Hunter Planners: Expand the Bike Program, Beat the Bikelash

DOT needs to accelerate the build-out of the city’s bike network in working-class neighborhoods outside the center city, say graduate students in the Hunter College urban planning department. They argue that expanding the geographic focus of the bike program would not only improve access to safe cycling for underserved neighborhoods, it might just help overcome the current backlash as well.

A high number of schools in Queens, outer Brooklyn, and Staten Island are inaccessible from existing bike lanes. A Hunter College team recommends linking bike network expansions to a more robust Safe Routes to School program. ##http://www.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/school_map_large.jpg##Click to enlarge##.

Unless the city devises a successful strategy to build bikeways in neighborhoods where bike infrastructure is scarce, the Hunter team writes in “Beyond the Backlash” [PDF], many parts of the city may get left behind for years to come. “A lot of the city isn’t served as well by the bicycle network as the central business district and Downtown Brooklyn,” said group member Jennifer Harris-Hernandez in a presentation at NYU on May 6. “This has reinforced transportation inequalities around race and class.”

The Hunter team notes that the pattern of building the best cycling infrastructure near the city core may inadvertently give ammunition to opponents of bike infrastructure by overlooking the full breadth of New Yorkers. “Counting [working-class, outer borough] cyclists and planning with them in mind will create a more equitable and relevant network while countering recent claims that bicycling in New York City is for the privileged,” they write.

To that end, the Hunter team proposes a geographic shift in focus for the DOT’s bike program, paired with more intensive public outreach at the local level. At a moment when the city’s tabloid press is launching weekly attacks on bike projects and local politicians seem to think they’re doing constituents a favor by blocking plans for bike lanes, the Hunter team’s report offers a thoughtful and constructive critique intended to strengthen the city’s bike program.

The accelerated expansion of the bike network has built new bikeways in every borough and brought safer conditions to some low-income neighborhoods, but overall the city’s bicycle planning has concentrated the most and best bike infrastructure in close-in, affluent neighborhoods. The bike network is at its densest and most interconnected in downtown Manhattan and northwest Brooklyn, and the overwhelming majority of the new protected lanes are located in high-income neighborhoods. While bike lanes serve many people who ride from outside the immediate vicinity, neighborhoods like Chelsea, the Upper West Side, and Park Slope are so far the primary beneficiaries of protected lanes and the robust pedestrian and cyclist safety improvements they produce.

There are good reasons for the bike network to be expanded this way. The roll-out of new bike lanes has tended to follow the path of least political resistance, at least in the short run. The Hunter team notes that the neighborhoods that have received the most bike infrastructure are the same ones that already had bike-friendly community boards or strong local advocates.

There are also technical explanations for DOT’s current strategy. In explaining to East Harlem’s Community Board 11 why that neighborhood wouldn’t be receiving protected bike lanes last year, for example, DOT reps emphasized the importance of an interconnected bike network, which argues for extending bike corridors from the inside out. The city calculates that a bike-share program can succeed without subsidies if the stations are densely clustered in the central city, but a profit-turning system won’t reach areas where bike-sharing can be most useful to low-income New Yorkers, the Hunter students note.

At a certain point, the Hunter team says, the lack of bike infrastructure in many parts of the city feeds into a vicious cycle. The full picture of the city’s bicycle network “reinforces the impression that gentrification follows bicycle planning, and vice versa,” they write in the report. “This practice, in turn, makes it more difficult for DOT to build outside the most bicycle-friendly community districts.”

To escape this cycle, the Hunter students offered DOT a range of suggestions. Building local bike networks oriented around transit hubs mitigates the need for new bike lanes to be connected to the Manhattan network, for example. Integrating bike planning into a strengthened Safe Routes to School program could help spread safer infrastructure across the city while addressing the particular needs of young people and families.

They also urged DOT to change the tools it uses to measure cycling. The agency’s focus on the screenline count, which measures the number of cyclists entering the Manhattan CBD, quantifies certain trips but ignores others (an issue which has also come up in the context of the screenline’s divergence from Census counts). The screenline is “legitimating DOT’s siting choices, so there’s a cycle of counting and building in the same places,” said team member Sam Stein.

The Hunter team tried out ways to supplement the screenline count by surveying cyclists in Flushing, Corona, and Jackson Heights. One survey was placed on the handlebars of parked bikes in those neighborhoods. The respondents mostly did not bike into Manhattan, so they would never turn up in the screenline count. A majority responded in either Spanish or Chinese. These cyclists had a serious need for safety improvements — 43 percent had been doored and 28 percent hit by a car — especially on popular routes like Roosevelt Avenue.

