New Yorkers debate over increasing number of bike lanes

Bicycle commuters make their way across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.


Bob Moon: We come full circle back to the streets of New York City. The snow removal headaches we mentioned at the top of the program remind us just how important our city streets are. And not just for cars. Municipal leaders across America are warming to the idea of bike lanes. They say riding more bicycles will ease congestion and cut pollution.

But as New York is learning, introducing a new culture of bike commuting isn't a downhill coast. From WNYC, Andrea Bernstein reports.

Andrea Bernstein: It's hard to overstate how quickly New York's streets have changed since 2007. The transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, touts the makeover every chance she gets.

Janette Sadik-Khan: We've put down 250 miles of on-street bike lanes in the last three years. We've put down thousands of new bike racks to make it friendlier for people to get around by bike.

And the city just announced it's preparing to install a bike share program with 10,000 bicycles.

In some communities, the commissioner is revered. Carol Coletta, president of CEOs for Cities, calls her a goddess.

Carol Coletta: She has made these transformations in New York with speed that would be breathtaking for a small start-up, to say nothing of a bureaucracy like a city of this size.

But for some, the changes feel like a punch in the gut. One of those people is Marty Markowitz, the borough president of Brooklyn. Markowitz thinks a two-way bike lane along Prospect Park goes too far, because it takes space away from cars and gives it to bikes. Here's how he describes the commissioner.

Marty Markowitz: She is a zealot. She wants to make it hard for those that choose to own their automobiles. She wants to make it difficult, their life difficult. I really believe that.

For Markowitz, it's about defending mom-and-pop shops, and middle-class workers who use their cars to get to work.

But supporters have shouted back. And, it turns out, one survey shows three-quarters of Brooklynites support that bike lane. But the controversy has gotten caught up with how New Yorkers feel about their mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who's known for his sweeping changes. At a recent city council hearing, councilman Lew Fidler peppered the commissioner with questions.

Lew Fidler: You gotta go back to communities and ask them again!

Sadik-Khan: That's what we do!

Fidler: Before you spend the money.

Sadik-Khan: That's what we do!

Fidler concluded with a reference the musical "Oklahoma."

Fidler: This is not a war, all right? This is not like it's not you gotta be for the cars or you gotta be for the bikes or you got to be for the buses, it's really not.

Sadik-Khan: Exactly.

Fidler: The cowman and the farmers can be friends.

Maybe. Ernest Rossi runs a souvenir shop along one of the new Manhattan bike lanes.

Ernest Rossi: So the way I look at it, probably almost half the parking spaces have been taken away from Grand Street.

Rossi says his business depends on tourists driving in. He doesn't get why the city wants to bring European-style bike lanes to New York.

Rossi: And they said they wanted the city to look like Copenhagen. And this is Manhattan. It's Manhattan. It's not Copenhagen.

But for some New York businessmen, being able to attract international companies is key. Janno Lieber is president of World Trade Center Properties. He's overseeing the construction of 10 million square feet of office space to replace the Twin Towers. He says being able to bike to work is important to his tenants.

Janno Lieber: It also makes us more familiar and attractive to some of the European and international companies because otherwise people are going to go to lower cost locations.

Lieber says in New York, bike lanes have cache with the creative class.

Lieber: Well, because, the kind of employees who bike, those are the kinds of workers that companies really want to have, and they want to hold on to.

And Lieber says, that's who will build New York's economy.

In New York, I'm Andrea Bernstein for Marketplace.

Log in to post5 Comments

I'm not sure how Marty Markowitz can be *so* out of touch with his constituents, or the borough he represents.

Beyond the fact they he doesn't support the bike lanes in the park, or elsewhere it seems, when they "infringe" on car travel, which runs counter to public opinion...he also must not go outside much. Brooklyn, like the rest of the city has seen large increases in bicycling and bicycle traffic. This increase can be seen on an city street at any time of day.

Bicycling is an efficient, zero emission way to get around the city cheaply, especially considering the relentless fare increases from the MTA for mass transit over the last few years. What's not to like? You can pay $100+ a month towards a Metrocard or invest a few months of that money into a bike of your own with the added benefit of boosting the local economy via bike shops.

It's not about defending mom-and-pop shops from lost business like Markowitz and Rossi try to make it out to be. Who drives to the park? Who drives to go shopping? Surely there are some but I would hazard to guess that the percentage numbers are tiny (as pointed out by the first poster below). And as for lost parking, typically the bike lanes shift parking over, they do not eliminate it, so the loss is not as extensive as they make it sound. I do agree with Howard from Toledo (below) that for seasoned bicyclists it's preferable to integrate bike and car traffic on the road than corralling all bicyclists into bike lanes, but bike lanes do serve a purpose for the many many new cyclists, not yet ready for going toe-to-toe with cabs, aggressive drivers, etc.

Ultimately, Markowitz and Rossi are being short-sighted about the direction the city is going. It isn't being remade as Copenhagen, it's simply evolving as all cities need to do to remain vital and thrive. The unspoken story for Markowitz is that his older constituents, who he seems to identify more with, may prefer to drive places, as do commuters from the suburbs, including Westchester, Long Island, etc. With change must come some sacrifices though, and if a growing number of city residents (read taxpayers) are moving to bicycling then they deserve expanded services for how they choose to get around. Consider that NYC income taxes go towards transit, and if bicyclists aren't using mass-transit then they should see that money used for their benefit elsewhere, i.e. bike lanes, bike racks, etc.

I ride my bike from 2wheelbikes.com to and from work everyday and I have never felt better. I even ride in the rain :)

Driving into New York City? Are you kidding me? Sorry, Ernest Rossi. I live in Massachusetts. No way am I driving into Manhattan. I'm taking Amtrak and bringing my bike with me, or taking the bus and walking around the city and using the train.

A possibility that deserves more attention is "vehicular cycling": bicyclists' using the existing streets as drivers of vehicles, subject to the same rules and enjoying the same rights as drivers of motorized vehicles. The drawbacks are that it doesn't lead to big increases in bike sales, and it doesn't provide photogenic ribbon-cutting ceremonies for politicos. The advantages are greater safety than using bike lanes, and far greater convenience. Will the 250 miles of new bike lanes in New York City get you to virtually any destination in town?

In Toledo, Ohio, my wife and I enjoy the use of about 1,100 miles of streets, and while it would be nice to have some of New York's emphasis on secure bike parking facilities here, we're glad we have very few bike lanes to cope with. Where they exist, they increase danger for those who use them, and increase animosity from motorists for those who prefer to ride safely.

<blockquote>Rossi says his business depends on tourists driving in.</blockquote>

I'm sorry but this is complete bunk.

We know that almost 90% of the people walking down Prince Street at any one time traveled to the neighborhood by transit, bike or foot. That's two blocks up from Rossi's shop. That stats couldn't be all that different for Grand Street.


Here are a couple of other great factoids from Schaller's Soho study:

- By a ratio of 5:1 shoppers said they would come to Prince Street more often if they had more space to walk, even if it meant eliminating parking spaces. Interestingly, this ratio was nearly identical for visitors and those who live and work in the area.

- Most shoppers would rather see space taken away from parked cars rather than street vendors.

- The shoppers who value wider sidewalks over parking spent about five times as much money, in aggregate, as those who value parking over sidewalks.

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