May 1, 2011
Anatomy of a Takedown
A recent series of negative articles about New York’s transportation commissioner has our columnist crying foul.
New York City Department of Transportation
The signs of spring are easy to read, even in New York City: the crocuses push up through the newly thawed earth, and daylight lasts a little longer every evening. Equally apparent are the signs of a political takedown. It starts small: in his February 28 column for Crain’s New York Business, Michael Gross, who wrote a cultural exposé on fashion models, took Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his administration to task for imposing a “nanny state” on New York. He singled out Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s bike-lane-building transportation commissioner, labeling her “Roberta Moses.”
A week later, a full-page story in the main news section of the New York Times was devoted to Sadik-Khan and her “brusque I-know-best style.” The premise of the piece was that Sadik-Khan, once viewed as a rising star, was now a liability. Complaints, sourced and anonymous, had her “yelling” at people on the telephone, as if she were the first city official to have raised her voice.
She had also alienated people. Again, this was reported as if it were a first. About 15 paragraphs in, the reporter, Michael M. Grynbaum, offered a synopsis of her accomplishments, or at least the reasons she is “lionized” by her “devotees”: “Two-wheeled ridership has doubled during her tenure; European-style rapid-transit buses now ply exclusive, camera-enforced lanes; and fewer people have been killed in traffic accidents on New York’s street than at any time in the past century.” The implication was that only those “devotees,” wackos of some sort who were not quoted in the piece, might regard these as worthy accomplishments.
Then, two days later, right on schedule, came news of a lawsuit. The Times reporter Grynbaum’s lead summarized the situation accurately: “Well-connected New Yorkers have taken the unusual step of suing the city to remove a controversial bicycle lane in a wealthy neighborhood of Brooklyn …”
And so, there it is. Sadik-Khan’s enlightened Department of Transportation was able to accomplish a remarkable thing. She has come tantalizingly close to building—mostly out of strategically placed green paint, white stripes, and signage—the city’s first new transportation network since … well, since Robert Moses built his highways in the early to mid-20th century. Gross,
I assume, used the sobriquet “Roberta Moses” as an insult, but I see it as high praise. I don’t ride a bicycle daily, but I ride often enough to marvel at how cleverly Sadik-Khan’s DOT has stitched together enough bike lanes—some 250 miles so far—to make cycling in New York borderline practical. She has built something stunningly logical, surprisingly monumental, and genuinely new in a city where most commissioners find it hard to simply keep up with potholes. And she had the audacity to do it on a street where people with political clout live. Time for a little comeuppance.
The bike lane that’s the subject of the lawsuit runs for 1.8 miles along-side Prospect Park, 585 luscious acres of greenery designed, like Central Park, by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted. Prospect Park West, a stretch of historic apartment houses and mansions, is Brooklyn’s answer to Central Park West. It’s a street that has always appealed to the borough’s upper crust.
Prospect Park West is also part of a larger neighborhood called Park Slope, which is, in essence, New York’s Berkeley. Park Slope is full of food-co-op–shopping progressives who raise their children in the most enlightened ways possible. It is literally where the next generation of urban bicyclists is being bred. Generally speaking, Park Slope loves the bike lane: a December survey of more than 3,100 residents by Councilman Brad Lander’s office showed about 70 percent in favor.
Prospect Park West does not share that love. And who lives on Pros-pect Park West? Senator Charles Schumer, for one, and his wife, Iris Weinshall, the city’s previous transportation commissioner and a vocal opponent of the bike lane. A former resident, Borough President Marty Markowitz once asked, “Do we want Brooklyn to replicate Amsterdam?” His answer, obviously, was: No! Neither Weinshall nor Markowitz was listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. It was filed in the name of two obscure organizations: Seniors for Safety and Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes.
They claim that the bike lane represents a radical experiment forced on the neighborhood by a Machiavellian city agency. The suit alleges that the DOT manipulated statistics to show that shrinking three lanes of traffic to two and incorporating the bike lane reduced speeding and increased safety. The suit accuses the DOT of “colluding” with “radical” pro-bike-lane “lobbyists.” Evidence of collusion includes the assertion that “at least one DOT official is registered as ‘friends’ with pro-bike-lane lobbyists on social media sites.” In truth, the bike lane was suggested to the DOT by the neighborhood’s community board. “To suggest that the agency foisted this on the community—it’s just flat-out wrong,” says Craig Hammerman, district manager of Brooklyn’s Community Board 6. “You can’t get wronger than that. The community asked for it.” And the lobbyists in question are what most people would label activists.
This is not the first big dustup over a bike lane since Sadik-Khan took office. In 2008 and 2009, battles raged over a bike lane along Bedford Avenue, a street that is the main drag of hipster Williamsburg and then extends all the way across the borough, ending near the Atlantic Ocean at Sheepshead Bay. The Hasidic community—which lives in a difficult-to-navigate maze of streets in South Williams-burg and largely shuns interaction with the secular city—objected to bicyclists passing through its neighborhood. The administration caved in to political pressure and unpainted the section of the Bedford lane that ran through Hasidic turf.
At a meeting held by Community Board 6 two days after news of the lawsuit broke, the crowd filling a Park Slope high school auditorium was overwhelmingly composed of bike-lane proponents, identifiable by green stickers handed out at the door by members of Transportation Alternatives. (Lobbyists!) One corner of the room was the gathering place for the opponents. And while the occupants of those rows probably skewed older than the auditorium as a whole, supporters and opponents didn’t break down neatly along demographic lines. What seemed to set opponents apart was an insularity, an attitude that bicyclists were some sort of exotic species that belonged on Eighth Avenue, one block west, or in the park itself, but not on their street. In a way, they were as culturally isolated from the rest of Park Slope as the Hasidim are from hipster Williamsburg. It was less the issues they raised—the potential hazard that a two-way bike lane presents to pedestrians, the inconvenience for drivers—but that they had just woken up to the fact that Prospect Park West is part of a larger city and that the city is changing.
On the first tolerably warm Saturday following all this uproar, I rode my three-speed from Soho to Prospect Park, a trip that can now be made almost entirely by bike lane. And as I pedaled along Prospect Park West, being careful to brake for pedestrians, I came to the realization that the lawsuit was not filed because Sadik-Khan and her department had built a bad bike lane, one so flawed that it needed to be expunged. No, the plaintiffs sued because the Prospect Park West bike lane is a great one, with plenty of space for two-way bike traffic and enough of a cushion next to the parked cars to prevent bikers from getting “doored” and drivers from stepping into the path of oncoming bikes. When you’re on it, it feels like the kind of bike lane you might find in a city where cycling is a pleasure, like Portland, Oregon, or—yes, Marty—Amsterdam. I was impressed by the magnitude of the change. If I were in charge of New York, I’d give Sadik-Khan a ticker-tape parade, because she’s truly made change happen. Instead, her reward is a takedown.