Cyclists in Flushing, Corona, and Elmhurst filled out surveys describing their daily routes. Roosevelt Avenue is widely used to get from one neighborhood to another. ##http://www.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/survey_map.jpg##Click to enlarge##.

Separately, the Hunter team recommended that DOT build stronger support for cycling by changing the way it integrates local groups, especially community boards, into the planning process. This call didn’t come with any rose-tinted glasses about the current failings of some community boards. “Community boards can often be parochial, short-sighted, and not truly representative of the full breadth of the local community,” they wrote in their report.

Even so, they argued, engaging more with community boards is necessary, especially given the strong likelihood that the next mayor will be more hesitant to support the expansion of the bike network. There is a need “to think beyond this administration and find community support for bicycle infrastructure,” said Harris-Hernandez. Despite the anti-bike impression you might get from some southern Brooklyn community board votes, the Hunter team notes that there are plenty of local groups outside the central city who want to bring safer cycling to their communities.

There are already some good examples of innovative agency outreach for DOT to build on. The Hunter students point to the relatively smooth rollout of a transportation plan for Jackson Heights, arguing that the steady, long-term public outreach that accompanied that project paved the way for its success so far.

Part of the current problem, they say, stems from a lack of capacity at the community board level. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has proposed providing every community board with a trained urban planner, but in the absence of that, the Hunter team recommended that city agencies at least provide board members with regular trainings. “While this kind of work was begun with the ‘DOT Academy’ program,” they note, “it seems to have fallen by the wayside.”

The report suggests that bringing in community board members early on in the process, by inviting them to collect transportation data with DOT, for instance, can help overcome parochial concerns that too often obstruct change. Perhaps most importantly, Hunter identified groups like Make The Road New York, Desis Rising Up and Moving, and Queens Community House as eager to work with DOT on bike planning in their communities.

  • Perhaps its just my own CB, but I’ve found in recent years DOT has pretty much bent over backwards to come to the CB level early on!  Much of the time, they present ideas and concerns so far ahead of time, that the audience gets riled up trying to solve problems immediately and is somewhat frustrated that working together to engineer solutions will take months to plan, then weeks to execute. Again, that may just be the fortune of my own progressive CB… but I enjoy DOT’s outreach and wonder if they need to engage more, or rather do the complainers need to just speak up sooner and pay more attention?

  • The truth of the matter is that there is definitely a need for more accessibility in regards to bike traffic in our city and addressing the needs of the adjoining boroughs is a great place to start. No matter which Manhattan neighborhoods you need to access, adding more transportation options can only serve to make New York a more easily traversable sphere.

  • Danny G

    It would be nice if, when biking to the subway, you were greeted with something besides ‘Any property attached to these railings will be removed…’

  • Anonymous

    Great article!  I’ve really been struck by how the whole bike lane debate so far has largely been among white middle and upper class people centered on a few neighborhoods that already have many of the city’s best amenities .  Many if not most of the bike commuters I see on the road here in Brooklyn are working class people of color riding to and from far away neighborhoods, and who are likely oblivious to the whole “bikelash” thing.  Rolling out lanes to the people who are going to see a huge personal benefit right away seems like a great way to get the system closer to the level of robustness it needs, connect jobs and workers, and improve safety without getting bogged down by people who consider themselves exempt from progress or public process.

  • AlexB

    Except that the people most hostile to bike lanes are in the areas without bike lines.  Look at the bike lanes that were removed in Staten Island in Williamsburg.  There was going to be a bike lane on Bay Ridge Parkway, which is the perfect location for it, and it was voted down.  Of course there is more support for these lanes than can be found in community boards, but that is more a problem with the structure of the boards than anything else.  Corona would be a great neighborhood for bike improvements, but there are still a ton of car owners in the area – I’m sure every member of the local community board drives to the meetings – who would fight anything useful.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, but the Orthodox parts of Williamsburg, Bay Ridge, and Staten Island are three of the most conservative and highest car-ownership neighborhoods in the whole city. One area has a religio-cultural objection, one is relatively wealthy and traditionally resistant to change, and one, in terms of sprawl and geography, has more in common with suburban New Jersey than the rest of NYC, so I don’t think they’re really the best test cases for community support of bike lanes. More like worst-cases.

  • wkgreen

    I can only imagine that a good bike share program in conjunction with an improved network of lanes could significantly contribute to a much improved overall transportation picture at reasonable cost, especially in neighborhoods that are under served by the city subway system. How many people would be willing to subway & bike to neighborhoods such as those in NE Queens rather than fight traffic on the LIE?

