Brooklyn Boro

Want a bigger bike network? Reduce community board’s role, says one local pol

April 11, 2019 Dave Colon Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
People have installed "ghost bikes" around the city in memory of killed cyclists. This one is at Church Avenue and Nostrand Avenue in Flatbush. Eagle file photo by Todd Maisel
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As city officials increasingly embrace a growing bike network and a less car-centric transportation grid, City Councilmember Antonio Reynoso has an idea to speed up the process: take the bike lane approval process out of the hands of community boards.

Bike lanes are a fraught issue for community boards, as the city’s efforts to give cyclists their share of the road can cause pitched battles over parking spaces and neighborhood character. And while the boards don’t have the unilateral power to stop street safety upgrades (including bike lanes), their advisory yes or no votes can delay or kill proposed Department of Transportation projects.

That’s been a major obstacle in creating a gapless bike network that advocates say would accelerate the use of pedal power across the boroughs.

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“We’re saying, ‘We have the money, we have the infrastructure, we can do it all,’” Reynoso, who represents Bushwick and Williamsburg, told the Brooklyn Eagle in regards to aggressively building out the city’s bike network. “That’s not the problem we have, the politics is the problem we have.”

Reynoso’s view found a recent sympathizer in DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, who told Streetsblog that “the piece that’s sort of the biggest challenge to building out the bike network” is “going to community boards” for each proposed lane.

Asked about Reynoso’s idea to not wait for votes on the proposals, a DOT spokesperson gave a more boilerplate response toward board approvals.

“Community Boards maintain an important advisory role in the street re-design process,” the agency said in a statement to the Eagle. “DOT appears before the boards several times before project implementation, where we present detailed plans, historical data, and solicit public input. This feedback and our findings inform our work as we maximize safety and address public concerns.”  

“You can’t be a political coward when it comes to saving lives.”
Councilmember Reynoso

Reynoso sees tailoring projects for a yes vote as self-defeating.

“It’s a self-imposed obstacle. There’s nothing in the City Charter. Nothing anywhere says that the [DOT] needs to do that, it’s just a policy,” Reynoso said.

There is a law that requires the DOT to hold hearings with community boards before installing or removing a bike lane, but the agency does not have to abide by the board’s vote on a project, since the boards are still advisory. And while the councilmember noted that sometimes DOT will still put in a bike lane or another traffic calming measure even after a community board votes against it, that’s not always the case. According to Reynoso, there’s still too much of a delay between planning and implementation.  

“What happens here is that bike lanes literally get delayed for years over community board opposition, and the DOT puts aside safety for anecdotes and personal experiences that people have on community boards. So that’s my concern,” Reynoso said.

Councilmember Antonio Reynoso. Photo courtesy of Antonio Reynoso’s office
Councilmember Antonio Reynoso. Photo courtesy of Antonio Reynoso’s office

In Bay Ridge, plans for on-street bike lanes were abandoned more than a decade ago by the DOT. The idea of adding bike lanes is just now starting to be revisited. In Sunnyside, it took almost eight months to get from a protected bike lane proposal on Skillman Avenue and 43rd Street to a city decision to install the bike lane over community board opposition.

Meanwhile, support in the City Council continues to gain speed. Transportation Committee Chairperson Ydanis Rodriguez called on the city to add 100 miles of protected bike lanes per year. Council Speaker Corey Johnson called for 50 miles of protected bike lanes per year in his transportation plan for the city and has echoed Reynoso’s criticism of car culture.

Reynoso stressed that community boards should have some input in the bike lane process, and a spokesperson for the councilmember said he isn’t pushing to repeal the law requiring community board hearings.

“There are nuances that the community board could have that we might not be paying attention to, that I think could be of value,” Reynoso said. “They can tinker on the edges. They might have good ideas about, you know, be careful on this side because there’s a left turn the cars make that’s very dangerous here; let’s be smarter about how we paint the lines there.”

Reynoso suggested he was comfortable with a delay of a couple of weeks or a month for these tweaks after safety improvements are suggested, but that the DOT can’t endlessly redesign or wait for community board approval.

“Let’s be honest, we’ve lived all these years without the bike lanes.”
Former Councilmember Lew Fidler

The councilmember likened requests for bike lanes to asking permission to carry out other basic city services.

“When was the last time you went to a community board to ask them for permission on whether or not you should be doing work in any part of the city?” Reynoso asked Chief Thomas Chan of the NYPD during a January City Council hearing on e-bikes. “Do you use community boards to advise on where you should be doing work related to criminal activity?”

Noting that the NYPD does not do that, Reynoso said that the DOT should have the same ability to make decisions using data instead of “personal anecdotes.”

