Streets are on track for safer bike lanes
By Gabriel Zucker
Kojo Gamor, who was cycling along Grand St.’s narrow bike lane on a recent Monday, had only five words to offer on the city’s bike lanes.
“They all suck, suck, suck,” he said, motioning to a group of cones blocking off the lane before him.
But for bikers like Gamor, good times may be ahead. The Department of Transportation is expanding use of the “cycle track” design — which uses parked cars to separate bikes from traffic — on wide streets, and is considering a modified version for narrow streets, as well. The wide-street design, which has a successful pilot section on Ninth Ave. in Chelsea, is to be extended up to 31st St. on Ninth Ave. and implemented on Eighth Ave. from Bank to 23rd Sts. by the fall. In addition, pending Community Board 2’s approval at its July 24 full board meeting, a pilot cycle track design for narrow streets is to be implemented on the one-way portion of Grand St. — between Varick and Chrystie Sts. — by the fall; the board’s Traffic and Transportation Committee already approved the Grand St. plan last week.
Traditional, unprotected bike lanes were also recently installed on Greenwich, Washington, Prince and Bleecker Sts., and a two-lane bicycle-pedestrian space is being installed on Broadway, between Herald Square and Times Square.
The cycle track design features a bike lane between the curb and a row of parked cars, separating the bikers from traffic. On wider streets — such as Eighth and Ninth aves. — a “turn phase” traffic light ensures safety at points where bicycles and left-turning cars cross paths. The narrow-street pilot on Grand St. lacks these special lights; instead, a 90-foot “mixing zone” where the bike lane merges with a right-turn bay will allow cyclists and motorists to negotiate the intersection themselves. The mixing zone, like the entire cycle track design, was copied from Copenhagen, Denmark. According to Josh Benson, New York City D.O.T. bicycle program coordinator, the zones have led to a steep decrease in intersection crashes in Copenhagen.
Backed by the data
The cycle track design, which is common in European cities, prevents cars from double-parking in or driving through the bike lane, and was very successful in the Ninth Ave. pilot installed late last year: Data that D.O.T. supplied to the cycling advocacy group Transportation Alternatives showed a 41 percent decline in collisions between cars and bicycles on the nine-block stretch after the protected lane’s installation; moreover, D.O.T. data showed a 57 percent increase in the number of cyclists using the Ninth Ave. bike lane.
“Hopefully, we’re getting out of the pilot phase,” said Wiley Norvell, Transportation Alternatives communications director. “This is a design that works in New York City.”
Pedestrians will also benefit from the protected bike lane’s installation on Eighth Ave., which is as wide as 90 feet at intersections. The cycle track design creates a “pedestrian refuge” between bike and car traffic, effectively lowering the crossing distance by about 20 feet.
Because a bike lane separated from traffic by a white-painted, striped “buffer zone” already exists on Eighth Ave., the new, protected lane will not involve removing any lanes of moving traffic. The same would be true of cycle track installations on Lafayette St. and Second Ave., the addition of which Norvell called “no-brainers,” but which are not immediately in the works. The Ninth Ave. extension will cause the loss of one out of four traffic lanes on a lightly used area of the avenue.
Because of a painted bike lane currently on Grand St., the installation of a cycle track would not technically affect the number of traffic lanes, but it would prevent motorists from using bike space to “make two lanes out of one,” as Benson put it. Ultimately, however, Benson expected that the cycle track could improve traffic flow on Grand St. by getting right-turning cars out of the traffic lane and decreasing the pressure to “make aggressive turns.”
Cyclists have embraced the Ninth Ave. pilot project, saying it offers much better protection than current painted lanes such as those on Eighth Ave.
“I love it,” said Rick Siegel, a neighborhood resident who was doing errands on his bicycle on Ninth Ave. last week. “They do have their lane on Eighth Ave., but it’s not as protected.”
The cycle track is such an improvement that many bikers, like neighborhood resident Robert Aberdeen, were biking uptown along it last week.
“I wish it was officially two ways,” he said. “They have one on Eighth Ave. that I like, too, but even cop cars are parking in it, which frequently pushes you out into traffic.”
The New York City cycle tracks are the first in the country, noted Ian Dutton, vice chairperson of C.B. 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee.
Grand St. ‘roadblocks’
But while the approval process for the Eighth Ave. lane was very easy — “I was taken aback at the level of support and the lack of any concerns,” said Dutton — slightly more opposition greeted the Grand St. plan.
“Grand St. is a very crowded street to begin with, and they’re shrinking it down to one lane,” said Lillian Tozzi, a car owner and longtime Little Italy resident.
“It’s going to cause a lot of congestion,” she said of the cycle track.
Ernest Lepore, owner of Ferrara Cafe on Grand St. near Mulberry St., expressed his worries about the congestion at the C.B. 2 committee hearing. He said Grand St. has been suffering since the bike lane was added a few years ago, decreasing the room for auto traffic.
“The reason Grand St. is failing is because it’s not a one-lane street,” he said.
He also complained about parking regulations that would go along with the bike lane, which would make the north side of Grand St. a commercial loading zone from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and put trucks in front of his sidewalk cafe.