  • wkgreen

    I can only imagine that a good bike share program in conjunction with an improved network of lanes could significantly contribute to a much improved overall transportation picture at reasonable cost, especially in neighborhoods that are under served by the city subway system. How many people would be willing to subway & bike to neighborhoods such as those in NE Queens rather than fight traffic on the LIE?

  • wkgreen

    I can only imagine that a good bike share program in conjunction with an improved network of lanes could significantly contribute to a much improved overall transportation picture at reasonable cost, especially in neighborhoods that are under served by the city subway system. How many people would be willing to subway & bike to neighborhoods such as those in NE Queens rather than fight traffic on the LIE?

  • wkgreen

    I can only imagine that a good bike share program in conjunction with an improved network of lanes could significantly contribute to a much improved overall transportation picture at reasonable cost, especially in neighborhoods that are under served by the city subway system. How many people would be willing to subway & bike to neighborhoods such as those in NE Queens rather than fight traffic on the LIE?

  • wkgreen

    I can only imagine that a good bike share program in conjunction with an improved network of lanes could significantly contribute to a much improved overall transportation picture at reasonable cost, especially in neighborhoods that are under served by the city subway system. How many people would be willing to subway & bike to neighborhoods such as those in NE Queens rather than fight traffic on the LIE?

  • wkgreen

    I can only imagine that a good bike share program in conjunction with an improved network of lanes could significantly contribute to a much improved overall transportation picture at reasonable cost, especially in neighborhoods that are under served by the city subway system. How many people would be willing to subway & bike to neighborhoods such as those in NE Queens rather than fight traffic on the LIE?

  • Anonymous

    From Noah’s portrayal, the new Hunter report is a breath of fresh air in what has become a stale and defensive debate. I’m really looking forward to reading it. Thanks, Streetsblog, for bringing what looks like really innovative thinking to our attention.

  • Outer Boroughite

     Agree with Station44025. I think there would be a strong constituency for better bike infrastructure in less wealthy, more immigrant-oriented parts of the South Bronx, Queens and the eastern edge of Brooklyn.

  • Tom

    Community Board #10 in Bay Ridge hasn’t voted down the proposed bike lane on Bay Ridge Pkwy.  Their transportation committee has sent it to the full board for consideration at tonight’s meeting.  Where do you get your information, not here?
    Get to the meeting and show support(See Events).  Drive if you have to, but only if absolutely necessary.

  • Anonymous

     According to the Board’s meeting minutes from June 2010, the board voted 31 to 4 against DOT’s proposal for a bike lane on Bay Ridge Parkway.

    See the minutes at

    http://www.bkcb10.org/_attachments/Minutes%20-%20June%2021%2C%202010.pdf

    I’m surprised it’s being considered again this year considering the vitriol with which it was rejected last year.

  • Anonymous

     Amen, Hunter group! I am almost 61, retired and bike for errands and health approximately 1500 – 2000 miles a year in Southern Brooklyn. I was commuting by bike to Downtown Brooklyn in the mid 1970’s. Most of the people I see on bicycles are over 40, street clothed, carrying shopping bags, except for weekend voyageurs. There is an old established bike/pedestrian path that connects Sheepshead Bay to the Flatbush Avenue/Floyd Bennett Greenway, that has been storm damaged, and in need of paving for almost 2 years. But they plant the flowers only where you can see the Manhattan skyline. Sowing the seeds (tulip bulbs?) of resentment. Transit has been cut here, this is where the need for better bike network really exists. 

  • I couldn’t agree more with this report. It’s time for DOT to step up the expansion of the network in the most underserved areas: Harlem, South Bronx, South Brooklyn. Yes, maybe there will be some  pushback. But, we need to make it safe for the working class, the Black and Latino folks to ride safely, too. Up in Harlem, where I live, plenty of kids and grown ups ride, but way fewer than there might be if we made it safer.
    I like the basic concept of DOT “going to the community boards,” but, the problem is that some, maybe most CB’s are still dominated by car owners, who are hostile to bike infrastructure expansion..

  • Driver

    I don’t think the subway and bike commute would appeal to many drivers on the LIE, but would appeal more to the people who currently take the subway bus combo. 
    There is no reason to “fight” traffic on the LIE unless you have unchecked aggressive tendencies.  I think “sit” in traffic would be a more appropriate term.  Yes traffic is bad on the LIE during rush hour, but it’s not like it’s a surprise to anyone.  It is an expected delay.  With the right mindset, sitting in traffic is simply driving really slowly behind the car in front of you.  To many it’s still better than standing packed in with a multitude of strangers of varying cleanliness who have vastly different ideas of what may or may not be appropriate public behavior.  Driving in rush hour traffic sucks, and riding the subway and bus during rush hour also sucks, for different reasons.  Apparantly many people think that driving in rush hour traffic sucks less.

