Upper West Side Leaders Calmly Study, Tweak Columbus Ave Lane

The Upper West Side is offering the city a lesson in what a mature and constructive response to bike lane growing pains looks like.

Upper West Side leaders present their recommendations to tweak the Columbus Avenue bike lane. Photo: Noah Kazis

While the new protected bike lane on Columbus Avenue received community support throughout the process, once installed many local businesses along the corridor began to complain that the design was making it harder to park or make deliveries along the east side of the street. In response, elected officials and the community board developed a working group, surveyed those businesses and developed a set of tweaks intended to make the street design work better, which DOT has quickly accepted. That collaborative process has now set the scene for a continued expansion of the bike network on the Upper West Side.

The Columbus Avenue Working Group, made up of Community Board 7, the Upper West Side Streets Renaissance, and the offices of Borough President Scott Stringer, State Senator Thomas Duane, Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, and Council Member Gale Brewer, canvassed the blocks of Columbus between 77th and 96th streets, asking those businesses on the east side of the street what they thought of the bike lane. They announced the results of that survey at a press conference yesterday.

Of the 65 businesses they surveyed, 36 responded. And while that wasn’t a random sample, the results were pretty clear: 72 percent said the redesign had been bad for business. Of those negative responses, 86 percent identified reduced space for parking or loading as a concern and 53 percent said they’d had issues receiving deliveries.

No member of the working group, however, blamed the bike lane or called for a return to the more dangerous Columbus Avenue of the past. When asked by one reporter where things went wrong, Stringer answered, “I don’t think that things went wrong.” The only disconnect, he said, was that community consultation needed to be ongoing.

“You need bike lanes, but you need input,” agreed Brewer.

That input turned into a set of modest recommendations (the full document listing them is up at Transportation Nation). It calls for left turn lanes to be shortened, where possible, to restore a few parking spaces; for DOT to work with businesses to calibrate the parking/loading balance on their block; and to reprogram Munimeters so that they can’t issue permits during loading-only hours.

When they examined the street themselves, working group members found that the lack of loading space wasn’t due to an inadequate number of loading zones, but to inadequate enforcement of those loading zones, which filled up with parked cars. They therefore urge the NYPD to crack down on misuse of the loading zones — particularly parking placard abuse and double parking. They also recommend more enforcement of cyclist infractions in the bike lane.

Those recommendations earned the support of the Upper West Side Streets Renaissance. Columbus Avenue will now be a street “designed for everyone, with input from everyone,” said Tila Duhaime of the UWSSR.

During yesterday’s press conference, Stringer offered an additional recommendation that wasn’t included in the working group report. The borough president complained that the community board had voted on a plan with six pedestrian refuge islands but found 28 installed. When he said they should get rid of some of those islands, however, Brewer and Wymore instantly objected, saying they liked them.

In a letter sent yesterday, DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan agreed to comply with most of the working group’s requests and to study or collaborate with other city agencies on the rest. Stringer took a few jabs at DOT during the press conference, but ultimately praised DOT for their quick and supportive response.

Stringer was impressed enough with the results that he wants to make the working group a model. “I want to go to Grand Street,” he said. “I want to go around the borough.”

Rosenthal said the Columbus Avenue model could be a way of bringing people together and cementing support for important street redesigns. “Everybody has an interest in realizing a safe and friendly pedestrian, motorist, bike lane city,” she said. “We want it to work: bike lanes have gotten some bad publicity lately.”

That theory may already be working. Wymore said that the community board is now “looking for ways to connect what we’ve already accomplished here on Columbus Avenue to other bike lanes throughout the city. The goals is to have a network of bike lanes that work and really allow people to get from place to place. Hopefully we’ll be working very closely with DOT to accomplish that.”

The originally-requested northbound pair on Amsterdam may be a harder lift, however. Wymore said that because Amsterdam is less wide and carries more motor vehicle traffic than Columbus, it needs to be considered as part of a neighborhood-wide analysis.

  • Shemp

    Unspoken by the task force is the point that if you ask any storefront merchant in the city if they have delivery and loading problems and would they like more space around their store, they would of course say yes whether or not there was a bike lane or some other recent change to the street.

