De Blasio Administration Backtracks From Cycling Mode Share Goal

It looks like the de Blasio administration has quietly tamped down its promises for increasing how much people bike in New York City.

Bill de Blasio's new goals for bicycling aren't as ambitious as his old goals for bicycling. Photo: Juha Uitto/Flickr
Bill de Blasio’s new goals for bicycling aren’t as ambitious as his old goals for bicycling. Photo: Juha Uitto/Flickr

During the 2013 race for mayor, candidate Bill de Blasio issued a policy book that included a goal of 6 percent bicycle mode share for all trips citywide by 2020. That’s a lofty goal, and a difficult one to measure: Currently, around 1 percent of city residents commute primarily by bicycle, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those stats capture only work commutes, which NYC DOT says typically cover 20 percent or fewer of all trips.

Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg stuck by the 6 percent promise when Bicycling Magazine named New York the nation’s best city for bicycling last September: “The de Blasio administration is moving forward with our own bike initiatives, to meet the mayor’s very ambitious goal of increasing the share of all trips in New York City taken by bike to six percent by 2020,” she said. “Do not worry. We will not rest on past accomplishments.”

At a bicycling forum later that month, Trottenberg again mentioned 6 percent — but referred to “doubling” trips, a less definitive and less ambitious benchmark. “By our measure, the actual percentage of trips taken in the city by bike is now like one and a half percent,” she said. “The previous mayor, I think, had pledged to double it. Our mayor promised to double it again.”

At the forum, Trottenberg also said the city needs to improve the way it counts cyclists. Currently, DOT relies on screenline counts of cyclists accessing Manhattan below 60th Street, leaving out most travel within the Manhattan core and in the other four boroughs. “There’s no question, we’re probably going to need to up our ability to count [cyclists] around the city,” Trottenberg said last September. “I have to confess, we have not fully figured out how we’re going to do that.”

After prodding from Streetsblog earlier this month, DOT released the latest edition of its screenline count, which it refers to as the “In-Season Cycling Indicator.” While the report now features data from automated counters on the East River bridges, it did not update the city’s counting methodology to include trips outside or within the Manhattan core.

The One New York plan, an outline of the de Blasio administration’s sustainability and equity goals, mentioned “the City’s goal of doubling the Cycling Indicator by 2020” [PDF]. It didn’t cite a 6 percent mode share goal.

During the RPA Assembly last week, I asked Trottenberg to clarify the city’s bicycling goals. “Doubling, I think, is our mode share goal,” she said. “I’m going to go with what OneNYC says. That’s our latest manifesto.”

“So, not six percent?” I asked.

“I’m going to go with doubling,” Trottenberg replied.

When asked if the city is still aiming to achieve 6 percent mode share for bicycling, a DOT spokesperson said the agency has a goal of doubling its cycling indicator numbers by 2020.

  • Jonathan R

    It has taken me a couple days, but I realize now that your math is wrong. The annual increase in subway users over the total population is greater than the annual increase in bicycle users over the total population. The fact of an increase in bicycle users over the population already on bicycles is irrelevant to the comparison.

    The ‘paradox’ is not to be explained, the paradox shows the actual choices that people are making. Bicycling is so far behind the subway in demonstrated preference. In order to change this, I believe, we need to make large-scale changes like the ones that Kevin and Joe R. advocate for.

    Other Streetsblog readers may believe that adopting other US cities’ best practices will result in an increase to bicycle mode share, but consideration of the paradox has convinced me that those steps would not be sufficient.

  • qrt145

    My math is not wrong. I’m talking about relative rates, like I said. The denominator used for computing the relative rate for each mode is not the total population of the city, but the number of users for each mode.

    I also did say “Obviously cycling is growing from a much smaller baseline, so it has a long way to catch up.”

    The point is, if the current relative rates were sustained (which is obviously a very big “if”), cycling would eventually overtake subway ridership, just like the balance of a $1 bank account with a 10% interest rate will eventually overtake the balance of a $1 million account with 2% interest (assuming no deposits, withdrawals, etc.). That’s the simple math: both are growing exponentially, but one is growing relatively MUCH faster.

    No, I don’t think cycling will actually overtake subway ridership, but the gap can certainly become narrower.

    On the policy question, I agree wholeheartedly that we need dramatically better infrastructure. Otherwise the cycling rate will soon plateau at a level not much higher than the current one.

  • Joe R.

    Just to combine some of my and Kevin’s thoughts on the matter:

    Except for maybe cycling advocates, few people travel by bike for the sake of saying they went by bike. Rather, they cycle because it’s the fastest, most convenient way to get where they’re going.

    The corollary of this is that we must give people safe, fast, connected places to bike. Any cycle route must have all three characteristics. One or two out of the three just isn’t good enough. I’ve suggested how to accomplish this many times. So has Kevin. All that’s needed is the money and political will to build it.

