July/August 1997, p.8-9

Making the Grade 
NYC & Bicycling in 1997

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The cover of this issue heralds T.A.'s success in pushing the City to build for bicycling.  Seven new, full-size bike lanes will be installed this year.  Five are already in, with bicycle symbols on all lanes, and a flood of long-awaited bike racks as well.  The Departments of City Planning and Transportation just published their Bicycle Master Plan, which calls for a big expansion in cycling for transportation.  It has been approved by the mMayor as official policy.  The plan is clearly based on T.A.'s Bicycle Blueprint. 

Another encouraging sign is that the Departmnets of Transportation and City Planning both have new, dynamic professionals overseeing their bicycle programs.

Cyclists are a bigger presence on city streets than they have been for years, or maybe ever.  According to DOT, for every cyclist riding in midtown, or across city bridges, in 1980, there were two and a quarter in 1995. Today, the number is even higher. And, gleaming on the horizon is a $63 million citywide network of Federally-funded greenways. These car-free paths will open a whole new universe for beginning cyclists not yet ready for traffic.

It is all encouraging news, and credit should go to the Departments of Transportation and City Planning--especially new DOT bike/Red chief Louis Aragao and Planning's Jackson Wandres --for getting projects out on the street. Yet, despite this progress, the nagging reality for city cyclists is that frightening near misses are a daily occurrence and that the joy of cycling is too often quelled by the inherent menace and hostility of automobile traffic. In a city where ex-cyclists far outnumber current, the focus should be on keeping folks in the saddle. Bicycling is an inherently fun and convenient way to get around a dense city. But the NYC cycling experience is too often one of frustration mounting on fury until the fun is forgotten.

So, which is it? Is the bicycling glass half empty or half full?

Last June, this magazine presented five fundamental steps towards better bicycling in NYC. (May/June 1996.)  These "bicycling basics" provide a good, framework for rating the City's bicycle efforts. Below, T.A. grades the performance of the City and MTA on their efforts to encourage cycling. We gave two grades: first for the overall state of each "bicycling basic;" second for the improvement in the City's effort over the last year. A is vast improvement; B good improvement; C noticeable improvement or continued OK job; D is much worse than previous; F is terrible or non-existent effort..

Bicycle Lanes
Overall: C-
Last 12 months: B+

The DOT has installed five new lanes in the last four months.  That's good and a hell of a lot better than the slow to non-existent progress of the last five years.  But the DOT has been opposed to T.A.'s requests for innovative lane designs that would include features like flexible bollards and colored asphalt.  After years of T.A. prodding, DOT did finally install bike symbols in all lanes as a visual reminder of cyclists' rights to the road.  No small job, given that there are about 200 symbols along each of the new 3.7 mile two-way Cross Bay Blvd. bike lane in Queens.

NYPD enforcement of the lanes remains abysmal, and cabs and trucks view them as extra parking lanes.  The City should picture the lanes as giant gold mines and send traffic "mining crews" out to write lucrative piles of parking tickets. Sub-standard, four foot lanes like 5th and 6th Aves., Broadway and north First Ave. are a public health hazard and dangerous joke on cyclists. Too many lanes continue to be installed on out-of the way, low traffic streets and not on the big fast streets where they are needed. DOT should install lanes where they are needed, not randomly where excess traffic capacity exists.

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Overall D+
Last 12 months: C

The future is very bright for greenways. The City has about $65 million in Federal ISTEA funds dedicated to an extensive network of car-free, multi-use paths in every borough, and planning is furiously underway at the Parks Department. Ideally, cyclists will revel in the paths. But experience elsewhere has found that many everyday cyclists are deterred by swarms of inattentive dog walkers and novice skaters. Major problems loom for the very important Hudson River/ Route 9A Greenway, which will link 155th Street to the Battery. Tens of dangerous car turn- offs cutting across the bike path are planned, so as to allow motorists to park at future commercial developments along the river front.