  • BicyclesOnly

    I remain unconvinced that a significant number of people drive to pharmacies, florists or the like on the UWS. People there pick a pharmacy because its close to home, you expect to be going there when you’re sick or in an emergency.

    In any event, I’m really glad they kept all the pedestrian refuges, even if the final number of them was not subject to a plenary review and approval process. I recall that the islands were cited an important factor by some fence-sitting CB7 members as a reason to vote for the plan.

  • I think NYCDoT should do more for delivery drivers and that not doing so hurts their cause to affect real positive change on the streets of the city.

    I don’t understand why the curb space along all of NYC’s commercial streets is not dedicated to deliveries during business hours Monday through Saturday. People delivering only themselves in a private automobile have alternatives to reach their destinations in the city, including bikes. By the contrary, bulk goods really only have one mode choice and that is by truck.

    If DoT did this, I think it would go a long way to placating store owners and those that deliver their goods. It’s not like delivery driver really want to double park or in the bike lane. They often just don’t have any other real choices.

  • Actually what I should have said in the first paragraph is this:

    I think TRANSPORTATION ALTERNATIVES and STREETSBLOG should do more for delivery drivers and that not doing so hurts their cause to affect real positive change on the streets of the city.

    Again, bulk goods deliveries have one mode choice and that is by truck. Work with them and not against them. I read very little about this from both organizations. It’s time to get them on our side!

  • Ken

    To my knowledge, prior to the street redesign there were no dedicated loading zones along the east side of Columbus. Trucks that couldn’t find a free space simply double-parked. The new design adds dedicated loading zones for the first time. You would think this would delight businesses along the avenue, wouldn’t you?

    It didn’t, partly because of the lack of enforcement noted in the article and partly because, as revealed in the study, the merchants’ major complaint is a catchall “reduction of space for parking/loading immediately in front of their business.” Problems in receiving deliveries was a separate question that was not an issue for nearly half the respondents. It’s hard to tell what the primary “parking/loading” complaint consists of, but it could well be a combination of not being able to park right in front of their business themselves and then feed the meter all day and the inability of their customers to double park with ease and pop in (because the new design makes double parking a far dicier proposition).

    In any case, if the Columbus Ave. merchants want their motoring customers to have easy access to parking spaces, they should be all for increasing the price of parking to the point where there is guaranteed rapid turnover.

  • Andrew

    It is simply inconceivable that 25% of Ivan Pharmacy’s customers arrive by car. It is therefore even more inconceivable that Ivan Pharmacy lost 25% of its business due to a reduction in parking.

    It’s certainly conceivable that Ivan Pharmacy lost 25% of its business due to other factors, like the weather, the proliferation of chain drug stores in the neighborhood, and the general state of the economy. Unavailability of loading zones might have contributed, but as this article points out, that is largely due to inadequate enforcement of existing loading zones.

    Perhaps Mr. Jordan used to drive to work but is upset that he is no longer able to find parking in front of his store. If so, perhaps he should be reminded that feeding the meter is illegal.

  • JK

    Stringer et al get credit for a successful political exercise. But it’s not at all clear why a tiny number of retailers should have so much say in community affairs. Nor is it clear that this retailer heavy “task force” concept should be the model elsewhere. How many thousands of neighborhood residents equal one guy who owns a store employing five people? The basic problem on Columbus and other retail streets is that the store owners and employees want to park in front of their own stores. Decades before the bike lane, delivery vehicles couldn’t get to the curb and had to double park.

    The political disconnect here is that the stores are typically the customers of the delivery vehicles. The owners of the delivery vehicles can’t get involved in dozens of parking fights, nor can they afford to call bullshit on their own customers. It is patent nonsense that the small reduction in parking on Columbus could have effected shopping levels. The 2007 Columbus avenue survey done by PPS found only 2% of people interviewed arrived by car. Given the parking supply and turnover, it’s highly likely that most motorists heading to Columbus Ave parked on side streets and in garages, and were not effected by the Columbus bike lane changes. Brewer’s pharmacist says he lost “25%” of his business) this is simply not credible. So, why does he, and so many other store owners just like him have such a big voice in building a consensus over street design?

