East Side Re-Design Moves Ahead, But Full Bike Corridor Is on Hold

The re-design of First and Second Avenues has been a complex project to judge since the initial plans were unveiled earlier this year. From the beginning, it’s been the most ambitious re-envisioning of a major corridor we’ve seen in New York City to date: 250 blocks of faster bus service and safer traveling for cyclists and pedestrians. But it has not met the high expectations of New Yorkers who held out hope for a truly high-performance busway and a continuous, protected bicycle corridor.

first_second_basic_map_phase1.jpgThe plan unveiled today for First and Second Avenues leaves bigger gaps than anticipated in the bike network above 34th Street. Click here to enlarge [PDF]. Image: NYCDOT

Today, at Mayor Bloomberg’s official announcement of the project, the ambiguities intensified. Construction is moving forward, but large segments of the protected bike path will not be built this year. For the time being, at least, the protected bikeway will extend only between Houston and 34th Street.

While Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan attributed the delay to the time constraints of building such a large project, stressing DOT’s intention to finish the job, there is lingering uncertainty about the full 250-block re-design. The city’s plans call for more bike and pedestrian improvements to be built during next year’s construction season but no longer specify the addition of protected lanes to segments of First and Second north of 34th Street.

As presented to several Manhattan community boards, the project was supposed to include protected bike lanes on Second between 100th and 125th, and on First between 34th and 49th and between 57th and 125th, with a buffered lane in the gap. (Here’s an earlier map of the project.)

Following today’s announcement, it’s unclear whether the mayor is committed to delivering all the bike and pedestrian improvements in the original plan. Above 34th Street, the changes on tap for this year call only for widening the existing bike lane on upper First Avenue by one foot and adding a painted buffer. The project web site does not identify segments that will receive protected bikeways in the future, going only so far as to say that the 2011 and 2012 construction seasons will bring "additional pedestrian and bike improvements throughout the corridor."

For now, advocates for safer streets will need to keep up the pressure to ensure that Midtown, the Upper East Side, and East Harlem receive the bike and pedestrian safety features originally promised. Today they stressed the groundbreaking nature of the re-design and the importance of completing the bikeway.

"When it’s completed up to East Harlem, the East Side will have the best streets for biking, walking and buses anywhere in the country," said Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White. "It’s critical that the full slate of improvements — including physically separated bike lanes — be extended north as rapidly as possible."

Support from local residents and representatives has been robust along the length of the East Side corridor. Last December, 19 elected officials representing the East Side signed a letter requesting physically separated bike lanes and bus lanes along First and Second Avenues. This spring, Manhattan Community Board 6 approved a design including major segments of protected bike lanes north of 34th Street. Community Board 8, which represents the Upper East Side, passed a resolution supporting protected bike lanes for East Side avenues last fall.

"For the city to kind of back off of its plans for Upper Manhattan, that really makes you scratch your head," said Michael Auerbach, director of Upper Green Side, a neighborhood advocacy group. "They have the support of the community. People want to see safe streets right now."

The Select Bus Service portion of the plan remains mostly unchanged. October 10 is still the target launch date, and work begins on resurfacing the streets next week. 

There was one significant addition to the bus plans. Starting in 2011, buses on First and Second Avenues will receive priority at traffic signals, with green lights lasting a bit longer if buses are approaching. Traffic signal priority, which is currently in effect on the Fordham Road SBS route, wasn’t part of the original plans for the East Side. 

Enforcement of the bus lanes remains a big question mark, however. The plan calls for automated cameras to keep dedicated lanes clear of traffic, but that requires an OK from Albany — far from a sure thing. The MTA’s Ted Orosz wouldn’t specify how much Select Bus Service would be slowed by the potential lack of camera enforcement, but noted that a delivery truck blocking the bus lane in a particularly congested area, such as near the Queensboro Bridge, could slow a bus by five minutes. 

