Memo to Goldsmith: To Balance NYC’s Transpo System, Make Cycling Safer

goldsmith_bloomberg.jpgDeputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and Mayor Bloomberg. Photo: Daily News

There’s a lot to like about Stephen Goldsmith’s answers during yesterday’s must-read interview with WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein. It’s clear that NYC’s new deputy mayor for operations has a passion for efficiency. He comes across as deeply attuned to the fact that we allocate much of our scarce street space in a grossly inefficient way — whether by giving motorists a free ride during the most congested times of day, or by letting space-hogging single occupant vehicles have the same priority as buses full of people.

Here’s a highlight from his take on Select Bus Service on the East Side:

I think the way we should look at this is how New Yorkers can move most
efficiently at the lowest cost, going where they want to go –- to shop, or
to entertainment, or to work. And express bus lanes are definitely an
important element of that. They are a way to move lots of people more
efficiently and less expensively than other ways. And to the extent
that we can shorten the travel times of those buses will be in
everybody’s best interests.

But Goldsmith is more tentative when it comes to another spatially efficient mode — the bicycle:

There are differences in opinion about bikes. The transportation
director is a very creative woman. She has lots of ideas and those
ideas make the city a very exciting place but many of those ideas are
also controversial and I think the program for bikes is a good one. I
also understand that those policies can literally and figuratively
collide with automobiles and transportation policy. I know the mayor is
interested in getting the balance right and so I salute a director who
has a lot of innovative ideas and also understand that we need to
balance those against the interests of others and see what happens.

Let’s assume that Goldsmith’s separation of bike policy from transportation policy is a rhetorical slip-up. (Later on, he gives Bernstein his thoughts on bike-share as a solution to a transportation problem: "A lot of New Yorkers travel short distances and if we can help them
travel short distances in a safe way then it should be considered but
it’s not without challenges.") Even so, it’s notable that the question of "balance" only seems to arise when the subject is bicycling.

"Balance" in this case makes sense mainly on a political level. (Goldsmith tells Bernstein that he and the mayor want to avoid "ancillary
byproduct problems" — read into that phrase what you will.) In terms of transportation policy and allocation of the street, bike improvements are attempts to restore balance and bust up the spatial monopoly of motorized modes. In Manhattan, especially north of 34th Street, there’s not much balance on wide avenues. On First and Second, where plans for separated bikeways face continued uncertainty uptown, there’s no protected space for cycling, even in neighborhoods that are demanding it.

Goldsmith doesn’t seem to be sold yet on the way bike infrastructure fits into a lean, efficient, low-cost transportation system. But the potential to promote cycling — improving public health and safety, reducing traffic, and putting less wear and tear on our roads — is substantial and cuts across every borough. According to a recent study from the Department of City Planning, most workers in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island commute within the same borough — they’re not making long trips. But a majority of those workers arrive by car. (We’ll have more on that study soon.)

A robust commitment to cycling should be of a piece with Goldsmith’s commitment to use public resources efficiently. Better bikeways make sense for many of the same reasons that busways appeal to him. Thus, we present this re-mix:

I think the way we should look at this is how New Yorkers can move most
efficiently at the lowest cost, going where they want to go –- to shop, or
to entertainment, or to work. And safe, convenient bike routes are definitely an
important element of that. They are a way to move lots of people more
efficiently and less expensively than other ways. And to the extent
that we can improve the safety and convenience of those bike trips will be in
everybody’s best interests.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Coming from where he does, it’s probably a leap for him to accept mass transit, let alone bicycles.

    I wonder if one of things the advocacy groups could do with people like this, and elected officials, is dare them to try riding to the office on another destination — on a bike the groups provide, outfitted for commuting complete with a pannier to carry their work clothes, and with a guide?

    I didn’t think it was doable until I did it.

  • Can’t get much more efficienct than a bicycle which is 3 to 4 times more efficent than cycling.

    He should be asked to respond to this.

  • #2 gecko (correction),

    Can’t get much more efficient than a cycling which is 3 to 4 times more efficient than walking.

