"We protest the poor conditions that keep us second-class citizens and inhibit our fellow New Yorkers from cycling. Our city offers ideal density and topography for cycling, but our streets are inhospitable for all but the most intrepid."
-From Transportation Alternatives' Bicycle Blueprint
In April 1993, Transportation Alternatives' Bicycle Blueprint announced, 'Come, let us work wonders in New York City!" Three years later, the city's response still seems to be, "Wait, while we make up excuses."
Maybe that sounds unfair given the city's spring installation of two new bike lanes and a handful of bike racks. It is not. The city's bicycle program is so disjointed and ineffectual that just as the new lanes are being installed, another lane on South Street has been removed without warning.
Ironically, in the midst of yet another city budget crisis, a shortage of money is not hampering cycling improvements. The city has over $25 million in Federal cycling aid-more than enough to make noticeable gains for cyclists. But the money either sits unspent or is squandered because the city lacks a strong pro-cycling leader.
Noticeably absent is Transportation Commissioner Elliot Sander, whose department has the bulk of the responsibility and resources to help everyday cyclists. While Sander deserves credit for pushing, individual projects like the St. Nicholas bike lane, he has not addressed the red-tape and the resistance to cycling concerns inside his department. Nor has he made the case to City Hall that cyclists and walkers deserve some of the space that cars now monopolize. These impediments combine to make the simplest cycling project a monumental task.
Despite millions of dollars spent on bicycle planning and the publication of TA's cogent and specific Bicycle Blueprint, the bicycling bureaucracy seems unaware of or uninterested in solving basic cycling problems. Instead, they have invested disproportionate effort in planning a "bike network" that has no time frame for implementation and seems of limited practical value.
To gets its bike efforts on track, the city needs a simple and logical action plan, including suggested time frames, budgets, and other nuts and bolts. It is past time for the city to hire a respected outside consultant, as Philadelphia and New Jersey have done, to help formulate this plan and identify basic cycling needs and practical solutions.
There are hundreds of ways to improve cycling conditions in New York City. Following are five steps that the city should pursue immediately. (Fewer cars would be a vast improvement, but that goal would require a fundamental political shift that is unlikely to happen in the near future.)
For cycling to prosper, we must end the tyranny of dangerous motorists. That means more police traffic enforcement-especially of speeding and light running. The cops are off to a good start with their new Traffic Division. Now they need to get serious by seizing cars from dangerous drivers, deploying large numbers of red-light cameras, and starting use of photo-radar to deter speeding. The DOT should re-time traffic lights, and the Taxi and Limousine Commission should train and track cabbies more vigorously.
Ideally, busy arterial streets will be traffic-calmed so that cyclists can move safely with motor vehicle traffic. But even in traffic-calmed Holland, bicycle lanes are widely used to give cyclists their own space and establish their presence as road users.
With a few simple changes and an eye toward experiment, the NYC DOT can drastically improve the city's existing on-street bike lanes. Most current lanes are narrow, poorly marked, and inadequately defined.
Four things the city can do now to improve the bike lane system:
New York is a city defined by water, making access to bridges a must for many cyclists. Years of T.A. advocacy have ensured that cyclists and pedestrians can get onto and over most of the city's bridges. The city has not, however, ensured that they are easily accessible or safe to crass.
The DOT should provide safe, prominent entrances, bright lights and regular sweeping.
In particular, the entrances to both ends of the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Queensboro Bridges must be designed to accommodate and encourage cyclists and pedestrians. With the Queensboro and Brooklyn due for repair in the next few years, time is running out on their redesigns.
Cyclists need safe and convenient places to park their bikes. For short visits, outdoor racks work, but longer visits require indoor or guarded parking. Successful cycling cities employ an ample mix of both.
On-street parking: the DOT's $1.1 million "CityRacks" program intends to install 1,500 racks throughout the five boroughs. The first 40 are in, but the ultra-restrictive guidelines for installing racks on sidewalks must be lifted if racks are to be as common here as they are in Chicago (3,500 racks), Seattle (1,400 racks), or Philadelphia (1,000 racks). Racks are a visible advertisement for cycling. All municipal parking lots should offer well-marked bike racks.
"In a city beset with the gargantuan problems of New York, the simple unassuming bicycle-the most efficient form of urban transportation ever invented-can be a powerful solution."
For complete security, nothing beats indoor parking. The 17 car garages that offer bike parking (free, or for a few dollars a day) have proven extremely popular. Garage bike parking will only boost cycling when enough locations are available. The DOT and the Department of Consumer Affairs should encourage garage owners and building managers by providing free bicycle racks and public praise.
New York's City Council should mandate that new and renovated car parking lots provide bike parking equal to 10% of auto parking. DOT bicycle staff should ensure that all city-owned or -rented buildings provide secure parking, starting with City Hall and 52 Chambers Street.
When combined, bikes and transit offer a fast, flexible way to travel. In 1993, TA. won 24-hour bicycle access to the NYC subway. Transit providers need to embrace cycling as a solution, instead of building more parking lots.