Bicycle Blueprint

NYC Cycling
1. NYC Bike Policy
2. State of NYC Cycling
3. Cyclists & Streets
A Bike and a Prayer

Riding Infrastructure
Street Design
5. Bridges
6. Road Surfaces
7. Greenways
8. Parks
9. Bicycles and Transit
10. Reducing Traffic

11. Bicycle Theft
12. On-Street Parking
13. Indoor Parking

On the Job Cycling
14. Bicycle Messengers
Fifth, Park & Madison
15. Freight Cycles
16. Gov't Cycling

Reducing Risks
17. Accidents
Three Who Died
18. Air Pollution

Bicycle Education
19. Schools
20. Public Education


      Chapter 4:
Street Design
a) Street Design
 Bike Lanes in NYC
c) Working Bike Lane Systems 
d) Bike Lanes for New York City
e) Elements of a NYC Bicycle Lane System
f) Side Streets and Residential Areas — The Need for Traffic Calming
g) Chapter 4 Recommendations
Sidebar: The Lanes That Failed
Figure 4a) Riding Infrastructure
Figure 4b) Suggested Bike Lane Configurations

Bike Lanes in NYC

Old or Out of the Way

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In the face of clear indications that more and better lanes will increase bicycling in New York, the City's bikeway inventory remains woefully inadequate. The NYC Department of Transportation has designated 111 miles of bikeways in the five boroughs (including 14 miles in Manhattan) as bike routes. [5] These fall among three categories:

  • Class I bike paths are physically separated from motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic;
  • Class II on-street bike lanes are defined by a painted stripe;
  • Class III bike routes are represented only by posted route signs.

This chapter addresses Class II facilities — on-street bike lanes. Class III (signed only) bike routes are not considered here as facilities that contribute meaningfully to cycling. (Readers should also refer to Chapter 7, Greenways, for treatment of Class I off-road bicycle paths.)

While 111 miles of bike routes may seem impressive, it is hardly a drop in the vast bucket that is New York City's road system. For example, if laid out end-to-end, Manhattan's 14 miles of bike lanes would be sufficient for only a one-way journey through 13-mile-long Manhattan, with no allowance for side ventures or a return trip. In proportion to the City's 6,200-mile roadway network dedicated to auto traffic, 111 miles for cycling is minuscule — a ratio of 56 to 1. (The ratio of total paved lane miles of roadway to bicycle lanes is more than three times larger — 174 to 1. [6])

What is more, of the 111 miles of bike routes, 16 miles are symbolic Class III routes, while nearly 55 of the remaining 95 miles are located at the far edges of the Bronx, Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn (including 30 miles that predate World War II). Five miles are available on weekends only (Forest Park) and 4.5 are on bridges, [7] leaving only around 30 miles to serve most daily riders cycling for transportation.

Of these commuter-oriented bike lanes, only the route from Prospect Park to the Brooklyn Bridge route is continuous between meaningful destinations. Otherwise, routes all over the city that are heavily cycled — for example, Brooklyn Bridge-Centre St.-Lafayette St.-4th Avenue-Park Avenue South — have no dedicated bicycle space. Similarly, the Sixth Avenue lane (which itself has been obliterated by construction since mid-1990) lacks a link from the Brooklyn Bridge. Central Park's southbound West Drive is unconnected to the lane that runs through Midtown on Broadway before switching to 5th Avenue.

For comparison, the city of Madison, Wisconsin, which has 170,000 residents, has 99 miles of paths, lanes and signed routes to complement its 587 road miles. [8] The ratio of 1 bike-lane mile for every 6 road miles is 10 times greater than the ratio for New York City.

David Perry
An all-too-common sight — parked vehicles blocking a bike lane.
Photo: David Perry.
Design Flaws

Apart from their meager extent, current NYC bike lanes are underutilized and downright dangerous. Indeed, because current lanes place cyclists precariously between traffic-flow and motor vehicle parking lanes, where they are continually encroached on by motor vehicles, they have soured many cyclists on the very idea of bike lanes.

New York City on-street bike lanes are correctly placed along the left side of one-way avenues, where cyclists are more visible to motorists and are far from bus stops. (On two-way streets, bike lanes are located to the right of traffic lanes, just outboard of the parking lane.) But most bicycle lanes are so narrow — just under 4 feet wide — that opening car doors protrude far into them. Parked cars also obscure lines-of-sight between cyclists and pedestrians crossing the street in mid-block. Drivers also cross bike lanes to park, and double-parking in bike lanes is rampant. At intersections, New York City bike lanes invariably disappear.

