One City, By Bike: Bill de Blasio’s Bike Network

This is part three of a five-part series by former NYC DOT policy director Jon Orcutt about the de Blasio administration’s opportunities to expand and improve cycling in New York. Read part one and part two.

Mayor de Blasio could make good on his campaign themes by
Mayor de Blasio could make good on his campaign themes by bringing safe cycling routes to bike lane deserts like central Queens, where good infrastructure like the Flushing Bay Promenade is disconnected from useful on-street bike routes. Map: NYC DOT

Applied to cycling, Mayor de Blasio’s “two cities” campaign theme would argue that the safety and accessibility benefits conveyed by bike lanes in New York should be enjoyed by people all across the city.

The high degree of bike lane density implemented in the Manhattan CBD and Brooklyn north of Prospect Park during the second half of the Bloomberg years allowed for huge cycling increases in that area, and laid the groundwork for Citi Bike and future bike lane development across the city. More than any other factor, the increasingly dense interconnection of bike lanes in a relatively small area led more and more people to carry out daily trips by bicycle.

In the recent history of NYC cycling, the years with the greatest percentage growth in the city’s official bike counts dovetailed with the strongest percentage gains in a metric devised by NYC DOT planners to assess the connectivity of the bike network. The city’s bike counts, which track cyclists crossing the boundaries of the central business district, more than doubled from 2006 to 2010. This period was years before the advent of Citi Bike, and even by the end of 2010, only a few miles of on-street protected bike lanes had been implemented. But in each of the years 2007, 2008, and 2009, the bicycle network connectivity index registered increases greater than 50 percent.

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The rise in center city bike counts closely tracks increases in a DOT metric of bike network connectivity. (DOT’s “commuter count index,” a measure of cycling activity across the boundaries of the central business district, was divided by 10 to fit the scale of this chart. “Injuries” refers to cyclists killed or seriously injured.)

The rest of the city should benefit from the ongoing deployment of a finely grained bike network. The areas perhaps ripest for development are the types of districts that Mayor de Blasio has pledged to bring more attention to.

Consider examples in central Queens and the southern Bronx. The neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Corona, and Lefrak City are largely bike lane deserts today, but a few additional east-west and north-south bike lanes there could capitalize on the existing network spine along 34th Avenue to begin to forge grids of bike-friendly streets. At the edge of Corona is the Flushing Bay Promenade, currently disconnected from any other element of the bike network. North/south lanes or marked routes connecting to the Promenade’s access points would begin to form a network with the 34th Avenue bike lane.

The Corona street grid’s connection to Flushing Meadows Park is another nearby opportunity. Ironically, the park today presents a barrier rather than a connection for bike trips across Queens, because of the highways flanking it and the confusing and awkward layout of paths and roads within the park. A joint Parks Department/DOT effort to better identify and solidify bike routes across the park could be linked to development of east/west bike routes in North and South Corona.

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The Grand Concourse and Bruckner Boulevard are two clear candidates for protected bike lanes in the Bronx. Map: NYC DOT

In the Bronx, the city has laid a stronger bike network foundation. Long north/south bike lanes are already in place. There are opportunities to upgrade some of this infrastructure — converting the lanes on the Grand Concourse service roads into parking-protected lanes, for example, would be a huge boon to bike transportation in the Bronx. Meanwhile, some north-south trips remain difficult, including getting between Hunts Point and Mott Haven. There is room along Bruckner Boulevard, which has few intersections along its eastern side, for a barrier-protected bikeway from the 130s to Hunts Point. It wouldn’t be the most pleasant place to ride, but it would be direct and safe, which is what people going somewhere by bike want the most.

In any scenario, north-south bike axes in the Bronx need to be complemented with more east-west lanes and routes. Similar to Flushing Meadows, Bronx Park is more a barrier to cycling than a connector — DOT and the Parks Department should jointly develop a way to link the streets in Belmont with the pathways along Pelham and Bronx River Parkways. The pending opening of the High Bridge adds another impetus for better east-west Bronx cycling routes.

