Watch the NYC Bike Network Grow and Evolve Over 120 Years

Prepare to be mesmerized. Betsy Emmons has mapped the history of New York City’s bike network using the platform MapStory, where she’s currently a summer fellow. Watch the city’s greenways, bike lanes, and bridge paths expand over 120 years.

You can see the first designated bike routes — promenade-style parkways designed by Olmsted and Vaux in the pre-automotive era — crop up on Ocean Parkway and Eastern Parkway. Bike access via bridges and ferries is visible early on — these are labeled “Class L” in the data, says Emmons, which means they were designated as bike routes but did not necessarily include dedicated space for cycling.

While Robert Moses was remaking the city’s transportation system to move car traffic, most additions to the bike network seem to have served primarily recreational routes near the water. Then in the late 1970s, the first on-street bike lanes in the Manhattan core appear on Broadway and Fifth Avenue. More on-street routes show up in the 80s and 90s, and you can see the Hudson River Greenway take shape segment by segment.

As the on-street routes become a more cohesive network with the proliferation of bike lanes in the Bloomberg/Sadik-Khan years, you have to zoom in to get a better feel for all the changes. Though protected bike lanes are not differentiated from unprotected infrastructure in this iteration of the map, in a future version the underlying data could be used to show how those bikeways have recently become more common.

Emmons is a New Jersey native who currently lives and bikes in DC, and her brother commutes by bike from Brooklyn to Manhattan. She wants to use the NYC map and time-based maps of other cities to help tell the story of how bike networks have grown and where they are headed.

“I think it’s really amazing to watch the network grow, to see its initial stages in the late 1800s, then it kind of lags, then starting in the 80s and 90s, you see this boom,” she said. “I’m wondering what’s behind that and what’s proposed for the future.”

So far she’s also completed a DC map and is working on maps of Baltimore and Chicago. The NYC map was especially easy, she said, because DOT publicly posts both the geographic data and the meta-data about time of implementation. Very few other cities have easily accessible time data, she said.

MapStory is currently a public prototype. The organization is aiming for a full public release, where users can comment on and edit other users’ maps, in the fall.

  • J

    Based on this map, you’d think biking in midtown Manhattan would be paradise, but anyone familiar with that experience knows that it’s anything but. The map includes all sort of symbolic bike facilities, including sharrows and bike lanes often full of double parked cars, which are able to attract meaningful use. A more useful map would document the growth of the low-stress bike network, including greenways, protected bike lanes, and bicycle boulevards (none in NYC, yet).

  • Mike

    Is that thing in the harbor the Staten Island Ferry? For decades, it and Ocean Parkway appear to be the only things of any real length, and it’s not like people were actually cycling over the harbor.

  • BBnet3000

    I really love the phrase “low-stress bicycle network” and will be using it in the future.

    Unfortunately I don’t know that I would include most of the protected bike lanes in New York in this. Every cross street with an unsignalled left turn is a chance to get blocked or worse by a left-turning car.

  • I mentioned that to Betsy and she said it should be pretty easy to differentiate “Class 1” routes — the meta-data does distinguish them from other bike lanes/sharrows.

  • Joe R.

    Besides the left-turning car issue, I frankly can’t consider any bike route, protected or otherwise, with traffic signals galore a “low-stress” route. Part of what constitutes low-stress for many riders is not only absence of motor traffic, but little or no need to slow down or stop. By those standards, it’s mainly only NYC greenways which are low-stress routes.

  • J

    Good point. Certainly, the NYC bike network would benefit greatly from better intersection design on protected bike lanes and better enforcement in general.

    The trick, however, is to quickly convey the network of low-stress facilities that are most effective at getting people to ride bicycles from one place to another, without requiring a block-by-block analysis of every section of bikeway. There’s probably a better way of doing this, and I’d love to hear some ideas.

  • J

    Maybe break it down in term of speed and stress. Feel free to add to this list and improve, etc.:

    1) low-stress, higher speed –
    greenways with few intersections and separate space for biking & walking or shared use with very low pedestrian volumes

    2) low-stress, moderate speed –
    protected bike lanes with protected intersections & bicycle-centric signal progression (12-15mph).
    Neighborhood greenways (bike boulevards) with very low auto volumes and designs to reduce bike delays

    3) low-stress, low speed –
    protected bike lanes with protected intersections & auto centric signal progression (> 20mph).
    Neighborhood greenways (bike boulevards) with very low auto volumes but without designs to reduce bike delays

    4) low-med stress, higher speeds –
    greenways with few intersections and shared space for biking & walking (or highly congested greenways)

    5) low-med stress, moderate speeds –
    protected bike lanes with “mixing zones” & bicycle-centric signal progression (12-15mph).

