The pedestrian-cyclist-driver saga is familiar to anyone living in Manhattan today. Pedestrians loathe bicyclists who break traffic laws. At public transportation meetings, some residents have called for bicyclists to get licenses, like drivers. Bicyclists, meanwhile, say they just want a safe place to ride, away from motorists, who in turn often see bikers as a nuisance.
But this decades-old story may be about to change, as the city is likely to install protected bicycle lanes on Amsterdam and Columbus avenues. Unlike the painted lanes drawn on asphalt throughout the city, protected lanes are strictly for bicyclists. The city does not have a definite design for the Upper West Side lanes, but a buffer of some sort—such as a concrete divider or a row of parked cars—would be included to block traffic from driving or double parking where bicyclists ride. The dedicated bike path would also remove one lane of motor vehicle traffic from both avenues. But instead of complaints of congestion, the lane is lauded for slowing down traffic, much to the delight of pedestrians.
The design is modeled after a pilot program in Chelsea, where bicyclists ride safely to the left of parked cars on Eighth and Ninth avenues, and it was originally inspired by the streets of European cities like Copenhagen, Denmark, considered one of the best cities for bicycling in the world.
With the Chelsea lanes up and running for two years now, advocates hope that expanding to the Upper West Side will be a major improvement in the city’s bicycling infrastructure. But the Chelsea lanes weren’t always so warmly embraced, and how protected lanes are created and installed will likely determine how successful they are with the West Side community.
Bicycle infrastructure has been an integral part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s environmental and transportation agendas. In Bloomberg’s 2007 manifesto for the future of New York City, PlaNYC 2030, he proposed an additional 1,380 miles of bike lanes, for a total of 1,800 miles.
In the two-year progress report since PlaNYC 2030 was released, the city has installed 141 miles of new lanes, and the Department of Transportation estimates that the number of bicyclists in the city has grown 26 percent since last year.
Though the new lanes have certainly encouraged this growth, many cyclists complain that painted lanes are more like obstacle courses than bike routes. Bicyclists are constantly swerving into traffic to avoid swinging car doors, motorists driving in the lane or double parked cars.
One solution has been protected bike lanes, which were first piloted on Ninth Avenue in Chelsea in 2007. Now widely considered a success by bicycling advocates and pedestrians alike, the lanes were initially fairly controversial, especially among area businesses. The Department of Transportation installed one bike lane on Ninth Avenue between West 14th and 23rd streets seemingly overnight. Some business owners and community members felt blindsided. Parking was the main complaint.
“We were a little annoyed at the process,” said Christine Berthet, chair of Community Board 4’s transportation committee. “We didn’t have the time really to sort out the small things that need to be adjusted when you put in a bike lane.”
Changes to delivery zones and parking spots were made after the lane was installed. A deli’s business took a hit when the bike lane prevented his taxi driver customers from parking and getting a quick bite to eat. Board 4 had to find an alternate location for the taxicabs to make a pit stop.
However, the second and third set of protected bike lanes, on Eighth and Ninth avenues between West 23rd and 31st streets, were installed after hearing from business owners. This made for a smooth installation with minimal problems.
“It’s very important to go to those stores and understand their pick-up and delivery needs so they have the sense that their need is taken into consideration and they don’t feel that they’re being run over,” Berthet said.
The change has been paying dividends, according to Transportation Alternatives, one of the most well-known transit advocacy groups in the city. The group said that not only has cycling increased because of the safe lanes, but a study found that Chelsea saw an 80 percent reduction in sidewalk cycling. With traffic moving at a slower speed in only four lanes, pedestrian injuries from motorists and bicyclists declined by more than a third, according to the report.
Now Transportation Alternatives is shifting its focus to the Upper West Side, where the group is joining with the Department of Transportation and Community Board 7 to push for these lanes on Amsterdam and Columbus avenues.
The Upper West Side only has one painted bike lane—on Central Park West—that runs the length of the neighborhood, in addition to five bike lanes painted on area side streets.
A protected lane “sort of corrals [bicyclists], if you will, and it gives sidewalk walkers more safety and space,” said Lisa Sladkus, an organizer for Upper West Side Street Renaissance, a pedestrian and bicyclist advocacy group.
On the Upper West Side in 2005, there were 346 pedestrian and bicycle accidents, with five fatalities, which is the most recent information culled by Transportation Alternatives from city data.
Board 7, which has traditionally been friendly to pedestrian concerns, passed a resolution last month, 28 to 7, to collaborate with the Department of Transportation on the protected bike lanes.
“There has been such a call for them,” said Helen Rosenthal, former chair of Board 7. “We’re very enthusiastically participating.”
So is the area’s business community, which is becoming an integral part of bringing new lanes to the neighborhood. Rather than fight business interests, groups such as Upper West Side Streets Renaissance are courting business owners to support bike lanes and make the city plan around parking and delivery concerns. The group collected signatures from 108 businesses along Amsterdam and Columbus avenues, thanking Board 7 for passing the resolution and supporting the city’s bike lanes efforts.
“One of the rhetorical questions was, will businesses hate it,” said Peter Goldwasser, general counsel to Transportation Alternatives. “It’s clearly not the case.”
Eric Graff, a manager at Planet Kids, at 191 Amsterdam Ave. and West 69th Street, was more concerned with treacherous biking conditions along the avenue rather than with delivery problems for his business.
“There’s still going to be a spot by the curb,” said Graff, who signed the petition.
David Endo, a bicyclist and owner of Vitamin Peddler, at 364 Amsterdam Ave. and West 78th Street, also dismissed possible disruptions in his deliveries from a full lane being dedicated to bicycles.
“Potentially it could be [a problem],” Endo said. “But UPS, Fed Ex—they’ll just double park [on the other side of the lane] as usual.”
A concrete proposal from the Department of Transportation is still a long time off, and developing a timeline for this project is difficult, even with the city’s experience in Chelsea. But Board 7 wants to have its own design team working in tandem with the Department of Transportation throughout the winter. By spring, they are hoping to have a hard proposal for the community to review. Both biking advocates and the city are putting a premium on neighborhood input for clear signage to prevent pedestrians from walking into these lanes and for maintaining delivery space.
Keeping businesses abreast of new bike lanes would help stakeholders avoid some of the headaches Chelsea experienced with its protected lanes, said State Sen. Tom Duane, who represents both neighborhoods. He suggested getting ample community consultation.
“My experience,” he said, “is that including all of the stakeholders in the discussion before bike lanes are actually put in place makes a very big difference in acceptance of and, frankly, the use of bike lanes.”
Beyond Bike Lanes
As the site of the city’s first protected bike lanes, Chelsea gets to boast of being at the forefront of a new age of urban bicycling. But advocates hope the Upper West Side can become the first neighborhood to take part in a bike share program.
Modeled after similar programs in Washington, D.C. and Barcelona, Spain, residents could rent a bicycle at a designated station, then ride to their destination, leaving the bike for another cyclist.
This program would likely be popular among commuters, those who use bikes for small errands and tourists.
In a spring 2009 report on implementing a citywide program, the city suggested an initial plan to put 10,500 bicycles in a high-density area, funded through membership fees.
Council Member Gale Brewer, in a letter to Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, wrote that the Upper West Side would generate enough user data to plan for a citywide bike-sharing program. If the bike-share catches on for the Upper West Side, the city would be encouraged to expand the program, Brewer argued.
“The Upper West Side has a growing biking community that would embrace a bike share system,” Brewer wrote. “I foresee such a pilot program forming the basis of a permanent bike-sharing infrastructure.”
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