Cycling In The City
November, 22, 2004
by Mark Berkey-Gerard
Cyclists riding across the Brooklyn Bridge. New York City has 480 miles of bike lanes and paths, including one over each East River bridge.
Stu Cohen has not been involved in any of the police clashes or court cases or competing City Hall bills of the past few months. He does not see himself as a bike warrior. He simply wants to do what the majority of residents of Amsterdam, eight million Chinese in Beijing, and a half million or so other Americans (according to an estimate by the U.S. Census) do every weekday. He wants to use his bicycle as his principal means of transportation.
So, how did he get into that argument over his bike last week in the middle of Tiffany’s?
“I always take my bike in with me,” Cohen told the employee at the Fifth Avenue jewelry store who stopped him. “It’s a folding bike; it’s the same size as a stroller.” It made no difference; he would still have to leave.
It isn’t easy being one of some 100,000 daily bicycle riders in New York City.
Yes, cycling is fast, cheap, and pollution free. Yes, as any of those bicyclists will tell you, it offers good exercise and provides a great sense of freedom.
But Cohen, who commutes via a Dahon-brand folding commuter bike from his home in Stuyvesant Town to his job in a non-profit agency in Tribeca, also has the typical catalogue of bicyclist’s woes — he sometimes gets bike grease on his pant leg (he wears a dress shirt and khakis, rather than spandex); he has been “doored,” the term cyclists use when a car door unexpectedly opens in front of them; he was recently cut off by a car with a “W” sticker.
And if New York has become a better place to bike in recent years, bicycling in the city has somehow, in recent months, become a political act — even a criminal act.
Arrests at a Critical Mass event
More than 250 cyclists were arrested and had their bikes confiscated in protests of the Republican National Convention this summer. Since then, bike advocates, the city, and the New York Police Department have been battling in a series of lawsuits that will decide how, when, and where groups of cyclists can ride. (See related article Can Critical Mass Negotiate a Truce?)
Recently, Bronx City Councilmember Madeline Provenzano introduced a bill that would require licenses on every bike in the city – and threatens jail time for those who do not comply. Cycling groups say Provenzano has a history of being anti-bike: she has stalled another bill that would allow bikes inside public buildings and even tried to remove bike lanes from her neighborhood.
“I have personally had a lot of trouble with bikes,” Provenzano said.
THE STATE OF CYCLING IN THE CITY
The city’s first urban bike path opened in 1895 along Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. On the first day, 10,000 riders showed up to ride, and it continued to be so popular that the city widened it.
A century later, that bikeway was still heavily used, but there were few others. In 1994, the city with some 5,700 miles of streets had only 56 miles of bike paths. An invention called the automobile had pushed the bike aside.
Over the last decade, however, things have changed considerably.
After years of work by cycling advocates and with millions of dollars in federal transportation funding aimed at reducing traffic and pollution, the city has begun to build more bike lanes, install bike racks, and outline a plan for car-free greenways, including a 32-mile loop around Manhattan.
Today, there are 408 miles of bike lanes and paths in the city, and pedestrian and bike pathways over each of the East River bridges.
“We hope that one day New York will be one of the world’s great bicycling cities.” Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall recently told the New York Times.
Still with all of these measures, New York can’t exactly be called bike friendly.
An average of 20 cyclists are killed each year by motor vehicles. A reminder of the danger of riding on the city streets came last Thursday when a bike messenger was killed in midtown after he tried to swerve around a double-parked truck.
New York City is also often referred to as “the bike theft capital of the world.” Between 60,000 and 80,000 bikes are reported stolen each year (many more go unreported), and only two percent are ever recovered, according to the New York Police Department.
Some of the heaviest and most expensive bike locks on the market are named after the city: an eight pound, steel chain that sells for $129.99 is called the “New York Fahgettaboudit” lock.
