By Dave Colon
Special to the Eagle
Friends and family of Robert Spencer, the 53-year-old cyclist killed by a driver last Thursday morning, joined safe streets activists at a vigil Saturday to pay tribute to the man they called “T” and demand that the city do more to keep cyclists safe.
Spencer, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, was “a brother from the very beginning, a man with a kind heart and a beautiful soul,” Spencer’s friend Jose told Transportation Alternatives Queens Committee Chair Laura Shepard, who read Jose’s statement to the crowd.
“Heaven just got another beautiful angel,” Jose said.
Shepard spoke before a ghost bike was locked to a street sign on the corner of Borden Avenue and 2nd Street in Long Island City.
“Each of these deaths is personal. [Robert] was our neighbor,” she said about Spencer, who was killed just blocks from his home in Long Island City.
Spencer was the sixth cyclist killed on New York City streets this year. His death comes just weeks after bike messenger Aurilla Lawrence was killed in a hit-and-run on Broadway in Williamsburg.
Spencer’s friends and family not only remembered the person Spencer was but also demanded the city do more to stop the deaths of cyclists and pedestrians.
“Somehow, some way, I'm gonna get into this because it's not gonna happen again,” Spencer’s brother Michael Vega told reporters before the vigil. “It's not going to happen again.”
Spencer’s family also criticized reporting, based off initial police statements, that suggested Robert was killed while riding against traffic and after running a red light.
“My brother was an avid biker,” Robert’s sister Nicole Spencer told reporters. “There's no way he would have ran into traffic. No way. He's been riding bikes for years. There's no way on God's green Earth that he would have made made any mistakes at all.”
State Sen. Michael Gianaris and City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer both attended the vigil and listening to the speakers talk about Spencer’s life.
After the vigil, Van Bramer spoke to reporters about the need for a new approach to installing bike lanes. He also criticized the “disgraceful” reaction he received on Facebook when he shared the news of Spencer’s death.
“I posted something on my social media on this and people immediately attacked the cyclist and protected bike lanes,” Van Bramer said. “And it is disgusting and outrageous that Robert Spencer is blamed for his own death.”
Multiple Facebook commenters expressed sympathy for Spencer, while also insisting that cyclists carry insurance and registration like drivers. Others said that cyclists fail to heed traffic laws.
Van Bramer said the current procedure for installing takes months and leads to combative community board meetings.
“It is too painful, it is too labor-consuming and too time-intensive to go block by block, street by street and require votes and lengthy processes,” he said. “We've got to have a citywide, comprehensive approach that is data-driven, fact driven and safety driven that prioritizes people over cars.
Van Bramer spoke to reporters while holding his own helmet after cycling to the vigil. He encouraged the city’s other elected officials to bike more.
“We all need to be doing more cycling, less driving, and politicians should be more aware of conditions on the street, including from a cyclist perspective,” Van Bramer said.
According to Patch, residents of a condo near the spot where Spencer was killed had asked the city to put a protected bike lane on Borden Avenue weeks before the fatal collision. Borden Avenue currently features an unprotected bike lane.
The Department of Transportation told Patch that it would study the street and consider improvements.
But whatever comes next will be too late for Spencer, who was remembered as a joyful and helpful presence.
“My brother was loved by a lot of people,” Spencer’s younger brother Gabriel told the crowd. “And now he's gone and we're never gonna get him back. He was very respected in this community. He was a gentleman, he was polite, and he loved everybody. He made everybody smile.”
Spencer’s son, Robert Spencer III, told the Eagle that his father “was just explosive joy.”
“Anywhere he went, any time he stepped into a room, he brought nothing but joy and love into a room,” he said.
Jessica Vega, Michael’s daughter and Robert’s niece, told the Eagle that Spencer “overall, was pretty perfect.
“I don't ever remember a point in my life where I was upset at him or anything like that. He was always there for me,” she said.
The loss of that joy and that love will now be permanently felt by Spencer’s family, Michael Vega pointed out.
“I have to live for the rest of my life, my brothers and sisters have to live for the rest of their lives, knowing that Robert is no longer with us,” he said.