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Push for Bike Lanes Hits Some Bumps

bike lane
Photo by bitchcaksny

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Department of Transportation have made a strong push for expanding bike lanes throughout New York City, but as more streets boast a special area for cyclists, a backlash has emerged.

While opponents have long tried to block plans for specific lanes, now critics are taking on the program as a whole. Some community boards and politicians express concern that the lanes have been developed too quickly and say they make it harder to walk and drive around the city and can pose a safety hazard and hurt businesses. They attack the administration for what they see an anti-car bias. A numbers of these critics have mounted efforts on a variety of fronts to try to slow down the Bloomberg administration's cycling plans.

To dramatize his increasing skepticism about bike lanes, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz rolled into his State of the Borough speech this year on a tricycle, and then blasted the city's cycling initiatives. "For the majority of New Yorkers, it is simply not feasible to make bicycles their primary mode of transport, and unfortunately that's the direction I believe the city's policy is heading," Markowitz said.

On a more serious note, the City Council last week unanimously passed bills requiring that the police update statistics on bicycle and pedestrian traffic violations and accidents, as well as those involving cars and trucks, and that the Department of Transportation keep track of bicycle crashes. Advocates for cycling endorsed these measures. The council also approved Intro 377, which will require the Department of Transportation explain to council members and community boards why it has rejected certain suggestions to ease traffic.

These initiatives, however, seem unlikely to end the debate over bike lanes.

Full Speed Ahead

The city sees bicycles as a way to "reduce traffic and reach our clean air and greenhouse gas reduction goals," according to PlaNYC, its sustainability initiative.

Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, his administration has designated 373 miles of bike lanes throughout the city. Under PlaNYC, New York City will have 1,800 miles of bike lane by 2030. By the Department of Transportation's calculations, which some dispute, the number of people commuting by bike in the city has doubled since 2006.

That represents a major expansion. And to some critics that alone is a problem.

Councilmember James Oddo of Staten Island, said he has problems with the process the city uses to create bike lanes. "It's in the presentation. It's heavy-handed and has alienated people who may be a natural ally,” said Oddo. "No matter how powerful you are, no one likes the sense that they are being dictated to in that manner."

Oddo and fellow Staten Island Republican Councilmember Vincent Ignizio wrote an open letter to Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan last month questioning the administration's authority to expand bike lanes without first conducting a review to determine whether the change would adversely affect the environment.

They also challenged Sadik-Khan's authority to make decisions on bike lane. "The City Charter does not identify the creation of bike lanes as a stated power or duty of the commissioner," the council members wrote.

The Department of Transportation did not respond to repeated requests to comment on this.

Oddo also questions the priority the department has placed on bike paths while, he said, Staten Island streets are "not drivable." Whatever cycling's benefits, he said, it is not practical for Staten Island. "We're addicted to the automobile," he said. "We don’t have an alternative [public transportation] like the other four boroughs do."

Oddo is scheduled to meet with the deputy mayor in early March to discuss environmental review changes.

Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group that enthusiastically supports bike lanes, bemoaned the expenses the city might incur if every bike lane prompted the kind of review that road changes face. It would be "an enormous waste of resources for the city," said Caroline Samponaro, director of bicycle advocacy at Transportation Alternatives.

Reflecting concerns similar to Oddo's, Councilmember Lew Fidler of Brooklyn has proposed that the Department of Transportation notify the relevant community board of any proposed bike lanes within its border, enabling the board to hold hearings on the plan.

"Bike lanes drop out of the sky without any notice to the community and they're based on a master plan that's more than 10 years ago," Fidler told a meeting last year.

Last year Fidler blocked -- at least temporarily -- a planned bike lane in Canarsie.

Making Streets Safer for All

Samponaro thinks traffic laws offer a better was best way to address any safety concerns. "Enforcement is the way to address bike behavior, not red tape," she said.

Evidence does seem to indicate the bike lanes have created safety problems, caused by motorists and cyclists. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer recently released a study, conducted from Oct. 5 to Oct. 7, 2010, that documented hundreds of traffic violations at 11 different locations citywide involving motorists, cyclists and bike lanes, including vehicles parking in bike lanes and cyclists riding the wrong way. The report fond, for example, 42 instances of cyclists riding the wrong way on the street on Centre and Chambers streets.

Vincent Tedesco, a South Street Seaport resident who commutes on his motorized scooter, believes that bike lanes only make roads safer if cyclists obey the rules. "Sometimes you get somebody who doesn't have any experience riding bicycles in the street," he said. "It's kind of dangerous. I've come close to hitting cyclists."

To rein in bad behavior on the part of the cyclists, Councilmember Eric Ulrich has proposed that people be required to post an identification tag, purchased from the city for a small fee, on their bikes. This, he has said, would end a "double standard when it comes to enforcing traffic laws"

Transportation Alternatives has mounted a campaign to stop this idea from ever becoming law. "Practically speaking, bicycle registration would criminalize bicycling, waste valuable city resources and erect yet another obstacle for those seeking to ride a bike. It would do nothing to improve safety or enforcement," the group's web site says.

