The Battle for the Streets of New York City

What was the song? “If you can do it here you can do it anywhere. New York New York”? Well there just may be something to that. Here is some of the latest on how the proponents of more and safer biking in New York City are using social media to gain support from the citizen base, while at the same time an irate lobby is doing its best to keep the streets as they were and, as they hope, ever shall be. Amen Sister. (BTW, this is by no means a unique conflict. It could be your city.)

Top Bloomberg Adviser Sets Record Straight on Local Support for Bike Lanes

by Ben Fried, Streetsblog. New York City on March 21, 2011

If you’re on the Twitter, you may have noticed that Howard Wolfson, a senior adviser and communications strategist for Mayor Bloomberg with a long resume in Democratic Party politics, has been tweeting up a #bikenyc storm lately. Wolfson’s bike tweets tend to focus on the lengthy record of public support for bike lanes — all the community board votes and public surveys that for some reason don’t get mentioned in the editorial pages of the Daily News or the Post.

The tweets come from Wolfson’s personal account, but given his position inside the mayor’s political circle, the bursts of text seem to hint that the administration’s support for Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan runs deeper than you would surmise if your only information came from, say, Michael Grynbaum stories.

This morning, with New York Magazine’s epic he-said/she-said on NYC bike policy making the rounds, Wolfson sent out a memo with more of an official imprimatur. Using “Office of the Mayor” letterhead [PDF] that should catch the attention of the city’s press and political class, he outlined the following case: Bike lanes are popular, supported by the public process, and a proven method to make streets safer.

He also includes a piece of data I haven’t come across before, which nicely encapsulates how illogical it is to claim that expanding the city’s bike infrastructure threatens pedestrian safety:

  • From 2001 through 2005, four pedestrians were killed in bike-pedestrian accidents. From 2006 through 2010, while cycling in the city doubled, three pedestrians were killed in bike-pedestrian accidents.

Shouldn’t this sort of information have made its way into Matt Shaer’s NY Mag piece, instead of bike lane crank Jack Brown comparing bike policy to terrorist attacks?

Here’s the full Wolfson memo:

MEMORANDUM

To: Interested Parties
From: Howard Wolfson
Subject: Bike Lanes
Date: March 21, 2011

In light of this week’s New York magazine article about bike lanes I thought you might find the below useful.

  • The majority of New Yorkers support bike lanes. According to the most recent Quinnipiac poll, 54 percent of New York City voters say more bike lanes are good “because it’s greener and healthier for people to ride their bicycles,” while 39 percent say bike lanes are bad “because it leaves less room for cars which increases traffic.”
  • Major bike lane installations have been approved by the local Community Board, including the bike lanes on Prospect Park West and Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn and on Columbus Avenue and Grand Street in Manhattan. In many cases, the project were specifically requested by the community board, including the four projects mentioned above.
  • Over the last four years, bike lane projects were presented to Community Boards at 94 public meetings. There have been over 40 individual committee and full community board votes and/or resolutions supporting bike projects.
  • Projects are constantly being changed post-installation, after the community provides input and data about the conditions on the street. For example:
    • The bike lane on Columbus Avenue was amended after installation to increase parking at the community’s request.
    • Bike lanes on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg and on Father Capodanno Blvd. in Staten Island were completely removed after listening to community input and making other network enhancements.
  • 255 miles of bike lanes have been added in the last four years. The City has 6,000 miles of streets.
  • Bike lanes improve safety. Though cycling in the city has more than doubled in the last four years, the number of fatal cycling crashes and serious injuries has declined due to the safer bike network.
  • When protected bike lanes are installed, injury crashes for all road users (drivers, pedestrians, cyclists), typically drop by 40 percent and by more than 50 percent in some locations.
  • From 2001 through 2005, four pedestrians were killed in bike-pedestrian accidents. From 2006 through 2010, while cycling in the city doubled, three pedestrians were killed in bike-pedestrian accidents.
  • 66 percent of the bike lanes installed have had no effects on parking or on the number of moving lanes.

# # #

About the author:

Howard Wolfson is a political consultant and has long been communications director for New York Senator Hillary Clinton’s election campaigns. He became coordinator of the strategic message of Senator Clinton’s campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

For more on Streetsblog, click here.

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8 thoughts on “The Battle for the Streets of New York City

  1. It’d be useful for “World Streets” to add a more global perspective on this issue.

    Certainly, Copenhagen or Amsterdam of today are nothing like they were 40 years ago in terms of the prevalence of biking and the existence of supportive infrastructure. Certainly those cities didn’t get to where they are without bumps along the way? Similarly, Portland in 2011 is not the same as it was in 1970ish when it started to develop its sustainable transportation and linked land use and transportation planning paradigm.

