If opponents of an effective street safety project repeat dishonest distortions about it often enough, does that make their position true? Apparently, the Daily News editorial board thinks so. An opinion piece they published over the weekend on the Prospect Park West bike lane might as well have come straight from the desk of Gibson Dunn lawyer Jim Walden, the corporate litigator, Chuck Schumer campaign donor, and rumored Brooklyn DA hopeful who’s now representing bike lane opponents “pro bono.”
A decade ago Daily News reporters were crusading for safety improvements on Queens Boulevard, leading to measures that prevented injuries and saved lives. Now, without any hint of skepticism, truthseeking, or other basic journalistic impulses, the Daily News editorial writers seem content to lift talking points straight from street safety opponents, aligning themselves with the goal of making New York more dangerous. They apparently believe the narrative spun by the anti-bike lane group known as “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” and their spin-off, “Seniors for Safety” — a story in which DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is the only person in New York who wants safer streets for biking and walking, and the local community could, at any moment, “erupt into open revolt.”
It can be time-consuming to visit the neighborhood you’re opining about, do nuts-and-bolts research, or fact-check the faulty assertions in a lawsuit before you reprint them for hundreds of thousands of readers, so Streetsblog has compiled this handy list for the future reference of the Daily News editorial staff, or anyone who’s actually curious about how this project came to be and what the opponents are really after (hint: it’s not safety or “better bike lanes”).
The NBBL narrative obscures the following:
- Community groups asked for the project
One of NBBL’s basic tenets, unchallenged by the tabloid dailies, is that the city foisted the Prospect Park West redesign on the neighborhood. But the fact is that public pressure to tame traffic on Prospect Park West had been mounting since 2006, when the Park Slope Civic Council’s traffic and transportation forum highlighted rampant speeding on PPW as a major quality of life concern.
Later that year, after holding a series of public workshops, the Grand Army Plaza Coalition produced a report including recommendations for better bike access to GAP, and in 2007, Brooklyn Community Board 6 asked the city to study the implementation of a two-way, protected bike lane on PPW. Park Slope Neighbors later gathered 1,300 signatures asking for a two-way bike lane and traffic calming measures on the street — all before DOT proposed the PPW redesign in 2009. No one had to convince people that their neighborhood streets could function a lot better.
- DOT’s safety data is rigorous and honest
Data collected from the six-month study period after implementation of the re-design clearly shows that the incidence of speeding on PPW has gone down significantly, and the early results indicate that crash and injury rates have declined. You can’t be “for safety” and oppose a project that produces these benefits, so NBBL has attacked the data and cherrypicked numbers to undermine confidence in DOT’s methodology.
To do this, NBBL claimed that DOT typically doesn’t use multi-year averages of crash data to ascertain the effect of street redesigns, when the truth is that this is exactly how DOT and other transportation agencies measure safety effects, because that’s the statistically rigorous way to do it. As Gary Toth, a 34-year veteran of the New Jersey Department of Transportation, told Streetsblog: “It is the opponents’ lawyers who are grasping at aberrations and doing the very thing they accuse the DOT of — selectively picking data to stack the deck in their favor.”
- Before NBBL was lobbying City Hall to remove the PPW bike lane, Iris Weinshall and Marty Markowitz were lobbying DOT to not even build the PPW bike lane
From the beginning, the campaign against the bike lane has been spearheaded by opponents with political clout. In October 2009, after the PPW redesign had been approved by CB 6, Borough President Marty Markowitz wrote to Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, asking her not to install the redesign. “I am joined in this request by former DOT Commissioner, Iris Weinshall — who absolutely agrees that the installation of a two-way, barricaded bike lane would cause incredible congestion,” Markowitz wrote in a letter [PDF] obtained by Streetsblog through freedom of information requests. The attempt to perform an end-run around a multi-year community-led planning process had begun. Weinshall would later join Louise Hainline and Norman Steisel in penning a letter to the New York Times on behalf of NBBL, speciously claiming that the redesign increased danger on PPW.
