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Street Fight: What’s Behind New York City’s Bike Lane Backlash?

Aaron Naparstek / Mar 07 2011

For Release Monday, March 7, 2011
Citiwire.net

Aaron NaparstekIf you haven’t visited New York City in a few years, you might be surprised at how much the city’s streets have changed.

In Times Square, a five block stretch of Broadway is now a pedestrian-only zone packed with people lounging at tables in the middle of what was once a gridlocked street. Public plazas similar to the ones in Times Square are popping up across all across the five boroughs.

On Ninth Avenue in Lower Manhattan, the parked cars have been pushed away from the curb to make room for a bike path physically separated from traffic. Bike commuters now have safe passage on a street that once looked and felt like a four-lane highway. Since 2009, 200 miles of new bike lanes, including a number of separated bike paths, have been laid down throughout the city.

Meanwhile, up in the Bronx, Fordham Road has been redesigned to make way for the city’s new Select Bus Service. Crimson-colored dedicated bus lanes, off-board fare collection and automated traffic signals keep buses moving fast and running on-time. As New Yorkers continue their 80-year wait for construction of the Second Avenue Subway, Select Bus Service is also now up and running along Manhattan’s east side and planned for a number of other busy corridors.

Mean streets? Not so much.

These are Sustainable Streets and that is the title of the strategic plan put forward by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan. In 2007 she took over a transportation agency was quite literally stuck in gridlock and still pursuing 1950′s-era traffic engineering policies aimed at maximizing the city’s capacity to accommodate motor vehicles.

Four years on, and the results of Sadik-Khan’s strategy are becoming clear: Traffic injuries and fatalities are at a one hundred year low. The number of people using bicycles for transportation is sky-rocketing, growing at a rate of about 25 percent per year. Travel times on Select Bus Routes like Fordham Road have been cut nearly 20 percent.

Economic benefits are starting to show as well. Throughout the economic collapse of 2008 and 2009, street level retail remained surprisingly strong in Times Square and the Meatpacking District, two of the neighborhoods where DOT undertook major redesigns. New York City is getting lots of bang-for-the-buck with these projects. The budget for the entire bike program from 2007 to 2011 cost about as much as this month’s emergency pothole blitz.

And yet, despite the low price, the successful results, and surveys showing that DOT’s projects are mostly popular, the Sustainable Streets agenda, and the woman who authored it, are under attack.

The front line of the battle is Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West where a new two-way separated bike path has riled a handful of wealthy and politically potent opponents including U.S. Senator Charles Schumer and his wife Iris Weinshall, who live on the street.

Weinshall, who also happens to be Sadik-Khan’s predecessor as transportation commissioner, has organized a group with the mildly Orwellian moniker, Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes. Headquartered in the penthouse of one of most exclusive buildings in Brooklyn, NBBL has brought high-level political firepower into what would typically be a neighborhood-level issue.

NBBL press releases receive breathless coverage from Marcia Kramer, the chief political correspondent at CBS Channel 2. And Jim Walden, an attorney at the corporate litigation and lobbying firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, who was on Chuck Schumer’s short-list for a U.S. Attorney appointment, has taken on NBBL’s case pro bono (or, as some like to say, “pro Chucko”). Walden is threatening to sue the city to remove the Prospect Park West bike lane.

Once the sleepy realm of policy wonks, urban planners and academics, New York City transportation is suddenly the hottest political issue in town.

The tabloids smell blood. Seeming to take the view that bike lanes, public plazas are for hippies and first-class bus service is of no interest to “real New Yorkers,” New York Post columnists now regularly refer to the DOT commissioner as “the psycho bike lady.” They call the new Times Square a “petting zoo” for tourists. And they are blasting a sensible plan to turn dysfunctional 34th Street into a crosstown river-to-river Transitway as “insane.”