  • Jonathan R

    Yes, you are certainly correct about relative rates, but they are irrelevant to the mode share discussion. The denominator for mode-share is the number of New Yorkers commuting, and using that denominator, the share of bicyclists is falling.

    Go back to my paradox of why the subway is far more popular than the bicycle, given the miserable conditions underground, and explain to me how extrapolation is supposed to change this. Bicycling in New York City will
    not get beyond its niche without large-scale infrastructure changes.

  • Joe R.

    I think the answer to your paradox is two fold. One, and most importantly, NYC has a great subway system compared to other cities. Taking the subway is often faster, or at least not much slower, than biking. Yes, it’s decidedly less pleasant, particularly during peak hours, but still people choose it over cycling.

    Two, NYC’s surface streets are slow, stressful, dangerous places to ride. Following the best practices of other cities with far lower overall traffic levels can’t fix this. A protected lane might work great in another city on an arterial with infrequent cross streets where the primary impediment to cycling is fear of fast moving, parallel motor traffic. That might be the only thing wrong on that street. In NYC on the other hand, you have a myriad of issues, few of which are fixed by just installing a protected bike lane. With frequent cross streets, you need to make provisions for turning vehicles. This conflicts with bike movement. You need to make provisions for cross traffic every 250 feet. Again, this conflicts with bike movement. You often have pedestrians or food carts using the bike lane as a sidewalk extension. And of course you have NYC’s infamous potholes.

    Best practices which bring up mode share in other cities just won’t work here. That’s the paradox. Riding is still a stressful, slow experience on many trips, including trips in the outer boroughs. And it will remain so because the things which make it slow (frequent traffic signals, many turning vehicles, many crossing pedestrians) can’t be gotten rid of no matter what you do on the surface, short of dramatically reducing motor traffic levels. The only real answer is to realize what those who built the els did over a century ago to speed up slow surface transit—you have to go above (or below) the fray. Maybe in many cases partial grade separation will work, as it might along expressways. You just need to go above or below busy intersections 2 or 3 times per mile. In other places, you may just need to suck it up and build a viaduct (or tunnel) for the length of the bike route. Remember bike must compete here with the subway. It can, but only if we make bike trips virtually nonstop, plus provide safe, convenient parking at the destination.

  • qrt145

    I’m not sure how you reach the conclusion that “using [the number of New Yorkers commuting as the] denominator, the share of bicyclists is falling”. That doesn’t fit with any numbers I’ve seen, and I believe it’s mathematically impossible when the number of cyclists is rising at a higher relative rate than the number of non-cyclist commuters (let’s just use two exclusive categories for the purpose of this argument). This can be proven algebraically, but it’s easier to give a specific, extreme example. Imagine that there was one cyclist and one million non-cyclist commuters last year. The mode share of cyclists was one in a million. Then imagine that this year there are two cyclists and 1.5 M non-cyclist commuters. Sure, the absolute non-cyclist increase is 500K times larger, but the relative rate is only 50% to the cyclists’ 100%. The new cycling mode share is 2 in 1.5 million, or 1.33 in a million. So the mode share has indeed increased.

  • Andrew

    Probably, but there are better ways to do that (the bus stop goes on an island on the outside of the cycletrack).

    Why would you want to set up an unnecessary conflict between bus riders and cyclists? Do you want cyclists to yield to bus riders (which means that cyclists would effectively have to stop and wait for any bus that is pulled over to unload) or do you want bus riders to yield to cyclists (which means that somebody running to catch a bus might have to stop and wait for a cyclist and miss the bus, and which also means that a bus dropping off a large load could be delayed as the front of the crowd waits to cross the bike lane).

    On a two way street, some form of conflict may be unavoidable. But on a one way street, there’s no reason for cyclists and bus riders to trip over one another.

  • Joe R.

    My thoughts here are that this type of arrangement really only works if there aren’t a lot of cyclists or bus riders, as in the picture. Seriously, that could be Staten Island or Nassau County. Even eastern Queens is generally more congested than that. Like so many types of bike infrastructure, including protected lanes, it generally doesn’t translate all that well to a place like NYC.

    On a two way street, some form of conflict may be unavoidable. But on a one way street, there’s no reason for cyclists and bus riders to trip over one another.

    I’m thoroughly convinced some form of grade separation or partial grade separation is needed to reduce conflicts between bikes and other street users to an acceptable level on many NYC arterials. As things stand now we have about a zero chance of reaching deBlasio’s new, lower goal of 2% bicycle mode share, never mind the original 6% goal. The reasons are many, but one big reason is bikes are often competing with subways in terms of travel time. Sure, bikes can match or beat overall subway travel times once you count transfers and waiting time, but not if there are constant conflicts with other types of traffic. The bottom line is NYC and other very large cities may need to invent some unique bike infrastructure as they go along. What works in Seattle, or Portland, or even Amsterdam doesn’t necessary work all that well here. London is actually running into similar issues, and is proposing the SkyCycle ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SkyCycle_%28proposed_transport_project%29 ) concept to deal with them.

