by Arun Venugopal
October 30, 2007
NEW YORK, NYâ€”Congestion pricing may have grabbed the headlines in recent months but it’s not the only way the city is trying to cut traffic and pollution. As part of Mayor Bloomberg’s environmental initiative, known as PlanYC, the city is set to have 1800 miles of bike lanes in place by 2030. But even before the policy shift, a trend has been underway on the streets, attracting more bike riders by the day. WNYC’s Arun Venugopal strapped on a helmet and followed the trail.
REPORTER: When you ride a bike in New York, you get a different take on the city, soaring along the streets even as you observe the many oddities of urban life.
NOAH BUDNICK: Was that guy taking a urine sample of his dog?
ARUN: I think it was a pregnancy test, actually.
REPORTER: That’s Noah Budnick, the deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. On a recent weekday the two of us decided to take a bike ride in Manhattan.
To hear it from people like Noah, biking is finally having its moment in this city, and bike advocates are no longer confined to the political fringe. The number of riders is steadily going up – as it has been for years. He credits the drop in crime, the creation of bike lanes on the west side and the East River bridges, and the influx of young professionals, who may have biked in college. The difference now is that Mayor Bloomberg and the city have made the switch as well, with the launch of PlaNYC.
BUDNICK: City Hall has really recommitted itself to promoting cycling. The city’s bike program has doubled or tripled in staff size. They’ve kept pace with their goals of adding 200 miles of bike lanes by the time the mayor finishes his term in 2009.
REPORTER: One of its biggest innovations is the city’s – and probably the nation’s – first protected bike lane, along a 7-block stretch of 9th Avenue. Here, the bike lane is separated from car traffic by a lane reserved for parked cars. And as you ride in it, you realize how much more relaxing it is.
BUDNICK: This is a tremendous improvement because now, as you ride your bike, bike riders are not thrust into the stream of moving traffic next to drivers who are going 30 or 40 miles an hour.
REPORTER: The protected lane is an import from Copenhagen, where over one third of the population bikes to work. That’s compared to about point-five percent of New Yorkers. Jan Gehl is an urban designer, also from Copenhagen, who advises the city’s Department of Transportation. Like his friend and mentor, the late Jane Jacobs, Gehl speaks of the ‘humanization’ of the city’s streets, which he thinks have become ‘infested’ by cars. But Gehl thinks Manhattan, given its density and flatness, is perfectly positioned for a wide-scale conversion.
GEHL: It would be a piece of cake to have a really high class bicycle system which could take care of half of the commuting in Manhattan.
REPORTER: Gehl thinks that the political pressures arising from gas prices and the green movement will force the city to adopt bicycling fast. He says real change may be visible here within 5 years, and that the city could be profoundly altered in about 10 years. As more people take to riding bikes, it becomes safer, which in turn encourages more people to ride. Gehl sees major economic benefits as well, as people tend to linger more – in public plazas, or stores or sidewalk cafes – when air and noise pollution go down.
GEHL: In Europe increasingly we are trying to make the cities so that they are wonderful places, where you like to go out and sit and have meals and watch your fellow citizens, talk with them in spaces which are not completely filled with noise. Something about being a public citizens who enjoys his city.
REPORTER: One of the strongest signs that the Bloomberg administration had shifted to a more bike-and-pedestrian friendly stance came in the spring, with the appointment of Janette Sadik Khan as the transportation commissioner. Sadik-Khan is herself a cyclist who rides to work each day from her home in the West Village.
JANETTE SADIK-KHAN: It would be great if we had a network that really got to where you wanted to go. What we’ve got is kind of a crazy quilt, right now, and part of a bike lane will drop you off, and suddenly you’re in the midst of traffic. So we’re trying to build a bike backbone that makes it possible to get where they need to go in a safe and efficient manner.
REPORTER: What the Department of Transportation can’t do, however, in regards to cycling, is enforce the laws, namely the many cars that double park and block bike lanes. Enforcement is up the police department.
SADIK-KHAN: I’ve had conversations with Commissioner Kelly, who’s very understanding about this. Of course, we’ve got limited enforcement personnel, so we’ve got to make the best use of what we’ve got.
REPORTER: Not really, says Judy Ross of the environmental group Time’s Up. The organization promotes the Critical Mass group rides, which are regularly targeted by the police.
ROSS: I think anybody who doubts that the police has resources, you can come to a Critical Mass ride, the last Friday of every month, and see the police surrounding Union Square, waiting to arrest and ticket cyclists. You’ll see lots of resources being spent for that.
REPORTER: Ross says the city has made great strides in promoting cycling, and feels particularly excited about the 9th avenue bike lane. But she says the NYPD has a lax attitude about protecting cyclists.
The NYPD didn’t respond to a number of questions regarding enforcement. The one figure it did share, is that this year, traffic officers have passed out over 28 thousand tickets to cars parked in bike lanes. That’s more than twice as many as it passed out for the same period of time last year.
Since 1998, as the number of cyclists has grown, the number of injuries among bicyclists has declined by nearly 40 percent. For its part the city has handed out 10,000 free helmets and now requires delivery men to wear helmets while on the job. But the streets can still feel dangerous – Noah Budnick himself was nearly killed in an accident a couple years ago, and spent 2 months in the ICU. He’s not even sure what happened. But he’s a cyclist at heart, and soon, he was back to biking.
As we ride along 8th avenue, we’re forced into the car lane because of all the double-parking law-breakers.
At one point, a man in a huge SUV pulls up next to us and honks his horn. The driver rolls down his window, and he shouts, ‘There’s only one bike lane, bro!’
Noah ignores him, then watches as the guy runs a red light. And he’s at peace.
BUDNICK: the next thing, he’s stuck in gridlock, and you’re 10 blocks ahead of him five minutes later. Brings a smile.
REPORTER: Until the next looming vehicle, that is, or surprise pothole. Or that passenger in the back of a taxi, who unknowingly opens the door in front of a zooming bike.
For WNYC, I’m Arun Venugopal.
Time’s Up will be mobilizing a ‘Bicycle Clown Brigade’ this Saturday, which will descend on the new 9th Avenue bike lane in clown suits and makeup in hopes of clearing the street of illegally parked cars, followed by a celebration. The ride is open to the public, and starts at 1:30 at 49 East Houston Street.