When asked what the city’s back-up plan was for enforcing the bus lane if Albany doesn’t come through with enabling legislation in the next few weeks, Bloomberg answered only that "it makes it more difficult." He then proceeded to make the case for action by the legislature. "It’s right that they should do it," said the mayor. "It’s our city." 

  • Let’s say cops shock us all and are diligent in enforcing the bus lane… Has there been any specific word on how they’d pull people over? My fear is they’ll give tickets but park themselves in the bus lane while writing it up… only exacerbating the delays.

  • J

    If they’re improving the bike lane on 1st Ave between 77th & 125th anyway, why not build the full protected lane, as promised? Otherwise, they’ll just have to rip up the work they do this year, to make a protected lane next year, which seems wasteful and politically distasteful. I’d rather get the real thing that we were promised this year, even if it means waiting another year.

    Also, it’s a shame that East Harlem gets the shaft on liveable streets improvements. Cuts seems to always be directed to the poor areas first and this is no exception.

  • You have to wonder if cost is an issue for the bike path as US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is such a strong advocate of these type of upgrades including $30 million stimulus money for the East Coast Greenway:

    “For example, we could upgrade the entire 2,250 mile East Coast Greenway, a network of bike routes stretching all the way from Key West to Maine, for only one-fifth the cost of a single recent I-95 bridge over the Potomac.”

    http://fastlane.dot.gov/2010/06/dot-bicyclepedestrian-policy-gets-thumbs-up.html

  • NattyB

    God this political stuff is right out of the wire.

    Have a big press conference to trumpet a bunch of diluted half-measures!

    It’s not that I don’t recognize the need to compromize, or that “how things get done,” isn’t always pretty and all. But really.

    If you want me to support you Mr. Bloomberg (maybe you don’t since you’re finally on your way out) then trumpet the fact that b/c of upstate politicians, we can’t have buslanes enforced. Why? Because no one gives a F—. There is no rational basis to disallow the enforcement of bus lane cams. None.

    This is the sad state of journalism today. That, poor folk of color, will be taking these buses, and they’ll have to sit in traffic, b/c some town car is stopped in the buslane and there’s no cam enforcement.

    So this is what Mayor Richie Rich says,”it makes it more difficult.” He then proceeded to make the case for action by the legislature. “It’s right that they should do it,” said the mayor. “It’s our city.”

    Uhhh, the whole purpose of having these dedicated lanes is so that SBS runs smoothly, which, won’t be the case, if a$$holes block up the buslanes, which they will do, unless you have strict enforcement. Like, am I taking crazy pills? I’m just a bike commuter, no masters in urban planning, but, I know those DOT ppl know this stuff. If there’s no separated lane –> then u must have strict bus lane enforcement –> if there’s no strict bus lane enforcement (like Broadway below canal street) –> then there’s no real purpose.

    Oh well, at least the protected bike lanes are a start.

  • Dear DOT

    You need to do better job communicating with the advocates that turn out at community board meetings to support your ideas. It’s hard enough to get people to turn out to meetings and you just negated a lot of hard work by a lot of people.

    You LIED to us. If you had presented this plan, we would have fought against it. And you knew that. Trust is a hard thing to build and right now you have LOST mine.

    When you look for support at the next Community Board meeting, you might just have have a bunch of NIMBYs up in your face without us to balance them out. You made every cynical thing that people say about local political process come to life in vivid color.

    Screw it, I’m signing up for HBO since I’m going to have a lot of evenings free soon.

    Your former supporter

  • This sucks, how am I supposed to keep bragging to my friends from other cities, and telling them that within five year’s time we’ll be able to match or exceed all of those fancy Northern European cities?

  • J

    Glenn,

    I agree that this is certainly a big bungle on DOT’s part. It seemed like they were doing so well with their efforts at transparency and consistency, then they dump this on us at the 11th hour. It is true that trust has been lost, and it will take a lot more than the crappy map posted online and some vague notion of “additional pedestrian and bike improvements” sometime in the future to regain that trust.