    Change is a process. It takes a long time. Resistance is to be expected.

    Since resistance is to be expected, it’s essential to take resistance into account when devising new programs. Therefore choosing the places most likely to be successful as the places to start with, etc. (In other words–lead from strength.)

    As an advocate and planner, what I find frustrating is when as a planner people ask me why can’t their community _today_ be like how Portland (or Copenhagen or Amsterdam) is today, without recognizing that it has taken 40 years for Portland to get where they are today.

    That doesn’t mean we need 40 years for other communities, because we can benefit from their experience. But as the opposition to bike infrastructure develops–and it happens everywhere, including in cities like Montreal and Portland, not to mention DC and NYC–we need to focus on the long view and we need to better develop our messages beforehand (e.g., the research by Roger Geller that shows upwards of 60% of the U.S. population would bicycle if they could do so safely–meaning protected bike lanes and other low traffic places).

    Advocates in NYC are lucky because they have strong political support. In most other cities other than Portland or Montreal, that isn’t the case, making it all the more important to lead from strength and a consistent message.

    Reply
  2. Battle of the Bike Lanes
    Posted by John Cassidy

    From the New Yorker of March 8, 2011. Great magazine, buy it at https://magazine.newyorker.com/ecom/subscribe.jsp?oppId=6500016&tgt=/atg/registry/RepositoryTargeters/NYR/NYR_global_headerCallout&placementId=6500083&logOppId=true&placementGroupId=

    At the risk of incurring the wrath of the bicycle lobby, a constituency that pursues its agenda with about as much modesty and humor as the Jacobins pursued theirs, and which has found its heroine in transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, I say hats off to Iris Weinshall, the former transportation commissioner (and wife of Senator Chuck Schumer), who, together with some like-minded citizens, has filed a lawsuit challenging a bike lane on Prospect Park West.

    Tuesday’s Times said the lawsuit, which was filed Monday in State Supreme Court, calls on the city to remove the controversial green tarmac, citing a state law that allows citizens to challenge arbitrary and unfair actions by the government. The lawsuit concerns just one stretch of road. If successful, however, it could open the way to a broader challenge to City Hall, which sometimes seems intent on turning New York into Amsterdam, or perhaps Beijing.

    I don’t have anything against bikes. As a student, I lived in the middle of Oxford, where cycling is the predominant mode of transport, and I cycled everywhere. Twenty-five years ago, when I moved to the East Village, I paid a guy on Second Avenue thirty dollars for a second-hand racing bike (probably stolen). Of a Sunday afternoon, hungover from the previous night’s carousing at neighborhood bars and clubs, I would pedal furiously up First Avenue, cross over to Park or Madison, continue up to Central Park and then race back down Fifth, all the way to Washington Square. In those days, there were few cyclists on the roads, and part of the thrill was avoiding cabs and other vehicles that would suddenly swing into your lane, apparently oblivious to your presence. When I got back to my apartment on East 12th Street, I was sometimes shaking.

    Today, of course, bicycling is almost universally regarded as a serious, eco-friendly mode of transport, and cyclists want it easy. From San Francisco to London, local governments are introducing bike lanes, bike parks, bike-rental schemes, and other policies designed to encourage two-wheel motion. Generally speaking, I don’t have a problem with this movement: indeed, I support it. But the way it has been implemented, particularly in New York, irks me to no end. I view the Bloomberg bike-lane policy as a classic case of regulatory capture by a small faddist minority intent on foisting its bipedalist views on a disinterested or actively reluctant populace.

    The bitter rant of an angry motorist? Perhaps. Since 1989, when I nervously edged out of the Ford showroom on Eleventh Avenue and 57th Street, the proud leaser of a sporty Thunderbird coupe, I have owned and driven six cars in the city, none of which could be classed as a fuel-economy vehicle: the Thunderbird, a Mercedes E190, an ancient Oldsmobile Delta 88 that could have done double duty as a paddle steamer on the Hudson, two Cadillac Sedan de Villes, and (my current heap) an old Jaguar XJ6.

    All of these vehicles I have used for work purposes and for domestic and leisure trips. Most of the time, I have parked them on the street, an urban custom the utility of which only becomes manifest when it is absent. Thanks to these four-wheel friends, I have discovered virtually every neighborhood of the city and its environs, and I would put my knowledge of New York’s geography and topography up against most native residents—cycling members of the Park Slope food co-op included. Today, with two young children who need ferrying hither and thither, I still drive all over town—and take great enjoyment out of it.

