It's Not About the Bike Lanes

n the morning of Thursday, October 21st, 2010, Transportation Alternatives’ Executive Director Paul Steely White pedaled a three-wheeled cargo bike down the Prospect Park West bike lane. His wife Zoe and daughter Anna were perched on a bench in the contraption’s large front box, cheering and clapping at first, and then slinking down in their seats as a chorus of boos and chants echoed around them.

There were dueling rallies that day: one was a celebration put together by the lane’s proponents; the other a smaller protest in opposition to the facility.

“I love that kind of stuff,” White recently told Reclaim. “I grew up with it: civic engagement at its finest, but that day was different.”

When they reached the end of the lane, it was clear that the shouting had frightened Anna, who was only two years old at the time. Zoe took her home. Paul stayed.

“After that, I was conflicted,” he said. “Not about the bike lane—I love that lane, and it’s a huge boon to the neighborhood, and it’s wildly popular—but about what bike lanes had become.”

ince Mayor Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan began green-lighting high-profile bike projects in 2007, New Yorkers have protested, insulted, celebrated and denigrated a couple hundred miles of cycle lanes like they were a road to liberation or oppression, depending on who you ask. But the sum of all that paint and asphalt—the lanes themselves—are just a piece of a larger and hugely admired effort to make neighborhoods all around the city safer and more equitable.

In the coming months, safe-streets advocates, neighborhood activists and concerned New Yorkers around the city are going to have to help make that case for an incoming mayor and as many as two-dozen new City Council members. These decision makers need to know that livable streets improvements like Safe Routes to School, Safe Routes for Seniors, Play Streets, Slow Zones, pedestrian plazas, dedicated bus lanes, re-timed traffic signals, wider sidewalks and dozens more initiatives big and small have helped New York City’s much ballyhooed bike lanes work better, and even outperformed them by some measures, while getting almost no notice at all.

That’s a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, these livable streets improvements have helped change the texture of our streets for the better, without generating the kind of attention that bike lanes seem to draw. On the other, their scant coverage means that too few people understand just how significant these changes really are, and how precisely they fit into the larger safe-streets network that has taken hold in the past couple years.

n neighborhoods around the city, progressive urban infrastructure projects that either complement bike lanes or stand on their own are returning huge gains in terms of safety, economic impacts, overall travel times and quality of life.

In the Bronx, a neighborhood traffic-calming project installed on 180th Street has led to a 67 percent decrease in pedestrian crashes and a 30 percent decrease in the incidence of speeding, according to a new DOT report. The undertaking there—one of a dozen similar upgrades around the city—involved the installation of a painted median, a dedicated left-turn bay and wider parking lanes that have given community residents who walk a little more safe space and drivers slightly narrower lanes that significantly reduce the tendency to drive too fast.

A new pedestrian plaza on Pearl Street in Brooklyn boosted local retail sales a whopping 172 percent. A related project at the north end of Union Square led to 49 percent fewer commercial vacancies in that area when compared to the borough-wide rate.

And then there are the bus improvements: On Fordham Road in the Bronx, dedicated curbside bus lanes and signal prioritization have helped increase travel speeds by 20 percent, boost bus ridership by ten percent and swell retails sales at locally-based businesses by 71 percent. That project has proven so successful that the City installed similar enhancements along First and Second avenues in Manhattan and Hylan Boulevard on Staten Island.

Bike lanes are also part of the picture and their benefits extend far past the two-wheeled realm. The protected lanes that the City has installed in recent years make room for pedestrians, organize traffic flow and reduce intersection-crossing distances. The lane on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan decreased injuries to all street users—pedestrians, cyclists and motorists—by 58 percent, while boosting local retail sales and structuring travel patterns.

treets are not separate entities. Like the people who travel them, they’re part of a much broader network, and smart improvements in one realm can often generate positive repercussions with broad consequences. The DOT’s new Neighborhood Slow Zone program is a perfect example. Although each of the slow zones—which encourage a 20 mph speed limit through signage, street treatments and speed bumps—is smaller than one square mile, their impact extends well beyond their boundaries by providing a safe space for residents and visitors in adjacent communities, a speed check for passing motorists and safe passage for bikers in the area. Caroline Samponaro, Transportation Alternatives’ Senior Director for Campaigns and Organizing, told Reclaim, “A city filled with slow zones would be heaven for cyclists.”

These progressive infrastructure programs aren’t just effective; they’re also incredibly popular. Sure, a recent New York Times poll put the favorability rating of bike lanes at more than 60 percent, but the demand for their installation isn’t outpacing the DOT’s ability to build them tenfold. That’s the current status of the Neighborhood Slow Zone program. Community activists, parents and even a handful of politicians are chomping at the bit.

Cliff Stanton, who is campaigning to represent City Council District 11, recently issued a press release declaring his support for the installation of a slow zone in the Norwood section of the Bronx. “It is evident that the residential streets of Norwood urgently need traffic calming measures,” he said. “We must demand a livable city.”

That’s a good omen, but it’s not enough. There are too many people who fail to see how a livable city isn’t as simple as a snap of the fingers. Instead, it’s the result of a series of small, strategic changes. If New Yorkers really want safer and more productive streets, they’re going to have to make sure that message is heard by whoever ends up with the keys to Gracie Mansion and a vote at City Hall.

eighborhood has been the buzzword so far this election cycle. It found its way into Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s first speech as an official mayoral candidate and appeared a number of times in New York magazine’s recent profile of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is also seeking the city’s top office.

“Government must focus on the needs of families, must be the protector of neighborhoods and must guard the people from the enormous power of moneyed interests,” de Blasio said from the steps of his house in Park Slope.

Quinn declared that she wants the city to be “a network of neighborhoods” under her mayoralty.

If those sentiments are taken at face value, it stands to reason that the Department of Transportation’s so-far-unsung efforts to improve safety and mobility on the community level ought to see huge gains in the coming years.

Nothing is more neighborhood-oriented than human-scale transportation solutions that make it easier and safer for kids to walk to school or senior citizens to remain mobile, active and empowered long into their lives. Pedestrian plazas and wide sidewalks make social spaces that allow groups of old friends to get together and new ones to meet. Better bus service increases connectivity and local commerce. And all of these—along with the slim ribbons of asphalt and paint called bike lanes—are good news for neighborhood economies, neighborhood residents and neighborhood sustainability.

The transformation of New York City’s streets is not about the bike lanes. It’s about neighborhoods and New Yorkers. It’s about the city adapting to more people, new research, changing economic patterns and the interests of long-time inhabitants, as well as the ones who’ve just arrived. Around the world and on New York City’s streets, small, smart and creative infrastructure improvements are making that happen. It’s not about the bike lanes, but about solutions that bike lanes and myriad other livable streets innovations are helping to create.

“Over the years, I’ve realized that for some of those angry protesters, bike lanes meant change,” White said. “And, yes, that’s true, but bike lanes also mean all these other things: they mean safe streets and slow zones and thriving neighborhoods. Like any ecosystem, they’re all connected. I can’t imagine a New Yorker that doesn’t want safer streets, and I don’t want to live in a city that’d turn its back on simple ways to achieve that goal.”