The Most Important Bike Rack in New York City

t the right hour, on the right day, a careful observer can peek through the wrought-iron fence that surrounds City Hall to find a flock of besuited men and women wrestling their bicycles into a long black rack. “There isn’t enough room, so we all scramble to get there first,” said Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who represents Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Bike parking, according to Noah Budnick, is a new problem at City Hall. As Transportation Alternatives’ Deputy Director and most senior staffer, he’d never even heard of a bike rack inside the building’s gates, let alone complaints from Council members and their staff that there’s not enough room.

But when there’s an event that draws Council Member Rosenthal or Council Member Antonio Reynoso or Council Member Carlos Menchaca or Council Member Ben Kallos or another of the building’s everyday commuter cyclists, the lone bike rack at City Hall—like lots of bike racks around the city these days—can’t keep up with demand.

“We’ve all been emailing; advocating for more bike parking inside the gates,” Council Member Rosenthal said. “The Sergeant at Arms is being incredibly helpful,” she added.

his is the state of cycling in New York City. The five boroughs aren’t yet Amsterdam, but elected officials and their staffs are advocating amongst themselves to get more bike parking installed at City Hall. And the Sergeant at Arms is being incredibly helpful. That says something.

Inside the building, street safety, better biking and sensible transit are making huge strides too. Late last month a slate of legislation and resolutions aimed at putting meat on the bones of Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious Vision Zero agenda sailed through committee hearings and passed a full vote with ease.

Ten years ago, the sentiment behind these bills existed solely in New York City’s advocacy community. Five years ago, most of this legislation would never have made it off a desk. “Three years ago,” Council Member David Greenfield told Reclaim, “when I introduced the first resolution calling for a lower speed limit, people thought I was crazy.” Last month, a City Council resolution calling on Albany to lower the speed limit to 25 mph passed with 46 ‘yes’ votes, four ‘no’ votes and one abstention.

So what has changed? Where is all of this energy coming from? And more importantly, where is it going? Over the past few months, Reclaim reached out to more than a dozen New York City Council members to ask those questions. This is what we heard.

What has changed?

Ydanis Rodriguez, who serves as Transportation Committee Chair and represents Washington Heights
“The City has realized that all the competitive urban areas in different parts of the world have been making improvements to protect cyclists and pedestrians. They see how important it is to take the city to that level, to be a role model. We know we need to create a community where everyone should interact in a better way when it comes to our streets.”

Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side
“Campaign finance reform and term limits have allowed a new class of progressives in 2013.There is now a progressive caucus with 19 members. That’s nearly double what it was. We are seeing more members of the Council who run and bike and use public transit. So at the end of the day, it’s that campaign finance and term limits have empowered voters to elect people that are truly representative.”

Council Member Steve Levin, who represents Williamsburg and Greenpoint
“The Council’s increasingly progressive approach to street safety and transportation issues is the result of more than a decade of advocacy from groups like Transportation Alternatives. Also, I believe in giving credit where credit is due: Mayor Bloomberg certainly helped set the stage for a lot of what is happening now.”

Council Member James Vacca, who represents the eastern Bronx
“I think there has been a realization that the status quo can’t continue; that ‘these things happen’ is no longer a reasonable response. These things affect people’s lives and the fabric of our communities.”

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez.
Image courtesy of Cassandra Giraldo

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who represents Manhattan’s Upper West Side
“As a former community board chair, I feel like a lot of what’s happening now has been in the works at the community level for a long time.”

Council Member David Greenfield, who represents Bensonhurst, Borough Park and Midwood
“The murder rate has declined, but the pedestrian death rate has gone up. People said the murder rate could not go down, and it did. That’s what we’re doing with street safety. It is a luxury of sorts to have such a low crime rate. Now that crime is lower, we can have conversations about other issues.”

What’s your top priority?

City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents Sunnyside, Woodside, Long Island City and Astoria
“We can’t have any child—any person—die because we as a group were afraid to get a ticket. When people are speeding they should get a ticket. When they run lights, they should get a ticket. There’s no complaining when you break the law.”

Council Member Rosenthal
“We need the police to really pull over people who are speeding, who are failing to yield, who are on their phone, who are running red lights. And at a serious crash, before a summons is issued, we need traffic investigators to do their work, to look at injuries. I am very persuaded by the Council asking for 1,000 more officers.”

Council Member Rodriguez
“We need to change our culture when it comes to how pedestrians and drivers interact. I hope that everyone understands that having a car crash is preventable. Everyone should be accountable. We need to make a change in our culture. The motorists are the most responsible. That power comes with a big responsibility.”

Council Members David Greenfield, Jimmy Van Bramer, Laurie Cumbo and Steve Levin.
Image courtesy of Cassandra Giraldo

Council Member Costa Constantinides, who represents Astoria
“Safer streets are my top transportation priority. We’ve been very outspoken about making 21st Street safer. Commissioner Trottenberg was here. Make Queens Safer, Congressman Crowley, the NYPD, many of the key stakeholders have sat down together. We’ve made 21st Street pedestrian safety a high priority in this office. It was the first issue we talked about in this office. Getting milk should not be a life-threatening challenge.”

What’s the biggest challenge?

Council Member Constantinides
“Time. So much of this work takes time but we really need the changes now. The challenges we’re facing—we’re trying to implement improvements in a way that’s quick but also good policy.”

Council Member Vacca
“It’s enforcement. We can always stress speed limits, but there is an enforcement aspect that we can’t underestimate. What is our level of commitment to enforcement? We have to decide if it’s real and if we’re willing to prioritize it. I think that is key. It transcends DOT or NYPD and becomes a societal issue. Are we willing to enforce life-saving laws?

The other challenge is that we have to improve mass transit. We have to get people out of cars. I represent a community where mass transit options are few and far between. People take the bus or drive to a train, and we need to do better for them. Express buses aren’t express. They get stuck in the same traffic. Where is the express? I want them to be an alternative to train use. You have to get people access. We need to look at Select Bus Service lanes to Manhattan, real dedicated lanes.”

Council Member Levin
“Albany and funding are obvious challenges; staying power is another crucial component. We need a real cultural shift to make a lot of behaviors part of every New Yorker’s mindset.”

Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Ben Kallos, Carlos Menchaca and Antonio Reynoso.
Image courtesy of Mark Abramson

Council Member Greenfield
“The biggest challenge is Albany. It’s the legislator in Buffalo. These guys don’t live here and they don’t understand what we need. I’m not going to legislate in Buffalo. I’ve visited once, but I wouldn’t dare legislate. In many of these places, they don’t even have sidewalks. And I think there’s always a tendency for those who have the power to not give it up. It’s certainly not logic. If we had the ability to make our own laws in New York City, this wouldn’t be a problem.”

Majority Leader Van Bramer
“I think political will is always a challenge. Some of these are hard from a political perspective. There are still moments that confront elected officials that are not easy votes for a variety of reasons, but these have to be votes of conscience. These votes are about more than politics and more than the moment, they are about saving lives.”