Bike Lane Cranks Get Star Turn in Times Bicycling Feature

The Times devoted a feature story today to NYC’s new bike lanes and the people who dislike them. Hard to argue with the timing of the piece. The separated lanes that went in on the East Side, Park Slope, and the Upper West Side this year are highly visible, they shake up the way the street works, and people have opinions about them.

Photo: New York Times
An East Side bike lane protest as pictured in the Times today. (Disclosure: I am stroking my beard on the left side of the frame.) Photo: New York Times

The piece reads like an attempt to describe the extent of public support for new bike lanes and the extent of the opposition. We get to hear first hand from Former Deputy Mayor and current PPW bike lane opponent Norman Steisel, who says he got upset about the lane after getting stuck in traffic on the way home this summer. An accompanying info-graphic lays out a timeline of NYC bikeways beginning all the way back in 1894. The timeline emphasizes opposition to bike infrastructure, and J. David Goodman’s feature is heavy on the quotes from bike lane cranks. (Compare to Tom Perrotta’s bicycling feature in the Journal today, which is more of an attempt to describe how New Yorkers are adjusting to the city’s changing streets.)

Since the Times piece is mainly about support versus opposition, I found it curious that there was no mention of the only public votes on record regarding bike lanes. Readers won’t come away any wiser about the community board votes in favor of the First and Second Avenue lanes, the Eighth Avenue lane, the Grand Street lane, the Columbus Avenue lane, or the Prospect Park West lane.

While those community board votes don’t get any ink in the Times, we do get a dispatch high up in the piece from a bike lane protest that strains the definition of newsworthiness.

The photo at the top of the Times story comes from an October 15 event at the corner of 14th Street and First Avenue staged by a Lower East Side resident named Leslie Sicklick. The event drew more reporters than bike lane opponents so I decided not to run a story on it at the time. Here’s another angle:

Most of the people in this frame are reporters or bike lanes supporters. The bike lane protestors are in a huddle by the light pole. Photo: Ben Fried
Most of the people on this traffic island are reporters, bike lanes supporters, or passersby. The bike lane protesters are in a huddle by the light pole. Photo: Ben Fried

The Times quotes Sicklick to illustrate “a simmering cultural conflict between competing notions of urban transportation.” I spoke to Sicklick for a few minutes and her notions about urban transportation seem to be of a piece with her notions about any sort of change. If it personally affects her, she’s against it.

She has a problem with “a lot of things, and with people telling me that driving my car is bad for the environment.” She has friends who live outside Manhattan who are “upset because people are telling them they should go take a train or a bus.” She’s also upset because Bloomberg “wants to take the rights of smokers away.” A substitute teacher, she said it’s very difficult to get teaching work in the city schools these days and that she’s appalled by Bloomberg’s efforts to overhaul the city’s tenure system. She says she never jaywalks.

Why Sicklick’s protest should bear mentioning in this piece, while no reference is made to the community board votes in favor of the city’s new bikeways, is beyond me.

  • Barnard

    Why is the New York Times so anti-bicycling?

  • Shemp

    Goodman is the King Crank of cycling coverage. What a travesty all of his work has been.

  • cycler

    I will say that the comments on the NYT article were largely pro-bike and complained about the slant of the original article.

  • What’s also a marvel is how Ben is able to keep his cool in the face of such an infuriating piece as Goodman’s so he can cogently parse it for the blog. My favorite line from his post: “I found it curious that there was no mention of the only public votes on record regarding bike lanes. Readers won’t come away any wiser about the community board votes in favor of the First and Second Avenue lanes, the Eighth Avenue lane, the Grand Street lane, the Columbus Avenue lane, or the Prospect Park West lane.” Amen.

    PS: By all means follow Ben’s link to today’s WSJ feature on NYC cycling. It’s fact-based, built on real reporting, has cogent quotes, and conveys a sense of the big picture. Journalism at its best.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “PS: By all means follow Ben’s link to today’s WSJ feature on NYC cycling. It’s fact-based, built on real reporting, has cogent quotes, and conveys a sense of the big picture. Journalism at its best.”

    My wife subscribes to the WSJ. It’s pretty schitzo. The articles are all highly fact based. The editorial page is mostly (though not always) warped. I guess they have a real separation, in that those who write the editorials don’t even read their own newspaper.

  • Man, Ben nails it in this post. Great job.

    The Times takes what I call a cable news slant: take two sides, regardless of the facts, and let them duke it out.

