New Amsterdam Is Not Amsterdam

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Time to rethink our bike-centric approach to mass transit

By Daniel Meltzer

This will not endear me to many of you reading this, and it will undoubtedly cause some trouble with a few friends, but I feel I need to say something about bikes.

Bicyclists, and the biker lobby, are the new self-proclaimed environmentally friendly solution to everything from air pollution to traffic congestion to I don’t know what else—the Gulf catastrophe? (“Well, if everyone rode bikes, and got rid of their cars, then we wouldn’t need all that oil, and so…”) Well, everyone is not going to ride a bike, and the taxis, limos, tour buses, Bentleys and 18-wheelers aren’t going away any time soon.

I myself was a devoted rider until just a few years ago, when I gave up fighting the traffic and filling my lungs with car and truck exhausts on the streets, and retrieved some usable hall space when I got rid of the old 10-speed. What has inspired this?  Well, like many things, this had to build up some before I was ready to write about it.

After getting the nod from Community Board 7, the city has just approved a bike lane along Columbus Avenue, which will remove from use two traffic lanes on what is, at certain times of the day, a heavily traveled road and a designated truck passageway. (Disclaimer: I am, in fact, a member of Board 7, but I was on medical leave and hence was absent when the vote was taken.)

Houston, we have a problem. Actually, we have two problems.

For one thing, bicyclists do need to be protected from motor vehicles. But too many have not been all that responsible themselves when it comes to traffic laws and even the codes of common courtesy. Many still ride on sidewalks. They generally do not stop at red lights. And they go the wrong way on one-way streets. Many do not have horns or bells to warn you. Delivery bikers have no lights, wear black at night and are notorious for going the wrong way. The NYPD certainly has bigger fish to sauté, but stricter enforcement would help. Biker/pedestrian collisions have not been rare in this city in recent years, some of them causing serious injury.

The city and the West Side recently heralded the opening of the new, multi-million dollar extension of the promenade in Riverside Park. Its two broad center lanes are marked for cyclists, with narrow, single-file lanes along the edges for pedestrians. Try to walk hand in hand with your sweetie and one of you is at risk. The promenade itself, a designated cyclist “track” for want of another word, has been swarming with colorful, skin-tight racing suit-attired riders, many of whom conspicuously ignore the ubiquitous “Go Slow” signs. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “promenade” as “a public place for walking.”

The other problem is that, as anyone with a basic knowledge of physics knows, when you squeeze an artery, the flow tends to get re-directed. As was observed when Times Square was shut to traffic to become a lounging area, cars and trucks and buses had to go elsewhere and all channels in that part of town were heavily trafficked to begin with.

We will have to wait and see if this happens here—will the southbound trucks head for Broadway, which is already a tractor-trailer crawlway in rush hours? Time will tell, as they say. But only, as I say, if it is tortured. n

Daniel Meltzer is a playwright and O. Henry and Pushcart Prize-winning fiction writer. His most recent production was A Cable from Gibraltar at Medicine Show Theatre in Manhattan.

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    Traffic in NYC is out of control! I am of the belief that a tax should be implemented to those that come into the City with their ugly SUV, & Limo's for pleasure and refuse to ride our public transportation, which, compared to other countries, is pretty good. Not all cyclist are rude and do not obey the rules, so should all cyclist suffer because a few are obnoxious and totally self-centered road hogs. I agree that more rules should be implemented for the few non-compliant and perhaps be fined when not obeying the rules of the road.

    I know I am not responding to all your issues, but that's all I got for now.

  • Frenchemilyt

    Hi Dan,

    For what it's worth, here's my vote: Bike lanes – good! As a bike rider in the city (some of us cannot afford cars), I really appreciate the new (all-too-few) lanes and am looking forward to one on Columbus. Having lived in Amsterdam, I am well aware that you need to educate both drivers and bikers to respect each other. In fact, as part of a driver's training course in Holland, you are required to navigate around bicycles and vice versa. That's just common sense.

    Dan, you write so beautifully. And your tremendous humour is always ever present and enjoyable. I loved the line about walking with your sweetie. I don't quite understand the need to come down so hard on one side of a subject when there are always more than two angles to any debate that's worth its weight in print. Just a thought.

    Hope you're doing well.


  • Info

    This is a great column! Thanks.
    I think delivery bikes should be required to put a baseball card of choice in the spokes so we can hear them coming.

  • Estha Weiner


  • Joan

    We're stretched to the limit with trying to accommodate all types of traffic in Manhattan. Bike lanes are good in parks and in areas where there is not a lot of automobile traffic (where that is in Manhattan, however, I'm not sure). Most cyclists do not obey the rules of the road and many of them are quite dangerous to pedestrian traffic, so I am not a big fan of bikers in the City. I don't know what you do about messengers, etc. who depend upon their bicycles for their livelihood, but for the rest of us who could just as easily use mass transit (or walk), the lanes are not necessary. Rather than bike lanes, the City should set aside some areas here and there, East Side, West Side, downtown, uptown, etc. where people could just bike for leisure and exercise. And then, there are the parks.

  • Sheldon J. Fine

    Kudos to Dan on his thoughtful and sensible comments on this issue as well as on his courage. For the record, the vote at the Board was 23-19-3 which is just a one vote majority. A great many of the experienced members and leaders of the Board opposed the resolution or abstained.

    This decision to proceed with this plan was misguided, because there were several issues that were not answered or inadequately answered in the discussion at the Full Board meeting.
    My greatest concern was over the safety issue arising from left turns that pitted vehicle drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians against each other with no mediator, either human or electronic. My question on this issue was barely answered.

    In my opinion the vote should have been delayed until the issues of concern to board members were addressed appropriately. Why did it pass? It seemed that “pro-environmental fever' seemed to ignite the passions of those who have yet to realize that we will be inhaling the increased fumes caused by slower movement of vehicular traffic on Columbus Avenue and on the other thoroughfares that will be more congested as a result of this plan.

    I was personally compelled to oppose the resolution when it came to a vote, out of fear for the safety of the bicyclists, motorists and the pedestrians when this is implemented and for the health of those who use Columbus Ave. and nearby avenues.

    The public should realize that, most, if not all, CB7 members are pro-environment and support bicycling. However, we are first responsible for advisory positions which support the health and safety of our community. Therefore, the near tie vote should be a message to DOT that the support for this plan is questionable.