    Undoubtedly, during all those years, I should have been paying higher gas prices to cover the putative costs of cleaning up the carbon emissions I was creating, but that doesn’t diminish an important point: Americans love their cars for good reason. They are immensely useful and liberating contraptions.

    Part of my beef, then, is undoubtedly an emotional reaction to the bike lobby’s effort to poach on our territory. But from an economic perspective I also question whether the blanketing of the city with bike lanes—more than two hundred miles in the past three years—meets an objective cost-benefit criterion. Beyond a certain point, given the limited number of bicyclists in the city, the benefits of extra bike lanes must run into diminishing returns, and the costs to motorists (and pedestrians) of implementing the policies must increase. Have we reached that point? I would say so.

    A minor but not completely insignificant example. Like many New Yorkers who don’t live in Manhattan, one of my favorite pastimes is to drive from Brooklyn, where I live, into the city for dinner and find a parking space once the 7 A.M.-7 P.M. parking restrictions have lapsed. Years ago, this was a challenge, but a manageable one. These days, especially downtown, it is virtually impossible. When the city introduces a bike lane on a given street, it removes dozens of parking places. All too often these days, I find myself driving endlessly up and down Hudson, or Sixth Avenue, or wherever, looking in vain for a legal spot—and for cyclists. What I see instead is motor traffic snarled on avenues that, thanks to bike lanes, have been reduced from four lanes to three, or three to two. As of old, I sometimes almost run into a delivery boy riding the wrong way down the street, but even the delivery boys don’t seem to use the bike lanes for this purpose. (Perhaps they, too, are frightened of incurring the righteous rage of the helmeted.)

    Mayor Bloomberg, who plays Robespierre to Sadik-Khan’s Saint-Just, is forever claiming that, thanks to his enormously popular policies, bicycle usage has doubled, tripled, or quadrupled. Maybe that’s true in some places—there are a lot of bikers in Prospect Park these days, I grant you—but in Midtown? The Village? The East Side? I don’t see them. Even in Brooklyn, home to some of the most ardent bike activists, bike lanes have been overdone. Take Third Avenue* in Gowanus, a thoroughfare that abuts the sacred Slope but which is itself still largely a commercial route. When I drive up and down Third Avenue, as I do often, what I usually see are cars and trucks inching along in single file (it’s a two-way street) with an empty bike lane next to them. (On those rare occasions when I do happen across a cyclist, or two, he or she invariably runs the red lights.)

    So, by all means, let us have some bike lanes on heavily used and clearly defined routes to and from the city—and on popular biking routes within the city and the boroughs. But until and unless there is a referendum on the subject—or a much more expansive public debate, at least—it is time to call a halt to Sadik-Khan and her faceless road swipers.

    Just perhaps, in Weinshall, the unstoppable force has met an immovable object. As somebody who served in the very post Sadik-Khan holds for almost seven years (September 2000 to April 2007), Weinshall can hardly be described an as enemy of cyclists. During her tenure as transportation commissioner she oversaw a significant expansion of bike lanes, including routes to and from Brooklyn. But now, apparently, Weinshall has had enough. In her lawsuit, according to the Times, she is promising to expose the cozy relationship between officials and bike activists as well the dubious statistics that the city uses to justify its policies.

    Like many New Yorkers, I will be quietly cheering her on!

    *An earlier version of this post stated that a bike lane in Brooklyn was on Fourth Avenue rather than Third Avenue.

    UPDATE: Cassidy responds to critics in two parts.

    Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/johncassidy/2011/03/battle-of-the-bike-lanes-im-with-mrs-schumer.html#ixzz1HOyUvr3E

    Reply
  3. ‘I Was A Teenage Cyclist,’ or How Anti-Bike-Lane Arguments Echo the Tea Party’
    – By Adam Sternbergh

    - From the New York Times Magazine of March 23, 2011. Article at http://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/09/i-was-a-teenage-cyclist-or-how-anti-bike-lane-arguments-echo-the-tea-party/. Great magazine, buy it at https://myaccount.nytimes.com/register.

    If you’re itching to write an anti-bike-lane argument (and, if so, line up, because it’s a burgeoning literary genre), you could do no better than to follow the template laid out yesterday by The New Yorker’s John Cassidy in his blog post, “Battle of the Bike Lanes.”

    Cassidy’s post — which has already been called “a seminal document of New York City’s bike lane backlash era” — helpfully includes all the requisite rhetorical tactics, thus providing an excellent blueprint. (You might even say “boilerplate.”) These include:

    Pre-emptive self-exoneration: “I don’t have anything against bikes.”

