CB 7 Committee Backslides With Split Vote on Protected UWS Bike Lane

columbus_ave.jpgDOT’s proposal for Columbus Avenue would create room for a separated bike lane by narrowing, not removing, car lanes. Image: NYCDOT [PDF]

Looks like some Manhattan community board types still want to see their local streets keep that highway-in-the-city feel.

After receiving a request from Manhattan CB 7 in the fall to prepare plans for protected bike lanes on Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, NYCDOT showed the board’s transportation committee a proposal last night for a bikeway segment on Columbus from 96th Street to 77th Street [PDF]. The plan is to add a protected bike path on the east side of
Columbus, combining design elements from protected lanes that have substantially reduced injuries on other Manhattan streets. DOT Manhattan Borough Commissioner Margaret Forgione told the audience that the Columbus
Avenue project will serve as a one-year trial, after which DOT can
compare before-and-after data on usage and traffic injuries. Bike lane expansions could follow.

Despite the full board’s previous request and all the accumulated evidence documenting the safety gains from similar projects, when it came time to discuss the proposal, the committee split 5 to 5 on a resolution of support.

Local activists have collected hundreds of signatures in favor of protected bike lanes on the Upper West Side, and eight elected officials and the Columbus Avenue BID have signaled their support, so the committee vote is almost certainly not the final word on the project. Even the committee co-chairs who voted against the plan, Dan Zweig and Andrew Albert, said they expected the proposal to come before the full board (whose stance will also be advisory). On Streetsblog we always like to plumb the depths of what goes on at these quasi-representative bodies, so here goes.

First off, the public comment period was a testament to the awareness-building and organizing work of the folks at the Upper West Side Streets Renaissance, who’ve been advocating for safer and more livable streets for years. The standing room-only crowd was overwhelmingly in favor of the project. When the inevitable complaints and anti-cyclist comments surfaced, the next speaker would follow with a jolt of common sense. "There are lawbreakers on all sides," said Michael Rosenthal, who’s been bike commuting for 45 years. "Anything that can be done to reduce fatalities and injuries is terrific."

The outpouring of support for the project didn’t sway the committee co-chairs, however. "This is not the right place for a bike lane," said Zweig, claiming that narrower traffic lanes would somehow further slow down congested rush hour traffic. "I’m sure the drivers who use Columbus were not surveyed." As Zweig had announced a few minutes earlier, he is one of those drivers. But even for motorists like him, it’s hard to see what maintaining the status quo accomplishes, except keeping New Yorkers who want to ride in safety from getting on their bikes.

The DOT plan does not eliminate any traffic lanes and removes a scant 55 parking spaces. All the space allocated to the bike path and pedestrian islands comes from narrowing the excessively wide moving and parking lanes on Columbus Avenue. Reducing travel lanes from 12-foot widths to 10-foot widths is a traffic-calming enhancement that will, in fact, improve safety for everyone, including motorists.

Andrew Albert, the other committee chair, predicted delivery havoc if trucks can’t unload right next to the curb. "You’re going to see real problems with this bike lane," he said. Forgione had earlier explained that DOT could add loading zones on side streets to help deliveries run smoother.

Most of the retailers on Columbus Avenue would probably take issue with Albert’s unwillingness to try something new and make it work. "We’re going to find ways to get around the potential problems we’re going to have with deliveries," said a rep from clothing store Patagonia, "because we’re excited about the additional customers." More than a hundred businesses along the Columbus Avenue corridor
signed on to a thank you letter when CB 7 requested protected bike lanes last fall, according to Tila
Duhaime of the Upper West Side Streets Renaissance.

Like bike lane opponents everywhere who don’t want to come out and say they’re opposed to bike lanes, Zweig and Albert rested their cases on the argument that "this is not the right place for it." This part of Columbus Avenue, however, is ideal for adding bike and pedestrian infrastructure in several ways.

