DOT: New York City’s Complete Streets Are Built to Last

The New York City Department of Transportation is nurturing a culture of safer streets that it expects to outlast the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, DOT policy director Jon Orcutt said at last Friday’s Regional Plan Association annual assembly.

Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, where DOT installed the city's first on-street, two-way protected bike lane in 2009. Photo: Ben Fried

Speaking at a panel on the politics of multi-modal streets, Orcutt described Bloomberg’s PlaNYC as a “mandate” not only to modernize city transportation policy, but to “reinvent the public realm.” Building on infrastructure improvements that came about prior to the era of Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, including East River bridge bike paths and the west side Greenway, DOT’s physically separated bike paths and other more recent innovations have made cycling more accessible, Orcutt said, and have helped double the city-wide bike count over the last five years.

“One of the ideas here,” said Orcutt, “is you don’t have to be an endurance athlete or some kind of risk-taker to ride a bike around town.”

Fellow panelist and city traffic guru “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz recalled the now-infamous yarn of how Mayor Ed Koch ripped up protected bike lanes on Fifth and Sixth Avenues in 1980, following a spate of fatal cyclist-pedestrian collisions and a visit from President Jimmy Carter. As the story goes, Koch, Carter and Governor Hugh Carey were riding through Manhattan in Carter’s limo when Carey, in reference to the bike lanes, said to the president: “See how Ed is pissing away your money?” The lanes were removed a month after they were installed.

Schwartz cited the late 60s experiment that closed Central Park to cars from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., undone after Abe Beame’s wife got stuck in Manhattan traffic, and Rudy Giuliani’s Midtown pedestrian corrals, still in place today. To Schwartz, these are cautionary tales that point to the fluid nature of city transportation policy.

But Orcutt made a convincing case that the current effort has taken root. Last year’s media-fomented “bikelash” had the unintended effect of arousing public interest in bike lanes when many New Yorkers might otherwise have been indifferent, he said. When opinion polls consistently showed overwhelming support for bike infrastructure, said Orcutt, the negative stories disappeared. The anti-bike propaganda push, he said, “sowed the seeds of its own demise.”

As the city has added 200 miles of bike lanes, Orcutt said, communities are lining up to request public space improvements. With bike-share to launch this summer, some 10,000 sites were suggested for 600 stations. Pedestrian plazas are popular with business groups that understand the value of foot traffic, and more applications have been submitted than DOT can accommodate. “People are coming to us and asking for these things,” said Orcutt.

In the meantime, the National Association of City Transportation Officials — the urban answer to AASHTO — is looking to have its manual adopted as a national standard for traffic engineering. To paraphrase Orcutt, NACTO wants to rewrite the book on street design.

Panelist Thomas Roach, the mayor of White Plains, described how the downtown area of his 10 square-mile city was “dead” until people could be encouraged to move there. Now, to accompany the sidewalk cafes, Roach is putting in bike lanes. In a town where people drive half a mile to buy groceries, it’s a tough go — particularly since some, especially in the media, take “perverse joy” in finding fault with new ideas. The irony, Roach said, is that the driver who hogs the crosswalk is often the person who’s about to cross the street.

Mayor Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken said she’s adopted a top-down approach to complete streets. With a shade over a square mile of area and 50,000 residents, space is tight. Yet the Zimmer administration is covering the city with bike lanes, has improved pedestrian safety by daylighting dangerous intersections (complete with stanchions), and is making the most of on-street parking by reserving corner spots for car-share vehicles.

The key, said Zimmer, is letting everyone know what’s in it for them. For example, when she gets a complaint about a “corner car” taking up a spot, Zimmer points out that one car-share vehicle represents 17 private cars that are no longer parked on the street. Communicate with the public, Zimmer said, and people get it.

Explained Orcutt: “You can upset some people. You can also get it in the ground and show people how it works.”

  • Guest

    I’m worried that the “bikelash” was small compared to the freak-out that we’ll see when the city starts to install bikeshare stations.  I hope we’re ready.