Still, a majority of the speakers at the Traffic and Transportation Committee hearing favored the Grand St. cycle track plan, although they worried that pedestrians would use the bike lane as an extended sidewalk and that too much parking would be lost.
To show that the lane is not pedestrian space, D.O.T. plans to paint the bike lane a distinctive green, something it has done on all bike lanes that are adjacent to sidewalks. As for parking, Benson pointed out that it would only be lost in the right-turn mixing zones, which amounted to four parking spaces every two blocks.
“I personally believe that this is going to be a huge benefit for the feeling of Grand St.,” said Tobi Bergman, a Hudson Square resident, cyclist and C.B. 2 member.
The committee unanimously agreed to back the Grand St. cycle track, though Dutton said that, in their resolution, they would “underscore that it’s a pilot program.” C.B. 3’s Traffic and Transportation Committee decided not to adopt any resolution on the Grand St. cycle track lane, given that only one block of it is located within C.B. 3.
Stronger opposition has emerged from businesses and organizations that feel that they have not been included in D.O.T.’s plans.
“I want to know why this proposal was not on my desk,” demanded Ferrara Cafe’s Lepore.
The Little Italy Merchants Association also said it was not informed about the plan.
Soho feels slighted
“We would support the lane, but why didn’t they come to us four months ago?” asked Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance. “They don’t have the slightest idea of how to handle the community.”
Sweeney also felt D.O.T. previously bypassed the community in creating a bike lane on Prince St. instead of on Houston St., as C.B. 2 and the Soho Alliance had requested. He said he “constantly” receives complaints about the new Prince St. lane, which, he angrily noted, displaced 126 parking spaces, is often clogged with pedestrians, and, given its paint job, comprises a “big, stupid, green scar in the middle of a landmarked district.”
Sweeney added that the Alliance had also lobbied to put the westbound lane on Broome St., given that it connects to Delancey St. and the Williamsburg Bridge, “but that makes sense, and D.O.T. doesn’t really make sense.”
D.O.T. explained that avoiding Houston St. would improve the biking experience by avoiding dangerous intersections, difficult left turns and buses, but Sweeney was unconvinced.
“Since the days of Robert Moses, D.O.T. has been autocratic,” he said, noting that he found other city agencies much more manageable. “I’m not against bike lanes per se — just the way D.O.T. handles them.”
Time for a change
C.B. 2 members, however, disagreed with Sweeney’s characterization of D.O.T.
“The new commissioner has hit a new direction, and it includes the community significantly more,” said Dutton, who called the department’s outreach for the Eighth Ave. cycle track plan “incredibly good.” “D.O.T. is trying some new and different things, and they seem to be willing to change,” he said.
Florent Morellet, the longtime Meat Market restaurateur and a public member of C.B. 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee, agreed with Dutton.
“The last [D.O.T.] commissioner had no vision, and was obsessed by having traffic flow as smoothly and as fast as possible,” said Morellet, an avid cyclist. “Now, we have a new commissioner.”
The new bike lanes are part of D.O.T.’s Bicycle Network Extension plan, which will ultimately create 200 miles of new lanes. Dutton stressed that this initiative far surpasses previous efforts.
“D.O.T. used to throw in a little bit here and a little bit there,” he said. “Now they’re thinking about how we get bikers from where they want to start to where they want to finish.”
T.A.’s Norvell said the improvements were clear.
“Cycling on Manhattan’s West Side is getting much, much safer,” he said, still noting that “the rest of New York City is crying out.”
D.O.T.’s efforts have included the installation of some imperfect, but still welcome lanes, such as the one on Prince St. Because that lane is at curbside and painted green, bikers found it superior to typical lanes, although inferior to the cycle track.
“Cars aren’t really a problem” on Prince St., said Caroline Golum, an employee of Bicycle Habitat bike shop in Soho. “It’s painted green, so they get the idea. The big problem going down Prince St. is pedestrians. They see the bike lane as an extension of the sidewalk.”
However drivers, like Tozzi, feel it’s the cyclists who are the problem.
“I don’t understand why bicyclists are having so much power in Lower Manhattan,” she said, adding that cyclists should be regulated. “If the mayor really wants some additional revenue, then they should be licensed, inspected, insured, and they should obey the traffic laws, which they don’t.”
Other neighborhood residents, like Joan Kadushin of Washington St., also oppose the new lanes. Kadushin accused the Washington St. lane of increasing traffic congestion, although D.O.T.’s studies contradict her argument.
“Everybody got on the green bandwagon,” Kadushin said. “It’s a politicians’ giveback to the neighborhood that isn’t a giveback.”
Fighting the car culture
To Morellet, this kind of attitude represents precisely what he feels needs to be fought in New York, a city that trails not just Europe but even cities like Bógota in terms of its pedestrian- and bike-friendliness. He was shocked to “see the West Village and Soho supposedly liberals fighting tooth and nail to keep their free parking” on Prince St. at bike lane hearings last year.
“We need to organize young people who do not have a feeling of entitlement about their cars,” he said, “and young people don’t come to community board meetings.”