Anthony Weiner, the feisty progressive Congressman and an early frontrunner in the 2013 mayoral race, told Mayor Bloomberg that when he becomes mayor he is “going to have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes.” The Weiner quote was the lede in a notably vicious profile of Janette Sadik-Khan in last week’s Sunday’s New York Times.

Despite the attacks, surveys by independent sources continue to show that Sustainable Streets projects are popular. A 2009 poll by Quinnipiac College showed that New York City voters approved of the new design for Times Square by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. A 2010 survey by Brooklyn City Council member Brad Lander showed that the supposedly “controversial” Prospect Park West redesign enjoys 78 percent approval. You never would have known that if you only read the New York Post.

So, what’s going on here? What is it about a program to make New York a better city for transit, walking and biking that so inflames the city’s political class?

To answer this question, one must look at how the political class gets around town. Politicians, press, police and other privileged members of the political class all very often have one thing in common: An official parking placard on the dashboard of their personal vehicles.

The majority of New York City households don’t even own a car and the vast majority of New York City commuters do not drive. But for New York City’s political class, transportation is a problem to be solved for cars.

A 2006 study by Bruce Schaller found that New York City would earn $46 million per year in additional parking revenue if all of the on-street parking in Lower Manhattan occupied by placarded vehicles were paid for at prevailing parking meter rates. Such a large enough number of government employees drive to work each day that, if they stopped, traffic congestion on the East River bridges would be noticeably reduced.

Space is the ultimate commodity in crowded New York City and a parking placard is the ultimate entitlement of the political class. If you have free parking you can drive. And while every bike commuter is one less car on the road and one more seat available on the subway, many drivers seem to believe that every new bike lane, public plaza and dedicated busway does nothing except take street space away from motorists.

These are the people whom Janette Sadik-Khan has angered and now she is paying the price. If the long-term sustainability of New York City and a safer, more efficient, affordable and functional street system is collateral damage in the attack, who cares? Certainly not the folks with the parking placards on their dashboards.


For additional coverage on the New York transportation story, from “Re mapping debate” — check http://www.remappingdebate.org/article/copenhagen-comes-new-york

Naparstek, a masters degree graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is the founder of Streetsblog.org and a co-founder of the Park Slope Neighbors community group in Brooklyn.

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14 Comments

  1. Posted March 7, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Aaron is absolutely correct. Hard as it should be to believe, some privileged New Yorkers live in their cars, especially the politically connected. One would think that the former DOT Commissioner and her U.S. Senator husband AND Brooklyn Borough President should know better. Janette has done a stupendous, quite miraculous job.

  2. raquel
    Posted March 7, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    This “refusal” to change reminds me of the controversy and uprise that the modern architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright created at the time of construction of the Guggenheim Museum. Jan Gehl the Urban Designer behind the NY Bike Lane Plan said that it takes 2 actions to transform a city, the formal through infrastructure and the mind and behaviour change. And that both have to go hand on hand – a sort of urban re education. New York has gone the right way and it should be supported both by the citizens and the political forces.

  3. Posted March 7, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Good post. Michael Grynbaum at The NYTimes has an article up about it as well.

  4. Lizbon
    Posted March 7, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    A simple explanation with the weight of reality (not to mention ring of truth) behind it. And Raquel’s comment reminds me of what I was thinking on my (bicycle) commute to work this morning: the DOT under JSK is the difficult task of trying to implement bicycle-friendly infrastructure in a bicycle-hostile culture. The infrastructure doesn’t work as well as it should because the city’s drivers and pedestrians don’t respect it. Ever try to ride in a bike lane that’s clogged with parked cars (many of them police) and cabs and pedestrians? Not exactly the “safe passage” it’s designed to be.