    Invocation of humorlessness of cycling advocates, preferably with ironic comparison to homicidal political faction: “the bicycle lobby … pursues its agenda with about as much modesty and humor as the Jacobins pursued theirs.”

    Reference to ominous encroachment of cycling-based anti-Americanism: “City Hall … sometimes seems intent on turning New York into Amsterdam, or perhaps Beijing.” (You know, Beijing: where the communists live!)

    Invocation of personal cycling bona fides: “As a student, I lived in the middle of Oxford, where cycling is the predominant mode of transport, and I cycled everywhere.”

    Fond nostalgia for pre-lane New York City cycling perils, coupled with implied dismissal of today’s namby-pamby cyclists: “In those days … part of the thrill was avoiding cabs and other vehicles. … When I got back to my apartment on East 12th Street, I was sometimes shaking.”

    Oddly self-contradictory declaration of support: “Generally speaking, I don’t have a problem with this movement; indeed, I support it.”

    Invocation of meddling government apparatchiks: “A classic case of regulatory capture by a small faddish minority.”

    Invocation of America’s long, sun-dappled love affair with cars: “Since 1989, when I nervously edged out of the Ford showroom on 11th Avenue and 57th Street, the proud leaser of a sporty Thunderbird coupe, I have owned and driven six cars in the city.”

    Invocation of obviously repellent stereotype: “I would put my knowledge of New York’s geography and topography up against most native residents’ — cycling members of the Park Slope food co-op included.” (To be fair, if you’ve ever been to the Park Slope food co-op, you know how its members are always prattling on about their topographical expertise.)

    Brief feint toward fact-based argument, unencumbered by actual facts: “From an economic perspective I also question whether the blanketing of the city with bike lanes … meets an objective cost-benefit criterion. … Beyond a certain point … the benefits of extra bike lanes must run into diminishing returns.” (Yes. They must. But when? At what point? Sorry — no time! Moving on!)

    Followed by quick return to actual motivation: “Like many New Yorkers who don’t live in Manhattan, one of my favorite pastimes is to drive from Brooklyn … into the city for dinner to find a parking space once the 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. parking restrictions have lapsed. … These days, [this] is virtually impossible.” (A lack of parking spaces naturally serving as evidence of too many bike lanes, not too many parked cars.)

    Invocation of damnable scofflaw cyclists: “On those rare occasions when I do happen across a cyclist, or two, he or she invariably runs the red lights.” (On a related note, I personally witnessed three hit-and-run accidents outside my old apartment at Atlantic Ave. and 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn. I logically determined that drivers invariably get into accidents, and thus launched my campaign for the eradication of city streets.)

    One last invocation of overreaching City Hall bureaucrats, for good measure: “[I]t is time to call a halt to Sadik-Kahn and her faceless road swipers.”

    See? It’s easy. Or, if this all seems too strenuous or, you know, long-winded, you can simply reduce your argument to its four essential words: “I have been inconvenienced.”

    As an occasional cycling commuter, I’m always struck (no pun intended) by the extent to which arguments like Cassidy’s mirror the rhetorical tactics of the Tea Party. (No small accusation, I understand.) For example: The appeal to an imagined golden age of yesteryear (gamely dodging cabs; Thunderbird coupes); the specter of bureaucracy run amok (the scourge of the faceless road swipers); reliance on dismissive shorthand (Park Slope co-op members); and, most strikingly, warnings of a creeping, foreign-based anti-Americanism that’s plainly contrary to our core values (They Came on Bikes From Beijing).

    These parallel lines of reasoning were finally entangled last year in the gubernatorial campaign of the Colorado Republican Dan Maes, who warned that the pro-bike policies of his opponent, Mayor John Hickenlooper of Denver, were turning that city “into a United Nations community,” adding ominously, “This is bigger than it looks on the surface, and it could threaten our personal freedoms.” (Maes eventually lost the race for governor to Hickenlooper by a margin of 51 percent to 11 percent.)

    All of which is to note: The discussion over cycling policy in New York has now taken on the tone (on both sides, sadly) of our culture wars: passion first, reason later (or, in most cases, never).

    So in a spirit of understanding, I encourage you to read Cassidy’s article in full. You can also read these two (relatively) measured and enjoyable rebuttals, as well this well-balanced look at the bike-lane controversies in Brooklyn.

