Gotham Gazette

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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.

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