    6) low-med stress, low speeds –
    protected bike lanes with “mixing zones” & auto-centric signal progression (>20mph).

  • Joe R.

    That’s as good a system as any to classify bike infrastructure. From my own perspective, when I’m mapping out a potential bike route, I tend to avoid a lot of the routes suggested by Google Maps. Those routes often include pieces of the NYC bike network but they also include problems:

    1) The routes are often highly disjointed, with many turns, to the point I would literally need a map in front of me if I wanted to follow them. They also tend to be longer than routes I might pick myself.

    2) Much of NYC’s bike network is really slow, particularly segments which include routes through parks, pedestrian bridges, etc. My own preference is to stick to arterials for most of the journey, even if those arterials have no bike infrastructure, as I know they will be reasonably fast. Some arterials even have 18-20 mph traffic signal timing which suits my riding speed perfectly.

    Anyway, some kind of classification system might be nice so when Google Maps returns a route I would know which parts to keep and which to discard. Some riders may opt for a slower but less stressful journey. I tend to prefer routes which minimize journey times, even if they’re over heavily trafficked arterials. This is generally because most of my bike trips tend to be 10 miles or more in each direction. Averaging 15 mph versus 10 mph for a 30 mile round trip shaves an entire hour off the total trip time, for example.

  • Jeff

    When I ask Google Maps for bike directions, it seems to think that I’m asking for a circuitous tour of bike infrastructure in the vicinity of my route.

    Thanks, Google, but while Queens Blvd may suck, detouring three blocks out of the way so that I can enjoy ten blocks of bike lane on some random side street only to rejoin Queens Blvd anyway isn’t really on my list of things to do today.

  • Reader

    A 15 mph speed limit on side streets to create a network of bicycle boulevards would take a lot of the stress out of riding a bicycle in NYC.

  • Maggie

    Related to the random way these seem to pop up across the city we know today… just for fun, sometimes I mull over a little NYC infrastructure pool, and guess the order these projects will (if ever) deliver. Mostly with biking/pedestrian infrastructure, but adding in transit projects as well. Not in my predicted order, a sample list:

    Rockaways boardwalk fully rebuilt from its 2012 destruction
    Verrazano-Narrows Bridge adds room for pedestrians
    Car – bike – ped space on the Brooklyn Bridge reallocated
    Randall’s Island Connector opens
    Second Ave Subway opens
    Summer Streets – more than 18 hours and one street a year
    East Side Access
    Madison Square Garden relocates
    Madison Square Garden pays some property tax
    7 line extension opens
    Queensway – park or rail
    Subway runs to LaGuardia
    NJ Transit runs to the Poconos
    East Side Greenway connects the waterfront from 120th to 157th
    Car-free Central Park
    Citibike expands its station footprint

  • anon

    Also, East Side Greenway connects the waterfront from 34th to 60th… Damn UN, move already!

  • stairbob

    Have you tried You can choose “safe”, “safer”, or “direct”.

    I just tested it for my commute home and it sent me over the cobblestones on Union Square West, so sometimes nothing beats experience, I guess.

  • Joe R.

    I’ll give it a try. Knowing me, I would probably choose direct 99% of the time.

    While I don’t know of any roads with cobblestones near me, I sometimes alter my routes to avoid roads in bad shape. That’s especially true if the road was cut in preparation for repaving. Those are worse than cobblestones in my opinion.

  • LimestoneKid

    I’m wondering when the bike infrastructure on the ferries to Staten Island will catch up with the infrastructure in the city?

    The Alice Austen and the John Noble have no bike racks whatsoever. Some of the other ferries have slots for 4 bikes which woefully underserves the demand.

  • LimestoneKid

    I should have made my post about the lack of infrastructure on the ferries here. Ooops.

  • Timothy Brathwaite

    As far as I know, the phrase “low-stress bicycle network” comes out of the work of researchers at the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University. See the report here and their original methodology for conducting a low-stress analysis of a city’s street network (San Jose, CA was their case study).


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