  • J

    @875ca3e1f5770ee2e0a70b8265dae003:disqus I’m not so worried about bikeshare. The stations generally take up 2 parking spaces, yet the amount of use that space provides is incredibly obvious. Any business owner can easily see that they’ll get more customer access from a 20 space bikeshare station than from 2 parking spaces. Since the system will be open for use by pretty much everyone, residential grumbling should be pretty minor as well. Again 20 bikes for public use provide much more utility than 2 car parking spaces.

    If this was done on a small-scale, the grumblings would likely be much worse, but since it’s being rolled out as a highly-functional network from the start, it’s really easy to see the utility. I can’t wait for the journalists to try it out.

  • J

    In general, I’m not worried about existing improvements being ripped up. I think that would be politically stupid, rallying liveable streets supporters into widespread protest (I’d be there). What I am worried about is stagnation. If a new mayor comes in who doesn’t care much about transportation, I imagine they’d replaces Sadik-Khan with someone with good credentials, but who could be kept on a tight lease. I imagine the result would be endless studies and little actual implementation. It takes time, money, effort, and political support to reinvent our streets. It’s much easier to just leave things the way they are, unless there is a loud, popular cry for these changes to continue. Maybe we are close to having such a mandate, and bikeshare will certainly help, but I don’t think we are quite there yet, and that is what worries me. 

    This stagnation is basically what happened in DC when Vincent Gray was elected and Gabe Klein was replaced, although things have started to pick up again, albeit slowly.

  • Jesse

    Guest,

    I am optimistic about the bikeshare program.  I hope that it will get people on bikes who wouldn’t otherwise have tried it and that they’ll realize that bike infrastructure and a livable streets culture could benefit them as well.  All the gains for cyclists don’t have to be losses for them because becoming a cyclist is as easy as getting on a bike.  Also, people will notice the bikeshare bikes because they’re so conspicuously ugly.  That, in turn will demonstrate the popularity of the program and reinforce the idea that bike culture is growing in NYC and becoming more mainstream.

    I guess bikeshare could win some more bike detractors but I think it will win far more supporters. 

  • Mike

    I’m still waiting for the Giuliani barricades to be taken down.  Does Bloomberg not want to provoke his predecessor?

  • John Pelletier

    For all the bike share worry warts out there.  Look at Boston.  Come on, have you tried to get around in this city? you New Yorkers have it easy!!  Everybody said that there would be blood in the streets, nobody would use the bikes in Boston, it would be a mess etc. Even after just a couple months there is huge usage, 100,000+ trips and no injuries.  Stations coming to Cambridge, Brookline, Somerville.  This is Boston, we were ranked worst city for biking multiple years in a row until Nicole came onboard and turned us around.  I imagine that NYC bikeshare will be the most successful program in the US and maybe North America (I think Montreal started out with a smaller system then what NYC is starting with)  Oh and 80% of users do not use helmets. You know what? The world has not ended, folks are not dying left and right everything is fine.  Some users would like to sue one and thats easy with cheap helmets available at tons of stores across the city.  What you have are residents out and about taking trips by bikeshare safely and hassle free (for the most part).  NYC will be a resounding success from the start, one reason for that is the great complete streets work, the work on traffic calming and implementation of separated bike-ways

  • Tallycyclist

    If there are any initial issues, which there usually are with any change, then it’ll just need some time for the kinks to be worked out.  After all, we’re talking about changes that many motorist may perceive as potentially threatening, whether warranted or not.  It’s tough to go against such a powerful majority group.  And power they have, with strength, size, speed and numbers on our roads.  

    More importantly, we all need to continue being persistent about these positive changes, but also be patient.  It’s going to take time for a true “bicycle” culture to develop.  It may take decades or even a couple generations before we become like Holland or Denmark.  Had we started what they did in the 70’s, things would be very different today.  But you have to start somewhere, sometime.  Fortunately, we have lots of great examples to emulate from them.  After 30-40 years of trial and error, they have really worked out all the kinks.  I hope our cities will become like many of those Northern European ones someday:  not just very bike friendly, but people friendly in general.  

  • Mark Walker

    I agree with Mike about the Giuliani barricades. Mr. Bloomberg, tear down these walls!

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