An Endless Cycle

On a sunny day, eerily warm for its season—the kind that makes people mutter, “global warming”—cyclists are out in full force. It’s a steep uphill slog on the bike path ascending the Williamsburg Bridge from Brooklyn, which some climb with apparent ease, while others surrender and walk their bikes up the slope. The promised land lies at the bridge’s apex, from which it’s a blissful downhill glide. The East River shimmers as riders, cruising above cars and speeding subway trains, slide into Manhattan. A sign greets cyclists, pedestrians, and cars coming off the bridge:

“Welcome to Manhattan.”

But cyclists may not feel so welcome entering traffic-jammed Delancey Street. As they leave the safety of the Williamsburg Bridge path, there’s no bikeway to be found. They breeze down the exit ramp into a jumbled mess of cars and delivery trucks, weaving through like pilots evading enemy attack.

“There’s not going to be a nice cushy bike path wherever you go,” says Michael Hunecke, holding his silver racing bike at the foot of the bridge. “You’re going to have to throw yourself in traffic at some point.”

Advocates are hoping to change that by pushing the city to build more lanes and paths that offer protection for cyclists from the interminable tide of cars that race along New York City streets. After years of slow progress, last summer the City announced a plan to add 240 bikeway miles to the existing 440-mile network by 2009.

But is the city moving fast enough?

In the decade from 1996 to 2005, 225 cyclists died on New York City streets, according to a City report. Only one occurred in a marked bike lane. Not only would additional lanes save lives, say advocates, but they would encourage more cycling, promoting quiet, non-polluting transportation that improves the urban environment for everyone.

Bikeways are proven to spur cycling, says Transportation Alternatives, an organization that works to decrease car use in the city. Since a bike path on the Hudson River Greenway opened in 2001, cycling activity there has almost tripled. “The old saying rings true,” says Caroline Samponaro, the group’s bicycle campaign coordinator. “If you build it, they will come.”

New York City’s current bicycle “facilities” include 200 miles of Class I bike paths, which are physically separated from vehicular traffic; 175 miles of Class II bike lanes, demarcated by painted lines; and 65 miles of Class III signed routes, which offer no physical separation from vehicles. With last summer’s announcement, the Department of Transportation said it would add five miles of new paths, 150 miles of lanes, and 45 miles of signed routes; the Department of Parks and Recreation plans to add another 40 greenway miles.

The 240 new miles will form the backbone of a larger, planned bicycle network, and will allow riders to travel through all five boroughs without leaving a bike path, says Chris Gilbride, a Transportation Department spokesperson.

The network, conceived a decade ago as part of a City-drafted Bicycle Master Plan intended to help reduce fuel consumption and traffic congestion, called for 1,800 bikeway miles throughout New York City—1,300 miles on or adjacent to roadways and 500 miles of park paths like the Hudson River Greenway.

However, the plan has no target date for completion. When it was drafted almost 10 years ago, the city already had about 200 miles of bicycle facilities, the Department of Transportation says, and since then, bikeway miles have more than doubled. But even with what the city calls its ambitious, “unprecedented” 240-new-miles-plan, the network will be little more than one-third complete—12 years after the master plan’s conception.

“The Master Plan is a conceptual document,” explains Josh Benson, the bike director for the Department of Transportation. “It’s not an installation schedule.” The city can’t yet say when the network will be complete, he adds. “We want everything to be thought out. We want to carefully design everything…. It’s just time consuming.”

But Transportation Alternatives wants the department to create a concrete timeline for completion of the network. Samponaro cites Chicago as an example: Its city officials have pledged to create a bikeway within half a mile of every resident by 2015.

As the warmth of the day yields to cold night and rush hour hits full swing, cyclists with flashing red and white lights attached to their bikes, bodies, and backpacks struggle onto the Brooklyn Bridge from Centre Street. There’s a bike lane going southbound on Centre, but it’s blocked by two parked New York City Transit vans, forcing bikers to veer into the street and jockey with cars for a sliver of asphalt. Even where lanes exist, illegally parked cars often block them.