When it comes to policies that encourage cycling, New York surely lags behind European cities, but it is a poor second to other U.S. cities as well. Chicago is planning a downtown “bike station,” where cyclists can safely lock their bikes, take a shower, and even grab a cup of coffee on the way to work.
“We’re doing little better than running in place,” said Charles Komanoff, a long-time cycling activist who has been riding in New York for 30 years.
The city’s streets can be hostile and dangerous places.
Many motorists – who already spend hours stuck in traffic – do not welcome cyclists or bike lanes and complain that cyclists don’t follow traffic laws.
“The bike lane on 62nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues is a nightmare for us residents,” Sunset Park resident Noel Waters wrote on the Community Gazette’s message board. “The lane has no connecting points. Nobody asked for it and nobody uses it. The Department of Transportation has allowed double parking outside the lane on alternate parking days in order to keep the bike lane open, which I’ve never seen a cyclist on.”
Cyclists, in turn, often feel threatened by cars that cut them off, park in bike lanes, or honk their horns. And some cyclists lash out.
“I scream, bang on hoods, and I’ve taken off side mirrors,” said Mike Kowalski, who manages a bike store in Tribeca. “If a car gets into my lane, I see it as a violation.”
While cars, bikes, and pedestrians all have rights to the city streets and are required to abide by traffic regulations, the real issue, advocates argue, is which party can do the most harm. Roughly 200 pedestrians are killed each year by cars, compared to about one pedestrian every couple of years who is killed by a bike.
Critical Mass riders state their views
On the last Friday of every month, the battle between bikes and cars plays out in a dramatic event, called Critical Mass.
Hundreds of cyclists ride together in a large group, taking over street lanes, riding over bridges usually open only to cars, and occasionally stopping in the middle of a busy intersection, raising their bikes in the air, and shouting slogans like “One Less Car.”
The goal is to raise awareness of bicyclist and pedestrian rights and promote alternative forms of transportation, but it also offers cyclists the rush of speeding through the city’s streets in the safety of a large crowd of other bicyclists.
For years, a few hundred participants have attended the New York City event, often with police escorts and little objection from city officials.
In August, a few days before the start of the Republican National Convention, 5,000 cyclists joined in the ride. The police, already prepared for the dozens of anti-Bush protests that would occur over the next few days, wrapped giant nets around part of the group, arresting more than 250 for traffic violations and disorderly conduct and seizing many bikes.
Since then, city officials and city cyclists have been locked in a legal battle.
In September, five cyclists, who had their bikes confiscated, went to court to block the city from seizing more bikes. A federal judge ruled in their favor, saying that the city could not take bikes of people who were not charged with breaking the law.
The city, arguing that the ride is a safety hazard and violates traffic rules, asked the court to ban the cyclists from riding without a proper parade permit or even to congregate at the usual meeting place at Union Square without permission from the parks department.
Lawyers for the cyclists say they do not need a permit. Bicycles, they say, have as much legal right to the road as automobiles, and the millions of cars that clog the city streets every day do not need a permit.
The battle between Critical Mass and the city has divided cyclists. Some say a group of reckless bikers are hurting the cause. But others argue that the case is helping build new grassroots support for cycling.
“The more people who bike the better,” said Noah Budnick of Transportation Alternatives.
A BIKING BACKLASH?
Citing the issues with Critical Mass and her own negative encounters with reckless cyclists, Bronx City Councilmember Madeline Provenzano recently proposed a bill (Intro 497) that would require bike riders over the age of 16 to register their bike with the Department of Transportation and pay a fee of no more than $25.
Those who fail to do so would be subject to a fine of up to $300 and up to 15 days in jail.
“I have personally had folks ride their bikes into my car, and there is nothing you can do legally.” said Provenzano. “Bikes should be subject to all of the same laws as automobiles.”
Last year, Provenzano tried to get bike lanes removed from her Bronx neighborhood after 19 residents of Morris Park received tickets for parking in the lane. She said the lanes were painted incorrectly, are barely used, and the local community board did not want any bike lanes in the area.