These gaps in the bike network and potential solutions are only examples — more opportunities abound in other parts of the city. Pent-up demand should also lead to substantial bike network expansion in Brooklyn south of Prospect Park and in Upper Manhattan, for example, and to the beginnings of a Staten Island network in St. George.

Tomorrow: A proposal to use the Harlem River bridges as the backbone of a great bike network for Upper Manhattan and the Bronx.

  • Anon

    In Part 5, do we get to read about how adding bike infrastructure to the North Shore of Staten Island will help people travel to the Wheel/Harbor Commons/Lighthouse Point/Stapleton Homeport new developments along the waterfront without choking the streets with auto traffic? How the Verrazano Bridge could be the backbone for a great bike network connecting the North Shore and the beach? Or how the de Blasio administration could be encouraging bike travel between Manhattan and SI by working with DOT SI Ferry Operations on a boarding policy that does not segregate cyclists into filthy waiting areas and search them for explosives? Please?

  • J

    In my opinion, the biggest problem with NYC bike infrastructure is that there has been far too much emphasis on quantity and far too little emphasis on quality. While the growing number of greenways and protected bike lanes certainly do create a backbone infrastructure network in Manhattan and in peripheral waterfront areas (which is amazing!), in most places there simply is no backbone network (sharrows and unprotected lanes are hardly the backbone of anything). DOT should build fewer lane-miles of facilities, and instead focus on building only true 8-80 facilities (greenways, protected lanes, and neighborhood greenways) and insist that any new facilities link directly and completely (no sharrow gaps) to existing 8-80 facilities. This way you grow a high-quality network that allows MOST people to use a bike to access destinations without leaving a high-quality network.

    You can blanket the city with mediocre bike lanes and sharrows, but don’t be surprised if few people use them. My friends and family certainly won’t.

  • lop

    Why would you want to bike under a highway on Bruckner instead of next to residences and stores on Southern? It’s not a large diversion for the trip you mentioned, and you get a lot more potential riders.

  • Jonathan R.

    You are asking for a protected lane on crosstown streets in Midtown. Seems unlikely to happen.

  • Abraham

    Perhaps you’re right, but it’s one of the more important places to have them in my opinion. In theory, crosstown travel is the #1 reason I’d like to use Citi Bike, but the reality is that as a new/inexperienced/timid/etc cyclist, I don’t feel confident in doing so with the current infrastructure. I feel most comfortable on the 8th and 9th Avenue protected lanes, but usually then my journey is short enough to walk or long enough that I’d rather just take the A/C/E, especially in the hot summer.

  • J

    No need for protected lanes. You simply unravel the bike and car network. Basically, you stop making all crosstown streets through streets for cars and start designing some of them to be friendly places to bike, while still allowing local car access. To achieve this you’d select some crosstown streets and design for slow vehicle speeds (<15mph) through traffic calming measures. You'd keep vehicles volumes low through forced turns, alternate one-way streets (allowing 2-way bike access), and other measures to prevent through traffic. You eliminate 0 parking and remove 0 lanes of traffic, but you make it a pleasant place to bike and walk while maintaining local vehicle access. This type of treatment has been proposed in Portland (they've been calling it "Commercial greenways") and exists all over the Netherlands.

    http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2012/04/100-segregation-of-bikes-and-cars.html

    http://bikeportland.org/2014/05/20/guest-article-envisioning-a-commercial-greenway-along-28th-avenue-106140

    We have the beginnings of this on 33rd St in Manhattan, where you can bike from 1st Ave to the Hudson river, but in a car you are forced to turn off of 33rd at Park Ave and at Broadway. Try it out and imagine if the route was traffic calmed and someone actually gave preference to bicycling that route. Could be wonderful and fairly cheap to implement.

  • AnoNYC

    “Meanwhile, some north-south trips remain difficult, including getting between Hunts Point and Mott Haven. There is room along Bruckner Boulevard, which has few intersections along its eastern side, for a barrier-protected bikeway from the 130s to Hunts Point. It wouldn’t be the most pleasant place to ride, but it would be direct and safe, which is what people going somewhere by bike want the most.”