These conditions notwithstanding, the City has made no move to expand or improve its on-street bike lane system. Transportation Commissioner Lucius Riccio has insisted that bicycle traffic reach 500 an hour on a street to justify additional bike lanes — an arbitrary criterion that perpetuates the catch-22 status of cycling, whereby lack of cycling facilities stifles demand and lack of demand stifles facilities. [9] (Transportation expert Michael Replogle likens this to determining the need for a new bridge based on the number of people currently swimming across the river.) Although bicycling increased significantly here in the 1980s (propelled in part by the new mountain and “hybrid” bicycle designs), sustained further growth is unlikely without dedicating substantial street space to cyclists. [10]

Cyclist Skepticism

Whereas bicycle lanes in Europe have been designed for the cyclists' safety and mobility, most bike lane design in New York and the U.S. appears more concerned with maintaining auto traffic and access. Not surprisingly, given this half-hearted and unsystematic treatment, many bicyclists have come to mistrust the very notion of dedicated bike lanes. Add to this the enforcement in some jurisdictions of “mandatory sidepath” regulations — laws requiring bicycle traffic to use bike lanes where they exist — and the reasons for hostility to bicycle lanes among some cycling advocates become clear.

The “Effective Cycling” school argues that cyclists' needs are best served where cycling is accepted as an integral part of traffic flow on shared-use roadways, and when cyclists develop the requisite riding and traffic skills. Further, confining cyclists to special bicycle lanes or paths delegitimizes bicyclists' right to the road and can force cycle traffic to use circuitous routes. [11]

Transportation Alternatives strongly endorses the in-traffic cycling skills that Effective Cycling proponents seek to impart to individual bicyclists. However, we also hold that an extensive on-street bike lane network is essential to bring cycling into the transportation mainstream amid traffic chaos on New York City streets. Bicycle lanes can work if they are designed and implemented unapologetically as a means to wean people from driving into bicycling. Such a network of working cycling lanes would bring forward many bicycle owners — “effective” or not — who choose not to fight it out with the city's unyielding motor traffic. [12]

5. NYC Dept. of Transportation “New York City Bikeways” (2 pp.), May 1991.
6. NYC Dept. of Transportation, Traffic Fatalities in New York City, 1991, July 1992, p. iii. Hagstrom Map Co. counts 6,400 miles. NYC lane-miles total 19,324 (18,242 lane-miles of streets, 1,082 of arterial highways), per NYC Dept. of Transportation, Write-of-Way, Jan. 1993.
7. “New York City Bikeways” inventory, op. cit.
8. Telecom with Arthur Ross, Madison Dept. of Transportation, Dec. 22, 1992.
9. See Appendix B for bicycle volumes recorded in traffic counts by Transportation Alternatives, 1988-1992. The DoT's demand-based attitude to bike facilities contradicts the U.S. historical pattern of providing infrastructure for automobiles in lockstep with the car's development into the dominant form of transportation.
10. German national transportation policy changed in 1982 to recognize that bicycle facilities such as lanes should be driven by supply rather than by demand. In other words, creating bikeways would elicit cycling. See Hans Fechtel, “German Guidelines for Cycle Facilities and How They Should be Changed,” Velo City '89 Papers, Copenhagen, 1990, p. 170.
11. See John Forester, Effective Cycling, MIT Press, 1985. A sharp exchange between Forester and Transportation Alternatives over bicycle promotion philosophies appeared in Bicycle USA in 1990 (January, June-July and October issues).
12. 1988 data show that there are 42 bicycles for every 100 people in the United States, yet only a tiny fraction of these bikes are used for daily transportation. Marcia Lowe, The Bicycle: Vehicle for a Small Planet, Worldwatch Institute, Washington, DC 1989, p. 11.

a) Street Design
 Bike Lanes in NYC
c) Working Bike Lane Systems 
d) Bike Lanes for New York City
e) Elements of a NYC Bicycle Lane System
f) Side Streets and Residential Areas — The Need for Traffic Calming
g) Chapter 4 Recommendations
Sidebar: The Lanes That Failed
Figure 4a) Riding Infrastructure
Figure 4b) Suggested Bike Lane Configurations