A CRISPier Way to Build NYC’s 200+ Miles of New Bike Lanes?

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See the world’s first music video about shared-lane bike markings by Streetfilms Clarence Eckerson.

At times over the last two and a half years I have done quite a bit of organizing and advocacy work to help get new bicycle lanes and shared-lane markings installed on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, my neighborhood’s main bike route. Though I was the community person leading the initiative and was often in close contact with the Department of Transportation staffers responsible for the project, I still found myself surprised when the bicycle stencils went down on the street a couple of weekends ago. The markings were different than what I had expected.

The main goal of the shared-lane markings, as I understood them based on my conversations with DOT, are to help motorists and cyclists know that bikes have a right to ride in the travel lane along the narrower stretch of the Avenue. As such, I expected that the stencils would be painted smack in the middle of the travel lane, similar to Berkeley, California’s Bike Boulevard markings. Instead, the Fifth Avenue stencils, modeled after San Francisco’s "Sharrows," were placed along one side of the travel lane, just outside the range of parked cars’ doors.

shared-lane-5th-ave_1.jpgSharrows have been studied and tested and are supposed to provide real benefits to cyclists. Yet, to my eye, stencils along one side of the travel lane don’t send the message that bikes have a right to the middle of the road. Rather, they seem to send the message that cyclists should be riding in the margins, squeezing between parked cars and moving traffic. I imagine a number of motorists will read them the same way and feel justified in blasting their horns at cyclists riding in front of them. This, I thought, was contrary to DOT and the community’s goal for the shared-lane markings.

I don’t bring this up to complain about the new markings or bash DOT. Overall, I think the stencils are a step forward and, though there was friction at times, I think the collaboration with DOT was constructive. I probably should have asked to see the design before the stencils went down. I bring up this issue to highlight the broader question of community involvement in designing and building New York City’s growing bicycle network.

As thoughtful, involved (and occasionally cranky) cyclists debate bike lane design here on Streetsblog and as New York City’s Department of Transportation embarks on its effort to produce 200+ miles of new bike lanes over the next three years, one of the big, outstanding questions is, simply: What is the most constructive way for cycling advocates and city government to work together and interact? How can we best put our heads together and use our resources to make New York a better biking city?

In trying to answer this question, it is worth taking another look at London’ England’s new Cycling Design Standards.

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Transportation Alternatives’ Deputy Advocacy Director Noah Budnick points me to Chapter 2, page 26 (PDF file), which describes CRISP — the "Cycle Route Implementation and Stakeholder Plan." CRISP outlines a detailed process for how city government should collaborate with key stakeholders and community members in the creation of new bicycle infrastructure. Rather than approach every new bike lane as an ad hoc project, CRISP helps "streamline bike lane implementation from both a design and political standpoint," Budnick says. CRISP — in theory — helps city government, bicycling advocates and community groups understand each other and work together (I still need to talk to someone about how it works in practice).

New York City cyclists are a demanding, knowledgable and active constituency. They are, inevitably, going to have problems with 200+ miles of new bike lanes designed and built without their input. DOT, meanwhile, is surely going to need political help from cycling advocates as new bike lanes take street space away from motorists and are striped through neighborhoods that don’t want them. As in London, New York City needs to have a process in place to help cycling advocates, community groups and city government to work together constructively.

  • Charlie D.

    It seems to me that they put the sharrows in a good location, out of the door zone, where bicyclists should ride. I would say the goal of the markings is not to instruct bicyclists to always take the lane, but to keep them out of the door zone and let motorists know to expect them riding on this road. The only question I have is: How many motorists cross over the center line to pass bicyclists? Is this legal? Is this dangerous given the traffic conditions?

    The location of the sharrows currently is where I tend to ride on a road such as that. Whether motorists pass me or not is up to them, unless I feel they are passing too closely, at which point I take the lane.

  • ddartley

    Immediately upon starting cycling in New York in 2002, I realized that encouraging motorists to squeak past cyclists is so dangerous it should never happen, yet in every, every aspect of the City’s street culture I could observe at the time, it was exactly the philosophy employed.

    For those first few years, I started riding a little more militantly than I do now–I would almost always take a full lane, even if there was a (usually meaningless) bike lane.

    I had an instinct to literally marginalize myself by riding on the edge, which I’m sure most cyclists have, and which motorists expect. After overcoming that instinct and getting over that fear of asserting my right to space, I felt much safer. I knew I was much more visible. Motorists honked a lot less than I expected. When they did, it didn’t hurt as much as when I got doored, which happened in the margin of 6th Ave.

  • Upper Green Side would very much like to work on a similar project with the DOT for the Upper East side, but plans seem to be scuttled for now by the coming BRT lane on First and Second Ave. Or even some crosstown routes from the River to Central Park.

    How did you get a direct link to the DOT biking folks Aaron? Who should we call or write to? We’ve only been able to get messages to them through elected officials or our Community Assistance Liason.

    Are there constructive ways that we can start communicating DOT?

    Please write to
    Glenn@uppergreenside.org

  • Hannah

    In addition to routes *to* Central Park, how about sharrows and signs along the single-lane transverses under the park? Those roads are too narrow for bike lanes, and the sides are filled with potholes, so it’s best to ride in the middle, yet cars view them as a speedway and honk and threaten you if they can’t pass. (Each end of the transverse widens to three lanes, at 86th Street anyway, where the cars catch up to you at the light and curse you out.) The four transverses are the only legal ways to ride west to east between 59th and 110th, so they should be accommodating to bikes.

