Who’s Afraid of Livable Streets?

Flanked by her chief statistician and director of External Affairs, then-DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall, in a pressed blue blazer and button-front blouse, faced down the New York City Council’s Transportation Committee. She first delivered testimony opposing a popular bill that would have required her agency to collect and publish in-depth, neighborhood-specific traffic data, then admonished the gathered politicians in a tone that tenured professors reserve for their most remedial students.

“Any legislation to require additional reporting seems redundant,” she told them, assuring everyone in the Council Chamber that the DOT’s statistical protocol was beyond reproach. That was in January of 2007. What a difference four years makes.

Now Iris Weinshall, who resigned from her role as DOT Commissioner just days after that hearing and accepted a $233,000-a-year post as Vice Chancellor for Facilities Planning, Construction and Management at CUNY, has a very different opinion of the DOT’s data. In a letter sent to the New York Times late last year, Weinshall, former Deputy Mayor Norman Steisel, and Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes president Louise Hainline complained that the DOT’s data “produce more puzzlement than enlightenment.”

So what changed? It wasn’t the agency’s methodology. A DOT spokesperson told Reclaim that their data-collection protocols and policies have only become more accurate and detailed since Weinshall testified to the City Council in 2007. Could it be that the difference is in the eyes of the beholder? Plenty has already been printed about the so-called “bike backlash” that swept through New York City in the past year. There have been serious policy debates, economic analyses, questions of manners and habits and license plates and insurance laws, but very little of the coverage has taken a look at the motivations of the people on both sides of the issue.

For Transportation Alternatives, Reclaim and the rest of the livable streets movement, it seems like the reasons for supporting Mayor Bloomberg’s livable streets projects are straightforward: studies, statistics and the majority of both policy experts and everyday New Yorkers agree that bike lanes are part of a safer, more sustainable and economically sound future for New York City. They also make our everyday lives a little better.

For the most feverishly opposed to these initiatives, the impulse to fight appears to be a bit more, well, “personal,” to put it politely. A careful look at the chief critics of the Administration’s safe streets policies reveals pride, political opportunism and a kind of strategic sublimation underpinning almost every nasty letter, lawsuit and loud complaint. These motivations have long overwhelmed the facts of the matter, so in the interest of moving past the baseless critiques, here’s some background on who’s afraid of bike lanes, and some educated guesses about why.

The Passed-Over Power Brokers

Park Slope would not be what it is today without the people fighting tooth-and-nail against the Park Slope of tomorrow. Many of the most prominent members of the groups suing the City over the Prospect Park West bike lane were cornerstones of their community’s revitalization. Heavy hitters like Iris Weinshall and Norman Steisel once ran the city. Their connections and political muscle helped turn that neighborhood into the kind of progressive, stroller-filled, Coop-loving community that would study, vote on, and eventually request a two-way protected bike lane from the DOT. The problem, of course, is that the Park Slope residents busying themselves with that community process didn’t consult with the neighborhood’s longstanding power brokers. Now, they face their Lear-like wrath.

In the case of Iris Weinshall, that wrath makes good, if craven, sense. By every measure but the metric of succession, she was a hugely successful DOT Commissioner, bringing consistency to the top spot in a department that had seen four chiefs in as many years. She also catalyzed a great deal of the city’s bike-lane boom, even overseeing the development of a lane on Tillary Street that prefigured the contested “experimental bike lane” design at the heart of the Prospect Park West lawsuit. Fortune, however, did not favor her legacy. A few short months after the appointment of Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, a flurry of fawning press made clear that Weinshall’s tenure would soon be overshadowed by her visionary replacement’s.

She handled her successor’s achievements gracefully, right up until a particularly bold reform appeared in front of her Prospect Park West apartment, colored green, filled with the people who’d pressured her in office and forgotten her soon after. It’s impossible to say exactly how that felt − Weinshall did not respond to requests for comment − but it couldn’t have been easy for her and her kindred ex-officials to see their own political mortality painted from Bartel-Pritchard Square to Grand Army Plaza. In the past months, they’ve struggled to raise their mojo from the grave, hiring a high-powered PR firm, finding pro bono representation with the law office that represented George W. Bush in his recount case, and landing news stories through old connections and called-in favors, but all of that looks like it’s falling short. More New Yorkers are cycling than ever before, experts agree that the Prospect Park West lawsuit is largely public relations, and the growing consensus among media savvy sorts is that anti-bike lane news stories have devolved into the darkest depths of self-parody.