    And, if you’re interested in facts — yes! facts! — I would also point you toward this excellent long-form piece on cycling commuting by Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book “Traffic.” Here are two interesting statistics he mentions: 1) Portland, Ore., the American city with arguably the most progressive cycling policy, had exactly zero cycling traffic fatalities in 2010. (New York had 18.) And 2) closer to home, Vanderbilt points out that, since the implementation of New York’s Ninth Avenue dedicated bike lane, pedestrian injuries have gone down by 29 percent. That’s not accidents between bikes and people; that’s between cars and people.

    These facts are interesting to contemplate. Or, failing that, there’s always: Road-swipers! Thunderbirds!! COMMUNISTS!!!

    Reply
  4. The world is his parking spot

    - From the Economist of March 9th 2011. Article at http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2011/03/tragedies_commons
    First rate magazine, subscribe at https://www.economistsubscriptions.com/ecom503eur/global/index.php?off2on_login_url=/banners&off2on_code=QY7H

    I HAVE to say, I almost feel bad for the New Yorker’s John Cassidy, who is currently being skewered by much of the blogosphere for writing a profoundly wrongheaded blog post bashing New York City’s bike lanes. But it really is a doozy of a misstep. A brief summary: Mr Cassidy is unhappy with the exuberance with which New York has added bike lanes in recent years. He enjoys the use of his car and finds it convenient, and all those bike lanes are occupying space that used to be dedicated to free on-street parking. And that stinks!

    Let me quote just one bit:

    Part of my beef, then, is undoubtedly an emotional reaction to the bike lobby’s effort to poach on our territory. But from an economic perspective I also question whether the blanketing of the city with bike lanes—more than two hundred miles in the past three years—meets an objective cost-benefit criterion. Beyond a certain point, given the limited number of bicyclists in the city, the benefits of extra bike lanes must run into diminishing returns, and the costs to motorists (and pedestrians) of implementing the policies must increase. Have we reached that point? I would say so.

    This is where I stopped feeling bad for him: the part where he claims to take an economic perspective. I hate to belabour the point, but driving, as it turns out, is associated with a number of negative externalities (Mr Cassidy, being an economics writer, will know the term). When Mr Cassidy drives, he imposes a small congestion cost on those around him, drivers and cyclists included. Because he and others do not consider this cost, they overuse the roads, creating traffic. Mayor Michael Bloomberg had hoped to address this problem by adopting a congestion pricing programme in Manhattan, but he was unable to generate the necessary support. As a result, there are too many cars on New York’s streets. From an economic perspective.

    Cars also release several harmful pollutants. Ozone is produced when vehicle exhaust reacts with sunlight, and breathing of ozone “irritates the respiratory tract and causes health problems like asthma attacks, coughing, wheezing, chest pain and even premature death”. The problem is particularly acute in big cities in the summertime. Cars also emit carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change (an issue of some concern to a city composed primarily of a series of islands). Interestingly, New York City’s per capita transportation emissions are remarkably low among American cities, largely because it has the lowest share of commuters in personal automobiles of any large American city. It would be possible to account for these pollution externalities, to some extent at least, by taxing them. But at the moment, fuel taxes are too low to cover road maintenance, to say nothing of the costs of automobile pollution. As a result, there are too many cars on New York’s streets. From an economic perspective.

    And of course, surface parking in Manhattan takes up some of the world’s most valuable real estate. Mr Cassidy complains that it used to be easy for him to find free on-street parking in Manhattan during the dinner hour but isn’t any longer. To give away valuable parking spaces for free is hugely inefficient. It encourages too many people to drive, and it encourages people to stay in free spots longer than the welfare-maximising amount of time. Economist Donald Shoup has written quite a famous book on this topic; I’m surprised Mr Cassidy isn’t familiar with it. Mr Shoup explains that in addition to inefficient use of space, free parking encourages drivers to circle as they wait for a new spot to open, thereby adding to the congestion problem. And indeed, Mr Cassidy explains that he does just this, heedless of his impact on the traffic around him. To the extent that New York City still has free on-street parking, there are too many cars on New York’s streets (from an economic perspective). Giving free spaces over to bike lanes helps rectify this situation.

    Now, if drivers paid for all the costs they impose on others, then it might be worth asking what the optimal level of bike lanes to have is and discussing whether the lanes themselves are subject to rising congestion and need to be priced. Of course, if drivers paid for all the costs they impose on others, there would be fewer drivers complaining about bike lanes and more people using them. As things stand, given that cyclists help alleviate some of these externalities (a cyclist takes up dramatically less road space than a car, doesn’t use on-street parking, does not emit ozone, and does not contribute to climate change) it seems quite sensible to allocate a larger share of New York’s roadways to lanes for cyclists. From an economic perspective.

    Reply

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