- They have a U.S. Senator on their side
NBBL leaders have taken to saying that only “a small number” of their members are politically connected. But it only takes one former deputy mayor to go over the heads of the local community board and get direct access to City Hall. It only takes one former transportation commissioner to lend an air of legitimacy to spurious claims about a traffic-calming project increasing risk. And if that former DOT chief is married to a U.S. Senator, that’s all you need to enlist City Council members to start agitating against the current DOT and its projects to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists.
- They have media access that would make Snooki jealous
In the annals of NYC NIMBYism, NBBL may be the only neighborhood-level opposition group that has hired a PR firm to get its message out to the press. They’ve also received a helping hand from Marty Markowitz’s office, which offered to put members of NBBL in touch with CBS2 reporter Marcia Kramer last October, according to email correspondence obtained by Streetsblog. CBS2 aired a Kramer segment in February featuring Markowitz, NBBL member Steve Spirn, and video footage provided by NBBL. The coordination between all these parties is never revealed to the viewer, who sees a series of bike lane opponents that seem unrelated to each other. Kramer never mentioned NBBL herself during the segment; only after she kicked it back to the anchor did he say that a group called “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” planned on suing the city.
- Most people like the redesign
A phone survey commissioned by Assembly member James Brennan found a 3-2 margin of support for keeping the bike lane — and that was using a sample skewed heavily toward car owners. A web survey put out by City Council Members Brad Lander and Steve Levin and Brooklyn CB 6 received 3,000 responses and found 70 percent support for keeping the redesign. And at the last CB 6 hearing that invited public testimony on the bike lane, about eight times as many people signed up to speak in favor of the redesign as signed up to speak against it. The only way to set off a community “revolt” related to the bike lane would be to remove it.
- NBBL is very upset about a single blog comment
In the NBBL narrative, DOT conspired to, in the words of Gibson Dunn attorney Jim Walden, “enlist an individual (the ‘Blogger’) to wage a viral campaign against critics of the PPW configuration.” The “viral campaign” Walden refers to consists of a blog comment posted here on Streetsblog last April by Aaron “The Blogger” Naparstek (who had stepped down as Streetsblog editor-in-chief about three months before posting the comment in question). The Blogger’s notorious comment was not, in fact, prompted by DOT overlords calling on him to attack opponents. It wasn’t even directed at specific individuals — all that was known at the time was that bike lane opponents had put up an anonymous flyer around Park Slope advertising an upcoming meeting. The comment was mostly a parody of that flyer. Yes, this is what all the fuss has been about.
- The defense of the Prospect Park West bike lane came from the bottom up
Picture this scenario: You’re engaged in the goings on in your neighborhood and involved with a local civic group, and about five years ago you participate in public forums and workshops where people talk about what needs to change to make the neighborhood a better place to walk and bike. The ideas coalesce into a vision. It can be tough to get the city to take a community-generated plan and run with it, but after a lot more organizing and signature-gathering, the city draws up an official plan based on part of this vision. The community board approves the plan, and then the following year the city implements it.
This is the point in the Prospect Park West story when NBBL appeared on the scene, sending letters to deputy mayors and then threatening to sue the city for installing the PPW redesign. All those engaged neighborhood residents who put in the hours to brainstorm how to fix their streets and gather signatures in support of their ideas didn’t need any prodding from the city to defend the new bike lane. There was no DOT-orchestrated campaign to “collude with bike lobbyists to mislead the public and attack opponents,” as the NBBL lawsuit alleges. The defense of the PPW bike lane is the work of many engaged residents who want to preserve a hard-won safety improvement for their neighborhood.
- The NBBL lawsuit is flimsy
The NBBL complaint is “largely public relations, with no more law behind it than is minimally necessary to avoid sanctions for frivolity,” according to an NYU Law School professor who specializes in government law.
Noah Kazis contributed reporting to this post.