Volume 75, Number 32 | Dec. 28 - Jan. 3, 2005

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Under the city’s transit strike contingency plan, makeshift bike racks were set up in city parks, like Washington Square, where this rack got scant use on the strike’s first day.

Time for city to stop spinning its wheels on biking

By Ian Dutton

With the Department of Transportation presenting a plan to add a bicycle lane to Eighth Ave. from 14th St. to Columbus Circle, Community Board 4 and D.O.T. can create a link in a network of cycle lanes stretching from Downtown to the northern tip of Manhattan. Still, New York City lags far behind other cities in its commitment to cycling traffic, and the appearance of a confrontational attitude from the Police Department hinders progress.

First, some perspective through an introduction: your author is the owner of a car, which for better or for worse is kept parked on the streets of the neighborhood. I have never owned a bicycle in New York, though the temptation is growing. This year I was fortunate enough to visit several European cities and observe the use of bicycles there, where bicycling is a much more prevalent form of transit than here in New York and enjoys significant investment from transportation officials.

The city’s D.O.T. deserves credit for increasing focus on bicycle transportation, says Noah Budnick, projects director for Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit group which promotes safer streets through walking, bicycling and use of public transit. He points to recent significant D.O.T. efforts such as streamlining connections to the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges for cyclists. Combined with the wildly popular Hudson River Park greenway route for cyclists, the reward has been a surge in numbers of people using bicycles for transportation. D.O.T. reports the average number of daily cyclists in New York City has increased 50 percent in the last five years to 120,000, and that on a typical day 5,000 cyclists will cross the East River bridges.

In 1997, a comprehensive Bicycle Master Plan for New York City was unveiled jointly by D.O.T. and the Department of City Planning. The Eighth Ave. bike lane is one link in the plan’s proposed 900-mile network of bike lanes and routes, which also addresses other needs of cyclists, such as access to mass transit and secure storage and parking facilities. Though the Master Plan provides an ambitious framework toward which to work, there exists no schedule for completion nor a method to audit the progress towards the plan’s goals. My personal observations of more aggressive public support of cycling in Europe is borne out by a statement in the Master Plan itself: “European countries have historically exhibited more innovation in the development of bicycle facilities, due at least in part to the Europeans’ greater acceptance of the bicycle as a viable mode of transportation.”

The benefits of encouraging bicycle-based transportation are myriad and readily apparent. Andrew Vesselinovitch, D.O.T. bicycle program director, has at the top of his agenda getting people to use bicycles to replace trips made by private auto, taxi or other such vehicle, thus relieving stress on our overcrowded streets. Even if the replaced trip was to have been made by public transportation, the health benefits of bicycling are notable. Fewer automobiles on the streets also leads to a safer environment for pedestrians, and the reduction of pollution makes for a healthier environment for all.

Creating safe routes throughout the city is an essential component of encouraging bicycle-based transportation. “A bike lane is terrific if the lane is respected,” says Carol Waaser, incoming president of the 1,800-member New York Cycle Club, who spoke in support of the Eighth Ave. lane at the C.B. 4 Transportation Committee meeting. However, Waaser was quick to add, “The Sixth Ave. lane is a joke,” noting that the only barrier between the cyclists and weaving vehicles was the thin painted white stripe. In fact, the Web site of a New York bicycle advocacy group features photos of cars — including Police Department vehicles — parked so as to block the bike lane and force cyclists into the dangerous traffic.

The great majority of bicycle lanes are similar to the one on Sixth Ave.: simply a 5-foot-wide lane identified by a single white line. Cars and trucks can — and frequently do — use the bicycle lane for parking and race along the streets only inches away from the vulnerable cyclists. The suggestions from the C.B. 4 Transportation Committee for the Eighth Ave. lane go a step further in protecting the cyclists and making the bike lane more identifiable to motorists: a wider buffer zone between vehicular traffic, such as the one by the bike lane on Hudson St. that feeds into Eighth Ave., and perhaps even coloring on the pavement of the lane itself.

These are hardly advanced methods, as observations in other cities demonstrate. In London and Amsterdam, bike lanes are always colored when they run adjacent to traffic lanes, which does in fact makes them very visible to drivers and pedestrians. This treatment is just beginning to find its way into the lexicon of New York City D.O.T. According to Vesselinovitch, though the use of color to mark bike lanes has been employed in only very limited cases so far, we can in fact expect to see more of colored lanes in the near future. A contract has recently been issued to a company to use green to identify cycle lanes on a trial basis, but only on bicycle lanes that run along a curb on streets with no car-parking lane. Adding a color tint to the bicycle lanes is an inexpensive step and is the very least in safety measures that we can offer cyclists.

