‘Local Spokes’ Coalition Brings Grassroots Bike Planning to LES, Chinatown

In Chinatown and the Lower East Side, a new coalition is showing how grassroots, community-based bike planning can be done. Formed six months ago, the nine-member Local Spokes coalition is surveying local residents and workers, holding public meetings, and training youth ambassadors in preparation for the creation of a new bike plan for those two neighborhoods.

The nine coalition members range from organizations with deep community organizing roots in the two neighborhoods, like housing organization Good Old Lower East Side and civil rights group Asian Americans for Equality, to citywide cycling advocates like Transportation Alternatives. In six to twelve months, Local Spokes will compile all the information they’ve gathered, make a concrete plan for building the bike infrastructure the community wants, and present it to elected officials and the city.

One way that Local Spokes will be gathering input from the community is with a survey, available on their website in English, Spanish, and Chinese. It asks people who live or work in Chinatown and the Lower East Side to detail how they get around, what would make them cycle more, how they exercise and who they think has power in their community. According to AAFE’s Douglas Le, they hope to get 1,000 responses.

Those surveys will be augmented by a series of public meetings reaching out to community members, starting at the end of the summer. “Rarely is there this opportunity to have this conversation before it’s too late,” said Karyn Williams, the director of Velo City, an urban planning education group participating in the Local Spokes coalition.

At the same time, Local Spokes will be training a team of 12 youth ambassadors to serve as leaders in local cycling efforts. Over the course of the summer, the ambassadors will learn about issues like immigration and gentrification, mapmaking, and bike safety twice a week, said Recycle-A-Bicycle director Pasqualina Azzarello, a coalition member. On Saturdays, the ambassadors will take group bike rides tied to the week’s lesson. When the public meetings about the bike plan get underway, the ambassadors will attend them. By the end of the planning process they will be leading them.

The youth ambassador program is “a way to understand the neighborhood where they live more politically,” said Le, “how decisions like road construction or capital investment really impact the fabric of the place they call home.”

No one I spoke with wanted to say too much about what might be included in the plan before the community had spoken, but they were willing to point to a few issues that would likely be addressed. As in most parts of the city, said Le, traffic safety and secure bike parking are top concerns in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Bike lanes and bike-sharing could be tools to address those problems. Le also noted issues unique to the area, such as an extremely dense population, a large bike delivery industry, and major NYCHA developments. A large population of immigrants and people who speak limited English must be taken into account, Le added.

Azzarello also pointed to the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges as particular planning challenges for the area. The three free bridges deposit huge volumes of traffic onto the streets of the Lower East Side and Chinatown.

So far, coalition members are pleased with the reaction they’ve been getting. Azzarello said she was impressed by “just how interested people are and how willing people are to be engaged.”

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