Samponaro maintains that bicycle riders already are held responsible for their actions, noting that all cyclists must carry identification and can be taken into police custody if they are caught without it. "There’s already accountability. It's a point that is really lost in the public," she said. "We should be having a conversation based in fact."

She said the Department of Transportation has found that bike lanes make commuting safer. According to the department's web site, streets with bicycle lanes have 40 percent less fatal or injurious accidents than roads without them. "Bike lanes are necessary for street safety. It's essential," Samponaro said.

Jesse Smith, a Queens College student who both rides his bicycle and commutes by car, agrees bike lanes are essential. However, he thinks only experienced cyclists should use them. "It would be ill-advisable for a family to bike down a lane during rush hour," he said.

Street Fight

Noah Pffeferblit, district manager of Community Board 1, which covers Lower Manhattan, has heard complaints that the bike lane that cuts through City Hall Park is dangerously close to kids walking to school with their parents. "There is no dedicated space for them [pedestrians] specifically," said Pffeferblit.

He also hears gripes that, despite the bike paths, some cyclists still ride on the sidewalks. It is a violation, punishable by a fine of up to $100, for a cyclist over 12 years old to ride on a sidewalk.

But Pffeferblit supports adding more bike lane in his community "given that the Department of Transportation and other agencies consult with us before they are installed."

Transportation Alternatives has recognized that cyclists can create problems -- and wants bike riders to address the concerns.

"Everyone from the local crossing guard to our grandma has been complaining about bicyclist behavior. Every elected official in the city has gotten the call," it says on its web site. "Now is when we need to do better. Give pedestrians more space. Make eye contact and smile. If you screw up, or startle someone, apologize.

Bikes and Business

Then there are the economic issues. Some businesses say bikes infringe on their work and hurt sales. The Columbus Avenue Working Group, a business advocacy group from the Upper West Side, found that 72 percent of the 36 businesses they surveyed said the protected bike lane between West 77th Street and West 96th Street negatively affected them, according to a survey released by Stringer early this month.

The business operators complained about a lack of space to load and unload materials, difficulty receiving deliveries and more vehicles getting ticketed in places where they were previously able to park. Fourteen percent of the affected businesses believe that the lack of parking space has decreased revenue.

On Feb. 6 Community Board 7, which represents that area, recommended that the Department of Transportation establish clearer traffic rules to reduce the number of tickets.

Samponaro contends that the Columbus area does not reflect the experience of businesses citywide. "Change takes some adjustments," she said.

Bike Bills Cruise through the Council

Photo (cc) Sailing Nomad

In the latest iteration of the bike lane debate, the City Council unanimously approved a package of legislation Wednesday to force the Bloomberg administration to report on pedestrian and bike-related accidents.

One bill requires the Police Department to update statistics on pedestrian or bicycle related traffic citations, accidents, injuries and fatalities online monthly. Another will force the Department of Transportation to track bicycle crashes for the first time.

The legislation is part of a larger citywide dialogue on bike regulations and the number of bike lanes the Bloomberg administration has created. While bicycle advocates claim the lanes have increased traffic safety and encouraged more New Yorkers to trade in their four wheels for two, some communities have vehemently opposed their construction, contending they take away parking and present a safety hazard.

Yesterday, Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the information gleaned from the legislation would help the city determine where bike lanes and other traffic calming measures should be.

"Getting people out of cars and on to bikes is a good thing," said Quinn. But, she added, "Bike lanes work great in some neighborhoods and don’t work well in others."

Bicycle Bills

Last year, Stuart Gruskin, then 50 years old, was walking to lunch in Midtown when a deliveryman on a bicycle struck him. Gruskin lost his life due to injuries from the accident.

His wife, Nancy, joined the City Council yesterday to applaud the approval of the bike bills package, specifically legislation (Intro 374) that would compile collision statistics involving bicycles, including those between bikes and pedestrians, in an annual report.

"There were no accurate bicycle versus pedestrian statistics," said Gruskin. "These statistics are the foundation on which policy is built."

In addition to the bike crash bill, the package (Intro 370-a) will require the police department to post moving violation data on its site every month. The data will reveal who was involved, whether bike, car or pedestrian, and what the contributing factors were.

The final bill (Intro 377) forces the Department of Transportation to explain to community boards why it rejects a certain traffic measure in a neighborhood, which was proposed by the board itself or a councilmember.

The bike debate has heated up in recent months as communities question whether the lanes actually make riders, walkers and drivers safe. Some residents have called for the removal of bike lanes, while at least one councilmember wants to force all adult bicyclists to register and have licenses.

On Wednesday, both the speaker and the council's Transportation Committee Chair Jimmy Vacca said once the data is released the city should consult it before installing any more bike lanes.

The city's leading bike advocacy organization, Transportation Alternatives, says studies have shows bike lanes actually reduce the frequency of reckless riding. The group supports all three bills and suggests once the data is released it will support their side.

