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A vigil fr Devra Freelander in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn (image courtesy Jen Hitchings)

A vigil held Wednesday, July 3, for artist Devra Freelander escalated into a spar between truck drivers, pedestrians, and mourners. Freelander lost her life in a bike crash with a truck in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn earlier this week.

The spat erupted as two United Transit Mix cement trucks drove by the vigil on the corner of Bushwick Avenue and Boerum Street, where Freelander was killed on Monday in a crash with one of the company’s trucks. The drivers were jeered by mourners and bike activists who accused them of disregarding bike lanes. “…[Freelander] made a mistake. How were we supposed to see her?” one of the drivers answered back, “We can’t see everyone.” In response, mourners told the driver: “It’s your job to see everyone!”

Vincent Barone of amNewYork reported that one of the drivers, in tears, told the activists, “the whole company is hurt by this. We all have families.” United Transit Mix operates a parking facility on Boerum Street.

Freelander is the third cyclist to die on the streets of New York City this week and the 15th bike fatality since the beginning of 2019. Her death marks a spike in bike fatalities compared to last year. On Thursday, June 27, Ernest Askew, a 54-year-old cyclist, was killed in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Three days earlier, 20-year-old Robyn Hightman was killed on their bike in a crash with a truck in the Flatiron district of Manhattan.

“Bushwick [and East Williamsburg] residents have been fighting for years against the danger posed by recklessly driven and poorly regulated trucks speeding through their neighborhood,” said Philip Leff, a graphic designer and bike activits who participated in the vigil in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic. “Police officers made a show of ticketing trucks after the rally, but that is small consolation after years of looking the other way and ignoring the concerns of residents,” he said.

Leff chairs the North Brooklyn Committee at the bike advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. In a statement on Monday, the group criticized the city’s street safety plan Vision Zero saying, “New Yorkers on bikes are being killed at a record rate. It is clear that Vision Zero is in a state of emergency and Mayor de Blasio is in denial about his signature program faltering under his neglect.”

“Vision Zero is an effective, lifesaving program when implemented with the necessary financing, innovation, and planning,” Transportation Alternatives continues. “New Yorkers have long called for a more aggressive and innovative approach. Today we are in a crisis. It’s up to Mayor de Blasio and the City Council to act.”

In an interview with NY1’s Inside City Hall earlier this week, Mayor de Blasio defended the Vision Zero program but acknowledged a crisis in bike safety. “[W]hat we have been seeing these last few weeks and months is not acceptable,” de Blasio said. “We’re going to do a full-court press to stop it.” The mayor vowed to increase police presence to protect bicycle lanes around the city.

“In general, the NYPD has shown little concern for the health and safety of the vast majority of New Yorkers who don’t drive, with a particular contempt for cyclists,” Leff said, adding that bike lanes are frequently blocked by cop cars, “violating the laws they are supposed to carry out.”
“The frustration at the vigil against the drivers who happened to be passing by was, in my opinion, counterproductive,” Leff said, “but an understandable reaction to years of frustration that cyclists lives are put at risk on city streets.”

Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

3 replies on “Vigil for Slain Artist Devra Freelander Escalates Into a Debate Over Bike Safety”

  1. I ride a bike and mourn bike riders killed in traffic accidents. But a friend who was a jewelry designer was killed when a bicyclist ran a red light, fast, in midtown during lunch time and hit her crossing the street. Everybody must be more cautious, even if it takes more time. I’ve been hit while riding, and heard the “I didn’t see you” excuse both times. I’m large and hard to miss. But the point is whatever vehicle we’re riding, safety for others is as important as our own.

  2. Freelander is a poor choice to hold up as an example of cyclists in harm’s way in NYC. The truck didn’t hit her, she ran a red light and broadsided the truck, it was not the driver’s fault. Besides, she was riding in a pedestrian crosswalk and not the bike lane, so their argument for cyclist safety is false in her case. Shame on those self righteous ‘mourners’ who jeered at and distracted innocent truck drivers just doing their jobs. Too bad the other victims out there weren’t pretty young white girls, they would have been a better choice for this cause.

  3. This is indeed a horrid tragedy – but there was no bike lane anywhere in this area, so it’s not a ‘bike lane’ issue at all. Neither is it a Mayoral issue, nor a NYPD issue. She was riding on the wrong side of the street, on the sidewalk, with no helmet. Unfortunately, even if she had been in a bike lane, she still plowed full speed through the crosswalk and directly right into the intersection *against a red light* without even looking. Sadly, the truck driver, who was within the speed limit, had absolutely no opportunity to see her coming from around a brick corner and react, or even attempt to slow. The *only truthful takeaway lesson* from this senseless tragedy is that bike riders must obey the rules of the road, particularly when it comes to *stop signs and red lights* – full complete stop, look both ways first, and then proceed in an appropriately safe manner – both for their own livelihood and that of pedestrians and drivers.

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