  • ahwr

    Even eastern Queens is generally more congested than that.

    What makes you think it was taken during rush hour? If you want to check out the area in google maps, the street is Dexter avenue north, this picture is taken just south of the Fremont bridge, first bus stop after it goes under Aurora (the bridge in the background), just east of Aurora. It’s a minor arterial. Coming from the Fremont bridge, Westlake, which here is just a block to the east, sees heavier traffic, think something along the lines of union turnpike. The bridge in the background is a six lane sort of highway (worst kind of stroad), aurora avenue parallels Dexter one or two blocks to the west. Queens has minor arterials that don’t see heavy traffic, at least outside of rush hour, too.

    I’m thoroughly convinced some form of grade separation or partial grade
    separation is needed to reduce conflicts between bikes and other street
    users to an acceptable level on many NYC arterials.

    That’s only true if you need cycling to serve long distance trips. Some might like that, but it isn’t something a large share of the population has signed up for anywhere in the world. If instead you use it to expand walking distance of a half to one mile to biking distance or three or so miles, feeding LIRR/MNR and the subway for longer trips, you can get more people to sign up. Car park and rides at rail stations can’t scale to serve a lot of people, but bike parking/bike share can.

  • Joe R.

    We probably should have lots of bike parking at subway and commuter rail stations regardless of what we do on surface streets. That said, I’m seeing huge problems now even with short bike trips of 3 miles or so. Take a typical NYC arterial with lights timed for cars. Often those lights are spaced 250 feet apart. Add in some obstacles cyclists might typically need to go around, like double parked cars, or jaywalking pedestrians. It’s not hard to see quite a few cyclists stopping every block or two under conditions like that. Sure, you can pass red lights if traffic allows but it often doesn’t during peak times. You do the math here and you might get average speeds of 5 or 6 mph. Your 3 mile trip takes 30 minutes when it should take about 12 to 15 minutes at typical average cruising speeds of 12 to 15 mph. Round trip then takes 30 or 35 minutes longer than it should. In a world where time savings of a few minutes is considered significant, I tend to think the slow, dangerous conditions on our streets create a huge disincentive for bike trips, short or long. It’s also worth noting that riding under conditions where you frequently slow or stop is stressful on the body/mind and extremely unpleasant.

    Countries with high mode share already figured this out. Keep the cyclists in motion to the greatest extent possible. I certainly think we can do that in NYC with some combination of smart surface treatments and liberal use of grade separation where warranted. A lot of cycling advocates like to pretend travel time doesn’t matter if you’re on a bike but it does, regardless of trip length. I think we need to think more in terms of time, not distance. Your average person is willing to ride about 30 minutes. If a bike trip takes much longer, you get a sharp drop off in the number of people willing to bike. The key is to get the travel radius in that 30 minute time span way up. 6 mph averages only give you a 3 mile radius. Raise that to 12 mph, you can reach 4 times the area by bike. Expand velomobile or e-bike use to get average speeds closer to 20 mph, the area you can reach by bike expands by over a factor of ten compared to 6 mph. You generally won’t get too many people taking bike trips over about 30 minutes no matter what you do, but you expand potential travel radius for everyone if you get average speeds up.

  • Jonathan R

    Yes, I stand corrected. Thank you for going through it. The bicycle mode-share WILL increase slightly. But when I put the numbers in a spreadsheet (subway increases every year by 2.6%, bike increases every year by 4%), I quickly realized that population growth, which for NYC is less than 1% a year, is a limiting factor.

    Last year, the subway riding population increased by about 50% of the entire bicycling population in just 12 months. Bicycling is a mature transportation technology that is available to everyone, cheap and easy and fun. Why do so few people take advantage of it?

  • ahwr

    Often those lights are spaced 250 feet apart.

    No they aren’t. Only on a few rare roads is that typical spacing, and even then not for very long. There are intersections that often, but they aren’t signalized.

  • Joe R.

    What about the Manhattan Avenues? Those have signalized intersections every 250′ for much of their length.

    Typical signal spacing on eastern Queens arterials seems to be about every 3 or 4 blocks. This is still often enough to cause major delays while cycling, or more likely it simply results in most cyclists ignoring red lights. I obviously don’t care if cyclists do that. I even do it myself. However, you have to base travel times on legal behavior. When you do that, you find in much of the city they’re a lot longer than they could be

  • Miles Bader

    Tokyo has 20 times NYC’s bike mode-share, despite having a larger population, a larger more comprehensive transit system, and no real dedicated bicycle routes at all.

    The main reasons, as far as I can tell, are both cultural and infrastructural:

    (1) Bicycling never really fell out of use, and is generally considered just another transport mode, and without the sort of disparaging attitude (“not suitable for adults”) it suffers from in much of American culture.

    (2) Although the car lobby in Japan has indeed caused (and is still causing) lots of damage, Tokyo streets are largely safer for both bicycles and pedestrians, both because there are more small streets and because in many places there are simply more non-car users.

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