    In lieu of facts, we get Steisel’s observation that there was a traffic jam on PPW, as if the area around GAP was traffic-free before the bike lane. An actual reporter might have checked to see if there had been an accident that day, but Steisel’s retroactive attribution of the traffic to the bike lane is included as fact.

    The Times piece glosses over important information. The bike lane on Bedford Ave wasn’t removed because of safety or because it didn’t work, but because it offended the religious sensibilities of the Hasidic Jews in the neighborhood and the Bloomberg administration threw them a political bone. The Orthodox community objected to scantily clad bikers, mostly women, coming through “their” neighborhood. But you won’t learn that if you read the Times piece.

    “Many New Yorkers object to bicycle lanes as sudden, drastic changes to their coveted concrete front yards,” writes Goodman. What good is a front yard if it’s overrun with cars?

    The Times piece looks back while the WSJ piece looks forward. Who would have thought that the Murdoch-owned conservative paper would do the better job?

  • tom

    The NYT and the WSJ square off against each other for readership and include the bike lanes as the perfect issue for it. Great! And everyone here equates it to the them-or-us, with us-or-against us, all-or-nothing everyday coverage of the Middle East.

  • Jen Petersen

    yeah, okay. but did anyone read this hilarious but also fantastic piece on JSK today on Esquire.com (i know i know)??

    http://www.esquire.com/features/brightest-2010/janette-sadik-khan-1210

    …even in its allegorical melodrama, it actually captures more complexities of post-automobilic transition than any press-of-record account i’ve yet read.
    seriously!

  • brian g

    was in nyc last weekend, finally got a chance to ride in the ppw bike lane. I was running late and needed to get to windsor terrace fast. the lane was smooth and fast. Only time I had to slow down/stop was when an overzealous toddler jumped into the lane (I had a green) and not once did I feel unsafe. probably the best bike lane I’ve ridden on in NYC outside of the hudson river parkway.

  • Marty Barfowitz

    Look at that: Esquire understands that the big story here, when it comes to bike lanes and NYC DOT and Janette Sadik-Khan, is the transformation of NYC, the creation of a new model of what a sustainable city can be.

    The New York Times metro reporters, unfortunately, only see a story if there’s lots of kvetching. They’d rather take their cues from a mentally ill woman standing on a street corner with a “crowd” of five, complaining about her “rights” as a NYC motorist. It’s sad what the Times is becoming.

  • Jay

    The timeline in the Times is a bit odd. Sure, there wasn’t much that happened for bicyclists during the 1950s, but there was some activity.

    The Kissena Corridor was developed during that period. I often wonder if Moses could have been more of a bicycle pioneer if there had been a modicum of public support. He seemed poised to do more in Queens, but was greeted with a big, giant yawn.

  • The Times is great for national and international news, human interest, and business news for those of us who are NOT businessmen and prefer our economic news in a social and cultural context. I’ve never been too particularly impressed by their local coverage, and I was indeed pleasantly surprised by the “sister article” in the Journal.

    So… Thank you, Rupert Murdoch?

  • Hey all! Write the Times and tell them! Any cogent argument will beat all the antis as the facts aren’t in their favor. The more biking infrastructure is improved as well as pedestrian and public transportation it is pretty clear there is a positive economic effect. Not to mention the environmental advantages… Go for it!

  • Unit

    The saddest part of this post is that the wacko they interviewed is a substitute teacher. That’s right, we pay her to share her *vast wisdom* with our children.

    She has a problem with “people telling me that driving my car is bad for the environment”. Yes Captain Obviouses, can’t we just leave that a secret?

  • StevenF

    The NY Times has been essentially anti bike since at least 1980. That year they came out with a series of Killer Bikes editorials based much more on bias than facts. It probably revolved around the Koch barrier bike lanes going down in Manhattan. Bothered the senior editor’s drive into Times Square.

    Overall their coverage has been anti bike, and not blanced, whether looking at bicycling as a sport or as transportation. The only noticeable bicycle coverage is in July for the Tour de France, and that only since Americans were in the race. The rest of the year the I can ignore the sports section. I think there are more column inches on fly fishing and I’m not interested in fly fishing….

  • Joe R.

    The anti-bike bias of the NY Times isn’t surprising given that their typical reader is a fairly high-income person probably living in either Manhattan or one of the wealthier parts of Brooklyn. This demographic mostly considers bicycles things which get in the way of their limos or private autos. They also feel because they’re rich and pay a lot of taxes, the city should cater to their desire to go everywhere by car, regardless of its effect on the great, unwashed masses.