The group Transportation Alternatives called the council member’s bill “a malicious attack against people who ride bikes in New York City.”
The Department of Transportation did not return calls seeking comment on the bill, but few other council members have voiced strong support for it.
When City Councilmember John Liu, who chairs the transportation committee, was asked about the bill, he told Newsday; “When I was a kid, I had a license plate on my bike. I’m trying to remember which cereal box I got it from.”
WHAT CYCLISTS WANT – AND THE ROADBLOCKS THEY FACE
Cycling advocates argue that bold new policies are needed in order to convert an average New Yorker who may ride along the bike path a few times a year into someone who considers a bike as a mode of transportation on par with the subway, a bus, or taxi-cab.
1. Bikes in Buildings
The first hurdle, advocates say, is for the city to allow bikes inside buildings. There is a shortage of bike racks in the city, just 1 for every 33 riders. In surveys, New Yorkers have cited concerns over theft as the biggest deterrent to cycling in the city.
In 1999, a bill (Intro 155) was introduced to the City Council that would that would require all buildings to make reasonable provisions for those who wish to bring bicycles into their workplace.
But in the five years since the bill was introduced, it has gone nowhere. For the last two years, Councilmember Madeline Provenzano, who chairs the Housing and Buildings committee, has refused to hold a hearing on it.
When asked about the measure, Provenzano said she thought it was a “good bill,” but that the commitee’s schedule is full until the end of the year. But she said she may consider it next year.
“And of course, I’d like to consider my [bike license] bill at the same time,” she said.
2. Car-Free Areas
Another issue is creating more car-free areas in the city. Those that do exist are often crowded. The Hudson River is frequently filled with cyclists, rollerbladers, joggers, and walkers.
For years, pedestrians and cyclists have been trying to ban automobiles from Central Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Both parks already have some car-free hours. Automobiles use the drives during morning and evening rush hours during the summer, but pedestrians and cyclists want cars banned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Transportation officials argue that banning cars from the parks would force automobiles onto side streets, particularly during rush hour, creating havoc for drivers and the surrounding neighborhoods. Despite support from environmental groups and the majority of the City Council members that represent the neighborhoods adjacent to both Central Park and Prospect Park, the effort to make parks car free has not been successful.
3. Traffic Enforcement
New York City automobile drivers run 1.2 million red lights a day, according to a 2000 report by the city comptroller. Advocates also say the police must do a better job of enforcing traffic laws and politicians must create spnger penalties for drivers who hit pedestrians and cyclists.
Red light cameras, which can spot someone running a light and issue a summons through the mail, can help law enforcement cover more of the city. However, legislation that would pay for more red light cameras is currently stalled in Albany.
4. Reduce Number of Cars
Some advocate more stringent methods. The only way to really make streets safer, they say, is to reduce the number of cars on the road. And one way to do that is to add tolls to the East River Bridges or fees to use certain streets in the city.
London began issuing a “congestion charge” for motorists who drive through the central part of the city. The number of cars decreased, and the number of bicyclists increased. The money raised from the charge goes back into improving the city’s transportation system.
The idea of putting tolls on East River bridges comes up periodically, most recently from Mayor Michael Bloomberg who proposed a toll in order to help balance the budget. The plan never materialized and recently Bloomberg called the idea “impossible to enact.”
IS CYCLING A CULTURAL THING?
Even if all of these suggestions were implemented it is unlikely that New Yorkers would rely on bikes in the same way the Chinese or Europeans do. Car culture pervades America, and to a certain extent New York.
Charles Komanoff believes that this can change over time. The more people bike, the less abnormal it will seem; the less abnormal it seems, the more people will bike. He adds that New York City is already on its way to being separate from the rest of the country, both culturally and politically.
New York City is already the only city in the country where most residents don’t own a car. Komanoff dreams of a New York City “where you don’t have to be an athletic, young, risk-taking eco-freak to be a cyclist.”