Bike Lanes, Intended for Safety, Become Traffic Battlegrounds
The New York Times
May 4, 2008
By COLIN MOYNIHAN
James Frederick was in Manhattan cycling west in the Prince Street bike lane on a recent morning when a green Ford parked in the lane forced him to swerve into the narrow roadway where cars and vans were rushing past.
“It’s kind of scary because the cars next to you just keep going,” said Mr. Frederick, 49, a messenger who lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. “The city just put this lane in a few months ago, but it’s not respected by drivers.”
On streets clogged by pollution-emitting cars, buses and trucks, New York City’s quest to establish reasonably safe cycling paths by adding to its roughly 300 miles of bicycle lanes has been welcomed by cyclists. But the lanes are often battlegrounds between cyclists and drivers who seem undeterred by the clearly demarcated paths.
Although city regulations forbid cars from blocking bike lanes — a violation that carries a $115 fine — those rules are routinely ignored by drivers who use the lanes as parking spots, loading zones and places to pick up passengers. Such maneuvers have enraged cyclists who say they are unlawful, rude and dangerous.
Some bicyclists have resorted to inventive means to discourage the incursions. On a recent weeknight, nine men and women rode their bikes through the West Village on an outing — unsanctioned by the city — intended to make the lanes more prominent.
At a bike lane on Hudson Street near Christopher Street, one rider placed a cardboard stencil on the pavement, and others covered it with white spray paint. When they lifted the stencil an image of an automobile bisected by a diagonal line was left behind.
“I want to remind drivers that it is not all right to be in bike lanes,” said Barbara Ross, 44, a human resources manager, who lives on the Lower East Side and has been a volunteer for Times Up!, an environmental group that promotes nonpolluting transportation. “A lot of drivers don’t think twice about parking in a bike lane because no one tells them not to.”
Over the next two hours, the bicyclists roamed north, creating a variety of painted images including ones in the shape of a bicycle with a heart and the words “love lane.”
While painting messages on public streets is illegal, Ms. Ross and her companions said that they meant their markings as a service. Most bike lanes in New York are separated from cars only by stripes of white paint, they said, and additional reminders are likely to help cyclists and, maybe, yield more respect from drivers.
The city has also been examining bike lanes with an eye toward improvements. The Transportation Department has widened some bike lanes and added painted buffer zones to further separate vehicles from bikes. Some bike lanes in Brooklyn and Manhattan have been painted green to make them more visible.
And in a report last month, the department announced that it was continuing a project begun in 2006 to add 200 miles of bike lanes to city streets over three years. That plan would also create lanes that connect highly trafficked roads and lead to popular destinations, like parks and bridges. Agency officials said that 110 of those 200 miles would be finished by the end of June.
“We believe that a connected network of bicycle lanes throughout the city increases safety, comfort and mobility for cyclists,” the transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, said in a statement.
While talk of bike lanes might seem a recent development in a city not always regarded as being bike-friendly, New York was home to the country’s first bike path, in 1894 — along Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn connecting Prospect Park and Coney Island, according the Transportation Department’s Web site.
In 1970, Mayor John V. Lindsay joined about 1,000 people in a bike ride down Fifth Avenue sponsored by a group campaigning for bike lanes. But his support for the group waned and the campaign essentially fizzled.
Ten years later, Mayor Edward I. Koch became frustrated when bike lanes that he had built on main thoroughfares like Fifth Avenue and Broadway, which were separated from motor vehicles by asphalt islands, were criticized by drivers and pedestrians and, even worse, ignored by many cyclists. As a result, he ordered that the islands be removed.
But Mr. Koch’s idea to create a barrier between bikes and cars was revived last year when the city built a special lane on Ninth Avenue, from 16th to 23rd Streets, in which a line of parking spaces separates a bike lane from three vehicular lanes. Cyclists have generally praised the project, but many complain that vehicles still routinely stop in other lanes around the city.
In response, some cyclists have handed out fake but realistic-looking summonses to drivers in bike lanes, leading at times to arguments. Others said they have slapped stickers on cars that look like those pasted on vehicles that fail to make way for the Sanitation Department street sweepers.
One cyclist has started a Web site, nyc.mybikelane.com, where people can post photographs of motor vehicles in bike lanes. Photos have shown livery sedans, armored cars, city vehicles and newspaper delivery trucks.
Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the Police Department, said that there had been a significant increase over the last year in summonses issued to drivers for double parking and moving violations, and for standing in areas, including bike lanes, where that is not permitted.
“Motorists who park or stand in bike lanes can expect to be ticketed,” he said.
And what might the nighttime campaign to give some bike paths greater prominence yield? A visit the next day to some bike lanes in Lower Manhattan found several cars and trucks standing or parked on the paths. On Second Avenue, Lynn Roman, a 42-year-old construction company employee, sat behind the wheel of a gray Toyota Land Cruiser just north of St. Mark’s Place.
Ms. Roman said she planned to be there only briefly while a passenger ran an errand but added that she rarely paid attention to bike lanes.
“I have other things on my mind,” she said. “This is the city. Bike lanes belong in parks.”
A few moments later, Jon Weiner, 34, a sound engineer from TriBeCa who was riding a BMX bike, said he had come to expect a cavalier attitude from drivers in bike lanes.
“A lot of them don’t seem to have any idea that they’re doing it,” he said. “And if they do they don’t care.”