I work on 6th Avenue, but more often than not I get off of the subway on 8th and 23rd so I can walk through a bit more “neighborhood” before I get to the office. I’ve noticed in the last few days there is work being done in prep for a new bike lane on 8th similar to the one already installed on 9th.
The basic premise for both of these installations is to create a protected bike lane that protects cyclists and pedestrians from moving traffic. Imagine your favorite bagel shop, then a sidewalk, step off the curb to a 10 foot wide bike lane, an eight foot planted section of pavement that acts as a buffer, a parking lane, and finally three lanes for traffic. Got all of that?
Plenty has already been written about the 9th Avenue lane, and plenty of criticism has been leveled. Outside of those that demand for bikers to obey traffic laws and exhibit some common etiquette to pedestrians, I think most of them are a little off their rockers. Really? A stroller lane? Personally I think the whole design is more I-40 Oklahoma than euro urbanist, but that’s another discussion.¹ It’s going to take a while for the neighborhood to grow accustomed to the cycle track being there, and its going to take some breaking of bad habits that cyclists have.
The biggest hurdle of perception to get over, in my opinion, is that cars can’t park next to the sidewalk. I can see the logic behind some of the arguments; that the barrier makes it appear to be more difficult to access the storefront, therefore those driving by don’t stop, and there is a reduction of customers. But I also wonder if the same arguments were heard if we would have sat in on a community board meeting when someone proposed to take a train and run it from point A to point B – underground. Can you imagine the proprietor’s arguments of Trilby topped men and parisol carrying women not only 20 feet further away, but 20 feet below them!?!? Somehow, the commercial entities of this city have survived and I think the neighborhoods can adapt.
It’s foot traffic that drives commercial sales…and it’s the cyclists interaction with foot traffic that is going to have to undergo the biggest change. First, not every cyclist is a “hipster on a fixie,” the stylish Lance Armstrongs of the world that race against the lights, dodging traffic and causing pedestrians in crosswalks to scatter like dear at first gunshot. But unfortunately they do make up the majority of the cycling population right now, and that doesn’t even cover those that ride on the sidewalks! Cyclists basically need to act more like people, and less like automobiles. We do have the benefit of literally seeing eye to eye with our unprotected urban travelers. So, bikers, obey one way streets, stop at red lights, don’t ride on sidewalks and don’t hit pedestrians. Got it?
Efforts like these protected bike lanes will help the streets function more effectively for its users, but more importantly enable a wider range of people to feel comfortable riding in the city. Cycling in New York City is currently regulated to a few small groups that ride for fitness in the parks, commuters, and bike messengers/delivery. As a generalization, when you take out the fitness and professionals, you’re left with a hard core group of “enthusiasts.” If the city is hoping to create a culture that is similar to that of Portland, Seattle and hopefully Copenhagen, then the city is going to have to undertake construction and educational actions to help the average profile of the cyclist match the average profile of the New Yorker. (Good luck with that, is there an “average” New York citizen?)
But in the long run, the only way a protected biking path system will have true success is if it is linked in a much more fluid way to the rest of the biking network. The planed uptown 8th Avenue lane is projected to run from Canal Street to 23rd Street, paralleling the downtown 9th Avenue lane. That means you could cross over from 9th Avenue to 8th Avenue in a protected lane via Bank Street. It will work well on the stretches of 8th and 9th, but there needs to be a similar protected east west connection to the paths along the Hudson River Parkway, and a similar north/south path needs to be established along the east side of the city. Across Manhattan? Yeah, that would be nice, but we’ve already got plenty of trouble and bad examples to study with the Grand Street painted lane. Fully understanding that these are tests, and that as they succede or are modified they will be expanded in the future, there are still small steps that can be done to help create a better cycling environment in the city.
One of the simplest changes that can be made is addressing how the existing signed bike lanes are demarcated. Every lane needs to be painted green. (Could it have been branded as sustainable transportation any better?) It’s like a carpet, it’s awesome and that’s all I need to say about that. But, the boundaries need improvement and its only four words: raised reflective pavement markers. The green carpet and the installation of simple pavement studs don’t impede regular or emergency traffic in any way, but they do add a visual point of reference different than the common street line, which we all know in New York City is ignored with pride. The only road rule that is obeyed is to not “block the box” and that’s the next small improvement.
Most biking accidents occur at intersections, so the majority of the “cost” and safety-intervention should be placed at those intersections where bike lanes, pedestrians and autos cross. Intersections should be painted and ONLY the intersections that actually cross – i.e. only the crosswalks that run against a cycling and road path rather than all four. It will help those intersections of modes appear to be a little more dangerous. A scheme like this works in places like Copenhagen and in front of Geneva’s Gare de Cornavin by creating a situation where everyone is aware of everyone, and slightly more cautious in the areas that need it. While cycling will help capture mode share from the auto, little changes at intersections will help maintain a working balance between cyclists and pedestrians in New York.
In the end, it is the pedestrians that make our city sociable and create the quality of life we look for; and we need walkable streets as much as we need bike-able streets. I can’t wait to start using these bike lanes for my commutes and various other errands, but at least for the next few weeks, I’ll still be getting off the subway at 23rd and 8th and walking to work.
¹ One issue I didn’t quite want to dive into at this time is the design of the protected barriers and how they fit into the reading of the street. Personally, I agree with the concept of what the city is trying to do, but the execution is completely dreadful when viewed in the context of 9th and 8th Avenue as a public space. What does this bike lane look and function like when viewed against the buildings, sidewalk widths, tree canopies, etc? Do we have a pleasant outdoor room? This is something I’m definitely interested in and will try and write about in more depth, but for now, please check out A Street is a Terrible Thing to Waste Part I and Part II.