    The other demographic who reads the Times other than wealthy Manhattanites seems to be teachers. I remember in grade school all my teachers were in love with the NY Times. Meanwhile, the parents of their students all bought either the Daily News or the NY Post. So yes, no surprise that a teacher got prime coverage in that article. Teachers are among the biggest nuisances in the outer boroughs as far as autos go. Many live in Long Island but drive in. They park their cars anywhere in the city they please, even blocking people’s driveways. They frequently clean out their cars, putting the litter on people’s front lawns. To add insult to injury, some have even had their schools convert outdoor gym space into parking. I always thought teachers should set a good example for their students. That would mean coming to work in a more responsible way, preferably by public transit ( or at least park and ride if there are no local transit stop near their Long Island residence ).

  • Steven Faust

    The compiler of the Bike Lanes Time Line missed a few points in the middle.

    At the beginning of the 20th Century, bicycles and the Good Roads Movement caused many rough roads to be paved, and shared by horses, bikes and primitive cars. That worked reasonably well up to WW-II. All bridges being built in NYC had pedestrian paths, usually two paths to prevent the panic deaths on the Brooklyn Bridge of May Day 1883. Bicycles were usually allowed to ride on the roadways – including bridges like the Bronx-Whitestone – opened 1939.

    Our dear friend Robert Moses was mentioned. Moses actually did build many miles of good bicycle paths in and around NY. The best are the miles of Belt Parkway paths in Bay Ridge, Jamaica Bay and Littleneck Bay. The Belt System bike paths were opened in June 1941 before WW-II started. He also built some duds, but I’ll skip that.

    These Moses bike paths are dedicated 12 foot wide bike paths with separate pedestrian paths next to them, so bike and peds do NOT have to Share the same narrow piece of path. Between these bayfront paths, the Belt Parkway service roads provided good bicycle routes. For example, Conduit Blvd east of Cross Bay in the 1950s and 60s was two motor lanes and one shoulder lane paved in a different color. I used to ride a loop out to Far Rockaway around Jamaica Bay via this route and it was safe to ride – 50 years ago. Cyclists had essentially had their own bike lane on the Belt service roads. Today, Conduit is three traffic lanes with very fast and heavy motor traffic and no shoulder. Eastbound access has been cut off by the Nassau Expressway. Not a good place to ride anymore.

    So during the Depression, Moses used federal WPA funds to build parkways, parks, bike paths and bikeable service roads at many points in the city. Unfortunately, after WW-II, Moses was sucked in by the Dark Side of the Force and changed from a Good Government Jedi Knight to the Darth Vader of urban design. He could see only cars in his future after 1945. Everything Moses built after the war was for cars only. The first thing Moses did after WW-II was to remove bikes and pedestrians from the Bronx Whitestone, and squeeze three narrow lanes in place of the original two wide lanes. His Throgs Neck Bridge and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge were completed without bike/ped paths. The VNB was designed for paths and Moses scratched them out in the last year of construction.
    Along his parkways, Moses cut away bicycle and walking paths with total abandon if they stood in the way of widening the roadway or speeding on and off ramps. Recently, the path was restored along the Hutchenson River Pkwy in the Bronx.

    The 1950s and early 60’s were probably a period of loss for cyclists, as the Post-War car boom, and highway construction “improved” many good bike routes to expressway conditions. What had been decent US or State highways or even local streets were changed into express highways. Parallel and cross streets became impassible across heavy traffic and no overpasses. Ferries and railroads that carried bicycles were shut down and replaced by new roads and bridges that banned bikes. Bicycling was being systematically shut down in the 50’s.

    If a bicycle event time line is to be relevant, then Mayor John Linsey’s banning cars from Central Park starting in 1966 is the start of the Post-War bicycle restoration movement in NYC. The park was so popular that a bike patrol had to be formed for the summer of 1967. Many of the members were from the Bike Committee of the American Youth Hostels.

    Another event critical to bike paths was the 1965 transit strike. The Brooklyn Bridge path had 8 sets of stairs – stairs at each end and 6 flights along the middle. At the Manhattan end, everyone – pedestrians and cyclists – had to schlep down stairs into the subway at Center Street and climb back up to the street again. This was a traffic safety design put in around 1948. There was a low steel fence blocking access to Centre Street at the foot of the bridge – about where the triangle plaza now is across from City Hall. Either the users or the DOT cut away part of that fence to let the masses of bridge walkers and riders avoid the stairways. That first cut fence was the start of reconfiguring all the East River Bridges to remove barriers to smoothly accommodate bicycles, pedestrians and handicapped users rolling on and off the bridge. Today we have no stairs, and few fences blocking our access (guide signs are up but could be better – hint.)