    Absolutely true. I wish we had a Manhattan bound protected lane along the Bruckner.

  • AnoNYC

    East Bronxites could have a [safer] more direct route into Manhattan coming off the Bruckner Drawbridge. Also, those that would exit this “bicycle highway” at Longwood Ave, E 156th, E 149th, E 138th, etc).

    Southern Blvd could also use a parking protected bicycle lane but I can’t see the city running it through high traffic/double parking areas like E 163rd/Westchester Ave. No balls.

  • Joe R.

    I mostly agree here, especially on the quantity versus quality part. I’m not sure however if protected bike lanes can really be considered part of a backbone network. To me they’re more like last mile facilities after you’ve done most of your trip on a greenway/bike highway. The latter are what we need a comprehensive network of so you could go from, say, Eastern Queens, to perhaps the North Bronx without needing to go on regular streets except for the last parts of your journey. Protected bike lanes can only form an effective part of such a network where they’re on a street which parallels a park, cemetery, railway, or shoreline, such that the protected bikeway doesn’t intersect motor traffic. In that case, they’re functionally close to greenways. Everywhere else they function more as last mile facilities.

    NYC’s biggest obstacle to increased mode share in my opinion are the stifling traffic levels. In the final analysis there’s not a whole lot we can do on many streets to make them better for biking. No matter what you do, the levels of vehicular and pedestrian cross traffic are a major impediment to efficient travel. The only real solution is to separate the bike network from all that, or at least separate what is considered the backbone portion of the bike network.

  • KeNYC2030

    The $64,000 question here is this: Is there anyone at DOT with Jon Orcutt’s vision and clout who can be the driving force behind such changes and get them scheduled and built?

  • lop

    Most trips are short, speed isn’t the impediment to biking for transportation. Objective and subjective safety are the top issues. Then lesser issues like storage, showers etc…Better surface facilities (without needing to cut motor vehicle traffic levels significantly) could increase the number of trips made by bike an order of magnitude. There is a tremendous amount of room for growth.

  • Jonathan R

    This sounds like a great plan… for Portland.

    I don’t recall ever seeing a midtown Manhattan cross street with motor vehicles speeding at more than 7.5 miles an hour. It is true that drivers often use the odd-numbered streets in the West 30s to head to the Lincoln Tunnel, but they are not going more than 7.5 mph.

    Under your proposal, commercial drivers would drive further, causing more pollution, to get to their destinations on cross streets. Double parking, which is often cited as a bugaboo by city bicyclists, would not be affected. I don’t agree with you that this plan would make midtown “a pleasant place to bike and walk.”

    As Joe R. helpfully points out, the stifling traffic levels are the biggest obstacle to increasing bicycle mode share.

  • Cold Shoaler

    “We have the beginnings of this on 33rd St in Manhattan, where you can bike from 1st Ave to the Hudson river, but in a car you are forced to turn off of 33rd at Park Ave and at Broadway.” Would be nice if that filtered permeability was actually inviting to bikes. They’re both actuall pretty unpleasant. And why not eliminate ALL parking on one side of the street for a proper two way cycle track? Would that really kill anyone who lives/runs a business in midtown?

  • Cold Shoaler

    WTF is up with that “bikes are a security threat” crap on the SI ferry anyway? What a crock. I wonder if it’s make work BS or harassment BS. Probably equal parts of each.

  • J

    Yes, something along those lines. It wouldn’t even need to be that dramatic to be successful, and it probably shouldn’t be done all at once. Manhattan is the opposite of St. Paul, in that it already has congestion, so it’ll need to slowly backtrack away from it instead of preventing it in the first place.

  • J

    Broadway (through the heart of Manhattan) used to be pretty congested, with 2 lanes of traffic. That is until 2 giant diverters were installed at 44th St and 35th St. Most people & trucks simply diverted around Broadway, and it’s now used mainly for local traffic. Maybe truck trip distances went up slightly, but people seemed to barely even notice. The volumes and speeds are now low enough that most of it has been converted to a single lane without anyone even seeming to notice or care. Biking down Broadway is quite easy now (except at Times Square & Herald Square) compared to before.

