One City, By Bike: Huge Opportunities for NYC Cycling in the de Blasio Era

Jon Orcutt was NYC DOT’s policy director from 2007 to 2014. He developed DOT’s post-PlaNYC strategic plan, Sustainable Streets, oversaw creation of the Citi Bike program, and produced the de Blasio administration’s Vision Zero Action Plan. In this five-part series, he looks at today’s opportunities to build on the breakthroughs in NYC cycling made during the Bloomberg administration.

Part 1 – What’s Next for New York City Cycling Policy?

Bike transportation in New York City unquestionably saw historic progress during the second half of the Bloomberg administration. For the first time, city government treated cycling as a serious mode of transportation and continually achieved new milestones: a bigger bike network, safer street designs, higher cycling levels, and a network of bike-share stations that received massive usage. NYC DOT, City Hall, and city cyclists endured and moved past the “bikelash.” But even after smashing so many barriers, cycling in New York is still relatively underdeveloped, with gigantic opportunities for growth ahead.

There are still many gaps in the bike network, like this harrowing connection from the Willis Avenue Bridge on 135th Street in the Bronx, where de Blasio administration can make tremendous progress by adding new infrastructure.
There are still many gaps in the bike network, like this harrowing connection from the Willis Avenue Bridge on 135th Street in the Bronx, where the de Blasio administration can make tremendous progress by adding new infrastructure.

2014 has not been without progress: This year, new bike networks began to take shape in Long Island City and East New York. New lanes on Hudson and Lafayette Streets added to Manhattan’s set of protected bikeways. A key Queens-Brooklyn bottleneck will be uncorked with the pending Pulaski Bridge dedicated bike lane. And NYC DOT has spent the year to date renegotiating the Citi Bike operating agreement to give the system stronger management and the resources needed for technological improvement and expansion.

But it’s important to recognize that what we’re seeing on the streets in 2014 are projects developed under the Bloomberg administration and Janette Sadik-Khan’s leadership at NYC DOT. DOT’s annual street improvement program takes shape during the fall and winter: Implementation begins in late winter and spring when weather becomes warm enough to resurface and repaint city streets. The 2015 program will be the first shaped by Mayor de Blasio’s administration and new DOT leadership. Will it have a strong bike lane component, and where are the additions to the bike network likely to be?

De Blasio’s campaign material promised significant progress, calling cycling a mainstream means of travel in the city. He stated that his administration would achieve a 6 percent bike mode share by 2020 by expanding bike lanes and bringing bike-share to the boroughs. Putting aside the problem of measuring mode share, the mayor was right to recognize that there are huge opportunities to take cycling in New York to new levels — the city can still achieve manifold increases over cycling’s role in NYC transportation in 2014.

Today, the bicycle lane network densely covers a relatively small proportion of the city with lanes every four to six blocks (as in much of Brooklyn north of Prospect Park today), and protected bike lanes outside of Manhattan or the Brooklyn waterfront are rare. Yet New Yorkers increasingly use bikes to get to transit stations in parts of the boroughs where subway coverage is thin, and people throughout the city travel very short distances for most trips. A five- or ten-fold increase in cycling’s presence on our streets over time would not be out of keeping with other large transit-based cities that treat cycling as a real mode of transportation. For example, recent research puts Berlin’s bike mode share at 13 percent of trips.

Expanding cycling would certainly be consistent with de Blasio’s signature Vision Zero policy. NYC DOT has shown clearly that the traffic calming effects of bike lanes generally, and of protected lanes on city avenues, benefit motorist and pedestrian safety, as well as that of cyclists. Less well known is that no fatal crashes involving cyclists occurred within the Citi Bike service area from May, 2013 when the system began operation, until July of this year, when a (non-Citi Bike) cyclist was killed at a BQE on-ramp along Sands Street.

The de Blasio administration can take advantage of several overlapping policy frameworks to shape its approach to cycling in 2015 and beyond. Framing bike policy through these lenses can produce great benefits for the people of New York and numerous wins for City Hall.

Subsequent parts of this series will examine each of these opportunities in turn:

  • NYC has been making some big strides with bike infrastructure. We’ll get there!! So much so we’ll eventually have to rename ourselves back to New Amsterdam 😀

  • Joe R.

    Wow, I’m about as bold in traffic as they come but that picture scares the living daylights out of me. It’s practically like being on a highway.

  • Joe Enoch

    Yeah, I’ve done that one a few times. Definitely no bueno!

  • J

    There is certainly a lot of potential for NYC and a lot of momentum from the Bloomberg JSK years, thanks in large part to the work of Jon Orcutt. However, there are some fundamental issues that the JSK administration never dealt with. Most notably, there is no city-wide vision or plan for bicycle infrastructure besides the 1996 bike master plan, which simply lays out “bike routes”. Many cities, most notably Seattle, DC, and Atlanta, have created sweeping visions of networks of low-stress bikes routes (protected bike lanes and neighborhood greenways) knitting those cities together. When a street comes up for roadwork or some sort of improvement, it is simple to look at the plan and say “hey, we’re planning to put a protected bike lane here, let’s make sure to accommodate it”. It also lets people know well in advance that a street is part of a future bike network, and what that network might look like, and how it will benefit them. It says, that a city has done a ton of community meetings to create the plan, and that this is what people want. Making such a plan is not easy, but it can provide big payoffs later.