  • Driver

    Eastern Queens also has plenty of neighborhood streets that are easily bike-able without the need for bike lanes.  It does not compare to Manhattan or Brooklyn in terms of heavy traffic on most streets.  There’s no need to bike up Northern Blvd, or on other major thoroughfares, there are parallel streets that are not major thoroughfares that are fine for biking on even with the existing traffic.  Eastern Queens is a pretty nice neighborhood for bike riding.  Bike lanes would be underutilized and unnecessary, and might very well be avoided by people who currently bike in the area.

  • Larry Littlefield

     If the city really wanted to do something, the New York City Housing Authority could be a venue.  It’s tenants could really use a low cost form of transit.  

    NYCHA is even more bankrupt than the MTA, but money aside I could imagine part of those parking lots turned into secure bike parking, with tenants able to rent simple bikes with locks for a small charge as a part of their lease.  Some tenants could be asked to watch over the bikes as part of their workfare contribution to the community.  Others could be trained to do simple bike repairs for neighbors as sideline job.

  • wkgreen

    There is no reason to make more out of a bike lane than one needs. The streets that are already appropriate for biking could easily be designated as sharrows. I know that when I’m in that neck of the woods I’m stymied by the lack of options for getting around. I either have to drive, take the LIRR and walk a mile and half, or it’s a very long slow bus ride. And for someone who does not know how they are getting where they are going, the streets there can be maddeningly disorienting. Designating a couple of good east-west routes and another couple of north-south ones could help that. The last subway stops are a good 6 miles from the Nassau Co. border.  Having shared bikes at the Flushing or Jamaica stations could extend the reach of those stops for another 2 or 3 miles or more. 
     
    In any case, I only use eastern Queens as one example. There are other parts of Queens as well as Brooklyn and Bronx where the combination of a good lane network and bike shares would also work to extend transportation options from subway stations that are few and far between. It’s a suggestion that they be thought of together, if they haven’t already.

  • JK

    DoT has a scale problem. NYC is a really big city and the agency has relatively few outreach people compared to smaller cities. The result is the agency is under relatively more pressure to find the greatest return on its outreach. Unfortunately, the easiest opportunities for political approval are not evenly distributed racially and geographically. DOT has built the most bike ped improvements in rich white neighborhoods because that’s where political support has been strongest. The Hunter report rightly points out that this is not a politically sustainable approach, nor is it socially desirable. Regardless, we haven’t seen anything yet. By far the biggest bike inititative in NYC history will be the upcoming bike share. This will serve the same affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods that have already received the bulk of pedestrian and bike improvements.

  • Boris

    Yes, like perhaps a map of nearby bike racks.

  • Boris

    I expected the main argument for “technical explanations for DOT’s current strategy” to be the fact that communities farther from Manhattan and northwest Brooklyn are more car-oriented. People there are more likely to be car and home owners and have fewer transportation options, thus being more hostile to change.

  • Routes is one thing, but lack of secure bike parking is another. Improving and expanding bike lanes without providing safe and convenient bike parking won’t make a lot of difference.

    And then there is the lack of maintenance: lots of on-street bike lanes in Brooklyn and Queens are worn out and faded, barely visible, and are now ignored by most drivers and I can’t blame them. Many bike lanes are not repainted after roadwork as well. Hell, look at Grand Street in Brooklyn, a major bicycle route for commuters, the pavement has been ripped out almost two months ago and the street hasn’t been re-paved yet. It’s unrideable for most and “May is a bike month in NYC!”.

    And finally, there is the lack of education and enforcement: both drivers and cyclists alike break the laws and get away with it, bike lanes are blocked all the time as well.

    All these piece have to fall into place to make cycling a real option in NYC.

  • christine

    Such a brilliant plan.. matching bike routes with safe route to schools Especially because it is easy to find origin and destinations! 
    In Hell’s kitchen DOT did four walk throughs with neighbors and this was invaluable for their understanding and really appreciated by the community. 
    On the other hand you will find that when it comes to “do” something, the complainers are usually not the ones to volunteer… they just want to complain .. 

  • christine

     And yes the outer boroughs need it more. 

  • Lyndakennedy68

    Thank you! We could certainly use more bike lanes to get around Queens and btw Queens and Brooklyn (especially now there is no G)- not counting us because we don’t go to Manhattan is silly. We have our own shopping, work and recreation areas to get too!

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