Conflict-Hungry Press Ignoring New Yorkers With Street Safety Expertise

The latest bike story ricocheting around the local media is Mayor Bloomberg’s reaction to a crowd in the Rockaways that reportedly booed the mention of bike lanes. David Seifman at the Post ran with it yesterday. Adam Lisberg at the Daily News picked up on it today. And NY1 managed to work it into a story about today’s blizzard.

The Daily News headline is a good example of how the press itself is distorting this story. Out of a few notable but rather mild quotes from Bloomberg (“I don’t think we’ve done a very good job at explaining and planning,” he said. “There are plenty of people that do like them.”), the News spun the headline “Bloomberg says city needs to listen more closely to those opposed to bike lanes.”

First off, I’m not seeing the connection between the Bloomberg quote and the headline. The mayor seems to be saying that there’s room for improvement in public communication and outreach, not that the city should empower bike lane opponents.

As for outreach, I’m sure DOT or any other public agency can always do better, but the reporters who are parachuting in to these bike policy stories don’t seem to know that, in many cases, DOT has been responding to neighborhood-based initiatives for safer streets. Judging from what he’s been saying in public, the mayor may not know this either.

Protected bike lanes on Eighth and Ninth Avenue are linked to street safety campaigns by groups including the Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen Coalition for Pedestrian Safety (ChekPeds). The Columbus Avenue lane fits with the vision for safer streets supported by the Upper West Side Streets Renaissance. Lanes on Brooklyn’s Kent Avenue and Flushing Avenue came out of years of grassroots work by the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative. The Prospect Park West redesign sprang from community meetings and public charrettes held by the Park Slope Civic Council and the Grand Army Plaza Coalition, going back nearly five years.

No one in the press seems to be approaching these groups, who’ve been deeply involved in improving street safety and bicycling, for their perspective. So I checked in with Christine Berthet, co-founder of ChekPeds.

“DOT has installed four bike lane segments in our neighborhood. For the last three they learned from their mistakes and did extensive planning and outreach,” she said. “Change is hard, especially when it involves taking away privileges from a minority and redistributing space, time, clean air and safety to the majority. We applaud Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan for forging forward on this mission.”

Instead of talking to New Yorkers who have the authority to speak knowledgeably about how streets are changing, the press has fed off two types of conflict. The first is garden-variety kvetching, which is hardly unique to bike lanes. I’ve sat through hour-long community board discussions where members were filled with abject terror about the arrival of new city office facilities, because the additional workers would supposedly make it harder to find free on-street parking. I’ve heard community board members from Sheepshead Bay say pedestrian islands and street trees are a menace. The fact that a crowd in the Rockaways booed bike lanes is not especially remarkable.

What’s remarkable is how the press has conflated the first type of conflict with the second type: organized lobbying against a single project by a small group of politically-connected bike lane opponents. Ninety percent of the media noise about bike lanes the past few months has really been about one bike lane, the two-way path on Prospect Park West, and one group of NIMBYs, which includes the wife of Senator Chuck Schumer.

The PPW bike lane is popular and it’s improved safety, but a handful of people who have the ear of Marty Markowitz, James Vacca, and other political players do not like it. Their views do not represent the majority of Brooklyn or their own neighborhood, but their perspective is dominating the pages of the Post and the TV screens of people who get their news from CBS2.

  • Marco

    Marsha Kramer’s Eyebrow – I’m sure that more than 6% of New Yorkers ride in taxis (or livery cabs). Do you really want to be making the volume argument?

    A reasonable road plan provides for both cars and bicycles (and often transit), using appropriate space for each. Cars are physically bigger and far more popular transport than bicycles in NYC, and they will certainly be for the forseeable future. A realistic livable streets effort needs to internalize that situation. At this point, a single protected lane is exactly the right amount of cycling space on Manhattan avenues.

  • Chris

    @Hatfield, anecdotal evidence is not fact.

  • I was in Midtown during the “slush storm” we had last week and was amazed at all the cyclists I saw despite such crappy weather, so I really don’t understand where Hatfield is coming from whatsoever. Maybe he suffers from “Not seeing bicycles” syndrome that afflicts so many people when they are behind the wheel, causing them the hit and often kill bicyclists they “just didn’t see.”