    That said, all is not lost. Advocates such as yourself have done a lot to get protected lanes installed as part of a project that previously didn’t include any bike lanes. The protected lanes on 1st & 2nd will likely be some of the most heavily used in the city, since they provide a direct, almost completely protected link between the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges and midtown.

    I have said before that bus improvements should take priority over bike improvements, since they will serve a larger constituency and since the project was designed and funded first and foremost to improve bus service in an area that desperately needs it. As such, I understand DOT’s desire to downplay bike elements of the project. However, I would strongly encourage you to continue pushing for bike improvements in the area, because I guarantee that DOT hasn’t forgotten about them.

  • See and I think the only way you were going to get the bike lanes ever was to bundle the improvements with a “complete streets” transformation that would meet the needs of all users. As usual, someone high up choose the sugar (SBS) and didn’t take the medicine (bike lanes). Now when in the future are they going to take the medicine? I don’t know but I wish the DOT luck.

  • J

    Glenn,

    As bike improvements spread and are shown to be quite useful, the bike lanes are slowly becoming the “sugar” you speak of, especially when they include ped refuges. The more they connect to other lanes, the more people use them, and the more people will clamor to fill in the gaps and extend to new neighborhoods. The process just builds momentum until adding bike lanes is as uncontroversial as repaving a street, or even something that neighborhoods compete for.

    At recent UWS meetings, many people were upset that Chelsea got the first protected bike lanes while the UWS didn’t. Compared to even a few years ago, we are already seeing a big change in grass roots support for these projects, largely from a combination of good DOT projects and activists like yourself. Either by itself will have a hard time getting anything done, but together you can show reluctant neighborhoods the benefits that they are missing out on.

  • I hear you J. In the long term, I hope you’re right. But I’ve seen the pendulum swing before and once something gets delayed, it can last for a very long time. In the meantime, people in CB8 might feel that NOT having bike lanes is what makes their cozy corner of the city “special” and different and they don’t want it to change.

    Not laying those lanes now following a decisive community board vote and unprecedented elected official support is a horrible mistake.

    After a full court press on the issue for more than a year, I’m throwing in the towel on this and focusing on other issues. Hopefully the advocacy on this will have long legs and the community won’t suddenly turn against it.

  • AlexB

    I applaud the improvements to the bus service and bike lanes on the 1st/2nd Ave corridor, but it’s way too timid (as everyone else has noted.) The solution is to have a street section as follows: curb, 3′ buffer, 4′ bike lane, 3′ buffer, 12′ bus lane, parking lane w/ pedestrian refuges and bus stations, driving lanes, parking lanes. This should extend from the south ferry to 125th St. It would allow very fast and reliable bus speeds, as they could pass each other in the bike lane if necessary, and bikers would be much safer too.

    We all think this will eventually be the reality. The truth is that we have gotten used to these improvements because we’ve gotten used to Jeanette Sadik-Khan. When she and Bloomberg leave, they will not be replaced with like minded people. We need to get as much done now as possible. It could be decades before biking and pedestrian oriented officials are in power again.

  • meb

    Sad to see how the bike lanes seem to have been scaled back. I do almost all of my bike commuting around the UES and midtown. Bummer. But I spent long enough in Queens to get used to that feeling when it came to infrastructure improvements.

  • J

    I just noticed on the new DOT website, it say “Parking-protected or curbside bike lanes from Houston Street to 34th Street”. Curbside bike lanes??? When was that even considered? Did we also lose the protected lanes on 1st & 2nd Aves? Someone needs to explain:

    1) Why the plans changed after nearly a year of outreach
    2) What exactly the new plans include
    3) What future improvements will include
    4) When future improvements will be installed

    This information needs to be clear and posted online for the public to see. The project went from a vague concept that became clearer and clearer over the course of a year. Now everything seems up in the air, and I have no idea what the project includes. This is not how public outreach should be done.