In European cities, the paint on the ground is commonly not the only form of protection that cyclists have from other vehicles. Along many busy thoroughfares, parking is not offered; instead, bicycle lanes are segregated from other traffic by curbs, bollards, plantings or a combination thereof. Markings at intersections show both cars and bicycles where they are expected to go, and in some cases there are even traffic signals specifically for the cyclists, for example, to give them a head start before turning vehicles can cut them off.

These measures are still not the optimum solution to cyclists, however. The result of the completion of the car-free greenway through the Hudson River Park, is “thousands start bike-commuting,” points out Budnick, noting that people often start using such paths recreationally and then begin realizing the value of their bicycles as a means of transportation. Of course, in most of New York City the establishment of car-free routes is not possible due to existing development; but possibilities such as removing autos from Central Park are among the primary goals of groups such as T.A.

German cities of all sizes demonstrate an emphasis on non-auto transportation by means of very wide sidewalks that often include a bike lane marked off by painted lines, curbing or pavement of a type different than that of the foot-traffic area. Crosswalks have marked areas for pedestrians and for cyclists. Cyclists are given the safety of being segregated from cars, and pedestrians are aware of the bicyclists’ zone on the sidewalk, minimizing conflicts. But such accommodations seem to be out of the question here in New York: perhaps justifiably, the official position of D.O.T. is that New York drivers cannot be trusted to be aware enough to look out at intersections for cyclists darting out from the sidewalk behind parked cars. In order to avoid dangerous situations at intersections, a few parking spaces could be removed near corners to give drivers a sightline to bicycles as well as pedestrians. But in our car-centric mentality, D.O.T. seems unwilling to explore this option.

Besides the availability of routes for cyclists, facilities must be available for the safe parking of bicycles at desired destinations. Amsterdam, famous for having more bicycles than residents, is also known for the multilevel bike-parking garage at Central Station. According to T.A.’s Budnick, an attempt to create a secure parking facility for bikes at Grand Central Terminal, the most requested parking location by cyclists, was derailed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Currently, T.A. is hopeful that as the planning process continues for the Moynihan train station at 33rd St. and Eighth Ave., accommodations will be made for a bicycle parking facility. Budnick pointed out that this would be a fitting tribute to Senator Moynihan, who often ensured that federal transportation bills included consideration of pedestrians, cyclists and mass transit.

D.O.T.’s Vesselinovitch says that besides the CITYRACKS program, there are locations where the possibility of widening sidewalks to provide parking for bicycles is being explored, particularly in Williamsburg. This is something that should be explored in Downtown Manhattan, where narrow sidewalks are crowded enough by the volume of pedestrians and leave no space for bicycle parking.

Once the acceptance of bicycle transportation reaches a critical mass, private development can seize the opportunity. In Berlin and three other German cities, Deutsche Bahn, the national railway, has established an innovative form of bicycle rental program named Call-A-Bike. D.B. deployed several thousand bikes built to withstand the demands of city use, which can be found on many busy street corners. After establishing an account, a member can find a locked D.B. bike, send a text message to get an unlocking code, and pedal off around the city at a rate of 7 Euro cents per minute. Whenever you get to your destination, you lock up the bike for the next user and leave Call-A-Bike a voice message with the location of the bike for tracking purposes. With a German friend, I used this service to spend a memorable afternoon touring Berlin this autumn, enjoying parks and unfamiliar neighborhoods and making use of Berlin’s many bicycle paths and routes.

It doesn’t seem like it should be a mere pipe dream that New York could have a vibrant and enormous cycling population, as do London, Amsterdam and Berlin, cities with similar climates and space constraints as New York. While I credit the work of Vesselinovitch at D.O.T., I cannot help but question that department’s commitment to empower cyclists when we are witness to a project that is pouring $25 million into reconstructing Houston St., yet gives absolutely zero benefits to cyclists. This is especially appalling given that street’s designation as a recommended crosstown route, and that there have been two cyclist fatalities along the street this year alone. Maybe it will take a change in vision at the top, as in San Francisco or Chicago, cities which Vesselinovitch highlights as leaders in bicycle innovation in the U.S. thanks to “mayors dedicated to bicycling.” In New York tradition, such a change might be more likely to come from grassroots pressure, which may very well be in the making given the swelling numbers of people who are turning to bicycles as a reliable means of transportation.

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