  • The project narrows lanes that are currently wide enough for interstate highways, which should slow speeding traffic and make the avenue safer for everybody, motorists and delivery trucks included.
  • People will have reasons to bike on this lane. It takes cyclists to a commercial corridor and links to crosstown routes, including the lane on 77th Street where you can ride into Central Park and hook up with the protected bike lane on Broadway.
  • It sets the stage for a continuous protected corridor, connected to the Ninth Avenue bike lane. 
  • If this part of Columbus is, in fact, a challenging segment on which to work out deliveries, doesn’t that make it ideal to try out a new configuration? If the re-design works here, then it can work elsewhere on the corridor.

The next meeting of the full community board is scheduled for June 1. If this project makes it onto the agenda, the vote is shaping up as a nailbiter. Five CB members who don’t sit on the transportation committee turned out last night. When polled, they approved of the project 3 to 2.

  • Ken

    Change is hard for some people, and particularly hard when it comes to the streets, where for nearly a century there has been no meaningful change other than the narrowing of sidewalks. Finally we have a DOT that is rethinking the street’s purpose, but on the Upper West Side — that supposed bastion of progressivism — the shift way from the status quo is particularly difficult.

  • Good thing these are advisory votes and not binding on the city. With enough public comment, DOT can be convinced otherwise. I think it’s useful to remind bike advocates of that fact.

  • While it is disappointing that the committee couldn’t see to put their stamp of approval on the project, the split vote really tells the story. Hopefully the well-organized supporters make a strong case for the project at the full board meeting; it’s only the full board’s determination that matters in the end. Perhaps supportive CB members could help with an educational outreach to “swing voters”.

  • Ian’s right about the significance of the slit vote on the Transpo Committee. The real story will be told at the June 1 meeting of the full CB7. A huge turnout and diversity of support can carry this.

    Speaking of split votes and the need for turnout, the Transpo Committee of CB6 voted 8-6 against providing buffered bike lanes on the midtown gap in the proposed Second Avenue cycle track, and TONIGHT AT 6:30 the full CB6 will most likely be asked to vote on the same topic. Please come, sign up, and speak in support! Details here.

  • One unfortunate thing about this plan is that, unlike 8th and 9th Ave in Chelsea, it would not have pedestrian refuge islands in every crosswalk. The Chelsea projects have 40 islands per mile (2 at every intersection); this project would have only 3 islands for a ~1-mile-long project.

    Pedestrian refuge islands are great for two reasons: first, they narrow the crossing distance significantly, making the street much more pleasant to cross. Second, they cast the project as something that’s an improvement for the non-cycling majority, including seniors, who’ve grown to love the Chelsea islands. It’s a lot easier for a Community Board to approve a project when it includes significant pedestrian amenities than it is when it seems like it’s only good for cyclists.

  • Let’s face it: The cycle track will be built, because the city wants it to be built.

    Imagine if we were facing the opposite situation. Imagine if this were either ten years ago, or in a different American city, and there was a recent bout of freeway construction. Another freeway proposal came up that was pretty much along the lines of the freeway momentum the city had been experiencing anyway. Then there was a meeting about the freeway at some non-binding citizens advisory panel. Most businesses, residents, politicians, and people at the meeting were in favor of the freeway. But lo and behold, the non-binding advisory group (or really, the non-binding advisory group TO the non-binding advisory group) had a tied vote over the freeway, which by technicality, means the group doesn’t support the freeway. Would pro-alternative transportation advocates such as ourselves throw a party and sleep happy at night knowing that the freeway was defeated? Hell no! We all know that freeway would be built!

    And I know I’m not the first to say this, but for better or for worse, JSK (enabled by Bloomberg) is the Robert Moses of sustainable transportation. Just like Moses, she thinks she knows best for the city (and in my opinion, she often DOES know best), and is going to do everything she can to ram these proposals through!

  • J:Lai

    Jeff, points taken, but comparing JSK to RM . . . that goes beyond hyperbole.
    A few hundred miles of paint on the ground is not even a drop in the bucket by comparison.

  • Mike,

    Good point on the refuges. Another benefit of the refuges is that they are a place to plant trees, which improve the street in many ways and also help in resisting efforts down the road to remove the cycle track.

    However, pedestrians will experience some of the effects of a pedestrian refuge–most importantly, a shorter crossing distance–if they walk against the light through the bike lane and wait for the light to change at the floating parking lane. Which they will surely do.

