Volume 78 - Number 28 / December 10 - 16, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

A cyclist pedaling in traffic heading north on Eighth Ave. at 14th St. last week avoided the new cycle-track bike lane, at right. Only cars turning left can enter the cycle-track area west of the concrete median, reducing the number of cars coming near cyclists.

New protected bicycle lanes are rolled out on Eighth Ave.

By Jefferson Siegel

From “It’s stupid!” to “I’m thrilled!” reactions to the new section of the Eighth Ave. bike lane, which is nearing completion, ran the gamut last week.

The roughly four-block-long protected lane, running from Bank St. to 14th St. and incorporating a “cycle track” design that physically separates cyclists from motor vehicles, is the latest bike path to engender such rants and raves.

Opinions split pretty much down party lines, with cyclists welcoming the protection for their commutes while local businesses criticized the loss of curbside space.

“I’m thrilled,” said East Villager Emilie Kapp, who was pedaling home from classes at the New School for Drama on Washington St. “It’s a blessing for people who bike all over. It’s nice to have a street you can feel safe on.”

Kapp had had a close call earlier that morning on the unprotected bike lane on W. Ninth St. A driver pulled into the bike lane without looking, cutting her off.

“Instead of hitting him, I swerved and hit another car,” Kapp said as she held up a bruised right hand.

Due to the physical nature of the area, with short blocks and several westbound streets, cyclists on this stretch of Eighth Ave. will not be completely separated from cars. On the block near Horatio St., for example, bike riders will share a lane with cars entering and exiting a gas station. White “sharrows,” or shared arrows, painted on the roadway, will alert cars and cyclists that they are in a shared lane.

But the danger cyclists face daily didn’t factor into the disdain expressed by some pedestrians and local businesses.

“It’s really stupid. Look what’s it’s doing to the traffic,” exclaimed Chelsea resident Harold Alvarez as he stood on the corner of W. 14th St. “Bloomberg’s talking about congestion pricing and look what he’s doing — he’s making traffic.”

Mayor Mike Bloomberg has been a frequent target of bike lane opponents, especially those unhappy with the new bike lanes on Ninth Ave. in Chelsea and Grand St. in Little Italy.

In fact, the seeds that bloomed into new bike lanes around town were planted in 1997 during the Giuliani administration. The city’s current Bicycle Master Plan was a key component of the Giuliani-era Bicycle Network Development Project, a joint venture of the city’s Department of City Planning and the Department of Transportation.

The stated goal of the B.N.D.P. was “to increase bike ridership in New York City.” Partially funded with federal dollars, the B.N.D.P. sought to develop a network of bike lanes “as a means of improving air quality, reducing energy costs, reducing congestion on existing roadways, and helping to provide for lower overall transportation costs.”

Recognizing a steady increase in bike use, the plan’s objectives were to encourage more people to use pedal power. The plan envisioned a 900-mile bike network that also facilitated cycling access to bridges and mass transit.

“Implementation of the plan could have a profoundly positive impact,” the report’s executive summary noted, pointing out that the resulting benefits would enhance transportation and recreation options, improve air quality and cut down on noise and air pollution.

The impetus for a more bike-friendly city goes back even further, to 1993, when then-U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan sponsored the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, or ISTEA, which allocated $100 million to the city to develop programs that would decrease traffic congestion and improve air quality.

That was also the year a bike lane was marked out along Hudson St. and Eighth Ave. between Spring and 14th Sts. A year later, Lafayette St.’s painted-buffer bike lane was created; the 5-foot-wide lane was bordered by a 10-foot-wide parking lane and a 6-foot-wide painted buffer line.

History notwithstanding, locals were evenly split on the new Eighth Ave. lane.

Manley’s Wine & Spirits has been a Village mainstay since the end of Prohibition. Opened in 1934, the liquor store is currently owned by the founder’s son, Ken Collier. Ken’s wife, Carole, who doubles as store manager, echoed the concerns of several other nearby businesses.