“It’s a struggle” to navigate downtown on a bike, says Shouwen Tang, a helmeted 50-year-old who sits on her mountain bike by the mouth of the bridge, waiting for her husband to join her on their customary ride home after work. The ride gets much easier once they hit the Brooklyn side, Tang says.

In Brooklyn, Tang and her husband will ease on to a path at Tillary Street, one of the few on-street lanes in the boroughs that’s separated from cars by a concrete barrier. From there, they can connect to the Clinton Street bike lane and cruise home to Brooklyn Heights.

Despite what many advocates see as the City’s sluggish pace in creating bikeways like these in Brooklyn, more riders are taking to the streets. Cycling in New York City has grown more popular over the past decade, according to Transportation Alternatives. The number of riders has doubled to an estimated 110,000 a day, while the number of injuries and fatalities has decreased by almost half. In 2006, Bicycling Magazine named New York the third best U.S. city for cycling, behind San Diego and Chicago, citing the Hudson River Greenway, the extended car-free hours in Central Park, and a planned greenway that will ultimately encircle Manhattan.

But advocates are pressing for more revolutionary change—they want to provide a haven for cyclists on New York City’s streets.

“New York City could be one of the best bicycling cities in the world,” says Aaron Naparstek, editor of Streetsblog and an advocate for “livable streets,” a movement seeking to improve urban public spaces. “It’s flat and compact; people live near where they work and where they shop. That’s the recipe for a great bicycling city.”

Naparstek looks to a city like Copenhagen, where about a third of commuters travel on an elaborate cycling network. In Copenhagen, he says, the curbside street space is separated from automobile traffic and used as bike paths. In New York, this same space is used for parking. Whereas the vast majority of New York’s on-street bike lanes are “paint on concrete,” the Copenhagen paths allow “old people, people without helmets and people with groceries to ride without fear,” he says.

To accomplish that kind of drastic change, New York City would have to eliminate street parking and car lanes to install separated bike paths. “I don’t think we are at a place yet where the Department of Transportation, elected officials, and community boards are ready to make that leap,” says Naparstek.

He’s right: Though the Transportation Department removed 20 parking spaces to build Brooklyn’s Tillary Street path, the agency rarely eliminates parking to build lanes, says Benson; it generally adds bike lanes only where existing car lanes are wide enough to accommodate them. The City will only remove car lanes to install bikeways if analysis shows that the shift won’t impede traffic, as happened last spring on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan.

“It’d be nice to say we favor bike lanes over vehicular traffic, but it would be too simplistic a way to look at use of the roadways,” says Benson. “The streets are absolutely critical to the economics and day-to-day life…We try to encourage people to bicycle by making bicycling more attractive, rather than making it less attractive to drive.”

“It’s a balancing act,” he says.

But Naparstek and other livable streets advocates say the balance is heavily tilted toward cars. They want to curtail vehicular traffic and create more space for alternative transportation, changing the urban streetscape and making the environment cleaner and less noisy. Encouraging cycling alone won’t reduce traffic, says Naparstek. To do that, the city would have to make driving less desirable by cutting back on car lanes and parking space, or by adding tolls and surcharges.

“Bicycling makes sense. It’s clean. It doesn’t pollute the air. It doesn’t burn oil. It doesn’t make a lot of noise, or take up a lot of space,” says Naparstek. “I even think it makes people happy. It’s pleasurable and it connects you to community, the environment, and to other people on the street in a way that sitting inside a 6,000 pound SUV does not.”

Monty Smith, a 43-year-old Jamaican bike messenger who sits on the window-ledge outside Metro Bicycles on Canal Street, agrees.

“You don’t get stressed out when you ride a bike,” he says. “If you feel a little sick, a little tired—if you ride a quarter mile, you’re going to feel real good.”

Contributor

James Angelos

James Angelos is a writer who lives in Greenpoint.

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