  • Driver

    The loading zones on the east side of Columbus are not adequate for the number of trucks and deliveries that take place in this area. Keep in mind, each block has several businesses on each side of the street, each of which likely receive deliveries from many different vendors. A loading zone that can fit one box truck and one van is of very limited utility. You also have to factor in that some blocks have no loading zones at all on the east side of the street, so the small designated loading zones are effectively trying to meet the delivery needs of more than one block of businesses. One or two vans, usually mechanical companies (they have to park somewhere too) can make the zone useless to larger delivery trucks.
    One suggestion is to expand the loading zone hours on the west side of columbus to include the 7-10 am time slot. The west side is currently no standing 7 to 10 am, presumably to facilitate the morning rush hour traffic, but the shoulder is not a practical traffic lane anyway. This space should be a commercial loading zone in the morning, in many cases I think it is used as one anyway, to the tune of $115 per ticket.
    JK, the traffic enforcement agents are pretty good at keeping tabs on cars that try to “feed the meter” and park all day, or even for a couple of hours. This practice is prohibited and will result in tickets. Traffic agents also tend get a little overzealous, ticketing trucks for parking in loading zones for more than 30 minutes. Considering that a truck might have several deliveries on the same block or two, might be making a large delivery involving several trips, or may be parked a block or two (or more) from the delivery destination in order to park legally, 30 minutes is not always enough time to complete the task at hand.

  • Driver

    While I doubt that Ivan pharmacy has 25% of customers driving to the store, it is possible that the store has a small portion of loyal customers who lived in the immediate vicinity at one time and no longer do, yet still choose to travel there (by car) because of the level of service they receive. Ivan pharmacies two yelp reviews make it sound like the kind of store one might continue to patronize even after leaving the neighborhood.

  • JK

    Driver, NYC, like most big cities, does a very poor job enforcing meter time limits. I strongly doubt time limits are enforceable without automated scanning systems. TA’s 2008 study of Columbus Ave parking found “The average vehicle parks for 93 minutes. Posted “1 Hour Parking” regulations are neither observed nor enforced.” http://bit.ly/i59RKn TA surveyors reported that some vehicles parked at metered spots didn’t move for an entire day, driving up the average time.

    TA’s finding is consistent with dozens of MTA bus route studies and DOT traffic and parking studies which find avg parking times at “one hour” meters ranging from 75 minutes to more than two hours. It is an open secret that NYPD parking agents do not ticket the familiar cars of merchants as long as the meters are fed. They have to see these people everyday. On my section of upper Broadway, I’ve seen it for years.

    When towns and cities start using vehicle mounted scanners, they find 40% to 60% of vehicles are exceeding meter time limits by more than ten minutes. The shock of government actually enforcing time limits is so great that the companies selling the scanner systems recommend 2 to 4 weeks of courtesy ticketing to educate motorists that they will actually have to obey time limits.

  • J

    First, of the 65 businesses contacted and 36 that took time to reply, only 5 replied that the amount business decreased because of the bike lane. So, the overwhelming number of businesses that reported a negative impact are complaining about problems with deliveries, not customer parking. If business really was down significantly, owners would be more keen to respond to the survey. This is a point that has been missed in nearly all coverage I have read about this.

    Second, this model is an excellent example of how compromise happens. Perhaps someone can forward this to NBBL, to show them how negotiating for better bike lanes (instead of no bike lane) can actually occur. A good politician, like Scott Stringer, brokers compromises, uniting his constituents. A poor politician (Marty Markowitz) uses force to get his way, creating hostility and tension among constituents.

  • Woody

    What’s the bike lane got to do with this? Nothing.

    The whining is about the loss of parking spaces. The new bike lane did NOT take any parking spaces. Installing the LEFT TURN LANES every other block caused the removal of parking spaces. The turning lanes were put in to speed traffic flow on Columbus Avenue.

    So drivers will have to choose between reducing congestion or adding back more parking spaces. But taking away the bike lane would not restore a single parking space.

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