Thursday, December 09, 2010
City Council hears sides of bike lane battle
The Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz, sang a self-written song about bicycle lanes to the tune of a popular selection from “The Sound of Music”: “These are a few of my favorite lanes.” A 40-year resident of Park Slope, Brooklyn, testified that an influx of cyclists had made her afraid to cross the street in front of her house. A group of cycling advocates wondered why the city would reject a nimble, environmentally friendly mode of transportation in favor of bulky, polluting automobiles.
The battle of the bike lanes, a civic discussion that has turned increasingly contentious and common at community boards and dinner tables throughout New York, made its way to the City Council on Thursday. The theatrics seemed to survive the transition.
Dueling protests, vicious invective from both sides and good old New York-style kvetching have been hallmarks of the bicycle debate since the Bloomberg administrationbegan installing hundreds of miles of bicycle-only lanes throughout the city.
Thursday’s oversight hearing was the first time that Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s transportation commissioner, sat for formal questioning from city politicians about the implementation and enforcement of the ambitious new cycling network she has been overseeing.
“Nobody disagrees that using more bicycles is a good thing, but in a city where traffic is horrendous and finding a parking space is difficult, bike policy is all about trade-offs,” said James Vacca, the chairman of the Council’s transportation committee, as he introduced the hearing.
But Ms. Sadik-Khan firmly defended her department’s actions, countering a barrage of questions from council members who were irritated and enraged about the subject.
“While there are inevitable growing pains as cycling moves from the margins to the mainstream, its growth in New York is already delivering substantial safety, mobility and health dividends,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said. “The city’s bicycle program, with your assistance and support, is a huge success.”
The discussion touched on topics like the proper regulation of conduct on the road (Ms. Sadik-Khan said she planned a major advertising campaign featuring celebrities who would warn cyclists “to stop riding like jerks”) and whether the city had sufficiently solicited the views of people in communities where bicycle lanes have been installed (the commissioner said yes; several council members said no).
Advocates argued that the lanes encourage a safer, more environmentally friendly mode of transportation while making the city safer for pedestrians. “You’ve got to lay the tracks before you run the train,” said Noah Budnick, a deputy director at Transportation Alternatives, a cycling and pedestrian advocacy group.
Opponents lamented the loss of parking spaces and traveling lanes for automobiles, as well as complaining about what they labeled an imperious approach by city officials.
Jessica Lappin, a councilwoman from the Upper East Side, has introduced a bill that would require the Transportation Department to release detailed information about traffic accidents, including a count of those involving bicycles. Transportation officials have said the Police Department keeps the data, and Ms. Sadik-Khan testified that she had not yet read the bill, an assertion that Ms. Lappin seemed to doubt.
“I will tell my staff that despite our negotiations, I guess the top of the agency is not engaged,” Ms. Lappin said after her questioning of Ms. Sadik-Khan.
In her remarks, Ms. Sadik-Khan emphasized that she believed bicycle lanes provided significant improvements to street safety, and offered statistics showing fewer pedestrian injuries and a slower flow of traffic where lanes had been installed.
But when asked by Mr. Vacca how many people in the city ride bicycles every day, Ms. Sadik-Khan could not immediately produce an absolute number. Mr. Vacca said he was surprised that the city would engage in a large-scale change to the city’s roads without a more precise count of how many New Yorkers might use it.
“We don’t have the number of cars in the street, either,” Ms. Sadik-Khan replied.
Mr. Vacca responded: “Maybe we should have those numbers, too.”
(Officials later cited a survey from 2007 that showed about 500,000 New Yorkers identified themselves as regular cyclists.)