  5. Posted March 8, 2011 at 2:10 am | Permalink

    Very nice Aaron. A reminder that one of the missing elements in many US cities is continuity of public policy. Another is consistency. That the good work of Janette and her team is coming under vicious attack is not surprising. As Enrique Peñalosa put it once some years back: The (the auto lobby) as supposed to scream”. So part of the job of the politics of transportation is anticipating and dealing with just that. I hope that you will continue to pit bull in on these issues and the cagy beneficiaries of the status quo. It has to be said again and again. And you are the man for the job. Eric Britton

  6. Brooklynite
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    The best evidence for Aaron’s thesis is provided by my neighbor and Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz — who routinely uses his official NYC vehicle (a black SUV, w/city-employed driver, of course) to run his personal errands, including picking up dry-cleaning around the block from where he lives. Given his total reliance on his city-provided vehicle, it’s no wonder that Marty opposed the Prospect Park bike lane and other bicycling initiatives.

  7. Paul
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    New York City Councilmember Dan Garodnick introduced a bill that would curb the rampant use of fraudulent placards, which according to an upcoming T.A. report, number in the tens of thousands citywide. By introducing simple technology onto the placard itself, illicit use could be significantly curbed and enforcement of both legit and illicit placards could be made much more efficient. Sure, your average senator or news crew is still going to drive, but you have to start somewhere! Great article Aaron.

  8. Posted March 10, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    On this route, I cannot tell you how many times on thisvehicles have passed me going well over 50mph, and the site of little kids hopping up and down eager to get to the park.

    This is not about bikes; it is about rational use of city streets full of people. Prospect Park West was nothing more than a race to the next red light. No it isn’t. This should be about making a grand old park just a little bit bigger. The only real complaint should be about the nauseating green chosen to mark the city’s bike lane.

  9. Marc Brenman
    Posted March 14, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Dedicated bike lanes take up a lot of valuable space, for very few riders.

  10. Charlie McCorkell
    Posted March 14, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Old ideas vs new ideas. I think Weisenthal, Stiesel et al may find their names written in infamy – especially if they win. Oil can’t last forever and as the city’s population grows there is no new street space to allow more people to drive their cars when they please.

  11. Big K
    Posted March 16, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Don’t mess with Naparstek!

  12. Thomas Everson
    Posted March 17, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Marc Brenman: how much “valuable space” is taken up by single-occupant drivers, (usually stuck in traffic)? Auto-centric transit is not sustainable.

  13. Ieva Zadina
    Posted March 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I live just off Prospect Park West. The bike lane has added extra peacefulness. It’s wonderful to see bikers, especially parents with children, looking relaxed and happy. The car traffic is slower, i.e. within legal limits, and bunches up only slightly at street lights, mostly at rush hour. Regarding “wasted space,” the number of bikers will grow. Possibly what troubles many people clinging to the wasteful past is that bike lanes and public transportation projects are a harbinger of the future, when sustainability will be forced upon us by more extreme scarcity. The tragedies in Japan remind us to lose no more time appeasing an angry Mother Nature.

  14. Posted March 24, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Our love affair with the single-occupant motor vehicle is simply not sustainable. Therefore, continuing to dedicate so much public space to driving and storing cars, especially in a city like New York where driving is so inefficient and expensive, is indefensible.

    The backlash from the privileged, trying to maintain their perks (an excellent example of their selfishness can be found in John Cassidy’s New Yorker rants) comes at the expense of a city trying to change our transportation paradigm in a sane, measured pace rather than in a panic when events overtake our ability to respond to them. I’m old enough to remember what Long Island looked like during the oil panic of 1979. The next one will be even less pretty.

    While I am not a great fan of all of the bike facility designs being implemented in NYC or elsewhere, I do think we need to get outside our comfort zone and initiate transportation modes that do not rely on ever diminishing supplies of fossil fuels and which furthermore, have eroded the livability of our cities. Doing so will of course mean re-allocating space and resources away from our cherished automobiles and towards a more balanced and sustainable transportation system. The bicycle, which provides individual mobility while getting the energy equivalent of approximately 900 miles per gallon, should be part of that change.