    He should be asked to respond to this.

  • Biking doesn’t collide with transportation policy, it IS transportation policy.

  • http://www.policyinnovations.org/ideas/policy_library/data/01589/_res/id=sa_File1/reinventingthecity.pdf

    Reinventing the City

    Three Prerequisites for Greening Urban Infrastructures

    The world’s urban ceners alread account for close to 80 percent of CO2 emissions. In the next three decades, the global population will continue to grow and become ever more urban. Booz & Company analysis conducted for this report shows that under business-as-usual (BAU) assumptions, US$350 trillion will be spent on urban infrastructure and usage during this period. This huge expenditure either can cause the ecological impact of our cities to become even more pronounced or can be a tremendous opportunity to reduce than impact.

    Summary:

    http://www.policyinnovations.org/ideas/policy_library/data/01589

  • Since cycling incurs much less than 1% the environmental impact of transportation systems based on cars — including requisite infrastructures and externalities — any minimization of the tremendous opportunity provided by this technology would be indicative of gross ignorance, incompetence and negligence.

  • Steve Vaccaro

    If you get your fill of Summer Streets tomorrow by noon or earlier, please come by the Target Community Garden on East 117th Street between First and Pleasant Avenues, for a brunch hosted by Transportation Alternatives East Side Committee to help organize for the completion of the East Side Bikeway all the way to 125th Street, by the end of next year. We’ll be there from 11:30 am to 1:00 pm with coffee and food!

  • IanM

    Actually, even as someone who bikes, I’m happy to see that some of our officials are a little skeptical of biking as the solution to all of our transportation needs. Despite some of the rhetoric around here, it isn’t a panacea. Biking’s great, but it’s not going to get me to work in midtown in my suit. Or home to Brooklyn late at night after I’ve had a couple beers. Or out to a restaurant with my girlfriend in a nice dress. Or anywhere, if I’ve got an armful of groceries. There are many people who simply aren’t capable of biking. And many more who are never going to be convinced to lengthen their commutes (and carry a separate pair of clothes! are you joking?!) by biking.

    Again, I’m not knocking biking, I just think it gets a hugely outsized share of attention, when it only accounts for one small slice of an overall smart transportation policy. Mass transit is vastly more important to the transit needs of all New Yorkers. Buses and Subways are the real transit backbone of this city, moving millions around every day in highly efficient ways – a system that move hundreds of people in one vehicle is always going to be more efficient than one that requires each person have their own vehicle. And yet we’re making a huge fuss over bike lanes while our subway and bus service falls apart. Bike advocacy is great, but I think we’d be a lot better off if some of the same energy and rabid support that biking gets was put toward supporting the transit systems that make up a much bigger part of our transportation needs.

  • Mike

    I agree with IanM. While it makes sense that a lot of us focus on bikes as a kind of counter to the fact that bike issues (and infrastructure, and policy, etc) have historically gotten a minuscule amount of attention, I think Streetsblog’s (and Transportation Alternative’s) disproportionate attention to biking is counterproductive.

  • IanM, thanks for this: “Mass transit is vastly more important to the transit needs of all New Yorkers. Buses and Subways are the real transit backbone of this city…”

    Still, I don’t think we can have too much bike infrastructure or too much talk about biking. Biking is a good thing and it will reach its natural level. But it will never replace the subway, without which NYC’s high density (and relatively robust economy) would literally be impossible.

  • #8 IanM,

    “Bike advocacy is great, but I think we’d be a lot better off if some of the same energy and rabid support that biking gets was put toward supporting the transit systems that make up a much bigger part of our transportation needs.”

    MTA blows through something like $9 billion per year.

    The new Volkswagen Beetle cost $1 billion dollars to design and bring to market.

    Do you have any idea what resources are applied to promote cycling and advanced cycling technologies where everything you mentioned can be addressed at low cost, practically, safely, with minimal environmental footprint? Do you even believe this is possible?

    re: #9. Mike, “disproportionate attention to biking is counterproductive”
    People long involved with transportation equity have been beat up so long their expectation levels are way too low. Big oil media money and political corruption perpetuating local monopolies on public streets is what is counterproductive.

