Liu Warns Bike Share Program May Lead to More Lawsuits for City

While many in the city are eagerly waiting the start of the city’s bike sharing program, at least one man isn’t. New York City Comptroller John Liu is warning of safety and lawsuit problems that could come with the launch of Citi Bike.

Liu said the city may not be equipped to handle the lawsuits or the safety concerns that may accompany the July start of the largest bike share program in the country. He noted that New York City’s bicycle fatality and injury rates — without the bike share program — are about four times as high as Washington DC’s, which has a bike share program involving 1,100 bikes.

“Other cities, where they do have bike share programs, a couple of quick things, we have found that they have not so far exceeded the liability limits on the vendor’s insurance policy,” Liu said a conference publicizing the comptroller office’s report on bike safety. “But we have also found that New York City’s fatality rates and injury rates are substantially higher than in those cities.”

In 2010, 368 bicyclists reported crashes and 19 bicyclists died — that was up from 286 injuries and 12 deaths in 2009, but lower than the previous year.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said, if anything, city streets have gotten safer for cyclists.

“Our streets have gotten safer as biking has grown four times over the last decade, while serious crashes remain stable," she said. "These concerns come two years into the bike share process and two months after the Comptroller registered the contract. The fact is that our streets have gotten safer through sustained action and not by muddling numbers.”

Alta Bicycle Share, the vendor for Citi-Bike, is insuring the program for $10 million a year, but Liu said that may not be enough.

He pointed out bicycle claims against the city in 2009 exceeded $10 million, peddling closer to $11.5 million.

Yet in 2011, the city paid out only $2.9 million in bicycle lawsuits, and over the past 11 years, the city settled at an average of $4.3 million for bicycle related lawsuits.

Liu is suggesting increasing the insurance until the bike share program has enough data to prove that the $10 million is sufficient. Liu says the comptroller’s office will create a new claims category to better track bicycle claims with Citi Bike.

He also suggested educating cyclists and drivers in bicycle and road safety, improving the monitoring of bicycle accidents and requiring helmets, despite Mayor Bloomberg’s insistence that separate bike lanes are safer than helmet wearing.

“Imagine when the city puts out 10,000 bicycles on the streets and doesn’t have a helmet requirement, what kind of message does that send?” Liu said. “Is the city really serious about bike safety?”

The Citi Bike program will release 7,000 bikes next month, with 3,000 more June 2013.

Correction : An earlier version of this story said that 3,000 additional bikes in the Citi Bike program will be rolled out by the end of the year. They will hit city streets by June 2013.