Seattle isn't alone in its bike-lane bickering

New York City's new bike lanes have increased ridership, reduced injuries, and helped street-level retail. So what's behind a backlash against the program and its leader?

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New York's bike lanes put Seattle 'sharrows' to shame, but they aren't universally loved.

New York City's new bike lanes have increased ridership, reduced injuries, and helped street-level retail. So what's behind a backlash against the program and its leader?

If 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 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 that was quite literally stuck in gridlock and still pursuing 1950s-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 100-year low. The number of people using bicycles for transportation is skyrocketing, growing by about 25 percent per year. Travel times on Select Bus Routes like Fordham Road have been cut by 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. Sen. 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 and 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 Sadik-Khan in The New York Times last Sunday (March 6).

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 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.

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