A Ride Down Hysteria Lane

Do we want bikes to push against traffic or dignify it?

Traffic flattens many romantic views of New York. If our streets flow and pulse, why do braking cars grate our nerves from the Palisades down to Coney Island? And a related question: why is it so hard to get around on a bike? While future planning adjustments would rectify both weaknesses, bikers remain in a precarious mess. We can begin to see how as we approach the city’s great bridges.

The Brooklyn Bridge, like many monumental sites around New York, serves thousands of citizens’ practical purposes. Commuters and runners use it as an extended street. Tourists sometimes need a prompt to walk across it, not just stare at it. It connects downtown Brooklyn’s plazas and boulevards to Lower Manhattan as a veiny network of little river-seeking streets. It’s a gracious rush to flow between these hubs over a stretch of harbor views—that is, until your bike clangs into motorists, barriers, and manic bike messengers. And that’s where sensible planning would help.

Noah Budnick, projects director for advocacy outfit Transportation Alternatives, suggests ways the city can buffer bikes without cramming them in gutters. For low cost, he argues, the city’s Department of Transportation could dedicate “on-street greenways” like those found in Montreal midblocks or in spruced up material on Berlin curbs. This would help riders define the street’s current—and get around faster. Imagine navigating errands or jaunting through scenic New York with a tailwind and no fear of car-door sideswipes.

Right now these types of excursions involve lots of stutter-stops. The standard local bike lane consists of a single stripe, narrow for riders and nettlesome to cars. Riders end up scraping each other. Budnick praises a wider bike lane on Hudson Street, on Manhattan’s West Side. The bike lane is approximately five feet wide, with a white stripe buffer separating bikers and traffic by almost three feet. “Even though drivers can double-park, they don’t,” Budnick says. The wide stripe reminds them that cyclists need space too. A local community board recently asked the city’s Department of Transportation to extend the buffer north a few miles to connect to Central Park.

The city can contemplate such changes in part because the federal government often covers 80 cents of every transportation dollar. But Budnick perceives a different calculus. He describes transportation bigwigs as “always thinking about space they’re taking away from cars.” Luckily, some planning committee members think more broadly. Since 2003, zoning revisions obliged commercial developers in industrial Queens and downtown Brooklyn to provide up to 400 square feet of indoor bike parking. (These zones have seen little new construction, but presumably that’ll change.) In 2005, bump-causing iron plates vanished from the Williamsburg Bridge. And the new “on-street greenway” (it’s asphalt) gives riders room to pass each other en route to the Brooklyn Bridge. This is progress.

But these are minor changes when what’s really needed is a new bike-safe network. As pedestrian traffic swells in Midtown Manhattan and families clog sidewalks throughout gentrifying neighborhoods, bikers ought to find room on the street. More two-lane buffers along arteries to parks and shopping strips would make a huge difference. So would broader bike parking, which Transportation Alternatives wants the City Council to require in office buildings. For now, two-wheeled New Yorkers rely on ingenuity. “I know one person,” says Budnick, “who persuaded the manager at the Empire State Building to let him bring his bike inside.” Until political forces align, one aspect of the New York stereotype will propel biker’s rights—perseverance.

VENTURING OUT: My friend Aaron Naparstek serves as a streetside sage. You can find his defense of bicycles here. To understand how federal money flows (and clogs), inspect the work of NYU professor Allison de Cerreno . And Transportation Alternatives will show you how gritty the city’s bridges get along with other riding tips.

SPEAKING OUT: How meaningful are bike lane widths and parking rules? How do bikes define or enhance public space? What sorts of cities invite biking? How do they do it?

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