothesis that blocked bike lane violations are a root cause of bicyclist injuries and deaths. The logic makes sense: if a parked vehicle is blocking a bike lane, bicyclists are forced to maneuver into a travel lane to avoid the obstruction, which puts them in closer proximity to moving vehicles and thus at a higher risk for traffic crashes. To begin testing our hypothesis, the first step was to prove that blocked bike lanes is a material problem that warrants deeper investigation.

Due to its density, bicycle usage, and availability of public traffic camera feeds, we chose to conduct a first-of-its-kind bike lane safety study in New York City. To conduct the study, we analyzed 657 days of images across 13 public traffic camera feeds to detect when vehicles were parked and blocking bike lanes.

Internal tool showing a map of 13 traffic camera feeds and example images

We expected to detect a lot of violations, and yet we were still surprised when the results showed we detected a total of 5,763 blocked bike lane violations. To ensure the accuracy of the reported figures, we fed the results through our proprietary human-in-the-loop workflow and validated each and every violation. This dataset is one of the largest, if not the largest, of bike lane violation data to date.

We ultimately wanted to extrapolate our findings to Manhattan and all of New York City, so we then analyzed the data further to find an average rate of violations to work from. We quickly discovered 4 outlier camera feeds that disproportionately increased the average violation rate. We kept the violations from those cameras in the total figure of 5,763 violations since they did indeed occur, but we removed violations from those 4 camera feeds in order to calculate an average violation rate. The remaining 9 cameras produced an average of 3.5 violations/camera/day and a median of 2.7 violations/camera/day. To keep our extrapolations as conservative as possible, we decided to use the median as our average rate. Lastly, since each of the 13 camera feeds covered approximately 1 blockface, we assumed that 1 camera is equal to 1 blockface of bike lane, producing our average violation rate of 2.7 violations/blockface/day.

Analytics showing total violations/day and median violations/camera/day

Now to figure out the number of blockfaces to extrapolate to, we went straight to the source and used NYC’s own bike route dataset (Source: NYC OpenData). Fortunately, each object/segment in the dataset represented approximately 1 blockface, so all we had to do was filter to the right subset of data with bike lanes that lack any physical barriers of protection. We found that Manhattan has ~2,500 blockfaces with bike lanes without physical barriers of protection, and that the other 4 boroughs have an additional ~8,800 blockfaces with bike lanes without physical barriers of protection. As a quick sanity check, we found that Manhattan has ~11,500 blockfaces in total, which intuitively corroborates the estimated ~2,500 with bike lanes without physical barriers of protection.

When we extrapolated our average of 2.7 violations/blockface/day to all ~2,500 blockfaces in Manhattan, we produced an estimate of 2.5 million violations/year, worth $285 million in potential citation revenue (given the fine of $115 per citation). We went a step further and found NYC’s dataset for parking violations that showed that only 48,000 citations were issued for blocked bike lanes in FY2022 (Source: NYC OpenData), suggesting the city captured just 1.9% of the estimated 2.5 million violations.

Assuming Manhattan has twice as high an average violation rate as the other boroughs, we extrapolated out to all five boroughs and produced an estimate of 6.8 million violations worth $780 million for the City of New York. Impressively, the same dataset of parking violations reports a total of 74,000 blocked bike lane citations issued across all 5 boroughs, suggesting a capture rate of just 1.1% of the estimated 6.8 million total violations.

High level overview of study data and extrapolated results

Given these results, even if one was to apply an unreasonably large margin of error, we conclude that the problem of blocked bike lane violations is indeed far worse than a city would reasonably conclude given the available datasets. At face value, such a conclusion is justified by the disparity between 48,000 citations against an estimated 2.5 million violations per year. That being said, proving the problem is worse than we knew is by no means a solution to the problem itself—rather, we see it as the first step towards developing a more complete solution that incorporates the appropriate policy and technology changes required to change the underlying behavior. Specifically, we see it as the 1st of 5 steps towards improving bicyclist safety:

  1. Measure how bad the problem actually is
  2. Use that data to prioritize hot spots with manual enforcement
  3. Use those outcomes to pass legislation enabling automated enforcement
  4. Implement automated enforcement to capture 100% of bike lane violations
  5. Show that a 100% capture rate changes behavior and reduces deaths & injuries

While this approach to achieving Vision Zero is new and has yet to be implemented at scale, similar strategies with bus lane enforcement, red light cameras, and speed cameras have proven the efficacy of automated enforcement in changing underlying behavior. Given those as prior examples, we should re-frame the issue as a policy problem first and foremost. The technology exists, and has existed, to implement automated enforcement at scale, but enabling such technology with the requisite legislation means we have to start where the vast majority of cities are today by collecting data to build evidence that facilitates the curb management journey.

In a recent webinar hosted by Transportation Alternatives, we discussed our findings with Sara Lind, Chief Strategy Officer of Open Plans. “This study really shows that these dangerous — sometimes deadly — lane violations are a persistent, pervasive problem. New York City urgently needs stronger policies and enforcement for double-parked vehicles and other similar violations” Lind remarked in the webinar. Open Plans is a non-profit that uses tactical urbanism, grassroots advocacy, policy, and targeted journalism to promote structural reforms within New York City government that support livable streets, neighborhoods, and the city at large.

In addition to the mitigation strategies, we believe that the findings of our study should prompt the New York City government to take immediate and effective action to support the safety of cyclists. Enforcing existing laws and developing new policies can help to address the pervasive issue of bike lane violations. By implementing the strategies we’ve recommended, the city can significantly reduce the number of violations, making our roads safer and more accessible for everyone.

It's important to note that bike lane violations aren't just an issue in New York City, but in many cities around the world. Cyclists often have to navigate around cars that are parked in bike lanes, putting their safety at risk. By addressing this issue, we can make our cities more livable and sustainable.

In summary, our study on bike lane violations in New York City has highlighted a significant safety issue that needs urgent attention. By implementing the mitigation strategies we've recommended, such as prioritizing hot spots and enabling automated enforcement, the city can significantly reduce the number of violations and make our roads safer for everyone. Additionally, investment in infrastructure that supports cycling and walking can help to create more livable and sustainable cities. We hope that our study will encourage policymakers and city officials to take action and make our cities safer for all.

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