    If JSK had listened to all the critics, who said very similar things to what you’re saying, Times Square and Herald Square would still be massive traffic junctions, incredibly hostile to pedestrians.

  • Jonathan R

    Have you tried lately to bike down Broadway between 47th St and 42d St?

  • J

    Yes, and I said “except at Times Square & Herald Square”. That project clearly didn’t make bicycling the top priority, and it shows. My point, though, was to show that it is entirely possible to transform some through streets into local streets in the heart of Manhattan without causing the world to end. Do you disagree?

  • Jonathan R

    Last week you stated your opinion that “DOT should build fewer lane-miles of facilities and instead focus on
    building only true 8-80 facilities (greenways, protected lanes, and
    neighborhood greenways) and insist that any new facilities link directly
    and completely (no sharrow gaps) to existing 8-80 facilities.” In my response, I tried to point out what this would mean in midtown Manhattan, and cast doubt on its likelihood.

    This week you have now pointed out that street conversions in Midtown can result in crummy bike facilities (certainly not 8-80 facilities). I certainly agree with your assessment.

    I think where we disagree is on the likelihood that any street conversions or closings in Midtown would improve conditions for bicyclists. It is my opinion that the city, faced with stifling volumes of pedestrians and motorists in Midtown, will NOT take steps to improve conditions for bicyclists in that area by creating an 8-80 type network of protected lanes because there aren’t enough bicyclists, relative to pedestrians or motorists.

  • Joe R.

    Most trips are short, speed isn’t the impediment to biking for transportation.

    It is when you’re literally slowed down to walking speed by hitting lights every block or two, as is the case for many NYC streets. In fact, just having to stop often is a major impediment to biking for transportation due to the fact that it increases the average exertion level needed. Everywhere else where cycling has large mode shares you have bike infrastructure designed to minimize slowing/stopping. Unless NYC takes steps in this direction, regardless of what it may cost, we will continue to have an abysmal cycling mode share.

  • Joe R.

    Besides the fact that there are relatively few cyclists in Midtown relative to pedestrians/motorists, exactly where would the city put cycling facilities which would markedly improve things for cyclists? There is absolutely nothing which can be done at surface level to make cycling faster (short of removing most motor traffic and the traffic signals needed for it), or all that much safer (the protected bike lanes may increase perception of safety, but the reality is the opposite).

    The ticketing blitzes aren’t exactly an encouragement for cycling, either.

  • lop

    Following the letter of the law I can average about 10 mph without breaking a sweat as long as it’s relatively flat. I don’t understand why you think bikes move at walking speed. It’s an utterly ridiculous assertion. It’s never been my experience. And I don’t know anyone who bikes during the day who moves that slowly, even among new cyclists 8+mph is the norm. Working hard during the day I can’t always break 12 on surface streets. You’re right that you can’t go fast. But that doesn’t mean you move at walking speed. On a greenway I can do 18-20 miles in an hour. But 10 mph is plenty for most trips. I don’t want to bike faster than that anyway if there isn’t a shower for me. During the winter especially a more moderate pace is desirable. Counting the time to find parking and walk to and from the car I can’t drive more than 10 mph for most trips either. Count the time to wait for a bus or train and transit isn’t any faster. In much of the city there are places where you could put protected bike lanes without causing traffic problems, to make biking comfortable and safe. Add a place to lock up a bike – it doesn’t have to be secure, just start with something legal in a lot of areas and you’ll have more people biking. The city is nowhere near maxed out on the mode share you can get with surface facilities.

    http://subsite.kk.dk/sitecore/content/Subsites/CityOfCopenhagen/SubsiteFrontpage/LivingInCopenhagen/CityAndTraffic/CityOfCyclists/CycleStatistics.aspx

    How fast can you travel through town by bike and car?

    The average travelling speed in Copenhagen is 15.5 km/h for cyclists and 27 km/hour for cars. In places with green wave for cyclist the average speed is 20.72 km/h.

  • Joe R.