The Political Players

Wounded pride is only one part of the equation that eventually adds up to opposing common sense improvements like traffic calming and bike lanes. For many high-profile players, political points are the crucial variable.

“When I become Mayor, you know what I’m going to spend my first year doing? I’m going to have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes,” Anthony Weiner famously said to Mayor Bloomberg at a Gracie Mansion dinner. Though it’s possible that the now-disgraced ex-congressman from Queens was simply caught speaking his mind, it’s far more likely that the strategist inside of him was staking out a public position opposed to the Mayor and one of his most visible undertakings.

Though Reclaim readers understand that bike lanes are part of a holistic policy position that impacts citywide mobility, safety, sustainability and economic growth, for some Machiavellian strategists, they’re one of the simplest places to battle the current administration. In their eyes, issues like education reform, union negotiations, tax caps and rent laws are hot-button items with longstanding, powerful constituencies that require detailed and nuanced strategies. Bike infrastructure and bike lanes, on the other hand, are new and amount to little more than paint. They’re a place to take a stand without much forethought or consequence.

Bill Thompson presaged Weiner’s remarks in his 2009 mayoral run, telling NY1 that he planned to “rip out the Grand Street bike lane and review other ones put in by the Bloomberg Administration.” Elected grandstanders like Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz rely on bike-lane bashing whenever there’s a slow news cycle, and City Council Members like Eric Ulrich frequently score press hits well above their weight class by calling for bike licensing bills, insurance requirements or even automated enforcement cameras that would target cyclists. A levelheaded look at injury statistics and implementation costs reveals that these initiatives are so off-base that their introduction must be a cross between knee-jerk pandering and strategic opportunism. They’re certainly not serious public policy.

The Finger Pointers

For many New Yorkers, bike lanes have become a metonym for Mayor Mike. They stand in for his pro-development programs and Wall Street affinities and taste for tourist dollars. Frustrations about everything from taxes to term limits to trial projects pop up in blog comments, letters to the editor and even legal proceedings.

Jim Walden, who is representing the two groups suing the City over the Prospect Park West bike lane, recently submitted a New York Times article about the Bloomberg administration’s affinity for pilot programs to Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Bert Bunyan, arguing “The article […] highlights precisely the issue we raised on June 22: namely, that the City frequently presents new programs and initiatives as ‘pilots’ and ‘trials’ in order to avoid compliance with required legal processes and public reviews.”

Of course, as the City’s Law Department noted in their rejoinder “The article makes no mention of the Prospect Park West Traffic Calming Project [the official name of the bike lane] that is the subject of the dispute. That the article does not do so is hardly surprising, given the fact that the DOT never considered or described the PPW Project as a pilot or a trial.” It seems that in the world of bike-lane bashing, what’s actually at issue isn’t always the issue.

What makes that even more complicated is that bike lanes, contrary to what their critics say, are one of the few places where public process − all the way down to the most local levels − makes a real difference. The current bike-lane boom is as much the result of a committed commissioner fighting from the top as it is years and years of grassroots organizing by Transportation Alternatives and our tens of thousands of members, volunteers and supporters. All of those folks are committed to the cause and eager to defend cycling and pedestrian safety when they’re under attack, but the opponents have built a kind of moving target that remains a green lane or a quiet conveyance on the surface, but deep inside is something else entirely.

It’s hard to assuage that kind of irrational unease, but with the same commitment that’s been winning livable streets improvements for years, Transportation Alternatives and Reclaim will continue to press our case. So far, it’s working. A May poll by Quinnipiac University found that 56 percent of New Yorkers say bike lanes “are good because it’s greener and healthier for people to ride.” That’s a two-point increase from a similar poll taken in March of this year, and entirely in line with the sense on the streets this summer. Biking is booming in a big way. Moms and dads and daughters and sons; business people, tech titans, firefighters and friends; they’re all out and about on two wheels, voting with their feet. Those New Yorkers are entitled to streets that accommodate them safely. Of course, livable streets opponents are entitled to disagree − that’s what makes this city great − but it’d be nice if they did so for real reasons, with solid facts, sensible figures and some civic pride.