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Overall: D
Last 12 months: D- 

The highlight of the year was the Mayor's November, much protested, decision to ban bicyclists from the Queensboro Bridge weekdays from 3 pm to 8 pm and provide a bus shuttle instead. The Mayor's move reneged on years of written and verbal promises to T.A., and seriously diminished the Mayor's credibility with cyclists. Often overcrowded and delayed, the shuttle is hated by many. Worse yet, the City refuses to confirm in writing that the QBB will have a permanent bike path. Getting on and off all of the East River Bridges is a nightmare; especially the Manhattan sides of the Queensboro and Brooklyn. The Manhattan Bridge, whose path is completed, is undergoing major lead abatement that could delay its opening for an amazing seven to ten years. DOT'S Bureau of Bridges deserves a special "head buried in mud" award for their secretiveness and unhelpful attitude on the subject. Additionally, the DOT seems to have pulled the plug on its commitment to install directional signs to bridge bike/ped paths. The only good news is that the Williamsburg Bridge rebuild is on or ahead of schedule. A wide, spanking new path will open in 1999. Another bright spot is the study that shows the Verrazano could have a bike path for $26.5 million, though City Planning downplayed this in favor of racks on buses crossing the bridge.

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Safe Streets
Overall: D+
Last 12 months: C

The cops are doing more, but it's not nearly enough. Speeding is rampant everywhere and atrocious taxi driving has reached an all-time high. (How is it the cops have so much time to ticket cyclists?) The TLC deserves an F for their failure to get dangerous cabbies off the road. Motorists who kill cyclists and pedestrians are rarely if ever prosecuted or punished. Where is the Manhattan D.A.? There should be hundreds of red light and speed radar cameras: why stop at 35?

Overall: C
Last 12 months: B 

Lots of new DOT CityRacks are going in. Something is wrong though, because they don't seem to appear in oft-requested, busy locations like upper 6th Ave. or Chelsea. Also missing is any effort by the City to get Bike parking into private buildings or parking garages--an effort that will be vital if cycling is to succeed.  Lastly, after a spark of interest, the police interest in bike theft stings seems to have vaporized.

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Overall: B
Last 12 months: F
Zero effort by the City or MTA to create parking at transit stops. This despite the fact that the bike-transit partnership multiplies the usefulness of both modes many times over. The City can't seem to grasp that putting racks and lockers at municipal park and ride lots could get a lot of people on bikes, as could secure parking at the Port Authority, ferry terminals and major transit stops. The overall grade of B reflects the immense benefit that legal bicycle access to the subways provides. Cyclists and transit workers seem to be getting the system to work more smoothly with every passing day.

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Momentum & Attitude
Overall: C
Last 12 months: B+ 

The new blood at DOT and Planning is a giant plus, as is the quiet support they are getting from their bosses including DOT Chief Christopher Lynn. The Bike Master Plan is encouraging as is the receptiveness of the bike bureaucrats to T.A.'s input.  Dep. Mayor Rudy Washington's adoption of the Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Council helps clear delays.  The downside is that the Mayor and his top media advisors refuse to be identified with cycling, including canceling high level participation in Bike Week '97 and that the Community Boards are largely as difficult as they can be on cycling issues.  The snake in the grass for cycling progress is public outrage over bikes on sidewalks, which is poisoning public and political receptiveness to bicycling.

The Overall Grades
Overall: D+
Last 12 months: C+

It could be a full letter higher in both categories given the new energy and accomplishments of the City's bike programs. But the Queensboro Bridge closure and the continued failure of the cops to get the job done on speeding and reckless driving is disappointing, as is the harsh truth of an increase in cycling deaths.

Clearly, the City is a long way from doing what it could to create better bicycling.  But thanks to the momentum generated by the continued strong growth in cycling, Federal ISTEA funding, recent bike lane successes, and strong new talent inside the City, the next decade should lead to an explosion of cycling.  That is, of course, only if you help T.A. stay strong enough to keep the pressure on.