Conjure an image of the safest place to bike in New York City. It’s tempting to imagine it as a place like lower-density Bay Ridge, a distant-enough-to-feel-suburban enclave of Brooklyn known for its small-town feel and spacious yet affordable single-family homes.
Follow that thought for another second, however, and you will realize why that isn’t the case: Single-family homes tend to come with driveways and garages, which mean one thing — cars.
Compare this to Manhattan, where dwellings typically stack high in the sky and have room for a bike, but not a car. Given the difference in lifestyle, its no huge surprise that these outer- outer-borough communities are home to drivers who prioritize parking over pedaling. While 66 percent of Manhattan residents back bike lanes, majorities of residents in Staten Island (61 percent) and Queens (53 percent) say they do not want to see more of the paths, which, they argue, take needed road room away from cars.
The disparity in opinion between people in the outer edges of the city and those in its denser core was highlighted in an online exchange on the website of the New York Daily News in August. When cycling advocates weighed in during an online chat about a letter printed in the newspaper expressing fear that bikers were making streets more dangerous, a member of the paper’s editorial board snapped back.
“Our letter-writers are ordinary New Yorkers who live and work here, especially in the outer boroughs,” Alex Nazaryan, the editorial board member, told the advocates. “You discount their opinions at your own peril.”
On the isle of Staten, opponents have managed to kill bike lane plans. Even in progressive hamlets like Park Slope, the issue has exposed rifts, pitting car protectionists against a vocal bloc of bike devotees. Last year, a fierce fight over a two-way bike lane along Prospect Park West found the city and bike activists facing off against a group of opponents headed by a former transportation commissioner.
Last spring, opposition from Bay Ridge’s appointed advisory board, Community Board 10, killed a New York City Department of Transportation plan for a bike lane along Bay Ridge Parkway, which cuts across southern Brooklyn from Bay Ridge to Bensonhurst. Only one of the 10 people on the Community Board’s Transportation Committee spoke out in favor of the idea.
“There’s always a lot of talking, but not much getting done on the bike lane front,” said Bob HuDock, the lone voice of support. “It’s going to be a long struggle.”
The inaction comes with a cost. Between 2000 and 2009, motor vehicles in Community Board 10 injured 1,449 pedestrians and 293 cyclists, making the district one of the more dangerous places to walk or bike in the city, according to data compiled by Transportation Alternatives. Traffic crashes killed 22 pedestrians and two cyclists in the district over the same period.
Transportation Alternatives volunteer Gene Aronowitz hopes that the community board will take a comprehensive look at options for makings streets safer for non-drivers and reconsider the opposition to bike lanes.
“Right now, people are locked in,” he said. “It’s too bad.”
Alan Bortnick is one of those people. As Bortnick sees it, the city’s efforts to encourage cycling and other alternatives to automobiles defy reality. “This is not Holland,” said Bortnick. “Bicycles are wonderful. For New York City, they’re terrible.”
Bortnick, who serves on the community board with HuDock, says he has no problem with putting bike lanes on one-way residential streets. But he opposes putting them on major arteries such as Bay Ridge Parkway, where he says the proposed lane would have reduced room for cars and slowed travel in both directions. “I would give you bike lanes anywhere you want them, but not on traffic thoroughfares,” said Bortnick. “And I would not allow you to reduce parking or to move cars off the curb.”
Bike lane supporters in Bay Ridge see some hope for cycling along 86th Street, a four-lane, east-west thoroughfare that ranks among the top 12 percent of the city’s most dangerous corridors for pedestrians, according to the Transportation Department.
There, the city has proposed a series of traffic-calming changes, including removing one travel lane in each direction. In March, the community board postponed a vote on the plan to give the district’s councilmember and the city time to negotiate changes in response to the board’s concerns.
“All the people who lived at the end of the street were adamant they didn’t want to give up a driving lane, which is the typical response you get here for everything,” HuDock recalled.
HuDock says bike lanes will come to the area once known as Yellow Hook as more young people priced out of denser, bike-happy parts of the city discover its quiet streets. “The new people want dry cleaners, delis and a wine shop,” he said. “It’s not a leap to expect they’ll want bike lanes, too.”
To be sure, the zeitgeist is shining on cycling, which the Bloomberg administration sees as essential to a greener, more livable city and a lifeline for a congested metropolis.
Since 2007, the city has added 270 miles of on-street bike lanes throughout the five boroughs. In all, New York now has a total of 720 miles of bike paths, including 520 miles of on-street lanes, as well as park paths and greenways, the waterfront paths for cycling, rollerblading, running and walking. (By comparison, Philadelphia has a little more than 200 miles of on-street bicycle lanes and 50 miles of bike trails)
The investment in infrastructure has netted converts. Over the past five years, the number of New Yorkers who commute to work by bicycle has climbed from just over 9,300 daily bike commuters to more than 18,800 today, according to the Transportation Department.
And to make that all smoother, now in the works is a bike-share program that will deploy 10,000 rental bikes at 600 stations throughout Manhattan, northwest Brooklyn and parts of Long Island City and Staten Island. The commuter-cycling program will have more than twice as many bicycles at launch than the combined total of current bike-share programs in Boston, Denver, Miami, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. “Bike sharing will create a boost-up and public profile for cycling,” said Jon Orcutt,
a policy director with the Transportation Department’s policy director, who is supervising the program for the city.
The public seems to agree. Nearly 60 percent of New Yorkers approve of bike lanes, and more than 70 percent back bike-share, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released in October.
But again, support for cycling infrastructure varies by borough and density. The city’s most suburban borough — Staten Island — is the only borough where a majority of people say they don’t want their neighborhood to have a bike-share station, according to the Quinnipiac poll.
And those people will continue to have the right to weigh in. After last year’s fracas over various bike lane plans, Mayor Michael Bloomberg passed a law that requires the Transportation Department to notify community boards before installing or removing bike lanes. The notification is intended to give the boards a voice in the process.
Transportation Alternatives, for one, is optimistic that more participation will lead to more bike lanes. Even in Bay Ridge.
“Whether New York City voters own cars or not, three out of four support bike lanes and pedestrian islands to reduce traffic deaths,” said Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, pointing to a poll his group released in December. “Change is hard, but our surveying has found that nearly everyone supports safety.”