  • Herzog

    Ian,

    I mostly agree with the spirit of your thoughtful comment — but disagree strongly on a few points.

    “Biking’s great, but it’s not going to get me to work in midtown in my suit.”

    Why not? It’s very easy on a European city bike. Just like this guy:

    http://www.thesartorialist.com/photos/61910Blubike_3852Web.jpg

    “Or out to a restaurant with my girlfriend in a nice dress.”

    These guys do it all the time:

    http://letsgorideabike.com/blog/2009/03/cocktail-party-ride/

    “Or anywhere, if I’ve got an armful of groceries.”

    Use a basket, or panniers.

    “There are many people who simply aren’t capable of biking.”

    Many more people aren’t capable of driving.

    “And many more who are never going to be convinced to lengthen their commutes (and carry a separate pair of clothes! are you joking?!) by biking.”

    In many cities, cycling is faster than any other mode of transport. As far as extra clothing, it’s usually not necessary.

    Many people on this blog, and in other venues, seem to suggest that bicycles can replace motorized vehicles. I don’t believe this makes sense or will ever happen. Rather, I believe that cycling can only flourish on a large scale hand-in-hand with good public transit. At the same time, many of the drawbacks of cycling, that people spend time worrying about, are overblown.

  • I’m happy to see that some of our officials are a little skeptical of biking as the solution to all of our transportation needs. Despite some of the rhetoric around here, it isn’t a panacea.

    This is a straw man. Streetsblog has never characterized bicycling as some sort of silver bullet to the exclusion of other modes, nor has any city official. This site has been calling attention to the crisis of transit funding, demanding the most effective implementation possible for BRT, and holding elected officials accountable for obstructing smart transit policy for years.

    It’s great that Goldsmith has so much enthusiasm for congestion pricing and busways. Over time, biking and street safety improvements can also yield the sort of efficiencies he gets excited about. I think there are excellent reasons for him to embrace cycling with the same language he uses to describe road pricing and bus lanes, instead of calling for “balance” with automobiles.

  • IanM

    Hey, cool to see that my remark prompted some thoughtful responses. Ben, to clarify, I don’t accuse Streetsblog of making such a claim – but many in the comments area in this corner of the internet, as well as many cyclists in NY in general, I think are guilty of overemphasizing cycling’s role in a comprehensive transit solution. Example from above: “[Biking] IS transportation policy.” No, it’s a fraction of it. Moreover, while this blog doesn’t do this explicitly, I would argue it does devote quite an oversized share of it’s coverage to biking issues. My concern is simply that biking, being the relatively low-cost, easy to implement, low-hanging fruit of transportation policy, gets more than it’s share of advocacy and attention, while absolutely crucial, yet harder to solve issues like the MTA’s budget crisis remain little-understood and without the attention and armies of advocates that they deserve.

  • The thing you do with low hanging fruit is pick it. You don’t just leave it hanging there while also building a ladder to get at the high hanging fruit.

    Streetsblog does the best transit reporting in the city. IanM’s assumption is that if they covered urban cycling less, their transit coverage could be even better—who knows? Maybe they wouldn’t get enough pageviews and would have to shut down. Cycling is on the move right now; the change is visible and almost everyone has an opinion on it. Even the NYT writes constantly (but with little understanding) about urban cycling now.

    I wish we could get the same traction with transit. I thought we would win on congestion pricing, or at least bridge tolls, but I underestimated the cynicism of legislators and apathy of the public. But I do believe that our transit will be worse in the long run if we don’t secure the progress we’ve made in cycling. If Goldman has any doubt that cycling is transportation, just as transit is transportation, he needs to be told. All forms of transportation in this city should be evaluated, accommodated, and subsidized based on their social costs and benefits. If we can prove with cycling that this thinking makes for a better and more successful city, perhaps we can impose upon our government to stop playing lackey to the saudi royal family in its administration of all forms of transportation.

  • Er, Goldsmith.

