2007-09-04 – Shifting to 2 Wheels – NY Times


New York Times
September 4, 2007

On many mornings, as commuters pack themselves into subway trains and drivers squeeze onto the streets, Janette Sadik-Khan, the commissioner of the Department of Transportation, rides her bicycle to work.

That the head of an agency long associated with car travel is an avid bicyclist symbolizes what might be a new way of thinking about how New York’s asphalt should be used. In recent months, the city has pledged to add bicycle racks and hundreds of miles of bike lanes on city streets and has been exploring a program similar to one in Paris in which people can use bikes at minimal cost.

The Bloomberg administration says it wants to develop cycling as a viable transportation alternative to ease traffic congestion, reduce carbon emissions and encourage physical activity. But the new attention to cycling has also encountered resistance in some neighborhoods, especially when it threatens to remove traffic lanes for cars and trucks.

Ms. Sadik-Khan said her time on two wheels has become an important part of her work.

“It’s invaluable to get on a bike and see firsthand the conditions that our projects are trying to address,” said Ms. Sadik-Khan, who became the city’s transportation commissioner in the spring. “We are really emphasizing connectivity in the bicycle lane network, because all cyclists, myself included, know that it’s maddening to be coming along a lane and have it simply end and leave you off on your own on a big avenue.”

To that end, the Bloomberg administration has said it will add 200 miles of bike lanes by 2010 — the equivalent of the number added during the last 20 years.

In 2006, for instance, New York — which officials said was the nation’s first city to build a bike path (along Ocean Parkway, in Brooklyn, in the 1890s) — created only two miles of new street bicycle lanes. By the end of the year, it will have added about 50 more.

In its long-term environmental plan released this year, the city said that by 2030 it will have 1,800 miles of bike lanes and paths. There are now 270 miles of bicycle lanes along city streets and 200 miles of bike paths in parks and along greenways.

Because the lack of safe and adequate bicycle parking has become one of the primary concerns of cyclists, the city has said it will also pursue legislation requiring owners of large commercial office buildings to allow a place for bicycles to be parked indoors. Recent zoning changes in Long Island City, Downtown Brooklyn and the West Side of Manhattan have incorporated that requirement.

Also, the city will install 1,200 new bicycle racks by 2009, in addition to the 4,000 existing racks.

To enhance safety, the Transportation Department has begun to color bicycle lanes with bright green paint in neighborhoods where there are frequent complaints about cars and trucks driving or double-parking, forcing bikes into traffic.

Finally, a team of transportation workers is checking the condition of bike lanes in addition to its regular task of monitoring streets. As the workers check bike lanes for potholes and other hazards, they ride bicycles.

“Cycling, until Bloomberg, had been left off the priority list,” said Noah S. Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit advocacy group. “But things have really shifted quickly over the past year and a half.”

A number of other large cities, including Berlin, Chicago and Paris, have put bicycling at the center of transportation plans.

In July, for example, Paris made 10,600 bicycles available to the public — and will add 10,000 by the end of the year — for one euro a day, or about $1.40. Riders can get the bikes after swiping their credit cards at bicycle docking stations.

Last year, Chicago officials said their goal was to have 5 percent of all trips carried out by bicycle by 2015. The city is also trying to build enough bike paths so that every resident lives within half a mile of one.

But the attention on bikes usually comes at the expense of cars, and some New Yorkers have not been enthusiastic about the changes.

In Brooklyn, the borough president and some residents have complained about the banning of cars in Prospect Park for most of the day, fearing it will worsen traffic around the park. And residents said that new bike lanes have upset the delicate alternate-side parking routines, as some officers have been quick to ticket anyone double-parking in the lanes.

Bicycling in New York has never been for the timid, with its traffic, potholes, pedestrians, extremes in weather, aggressive drivers and high rate of bike theft.

There is even a cautionary tale among bicycle riders — the veracity of which is unclear — about a young man who had just bought a bicycle and was riding back to his apartment in the East Village, the bike’s price tag still attached to the handlebars.

Two men with knives (sometimes described as two teenagers with guns) steal the bike and ride off. When the man reports the crime, a responding police officer tries to soothe him by saying, “That’s O.K., son, you would’ve killed yourself on that thing anyway.”

Still, Transportation Alternatives estimated that 130,000 people currently ride bicycles in the city every day, up from 90,000 in 1998.

Jason Varone, 31, an artist from Brooklyn who rides 20 miles to and from work each day, said new bike paths have made cycling on city streets less treacherous, but more important, have sent a signal to the rest of the city. “Even if your daily commute is not affected,” he said of cyclists, “there’s a clear message from the government that they’re trying to do something.”

The tolerance for cyclists, however, has apparently not extended to Critical Mass, a loosely knit group of bike riders whose once-a-month mass bicycle rides have been met with squads of officers, summonses, bike confiscations and arrests.

The rides, which a few years ago attracted as many as 2,000 riders, now bring out only about 150, organizers said.

The Police Department, which did not respond to questions about Critical Mass for this article, has said that police enforcement was necessary because the group blocked streets and failed to obey traffic laws.

Bill DiPaola, director of Time’s Up!, an environmental advocacy organization that promotes Critical Mass and other group bicycle rides, said that while the city had improved bike access of late, the gains had not come without constant pressure from bicycle advocates.

“We realized a long time ago that the city is not very friendly to bicycling, so our idea was to create group rides,” Mr. DiPaola said.

“We wanted to overwhelm the city with riders, and we got to the point where we could say: ‘Look, this is the wave of the future. You have to adapt to it.’ ”