  • Building this project won’t mean ramming anything down anyone’s throat. The businesses want it. The residents want it. They asked — some of them pretty much begged — to have DOT come in and do this. There are just a few people in choice positions on the community board who’ve chosen to side with the anti-bike lane minority.

  • J

    I imagine this is a cost issue. Constructing the refuge island and (requisite) new signals is very expensive. Also, the ped volumes at the major cross streets (79th, 86th, and 96th) are massive compared to those at the minor streets, so it could be argued that the refuges are less necessary.

  • Andrew

    This is not the right place? Then what is? Columbus is virtually never congested, except sometimes approaching Lincoln Center, due to the three-phase signals where Broadway intersects. I can’t think of a better place. Central Park West already has bike lanes. Amsterdam is northbound (and would make a good counterpart to Columbus). Broadway is a lot more congested, and bike lanes would conflict with bus stops. West End would be OK, but it’s a residential street, so it probably wouldn’t be as useful to cyclists as Columbus. And Riverside doesn’t have room for bike lanes without removing either a parking lane or part of the sidewalk.

    Is this Andrew Albert the same Andrew Albert who serves as Chair of the New York City Transit Riders Council and as a (nonvoting) member of the MTA Board? Do Zweig and Albert have parking placards?

  • As a UWS resident, ped, and non-cyclist, I have no problem with a bike lane on Columbus (or Amsterdam for that matter). The anti-bike elements on the community board do not represent me in this. But I disagree with J that high ped volumes on 96th, 86th, and 79th guarantee safety. I live near 96th and cross it every day at Broadway — it always terrifies me, especially with cars whipping off and onto the nearby Henry Hudson Parkway. I’ve had several near misses recently. I would love love love to have a pedestrian island on 96th.

  • S. Quo

    Andrew Albert should be appointed CB 7 Transportation co-Chair In Perpetuity. If he does not prove immortal, he should be preserved, Lenin-like, and preside in preservative soaked glory over transportation committee meetings via random samplings of his best speeches.

    “Real Upper West Siders disagree with the fifty bike lane supporters who showed up tonight. Real Upper West Siders were too busy moving their cars because of alternate side rules to make it. If we had a vote here tonight it would be 1,000 absentee motorists out moving their cars against 50 bike lane supporters who happened to show up. See. Motorists are the majority.”

    “Real Upper West Siders agree with me. I am real. You are here, but you are not real. I was not elected to not represent you. I am the chair. You are not. I am still not elected but I am the chair. My job is collecting money from street fairs that I organize to pay for my job organizing street fairs.”

  • Andrew

    Mark Walker:

    I agree that 96th and Broadway is terrifying to cross – and look at the huge numbers of pedestrians who cross there! Drivers freely run red lights, and the TEA’s only seem to encourage it. Why are there no red light cameras at that intersection?

  • Glenn

    There really is no way to say that you support a cleaner, healthier city and be against these lanes and represent no reasonable alternative or timeline for installation. The opponents need to be called out for what they are – pro-global warming, pro-asthma, pro-obesity, black lung supporters

  • Shemp

    How about the local groups calling out Gail Brewer and Scott Stringer for keeping that fossil Andrew Albert in CB7 forever? Get him out. The guy hindered progress toward a car-free Central Park in the 1990s, recently fought against parking pricing and is clearly getting even worse. He’s a counter-productive old-school railroad nut and local supporter of drive-up-to-everything.

  • J

    Mark,
    I just reread my comment and it wasn’t clear. I meant to say that 96, 86, 81, and 77 need the refuge islands the most, which is why they are getting them while other intersections aren’t. If you look at the crash stat map, there are distinct concentrations of injuries at those locations, probably due to higher volumes of peds there.

    I also think this might be a good time to organize a biking and walking tour of 8th & 9th Avenues for CB members. That way they can see and experience the difference themselves. People often just fear what they don’t know, and honestly, this still isn’t that common in NYC. I doubt many UWS CB members hang out in Chelsea a lot.

  • J, thanks for the clarification.

  • Here’s a clip showing conditions for cyclists on the segement of Columbus where the contested cycle track would go. Shemp has a good idea about contacting CM Brewer about Albert, I think I’ll give it a try.

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