The councilmember returned to that idea while speaking with the Eagle, saying that the NYPD uses “data and crime statistics” to determine where cameras are installed instead of asking a community board.

Street safety decisions shouldn’t be made by “people who honestly, don’t have the knowledge,” Transportation Alternatives senior organizer Erwin Figueroa told the Brooklyn Eagle. “The planners at the Department of Transportation and other agencies have studied the data to make plans for safety, and every day we’re seeing someone injured, whether walking or cycling.”

Recently in Manhattan, a woman was killed in a hit-and-run on a street where the community board had rejected the removal of traffic lanes, leaving the road wide enough to encourage speeding, according to traffic experts. In Kensington, a pedestrian was struck by a driver on Ocean Parkway and Church Avenue, a roadway for which the community board rejected DOT safety upgrades earlier that week, citing concerns over a loss of parking spaces.

“Experts know where things go and how they work.”
Bob Cassara, bike advocate and former CB10 member

Figueroa also disputed the idea that community boards would object to the change in the process if the DOT stopped asking permission to put in a bike lane.

“Some people might think [bike lanes] are being imposed on them,” Figueroa said. “But at the same time, they’re saying that right now.”

Former Councilmember Lew Fidler, who represented Canarsie, Marine Park and Sheepshead Bay, wrote the law that requires community board hearings for bike lanes. He told the Eagle that consulting community boards was a matter of making sure bike lanes are safe for all road users.

“I think anyone who’s trying to remove community input from something like this is just looking to push bike lanes to grow without regard to the safety of anybody, including the cyclists,” he said.

Fidler, who proposed the law after a fight over a nixed Gerritsen Avenue bike lane, said that the law only made sure that community board concerns were heard, not that they would always be followed.

Fidler also insisted that any “not legitimate” concerns wouldn’t be enough to kill a project, and the time from proposal to implementation wasn’t as big a roadblock as Reynoso and others argue.

“Let’s be honest, we’ve lived all these years without the bike lanes,” Fidler said. “If it takes an extra couple of months to include all the stakeholders in the process so that we get the best results, so that we put bike lanes where they belong, and when we do it we know that they’re going to be as safe as possible, it’s just another couple of months.”

Eagle file photo by Lore Croghan

Community board members were split on whether Reynoso’s proposal was one worth pursuing.

“Don’t you think the people that live in the district know what streets are capable of handling the bike lanes?” asked Theresa Scavo, the chair of Community Board 15 in Sheepshead Bay. “Don’t you think the people that live in the district know the driving habits of their neighbors and the street habits of people that they live with? Who better to know that a bike lane is really going to be utilized there or is going to be safe there than the people that live here?”

Scavo told the Eagle that not every neighborhood needed a bike lane and that the DOT should study their installation with that in mind. “The majority of the people on the bike path in this district on Ocean Parkway are not from this district. They’re coming from the north usually or from the south, but the people that are there are not really from Southern Brooklyn,” Scavo said.

She also rejected the data from multiple studies that showed adding bike lanes brings more cyclists. “That’s like saying if we make more cars, people going to buy more.” Scavo said.

Emily Gallagher, a Greenpoint resident and member of Community Board 1’s Transportation Committee, told the Eagle she saw merit in Reynoso’s idea.

“It’s difficult to sit here and say I want the board to have less input, because that sounds anti-democratic in word,” Gallagher said. “But I think we should be making safety decisions based on data and evidence and not based on personal feelings about it.

“We don’t need, ‘My mom likes this store and so I don’t want a bike rack in front of it because I want to park the car so she can get in there easily.’ That’s a misuse of power,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher also took the opposite stance of Scavo on the idea of a road network as a citywide concern.

“You do see very localized communities voting against things that would benefit the whole,” she said, “and that is a problem, because you can’t have bike lanes starting and stopping, because that’s when you have to go off onto some random truck route and you wind up on a sidewalk because you’re afraid you’ll die.”

Bob Cassara, who advocated for bike lanes while serving on Community Board 10 and was rumored to have been removed from the board for that reason, also endorsed Reynoso’s idea.

“Experts know where things go and how they work,” Cassara said. “Maybe they don’t know the minute details, and that’s where the community board can help fine-tune stuff. We should have bike lanes, period. They’re a safety device.”

For Reynoso, even if people consider the proposal a radical departure from the norm, relying less on community boards is worth doing in order to clarify the priorities of New York’s future.

“The city has to determine what type of city it wants to be, and then they have to put forth policy that helps achieve those goals. If the city wants to be less of a car city and more of a pedestrian and bike city, then they’re going to have to make tough decisions,” he said.

“You can’t be a political coward when it comes to saving lives.”

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