By Brian Ries
As a representative for the Hasidic community, Isaac Abraham went as a sheep into the lion's den last night at Pete's Candy Store in Williamsburg, where Open City Dialogues hosted a debate on the contentious Bedford Avenue bike lane -- a lane that's cost both sides $26,000 of taxpayer money so far.
Hasidic bike enthusiast Baruch Herzfeld moderated panelists that included Transportation Alternatives' Caroline Samponaro, Bike messenger Heather Loop (the topless protester), and Satmar representative and City Council Candidate Isaac Abraham, as they civilly argued over issues of pedestrian safety, parking, cultural differences, ranging statistics, and the role of a bike lane in front of a crowd that was 90%+ bike lane-sympathetic.
Representatives from the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Mayor's Office declined to attend.
It was Abraham who became the central focus of the debate, defending the Hasidic community against various accusations as the packed house jeered, laughed, and applauded at various points and counter-points made throughout the night.
Samponaro, who offered the majority of the rebuttals to Abraham's various claims, presented bicyclists as riders in a system designed to create a safe network of passages to help the city move. When bike lanes are in place, she argued, bicyclists move in a predictable manner, making it easier for drivers to see them and safer for pedestrians to cross streets.
On the contrary, Abraham argued that the bikers don't listen, won't slow down, do not respect pedestrians, and will not obey traffic laws whether or not they are in place. He argued that the lane was enacted without consultation from the Hasidic community, and that the DOT did not do their proper research because they are "a bunch of morons."
Abraham also scuttled the popular belief that the dispute itself is a cultural issue - - namely, that scantily-clad biker chicks ride through their neighborhoods -- arguing that these women can be found riding on the parallel streets Wythe and Kent. Why, he asked, would they care so much about Bedford? He pressed his case that it's simply a matter of pedestrian safety, and that with all the kids in the neighborhood, having bikers flying through just isn't something the Hasidic community wants to deal with.
Addressing the situation as Abraham presented it, as a safety issue, Samponaro offered a number of solutions and next steps for the two groups to move forward. Among them, establishing a school bus safety program, "neck downs" for pedestrians, raising the crosswalks, and keeping cars from parking close to the curbs - a process called "daylighting."
But despite these, she concluded that nothing will get done if the two camps can't begin to see eye to eye. To help get there, she offered a way to get everyone "enjoying each other more."
That plan is Waving Wednesdays -- Transportation Alternatives' idea to have everyone appreciate each other's humanity. To take part, all they ask is for riders and pedestrians alike to recognize one another when they meet, with a simple wave, and for this to be one of many baby steps as both sides can move closer to some kind of agreement.
But aside from waving representatives from two overwhelmingly different walks of life, it'll take many more discussions like tonight's before Hasidic representatives will see that the safety that bike lanes provide bikers on Bedford, and for the bikers to believe that the Hasids really do think their pedestrians are in danger.
In the end, organizers concluded the event by thanking the panelists and admitting that if people want to have their voices heard by the decision makers who matter, they should show up at next week's Community Board 1 meeting, which is Thursday, February 4th by 6:15 p.m. at the Swinging Sixties Senior Center in Williamsburg, and register to speak, for the week's 7 p.m. meeting.