    A big problem in New York is that no such vision exists. The 1996 plan tells people little about what a bike route might be (sharrows?), how they would benefit (does anyone benefit from sharrows?), and when that improvement might be implemented. As a result, the city often misses important opportunities to build or even to accommodate the future building of protected bike lanes. Medians and neckdowns are built, hogging space that could otherwise go to protected bike infrastructure, as no one knows where the next protected lane will be built and certainly not ones more than a year off. Most of the protected lane network has been built piecemeal, in places where there is both extra roadspace and strong community support, and while the network pieces seem to be slowly coming into place, there is no public vision of what that network will eventually look like. The result is a disjointed system that doesn’t get you from point A to point B. With this approach, each project becomes a battle, where the people most likely to show up are those that might lose out. With a bigger vision, you take to the table every time an army of people who participated in the planning process. Without that bigger vision, it is hard to do the heavy lifting to get critical pieces of infrastructure built where they are most needed (e.g. 8th Ave by the Port Authority, 1st Ave btw 49th & 59th, 2nd Ave north of 34th, 9th Ave btw 68th & 59th). This is severely holding back bicycling in NYC, as the “interested and concerned” crowd is not going to use a bike network that only gets you MOST of the way to your destination (but still includes some terrifying sections), just like people won’t use a subway system where the lines don’t actually connect to each other. If the new administration is serious about biking and transparency, what better way to show it than to begin publicly planning the future bike network.

  • lop

    https://www.google.com/maps/@40.807247,-73.924338,3a,75y,287.39h,74.02t/data=!3m5!1e1!3m3!1sHVpJ6s1rWsIkF5nec2OrCw!2e0!5s2013-09

    Where he is. Look around you can see he probably just came off the bridge. Look at older streetview pictures of the same spot too.

    What does streetsblog want there? You don’t want bikes on that side of the street west of the bridge, you’d have a conflict with cars getting on the highway. East of the bridge maybe sharrows so cars expect bikes to move into the lane to turn onto the bridge, but you have an offramp so it might not be the best place for bikes to be. How about one block over, 136 is one way, but it is plenty wide, it even has a speed bump to try to slow cars down. How about a two way bike lane? You could probably keep parking on both side of the street.

  • Bobby O.

    There are bike lanes on Willis Avenue and on 138th Street. Photo is sensationalist and misleading- Mott Haven has a decent (albeit parked in) bike network that connects to Willis Avenue Bridge and 3rd Avenue Bridge.

    Madison Avenue Bridge and 145th Street Bridge are another story.

  • vnm

    It essentially IS a highway. If you’re coming into Manhattan from the northern suburbs or the Bronx and you don’t feel like paying the RFK Bridge toll, this one-way four-laner takes you right to the free Third Avenue Bridge. So naturally it’s jammed much of the day. Right next to an elementary school. It’s a setup that I can’t believe the city stands for.

    A better route for cycling is to go northbound on the Willis bike lane for a bit and then make your left on 138th Street, or, even better if it works, 139th.

    As long as we’re talking about the South Bronx, everything in this article is visionary and right, but at this point, I’d just like to see bike lanes that exist on paper restored to the real world. Have you seen the Walton Avenue and Gerard Avenue bike lanes recently? No, you haven’t. Neither has anyone else. They’re worn down to oblivion. There are a whole lot of bike lanes like this around town. Has DOT forgotten about the bread and butter issues of re-striping streets every now and then?

  • thomas040

    Would be wonderful if they’d swap places of most bikelanes and car-parking lanes, basically creating un-buffered protected lanes everywhere.

  • Daniel S Dunnam

    Great post! I’m such a big fan of Mr. Orcutt, I can’t wait for the rest of the series!

  • Guest

    Sure, it’s true that the projects underway in 2014 were developed by JSK. But many of the hallmark projects JSK implemented had been planned by her predecessor. I always felt JSK deserved credit for moving those projects assertively, rather than letting them remain on the drawing boards. By the same token, let’s give Polly credit for projects she decides to advance.

  • JamesR

    This is a problem endemic to pretty much all facets of planning in NYC, whether it’s transpo, land use, historic preservation, or anything else. There is no comprehensive planning. Comp plans are one of the cornerstones of long range planning, yet the city has never had one. As for why, your guess is as good as mine.

  • JamesR

    “It’s a setup that I can’t believe the city stands for.”

    They wouldn’t, if the local residents were whiter and/or weren’t predominantly poor to lower middle class. Yeah, I went there, but you know it’s true.

    Not only that, but the livable streets movement has done an awful job of selling its vision to low income communities of color.

  • Joe R.

    They wouldn’t, if the local residents were whiter and/or weren’t predominantly poor to lower middle class. Yeah, I went there, but you know it’s true.

    I see it for myself when I ride on Hillside or Jamaica Avenues compared to where I live. Not that the streets here are anything to write home about, but the two aforementioned thoroughfares are in such piss poor shape for much of their length it boggles the mind. I’m talking about pavement cut in spots but not others a year ago, ridges, ruts, broken concrete at bus stops, etc. That just wouldn’t fly in my neighborhood but those streets have been in that condition pretty much ever since I could remember. Occasionally they’ll redo a section, but within a few years it’s as bad as before.

  • Guest

    DOT only restripes after they repave, no?

  • Ian Turner

    Nope, sometimes they restripe without repaving. Happened at Columbus Circle recently, for example.

  • HamTech87

    Manhattan’s West End Avenue was the De Blasio-Trottenberg regime’s chance to push for better bike lanes and people-friendly street design, and it failed.

    The Upper West Side should be a cycling and walking nirvana, but instead, all its avenues have been designated as highways connecting midtown with points north.

  • JK

    De Blasio set a goal of 6% bike mode share by 2020, but what is the current NYC bike mode share? The Census American Community Survey (ACS) has NYC at 1%. What number does Mr. Orcutt use, and why? If the ACS 1% share is correct, it’s going to take a true velo-rution to increase cycling six fold in six years.

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