Turf War: Bringing bikes into road system laid out in stone two centuries ago
Review & Comment: Growing Use Makes Bikes Compete With Pedestrians, Trucks and Cabs
Over the last decade, our civic leaders have been attempting to change the way we move. By offering alternate methods of transportation, they hope to build a stronger, more diverse region that is less reliant on one method of conveyance. One way in which they have endeavored to do this is to vastly expand New York City’s network of bike lanes, taking them from an amenity restricted to parklands to what they see as a truly comprehensive network tying together the metropolis. However, the implementation of this virtuous vision has been slipshod at best. Instead of carefully planning a network of integrated and hierarchized bike routes, they have pieced together a seemingly incidental lattice that both endangers street users and hinders their own efforts to diversify our transportation. We must do better.
The basic problem facing bike lane advocates is the intermodal war for street space. Our city’s road network was set in stone two centuries ago, and save for the addition of expressways during the mid-1900s, has not changed since. What that means is through these 200 years of rapid growth, the capacity of our street network has remained virtually the same. This basic inflexibility has engendered such innovations as the streetcar and the subway, but even with such efficiencies and diversions, our roadways remain too crowded. If we are not intelligent in our planning efforts, the addition of any traffic to these assets will come at the expense of those already using the infrastructure, leading to mayhem for all. Therein lies the problem cyclists face. If their mode of transport is to be a civic benefit, they must find the paths of least interference and greatest efficacy around the city.
Paradoxically, this optimal method of implementation is the one that brings the most alterations to the streetscape. By completely separating traffic by type, protected bike lanes have been shown to be by far the safest and most effective method of bringing cycle access to our roads. In addition to these, some cities have begun to experiment with novel ways of designing intersections to protect bikers and drivers from each other at these points of interaction, using concrete islands to direct traffic. Interestingly, a cursory glance at these schemes foretells of possible utility as bus unloading points, further increasing their usefulness in our broken metropolitan transport matrix.
However, as is the norm in our city, few of these reforms have been implemented well. In our civic rush to provide some modicum of bike access to New Yorkers, we seem to have eschewed common sense. Instead of constructing a cohesive network with sensible route structure and attention to detail, our civic leaders have decided to treat lane installation much like a paintball match, slapping streets seemingly at random with bike routes. In their rush, they have built protected bike lanes that trail off into mixed traffic (Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway), routes wholly isolated from the “network” at large (Seventh Avenue in Dyker Heights) and paths that seem to serve only as backdrops for photo-ops (Empire Boulevard). Moreover, this build-out of bike lanes could have been used to bring transport alternatives to transit-poor areas, yet when looking at a map of them, the areas left untouched look strikingly similar to those with no subway.
Aside from our not having a functional bike system, this failure has left citizens to face very real public safety hazards. In many places, our planners have abandoned their purported aim to install separated bike pathways, instead installing “shared lanes” — stretches of road where bike and auto traffic are supposed to integrate. Granted, such demarcations save money with little detriment on smaller streets, but encouraging cyclists to play in traffic on — for example — Second Avenue in Manhattan, or on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn is, well, irresponsible.
Even some lanes segregated from auto traffic bear such reexamination. The bike path over the Brooklyn Bridge, for example, offers spectacular views and the quickest route from the Financial District to Brooklyn, but also a veritable obstacle course of selfie-taking tourists, joggers and erratic pedestrians. While technically a protected lane, it serves as a battleground between those on foot and those on wheels, and is most certainly not the path of least resistance for either.
In essence, our city has failed us. Instead of receiving a functional, holistic and thought-out network of cycleways, us New Yorkers have been endowed with a tangle of half-measures that serves only some and endangers all. We cannot let such a situation continue. While the presence of bike infrastructure certainly induces demand, the numbers of cyclists on our streets will grow regardless of such conditions. It is our civic mandate to regulate them, to attempt to tame this growth not only for users’ safety, but also to ensure that our metropolis receives the multimodality it needs.
To begin, we need to force planners to consider New York on the metropolitan scale. Much of the issue with bicycle-route planning is that it is hyper-localized. Community boards wield much power in their installation, so while routes may end up serving the needs and whims of the neighborhood, they do not necessarily link to form a network. Because of transportation, housing and land use policies that would take another five editorials to describe, our city has been built around highly defined transport and business corridors. It would only make sense to shape our bike system around these, building protected, high-capacity lanes on major trunk routes, with smaller, on-street feeder lanes along side streets to collect and distribute traffic. In a city like ours, where commuting takes on a pointedly hub-and-spoke model, such hierarchization is imperative for functionality.
At the same time, we must look more closely at the bicycle’s role in traffic mixes on chosen streets. No corner of the network should remain untouched by this examination, for safety must be paramount. Political implications notwithstanding, we must be ready to modify or even eliminate existing bike paths. To further this process, objective guidelines dictating the permissibility of and degree of separation required on streets must be developed in order to restructure discussions around the issue. Generally, it is imperative that we come to a civic understanding that traffic management and transport planning are largely scientific issues — not political ones — grounded in data, not whim.
In this reshaping, however, we must remain cognizant of the bicycle’s role in the greater transportation scheme. While cyclists are liable to travel longer distances than pedestrians, all but the most dedicated will opt for another mode of conveyance when commuting from, say, Marine Park to Midtown. As such, we must plan bike lanes and ancillary infrastructure — bike racks and CitiBike docks, for example — with thought given to intermodal connections with buses, subways and ferries. Part of the problem with this city’s transportation system is that much of it was planned decades ago to be in competition with itself. Since then, while the city has changed much, it has changed little, leaving us with the inscrutable network we live with today. We must do our best to discourage that type of thinking. Bikes are an addition to — not a replacement for — other types of transport, a mode that is at its most effective when functioning in concert with its peers.
To these ends, planners must be relieved of their political burden. The Department of Transportation (DOT) — nor any other similar agency — should not have to take orders from community boards — engage with them, definitely — and those in charge of these processes should not be at the complete mercy of the vacillations in public thought. Much how we insulate senators from this force by giving them six-year terms, transportation officials should be appointed for longer periods of time, not serving directly at the pleasure of the mayor. In the sphere of public works — where almost any decision will be disliked by some constituency — independence from the body politic is necessary to make the most reasoned decisions, as planners must feel immune to backlash they may create.
Moreover, we must force cooperation. Even if city transit issues are dealt with on a municipal scale, truly integrating transportation requires discourse across governmental lines and across modal jurisdiction. The city DOT must work with its counterparts throughout the region, along with the MTA and Port Authority to furnish a unified metropolitan vision. Instead of working in their own fiefdoms, they must be legislatively compelled to engage in discourse, sharing and collaboration, for we are one region, not a constellation of cities.
In the end, the story of bicycles in our New York is just another step in transportation evolution. Our city has seen modes rise, fight and fall dozens of time. In this era, however, in which we have civic control of the conflict, we must not lose sight of the past. To balkanize and politicize planning is to hurt our city, as has been illustrated for us countless times. Transportation is a regional concern; choices in public works affect us all, and therefore they must be thought about, debated and executed on that scale. Additionally, while planning is currently seen as a highly political issue, we must realize that in many cases, the need — or lack thereof — for a project can be determined objectively — scientifically. Finally, we must stop asking ourselves which mode is “best” across the board. To create an optimized network, systems must specialize. Each mode should be used in the role where it is strongest, eliminating cases negative duplication, thereby rationalizing our metropolitan fabric.
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