I’ve often been called a bike advocate and while I don’t mind it, it’s not accurate. My own advocacy focuses on finding a safe, smart balance for everyone who uses our public space, with priority given to the vulnerabilities and limitations of the human body. Alternatives to private car use are generally healthier and cheaper – and they keep the roadways clear for emergency vehicles and for buses. In turn this creates public space that’s less noxious and more conducive to neighborly and economic pursuits.
I generally support the biking community’s agenda, but the NYC Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) has emphasized bike lanes to the virtual exclusion of other livable streets goals.
In Greenpoint and Williamsburg, NYCDOT has laid down miles of bike lanes, making the bike network more robust and improving connections; however, NYCDOT hasn’t applied any of the crash and commuting data that have informed the bike plan to achieve other livable streets goals, like creating safe and enjoyable walking environments. It’s still difficult to negotiate many of our commercial streets because of problems like poor visibility at intersections, reckless driving, and unmanaged truck traffic. Known pedestrian safety problems on streets like Bushwick Avenue, Metropolitan Avenue, Broadway, Nassau Avenue, and McGuinness Boulevard have largely gone unattended by NYCDOT.
From my ever-evolving perspective, bike lanes are probably at their most useful in terms of message. They provide a visual alert to motorists that there’s another presence on the street. (I love large striped pedestrian crosswalks for this reason, too.) But NYCDOT’s bike lane project is suffering from a backlash to which both the administration and the cycling advocacy community seem resolutely oblivious. As bike lanes have proliferated in our community, and bike use has soared far ahead of our infrastructural preparedness, I’ve seen no change in terms of mainstream public attitude regarding the legitimacy of cycling as an important way of getting around – this, despite cycling’s numerous allures: it’s fare-free (the main expense is whatever calories you expend to power yourself along); space-conserving (bikes take up less space both on the road and in storage – a boon in a crowded city); and zero infrastructure stress (bikes don’t contribute to potholes, they don’t sideswipe trees and vehicles, and they don’t crush sidewalk curbs or crunch into low overpasses).
As bike use has spiked, bad cyclist behavior has become a huge issue at my Brooklyn community board’s meetings and at other forums. It’s true that a reckless cyclist will still generally cause less mayhem, damage and death than a reckless motorist – but it doesn’t excuse the fact that cyclists frequently don’t cede right of way to pedestrians, or behave in a way that’s appropriate to the street they’re traveling upon. These cyclists’ behavior is a lousy way to thank an administration that has finally done the right thing and acknowledged cycling as an important mode of transportation. Bad behavior keeps cycling on the fringe in terms of public opinion, instead of in the mainstream where it belongs.
[I must give props here to Transportation Alternatives’ Biking Rules cyclist education campaign. Cyclists are the best people to initiate this campaign, since they appreciate the hazards and challenges of biking on city streets, and can frame the need for universal respect in a way that’s appealing to their less responsible biking brethren. It would be fantastic if the City administration would spread the word about this important campaign, which has good-behavior implications for everyone – not just cyclists.]
In my observation, bike lanes themselves have also possibly contributed to maintaining cyclists’ second class citizen status on our streets. Bike lanes now seem to represent an unintended and perverse affirmation of the status quo: cyclists don’t belong, and drivers do – as evidenced by who gets how much square-foot entitlement to the street. In the absence of a bike lane, drivers are now even more vociferously territorial because they see the entire roadway as their own. Cyclists are supposed to use bike lanes if lanes are present, and drivers now interpret the absence of a bike lane as a message that bikes don’t belong there at all. Ironically, drivers feel validated in their belief that the roadway is really theirs, and remain comfortable viewing bike lanes as de facto bike ghettoes, from which cyclists must never emerge.
NYCDOT has pursued the low hanging fruit of progressive transportation advocacy without seeking to truly integrate biking into mainstream city life – people who don’t bike might more heartily welcome and encourage biking by others if they really understood the point of it all, and heard a clear message from this City administration about the need for more smartly sharing our public space. Instead, NYCDOT has given preferential treatment to cyclists, and has squandered an opportunity to educate everyone about sharing the road, apparently ignoring the need for pedestrians to feel equally important and considered. NYCDOT has not pursued a comprehensive real livable streets policy, which would also prioritize pedestrian safety and a pleasant walking environment on commercial corridors and popular routes to transit connections.
At this point, we don’t need more bike lanes. We need a vigorous livable streets policy that will manifest in better public-space sharing for everyone, not just one particular user.
A welcome start in my community would be to take seriously the pedestrian safety challenge at Nassau Avenue and McGuinness Boulevard – Greenpoint’s own Boulevard of Death. It’s Nassau Avenue’s turn for a full street reconstruction, and I saw that as an opportunity to ask for some designs which would prioritize pedestrian safety at Nassau & McGuinness. Pedestrian injuries and fatalities there have usually resulted from vehicle speeding on Nassau and McGuinness, but it’s also a challenge to cross McGuinness Boulevard’s intimidating width – particularly for senior citizens.
After a year of begging for pedestrian safety measures like curb extensions, Leading Pedestrian Intervals (LPIs), textured pavement, and other measures, the City’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC) recently and grudgingly designed two very small curb extensions for that intersection. Apparently the extensions are small because of the need to maintain easy clearance for turning vehicles (according to DDC reps). Could this “easy clearance” be a contributor to the difficulties faced by pedestrians here? Where’s NYCDOT’s “sustainable streets” stamp on this project? True, McGuinness Boulevard is a vital connection between Queens and Brooklyn, and to the BQE. Yet – don’t we as a city want to emphatically send a message that everyone deserves some of this space? Don’t we want to encourage drivers to slow down for pedestrians, instead of making it easier for them to whiz by?
NYCDOT’s attention to cyclists’ needs is surely belated and therefore welcome by many, but I can’t be happy until we have a real livable streets policy at work – one that mandates traffic calming measures in street reconstruction or repair projects, enhances pedestrian safety, enhances mass transit, and slows and greens heavily used commercial corridors and walking routes to schools, community centers, and transit stations.
In championing a bikes-first policy instead of a livable streets policy, NYCDOT has fanned the flames unnecessarily against biking and has continued to put human lives at risk on city streets. Every pro-bike effort has ultimately represented a missed opportunity for a livable streets program which, since it would encompass the interests of nearly every citizen, would be more popularly embraced than the biking mandate NYCDOT follows now.
A livable streets policy that addresses and integrates easier travel by all would be much more mainstream and acceptable, and therefore more immediately achievable. Until NYCDOT and the cycling advocacy community accept and understand this, policymakers are just spinning their wheels.