  • Steve Vaccaro

    Glenn,

    I share your frustration, but I don’t see anything to suggest that there was any lying or deception. 100% guarantees don’t exist in politics (or, for that matter, large construction projects). If DoT is guilty of anything here it is imprudence in having suggested otherwise, and how it has communicated its mistake.

    I would have fought just as hard for a paired 1st/2nd Ave. cycle track from Houston to 34th, if that had been what was presented and committed to by DoT. By itself, such a facility would be an unprecedented upgrade that would surely improve East Side cycling safety and rates. Apart from the Wesat Sdie bike path, a 3.5 mile pair of cycle tracks would be finest cycling facility in the City. Building such a facility right up to the edge of midtown, would move us beyond the “Chelsea experiment” and cement cycling as a fully legitimate transport mode for New York City. Assuming the city lives up to yesterday’s commitments, I’ll be pleased with that return on my effort thus far in the process, even though it falls 3 miles short of my front door.

    The cycle tracks will never reach my door (or past it, to 125th St.) if cyclists give up their fight at the community boards to create a counterpoint to the anti-bike attitudes otherwise prevalent among CB members. Cyclists are too small and too disliked a minority to turn our backs on the political process, no matter what its vagaries. Taking our ball and going home may feel therapeutic but is self-defeating.

    Given the lack of any indication that DoT is abandoning the original plan for a 6-mile, Houston to 125th Street facility, let’s proceed– cautiously–on the assumption that that we are facing only construction delays, not a downscaling of the project itself. The first order of business is to press for an explicit commitment from city government that it is still behind the 6-mile project and will deliver according to a concrete schedule. Whether we get the commitment or not, we need to carefully monitor words and actions for any hint of a permanent scaleback of the 6-mile plan, move quickly to globally reasses our strategy if things appear to be heading down that road.

    Even with a commitment to a definite schedule for completion, delays create opportunities for opponents to undo the progress we’ve made and fiddle with the remaining unresolved details (such as treatment of remaining Design C and construction zones). The hard work that brought us to near-closure on a 6-mile facility must be defended and continued. It makes no sense to walk away from all that effort just because of this admittedly galling setback.

    I briefly discussed the delay with Commissioner Sadik-Khan yesterday, and she was in no mood to hear that cyclists wanted a revised SBS timetable. She is indisputbly the greatest ally cyclists have ever had in the New York City government, but she’s got her role to play and we have ours. Whatever the reasons are for this debacle, it’s her job to sell the scaled-back delivery schedule–and, probably, to resist committing to a definitive revised delivery schedule that could lead to further embarssment. And its the job of every cyclist who wants to see the full facility installed to push right back, secure those commitments, and maintain and expand the support (toleration?) for the project that we’ve won at the Community Boards. I hope we can continue to count on your help Glenn, and the help of so many others, in doing that important work!

  • I hear you Steve. DOT will have to do a lot to earn back their credibility as a reliable partner – starting with making sure their own ducks are in a row within the Administration before they purport to speak for it.

    I think working through the electeds who signed the letter to DOT and getting them to force the issue of getting what was already approved by the community boards is a good path.

  • ZoNuff

    Frankly, the City is just making the streets more dangerous by creating bike lanes with no enforcement. Cyclist, cars, cabs, trucks all need to have licenses/ID tags and should be held accountable. Walking in New York City is a hazard.

  • Red

    I actually really doubt that, ZoNuff. Ask DOT for before-and-after injury stats on almost any street redesign (Grand, 9th, etc.) and you will see dramatic reductions.

  • the bike lanes are a joke.no one will use them in the winter months. they are dangerous to pedestrians and motorists. they also clog up the streets. they are a waste.

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East Harlem will only be getting a bike lane upgrade on First Avenue this year (top). Protected lanes like those slated for downtown (bottom) have not been guaranteed. East Harlem residents are outraged by the city’s backtracking on plans to bring protected bike lanes to their neighborhood.  At a public meeting about the re-design of […]