  • good point Hannah. I always take the middle of the lane on the Transverses and almost always get honked at.

  • ddartley

    I did also mean to say that this was a great post. The second half of it is inspiring in its discussion of ways interested citizens might get more directly involved in the city’s cycling improvements. “Empowering,” to use a politician’s cliche.

  • Anony

    “I don’t bring this up to complain about the new markings or bash DOT.”

    Well, maybe this is why the writers on this blog keep finding themselves getting snookered by the DOT. Maybe it’s time to stop singing about all they are doing every time they issue a press release and wait for them to actually DO.

  • Anony,

    They didn’t put press releases down on Fifth Avenue. They striped bike lanes. That’s what we’re talking about here.

  • Mitch

    How wide is that street? It looks pretty narrow in the picture; is there really a place for bikes to ride on that street, allowing cars to pass safely? A confident, assertive biker might be tempted to take the lane, which might not be a prudent thing to do.

    If I were in charge, I’d consider removing parking from one side of the street and moving the center-line accordingly. I don’t see how you can make that street safe for biking unless you give everybody a little more room.

  • J:Lai

    Mitch,

    A shared street designation means, at least in theory, that bikes have equal right to the lane, and that cars have to sit behind bikes if there is no way for them to pass.

    This is pretty agressive, again in theory, because it takes space from cars and gives it to bikes in an unequivocal fashion.

    The reality of course is that car drivers feel entitled to the lane and seldom are willing to wait behind slower motor vehicles, let alone bikes. I believe there are a lot of good reasons for encouraging bike use at the expense of cars, but I guess it depends on your priorities.

  • antonio

    has there ever been a group or individual known to stencil their own bike lanes where needed? i’m not sure this would be a benefit, but why wait for the DOT to designate streets that require more sharing…

  • Antonio – that’s sort of the David Engwicht approach; that traffic is a social problem, not a design problem, and that people need to work together to create a place that works for them.

  • JK

    The most important things about these new bike arrows is that they tell the public that cyclists are legitimate road users. There is probably not a city cyclist out there who has not been told to get out of the road or honked at.

    The cumulative impact of all of these lanes and signs and markings is to let people know that government wants more cycling, and that in turn people should be encouraged to ride. This is more important than the impact of the individual lanes, some of which, like the ones on west 91st in Manhattan, are on already bike friendly, traffic calmed streets.

  • Steve

    I agree that it would be reckless for a motorist to try to pass a bicyclist in the off-center “sharrow zone.” The motorist would have to cross over, or come dangerously close to crossing over, the double yellow median. The motorist would probably wait for a brief interruption in oncoming traffic and then hit the gas in hopes of overtaking the bicyclist as quickly as possible–a recipe for disaster. I can see the wisdom in taking the middle of the road to avoid tempting the driver behind you into this trap. I think the sharrow, wherever it is placed, can be invoked as a basis for doing so (not that you need one to do so under NYC traffic rules).

    Speaking of the meaning of the sharrows, I have looked in vain on the DOT’s website for an explanation of what the sharrows mean and how they are supposed to modify motorist and bicyclist behavior. If someone knows where to find it, please let me know. If I am correct that DOT has no official statement on this, I cannot imagine a more incompetent approach to public administration of a transportation system–introducing a new traffic device (the sharrow) without explaining what effect it is supposed to have. In the meanwhile, I guess the sharrow will mean “all things to all people.”

  • Sean

    I’m initially inclined to agree with Aaron that Sharrows on the right define the zone that’s available to cyclists.

    But, on further reflection, I think the benefit of having anything in the road that notifies motorists of the rights of cyclists outweighs the potential confusion of where on the road the cyclists can exercise their rights.

    Maybe it’s settling, but the notion of sharrows, even toward the zone of death (aka the door zone) makes me giddy.

    Re: riding in the middle of the road when necessary, I call it riding big. I take for granted that most motorists recognize that hitting me is, at the very least, going to put a crimp in the day. If they can see me, I can take advantage of their intuitive understanding that two objects of mass cannot occupy the same space.

  • In reading these posts, it’s interesting to note the terminology people use. Everyone writes about “riding” their bikes. In his post, Sean states that he is “riding big” when he rides in the middle of the road. In terms of semantics, I think bicyclists ought to start thinking of themselves as DRIVERS of vehicles, and we ought to talk about our right to drive our bikes on the roads. The use of such terminology implies that bicycles are a legitimate form of transportation that deserve to be on an equal footing with automobiles. Food for thought.

  • ML

    First, I got hit by a car on 5th Avenue about 3 days after these stencils were put down on the road.

    Second, it’s funny to me that these stencils are supposed to mean that we can ride in the middle of the road, but on the part of 5th avenue where there IS a designated bike lane, I almost always have to ride in the middle of the road to avoid cop cars and other parked in the bike lane. I often think bike lanes are more dangerous than not having them. They are simply extra parking space for cars.

    The stencils make me feel less safe than I felt before. I know they are there for a good reason, but they’re not working. I think I’m going to start riding on 6th Avenue where there aren’t cars double parked.

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