  • J:Lai

    IanM, I agree and thanks for the thoughtful and concise statement on this issue.
    Ultimately, I believe biking can and should be a substitute for many trips that are made by car. It is not a good substitute for transit, and it would poor policy and a lead to a worse city to rely on it as such.

    However, biking can serve as a temporary substitute for transit, at least for people who are in good health and with the inclination to do so. This, coupled with the fact that bike infrastructure is so much less expensive and quicker to build than transit, leads to a situation where biking and transit are seen and substitutes at least in the short term.

  • #17 J:Lai,

    Might be useful to start including terms like “triking”, “recumbent triking”, “recumbent electric triking”, “recumbent e-triking on-and-off systems, etc., in such broad statements, despite which on closer inspection might deem them incorrect.

  • Suzanne

    I don’t see why people can’t go to work or to a bar (in street clothes), go shopping, or bring their kids to school on a bike. They do it in Amsterdam and other cities. About half of all trips in Copenhagen are made on a bike, the vast majority of them are people living their lives and doing those very things.

    Like Gecko says, with trikes and the advent of better technology for e-bikes, anyone who can walk can ride a bike. Also, (speaking as an e-biker) electric bikes flatten hills and allow you to travel long distances without having to break much of a sweat, unless you want to. Then, you’ve got 70 pounds of resistance training equipment to give you as much of a workout as you can stand 🙂

    … Actually, I bet riding an electric trike would be even easier for the elderly, etc. than walking. Freedom and independence for the elderly – Another win for bikes!

  • What helps make a bicycle a compelling transportation option in New York is that I can go out today and acquire an excellent bicycle for under $1000 (maybe even under $500) and ride it anywhere at any time. While my infrastructure (roads) may not always be optimal, it is there. Whereas there’s just about nothing I can do as an individual to expand subway routes or service.

  • IanM

    @ Nathan H. – Sure, pick it, absolutely. But if the upper branches of the tree are on fire, maybe forget the low-hanging fruit for a minute and concentrate on getting a bucket of water.

    Sorry to drag out the metaphor. Point is that at this particular point in time, there’s a real crisis in transit that should demand our full attention. It’s not just that our progress on transit is lagging behind that on biking – we’re losing, badly, in that area. Maybe I’m overly concerned and the rest of you see it differently. But that’s why I’m quibbling about the share of attention advocates seem to give biking vs. transit.

    I don’t claim to know exactly what we should be doing about transit, either, but at the very least I would think that we should be doing everything we can to help the public understand the issues, so they can put pressure on our legislators to do the right thing. Streetsblog does a good job of this, as does Second Avenue Sagas, but let’s be honest – many more people are getting their information from the Post. So I’m simply pointing out (if anyone is still reading this thread) that this is the issue the advocate community needs to be loudest on.

  • “It’s not just that our progress on transit is lagging behind that on biking – we’re losing, badly, in that area.”

    I wouldn’t put it that way. We sustained heavy loses in transit the past few years; we’re feeling them now. Perhaps I am again being optimistic, but I’m starting to sense a very tardy awakening in the public. Politicians are having to occasionally defend letting both congestion pricing and bridge toll revenue evaporate; they’re facing anger both from suburbanites for the dumb payroll tax and urbanites for the NYCT service cuts and fare hikes that are happening anyway, because of arithmetic. Our legislative hacks are starting to understand what the hated “wonks” saw years ago: that when the dust settles the public will be happier with automobile use fees that most people pay rarely or never, than with a tax on jobs in an unemployment crisis.

    Subway service can get worse, and it probably will. But politically I think we hit our low with the 3 amigos sabotaging bridge tolls, for giggles. The service cuts and fare hikes weren’t real to them then, because they weren’t real to New Yorkers. Now, it’s different. The reality of our finances is setting in, and the reality of our energy situation. I expect a lot less clowning around, uncontested seats, and general ambivalence. At this point we’re fighting to keep the lights on. Automobile use fees in this fiscal environment are as obvious as, well, cycling.

    Oh and if you’re ever on your way to a transit rally, Ian, let me know and I’ll join you. 😉

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