"We're hopeful that many more will support bike lanes as a safety improvement," said the group's executive director, Paul Steely White.

Mayor to Propose Classier Black Cabs with Pick-Up Privileges

black cab
Photo by mandiberg
Currently so-called black cabs or gypsy cabs cannot pick up passengers who hail them on the street. A proposal by Mayor Michael Bloomberg seeks to change that.

Traveling in the back of elusive black cabs in the outer boroughs could become a lot more legitimate.

In his State of the City speech on Staten Island today, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to call for a new class of black cab, better known as livery or gypsy cabs, which will be allowed to pick up passengers hailing on the street in the outer boroughs for the first time. In exchange, Bloomberg will require these livery cabs to have meters, GPS systems and a uniform color or marking, according to a memo on the proposal provided by the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

“And why shouldn’t someone in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, or Staten Island be able to hail a legal cab on the street?" Bloomberg is expected to ask today, according to an excerpt of the speech. Currently, passengers in the outer boroughs must call a livery or black car in advance to arrange a ride. Jumping in one on the street is illegal.

"This year, we’ll establish a new category of livery cars that can make on-street pickups outside of Manhattan -- just like yellow cabs do," the mayor will say. "It will give New Yorkers in all five boroughs another safe, reliable and convenient option for getting around. Because whether you’re standing on 42nd Street in Manhattan, or 42nd Street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, or 42nd Street in Sunnyside, Queens, you ought to be able to hail a cab."

Hizzoner will likely have an uphill battle. Already industry officials are pumping the brakes. Representatives of yellow cabs fear livery cabs could steal their fares, while livery cab companies are wary of the new regulations.

"Legalizing an illegal activity because it's been done for so long will immediately cut into fares, especially during the rush hours when yellow cab drivers who live in the outer boroughs pick up fares at the beginning or end of their shifts," said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a union that represents yellow cab drivers. "As liveries bring more riders into Manhattan, what guarantee do we have that the city will stop the illegal activities in Manhattan or the airports? Already, the city has turned a blind eye on such activity throughout Manhattan and the airports, which cuts deep into taxi driver incomes. This is a slippery slope with long-term implications."

Under the proposal, the new livery cab will still be banned from picking up fares in Manhattan and at the city's airports.

The Details of Legit Liveries

According to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the city has nearly 38,000 "for hire" vehicles in the outer boroughs, including black cars, licensed liveries and limousines. Of that, between 26,000 and 27,000 are licensed livery cabs. In 2010, the commission issued 2,854 illegal hail summonses.

Under the mayor's plan, which has not been completely spelled out yet, passengers in the outer boroughs could still use any of those services. All they have to do is pick up the phone.

The proposal, which is cast as a sustainability initiative to get cars off of the streets, would create an additional class of vehicle. Cars already licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission could opt to join, but they would have to abide by the criteria, including the meter.

These new livery cabs would have to have credit card readers (now used in 40 percent of rides in yellow cabs). By requiring clearly marked cars, the proposed program would increase passenger and driver safety, according to the memo. It would also ensure passengers -- especially tourists -- get charged a fair fare.

Some livery companies, though, aren't buying it.

Anthony Amaro, an assistant manager at Arecibo Car Service in Park Slope, said it's safer and more economical for outer borough residents to call for his black cars.

"If you put in meters, it's basically going to be another yellow cab," said Amaro. His service provides outer borough residents a cheaper alternative, Amaro said. Arecibo charges a $16 flat rate from Park Slope, Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan. When asked if the service would support the program, Amaro said: "I don’t think so."

The preliminary proposal does not spell out whether the fare structure would be the same as a yellow cab. That would be established by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, according to the memo.

There has been no discussion of limiting the number of vehicles in the program, a TLC official said. An official also said these licenses would not be used in the same way as taxi medallions, which are expensive and limit the number of yellow cabs on the street.

To move forward, the proposal will have to have City Council approval.

In a statement yesterday, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said: "We look forward to the mayor's speech and look forward to closely examining this proposal."

The council's Transportation Committee Chairman James Vacca gave a similar response.

“He is proposing a transformation of the taxi industry, and I think this is a proposal that has to be looked at carefully," said Vacca. "Is the medallion as valuable as it once was?" he asked. "From the livery cab industry perspective, they are going to say, 'Our business is going to decline if all you have to do is go out on Queens Boulevard and hail a cab.'"

The city points out that the practice of illegal hailing black cabs is already rampant. Critics of the plan counter that that doesn't mean the city should make the practice legal.

Doing so would devalue the yellow cab medallion, said Ethan Gerber, the executive director of the Greater New York Taxi Association, which represents a coalition of taxi owners. "It ruins the credibility of the city going forward," said Gerber. "If the TLC would simply enforce its own rules, the problem would go away."

The proposal is one aspect of the mayor's annual address this afternoon at the St. George Theater. Yesterday, the mayor was mum on what else he might propose.

"But if you come," he said to reporters on the speech, "I’d be happy to have you."

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