    Another event to fill in some of that great blank area is the Bike For A Better City movement in the early 1970s – lead by some guy by the name of Barry Benepe. Thousands of cyclists converged on Midtown to ‘politely petition’ for better treatment of cyclists, through changes to engineering, education and enforcement. It was a call for more than just bike lanes, it was a call for full legal access by bike across the city, including the bridges closed to all non motorized traffic.

    That 1972 time point of federal funding for bicycles? That bill was sponsored by the Silk Stocking Congressman from the Upper East Side, Ed Koch. Yes, that Ed Koch.

    The next big activity was 1978, as new Mayor Ed Koch came into office, was to lay out on-street bike lanes – including 6th Avenue. These were painted lanes on the street, before the 1980 barrier bike lanes were put and removed. The NYC Bicycle Advisory Committee drafted new city legislation for left hand bike lanes on the avenues. Traffic Dept was putting in right side exclusive bus lanes and wanted bike lanes on the left. Turns out the state traffic law does not address riding on the left, there were no big one way avenues upstate that needed this. Bus lane on right, bike lane on left? Sounds like 1st and 2nd Ave today?

    The Times Time Line is wrong about 1980. The barrier bike lanes went in and then were taken out, but the barriers were immediately replaced by the painted bike lanes.
    Bike lanes were not removed in 1980 – just the barriers were removed!

    Koch personally asked for the barrier lanes to be installed – failing to run them through the usual planning process, and then had them taken out when he got too much flack from high places. It was a political and propaganda disaster for bicycling. The headlines: “NY Removes Bike Lanes”, but technically, the lanes were just beginning to work correctly. Cars were looking before turning, pedestrians stopped standing in the lanes and cyclists were figuring out how to use them. Unfortunately, the were bulldozed 28 days after the ribbon cutting and we went back to painted street lanes. A loss of face, but not the fatal loss the press makes it out to be.

    Between 1980 and 1990, there was some on-street improvements, but a big focus was getting the bridges open and improved. All the stairs on the Brooklyn Bridge were removed by 1986 as part of a federally funded rehab project. The bridge was finally fully handicapped accessible, despite Roebling’s writing how good the Promenade would be for “invalids.” Times and standards change, today, wheel chair users expect to roll their chairs up the bridge by themselves. The other bridges followed.

    Lots more happened in the 90’s. But this summary was mostly to cover the big gaps in the time line.

    We still cannot cross between Brooklyn and Staten Island. The MTA still refuses to consider completing the VNB. The space is still there waiting, the same space as the GWB under the cables. Two paths won’t take any of the 12 traffic lanes away – it’s designed to be outside with world class views. It would add two miles of great bike and walking paths. If we can scare up a spare $35 million, the VNB can finally be complete.

  • BicyclesOnly

    Steven Faust,

    Thanks so much for your gap-filling essay, worthy of a post in and of itself and mandatory reading for any self-repsecting #bikenyc’er. I’m gonna tweet a link to it from the rooftops. And while I can’t recall ever finding factual inaccuracies in any of you comments, I’ll invite other readers with similarly elephantine memories of cycling conditions in NYC to confirm, supplement or amend what you’ve said. I proclaim this a #bikenyc oral history open string!

    Joe R.: I’m mostly down with the rant against teachers, but my read on the Times bike coverage is that it is driven not by ideology, but by the reporting (or editorial?) staff’s desire to maximize readership, which occasionally results in pandering and story-shaping at the expense of the facts. Something to which just about every media outlet, including Streetsblog, is susceptible, but when the Times reporters do it they’ve got the Times name behind them, fancy interactive timelines, and a highly sophisticated journalistic-neutral tone of voice, so it can seem a lot more insidious or even nefarious. On the whole, while I applaud Ben’s deconstruction in the post and agree with most of the criticisms, I think David Goodman’s reporting has been within the range of “fair” as traditionally defined in the world of journalism. And as an advocate, I think his reporting has advanced the cause of biking in NYC. This is most apparent when you compare the “Spokes” blog pieces to David’s more traditional reporting for the print edition. That the paper nearly eliminated the Spokes blog may be an indication of where the pressure for “balanced” reporting is coming from. Indeed, I’ve personally observed David in the hallways at some recent CB meetings sucking specious bike hate quotes out of certifiable cranks, and I haven’t seen that material reach the light of day. We’ll see if he’s just saving that up for the next “balanced” piece.

  • M

    Arrgh! There is no such thing as an “open string”. It’s inexplicably mangled corporatese doublethink for “open thread”. Let’s leverage our synergies to not make words up.

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