    Sorry but I don’t see how you can average 10 mph following the letter of the law without breaking a sweat. Back when I used to stop religiously at red lights (until the mid 1980s), I was hard pressed to break 12 mph. This was cruising at about 25 mph and jack-rabbiting back up to speed as soon as the light went green. There were also about 1/3 the number of traffic signals back then. I tried stopping for every light a few years ago just for kicks. Tried it on 73rd Avenue, Union Turnpike, Hillside Avenue, Jamaica Avenue, Queens Boulevard. On the portions of my trip where I did that, I rarely averaged over 10 mph despite cruising at high speeds in between lights, plus quick acceleration. More typical was 6 to 8 mph. Maybe you just happen to ride in places with few lights, or lights which happen to be timed optimally for cyclists. Sure, I purposely pick routes for my rides based on either good light timing or few traffic signals but on a utility cycling trip I might not have such a luxury. For example, I’ve gone 4.3 miles on the LIE service road without hitting a red at average speeds of 18 to 20 mph. However, that’s the exception in NYC, not the rule. The LIE service road has signals every 10 or 12 blocks, not every block as many streets do.

    Second, some of your posts reek of Stockholm syndrome. Why should we accept that getting around the city is always going to be slow? Just because a bike might often be faster than driving or public transit is meaningless if both those other modes are ludicrously slow, which they are in NYC much of the time. I’m not really concerned here with absolute average speeds by bike so much as with averaging a reasonable percentage of your cruising speed, whatever that is. That’s the key. We don’t expect subway trains to average 100 mph but we do expect them to average about 90% of what they’re capable of, given their acceleration/deceleration characteristics. A bike should be no different. If the guideway doesn’t allow that then it’s either a design flaw or a compromise.

  • lop

    Try riding without pushing yourself much. Cruise at 15 mph, accelerate at a moderate pace, stay off arterials, they aren’t good for biking at those speeds.

  • Joe R.

    The problem is in much of Queens the arterials are the only through routes. For example, if I want to ride out to city limits, Union Turnpike is pretty much my only option past 230th Street (or Hillside if I want to go out of my way a bit). The LIE service road is a third option, but it gets much too hilly beyond about 230th Street.

    I actually *don’t* push myself much ever since I decided it made more sense to just treat reds as yields. I roll up to the red at a speed low enough to see what’s coming. If it’s clear, I leisurely accelerate back up to speed. Most of those jackrabbit starts had little to do with average speed, and everything to do with getting the F away from that pack of cars jockeying around once the light turned green. I feel a lot more relaxed being well on the other side of the intersection when the light goes green. By the time the cars pass me midblock, they’ve usually sorted everything out.

  • qrt145

    Just to trow another anecdote into the mix: in my experience, obeying the law in the let’s say “sub-optimal for cycling” parts of Manhattan gets me an average speed of about 6 mph. So it’s not 10 mph, but neither is it walking speed (unless you are talking Olympic speedwalking!).

  • Joe R.

    For short trips though the travel time difference between averaging 6 mph versus 4 to 4.5 mph (about what I do on most walking trips) is usually so minimal as to make it not worthwhile to bike.

    On another note, we have many cases where the existing bike routes are not bad, or even great, but the showstopper is lack of safe bike parking. For example, last Thursday I had to go to downtown Flushing. I had three options-bus plus about 5 blocks walking (typically 30 minutes with wait times), walk only (3 miles, 40 minutes), or bike (10-12 minutes-it’s a really fast route most times). Sadly, option three was out because I doubt my bike would be there when I wanted to leave with all parts attached chaining it outside. Option one made no sense as it involved paying a fare just to save a lousy 10 minutes tops. I did option two-3 miles walking in the heat each way. I was royally pissed that we have no decent bike parking. That is what we need much more in most of the city than bike infrastructure. Even a simple thing like a bike rack for a few bikes inside stores would be welcome. Lacking that, just a “bikes are welcome” sign would be fine. If I can roll my bike into a corner of a store, then shop with the manager’s blessing, that’s good enough.

  • lop

    You should consider getting a brompton or other folder. You’ll be slower than racing bikes, but it solves the parking problem.

  • AnoNYC

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