“We have lost business because plenty of cars and taxis used to pull up,” she said. “What it’s doing is driving people away from us. The traffic on Eighth Ave. has lessened enormously.” Collier wrote a letter to Community Board 2 in opposition to siting a buffered lane outside her business, but, “I don’t know if they read it,” she said.

“It’s not Copenhagen,” Ken Collier said as he stood by the door.

Moments later, West Villager Paul Binnerts pedaled by and gave a resounding approval to the new protected lane.

“It’s made for us,” said the theater director, who comes from Amsterdam and has biked all his life.

“It’s very dangerous to bike here,” he continued, “you have to negotiate your way through the traffic. And, it’s not only cars; pedestrians also don’t acknowledge bicyclists.”

Binnerts took a long view, believing that eventually businesses, auto drivers and cyclists will be equally accommodated by the expansion of the bike lane network.

Ian Dutton, vice chairperson of C.B. 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee, voiced similar sentiments.

“To some people, it represents an inconvenience and to some people it represents a safe way around the city,” Dutton said while walking his bike as he gave a tour of the lane from Abingdon Square to W. 14th St.

Dutton said the idea of protected bike lanes has been promoted by safety advocates for years.

“The community board only received one complaint since construction started and that was about the loss of parking,” he noted.

All parking has been removed on the west side of Eighth Ave. between Bank and 14th Sts. to accommodate the new bike lane.

Standing near Horatio St., Dutton watched as cars pulled across the bike lane to enter and exit a Lukoil gas station. A block up at W. 13th St., a UPS truck completely blocked the lane as it parked to make deliveries.

Dutton said C.B. 2 — which covers the Village area — asked D.O.T. to specifically examine any issues that would arise with the creation of the lane.

“We consider deliveries an important matter,” he said. “We don’t want a negative impact on businesses. I don’t think it’s too much to ask a delivery truck to pull up a few doors [if the driver can’t stop right in front of a store].

There are compromises. We only have so much space.”

Josh Benson, director of D.O.T.’s bike program, elaborated on how the agency solicited input from merchants along the route.

“D.O.T. went door to door among businesses, distributing informational fliers, detailing the project and the dates of important community meetings,” Benson said in an e-mail. “The public made it clear they preferred better mobility options (i.e. no removal of left turns for motor vehicles) over keeping the parking spaces.”

The Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce represents hundreds of local businesses. The chamber’s executive director, Dirk McCall, praised the bike lane but also sought some fine-tuning.

“Bike lanes are a wonderful addition to neighborhoods and are a step forward in greening our city,” McCall said. “We commend D.O.T. on their work but continue to call for loading zones midblock in key locations to mitigate the impact on local businesses.”

It’s not just city government that’s embracing the “green” lifestyle. Since 1992, the East Village-based Green Map System has produced a variety of maps pointing to energy conservation, composting and other environmental resources throughout the city. The map’s founding director Wendy Brawer is an avid cyclist.

“The buffered lanes make it clear to drivers that this space is for cyclists, not for double-parking,” she said. “Buffering removes a deadly hazard.” Brawer expects to add bike lanes to her online map, OpenGreenMap.org/nyc, early next year.

Work on the Village portion of the Eighth Ave. cycle-track bike lane should be completed by year’s end. As part of this work, trees will be planted and signage added on the new concrete islands in the cycle track.

In spring 2009, D.O.T. will extend the protected bike-lane design north on Eighth Ave. from 14th St. to 23rd St. Laying the groundwork for that portion, in terms of community notification and approval, is well underway.

Community Board 4 — which represents Chelsea and Clinton — unanimously endorsed a letter supporting the project while highlighting some concerns. At a meeting on Dec. 3, the full board voted overwhelmingly in favor of the extension of the bike lane. Recent experience suggests there will be criticism of that portion as well.

“This is all a test,” Dutton said when asked about potential opposition to the planned extension. “We’re supposed to learn and change things as we go along.”

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