    Also if he doesn’t like bikes on the sidewalk (neither do I) then he should be all for bikelanes.

    Finally, take a look at any old historic photographs of NYC or any other city in the US, from before automobile totally invaded and took over the streets. You will see, pedestrians, bikes, trolleys, carriages, etc. and some cars in the streets using it somewhat equally. Kids walking and playing in the streets were commonplace! The idea that the street is solely the domain of the automobile is just late 20th Century, American ideology only compounded by the engineering practices of the past 60 years that perpetuates the myth.

    And yes, I drive and live in the burbs!

  • Hatfield

    Chris: You have no evidence at all. I’m speaking of the streets I am familiar with, 9th Ave, Washington St., 8th Avenue. You could throw in Broadway in the 50s as well. The numbers just don’t come close to justify investing the space and money for bikes. If there are areas where there are lots of bikers, great. Devote street space to them.

    And, I used to bike quite a bit; to work in Wall Street, and around Central Park. Don’t do it now, but did for years.

  • Marco

    Well, expense aside, the bike lane on Broadway in the 50s doesn’t really disrupt anything. Although it’s not heavily traveled at all, Broadway itself isn’t usually particularly backed up with cars. And it has bike signals, which is pretty cool.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “If there are areas where there are lots of bikers, great. Devote street space to them.”

    You have the chicken and the egg wrong, because of the perception and in some ways the reality that if people try traveling by bicycle they will be killed or injured by motor vehicles. I have a friend who is an assistant DA who gave up bicycle commuting after being knocked down twice, back when there were not bike lanes.

    Here is what the allocation of street space was in my hometown of Yonkers before they induced auto travel by turning it all over to motor vehicles.

    http://world.nycsubway.org/perl/show?116395

  • If there are areas where there are lots of bikers, great. Devote street space to them.

    You mean like over on East Third Street? They appropriate their own street space just fine without any help from cyclists.

  • Hatfield

    I haven’t a clue about the rest of the city vis-a-vis bikes. I do know I don’t see them very much or at all. I was all up and down Madison in the 60s-80s yesterday and didn’t see one person on a bike. I don’t recall if there are any bike lanes. My point is simple: the numbers of bike users in the city do not justify the expense and loss of space on the streets in most places. At least, on the West Side and wishing or pretending won’t make it so. I just hope the next, saner, administration will tear up most of the bike related barriers on the West Side.

  • Mike

    Hatfield, you’re remarkably unobservant. If you can’t even tell whether there’s a bike lane, what makes your other observations credible? (There isn’t one on Madison.)

    Your observations in January when there’s a ton of slush on the streets isn’t really relevant to bike usage in general. Check back in June, and this time try actively looking. Better yet, try being a better neighbor by walking, biking, or using mass transit, instead of cocooning yourself in your car.

  • EP

    Hatfield- apparently you missed failed to see me. No there isn’t a bike lane on Madison, but I road up part of Madison to the mid-80s. And I wasn’t the only person on bike, though I will admit, I was one of the few who was not a delivery person.

    And possibly, were you one of the cars who passed me a little too close and a little too fast yesterday as I made another journey down Park Ave from 84th to 69th? Causing me to fear for my life and pull over and wait for traffic to calm down? If I had a bike lane to make use of, then I could have avoided having to ride in traffic- which would have made both myself and the car drivers very happy.

  • Hatfield

    Mike: I have checked back in June and all through the year; on the West Side, there just isn’t much bike riding. Nearly none. None around Hell’s Kitchen; 10th Avenue, etc. I don’t know where the supposed upswell of bike riders go, but it’s not to the West Side. Not in great weather, or any other time.

    And as for Madison Avenue, I wasn’t looking for bike lanes. I was on foot, going to galleries. I didn’t see any bike riders anywhere on the UES where I was. Lots of cars, though.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’m sure they are counting cyclists on the upper part of the PPW bike lane, too. I hopped a bike to get to church, but had to walk it around the huge snow barrier at 7th Street.

    I wonder what the equivalent will be in the summer?

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