The Bike Lane Bicker

In the last few weeks, the drama unfolding about the Prospect Park West bike-lane has been tough to ignore. So, I decided I would finally chime in on it. I have personal thoughts on the amount of time on peoples’ hands to sue the Department of Transportation (DOT) over the loss of 6 parking spaces and alterations to the aesthetics of a street, under the guise of false protocol. However, from a larger sustainability and urbanization perspective, there are some legitimate points that are worth pondering. Matthew Shaer’s article in NY Magazine’s, “Bikelash,” was a good stimulant to these thoughts. So, I highly recommend reading that to get the who’s who in this whole debacle.

While much of this conflict is based on DOT Commissioner Jeanette Sadik-Khan and her efforts to create hundreds of miles of new bike lanes in New York City, that to me is just the politics as usual of the story. I would be surprised to talk to one New Yorker who doesn’t have a gripe with any number of politicians and one of their initiatives. Sure Sadik-Khan has moved her ambitious projects forward without buy in from local council members (a huge critique of her performance) but if this were a policy that these disgruntled council members were behind, the expediency and force would be a benefit, right? My point here is that leaving those pesky politics aside, most of this has to do with larger urban transitions and a city that people feel is changing right under their noses and well, we humans fear change.

I won’t try and make the comparison between Copenhagen or Portland or other cycle friendly world capitals. But I would emphasize that Copenhagen’s successful redistribution of single passenger vehicle traffic to public transit and cycling means that now fully one third of city residents rely on these transit methods respectively. And this is a good thing that seems like a worthy goal when we think of 1 million new New Yorkers by 2030 and all the cars and potential emissions they bring with them.  Sadik-Khan says that her policies are viewed as radical because they take the focus away from cars as the ruler of the road. There is that whole, “we fear change” thing again.  But an important point mentioned in Shaer’s article is that if the bike lanes are going to work, it means a willingness to share. I haven’t quite decided if New Yorkers are good at that. On the one hand, we are forced to. It is a necessity of dense urban living and random acts of kindness are pretty easy to spot on a daily basis. But greed, territoriality and an I-am-too-busy-for-this mentality are also extremely pervasive.  We are also notoriously a city of service and convenience. If something gets in the way of that, watch out. This can be seen in opponents voicing complaints that the bike lanes result in slower traffic speeds. They are meant to.  That is not an unwanted bi-product.

Perhaps these issues speak to the heart of tension though; a willingness to share (things, not grand ideas about what it means to be a New Yorker) and slow driving sounds like some sort of bucolic urban utopia that doesn’t necessarily describe New York City. But many things are changing in this city, all the time.  We are facing vast cutbacks to basic  education,  continual increases in the cost of living, a slow growth economy and a number of other looming challenges.  I think that the physical and visual changes we see in the city are taking the brunt of peoples’ angst and fury. Bike lanes are the new high-rise condo, forever changing the city scape we know. The difference is, the former does have the potential to be an inclusive piece of infrastructure for all New Yorkers today and those who will live here many years from now.  Ask David Byrne or anyone else really, riding a bike around in New York City can be a very liberating activity. Maybe what we need to focus on are how crowded the bike paths within parks (think the West Side bike-path on a spring day. Yikes!) and other protected places are. There we can see that people actually do want to engage in this activity, sometimes for play, sometimes for work, as long as they feel safe. Now we just have to build the opportunities for them to do so, which I believe is the role of a politician, or in this case, a commissioner.



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