The Case for Baking Bike Infrastructure Into Vision Zero Projects

Is the grass just greener? London's planned cycle superhighways. Image: Transport for London
One of the major new bikeways in the works in London. Image: Transport for London

London is surging ahead with big plans for protected bikeways that span the city. By comparison, New York’s bike plans, while moving forward incrementally, feel piecemeal. Has safe cycling infrastructure become an afterthought in the city’s Vision Zero program?

The question came up yesterday during a seminar on cycling policy hosted simultaneously in the two cities, organized by New London Architecture with the Forum and Institute for Urban Design.

“Our goal is to get more people cycling, more safely, more often,” said Sarah Burr, senior strategy and planning manager for surface transport at Transport for London. “We know we’re not going to reach the targets we have for cycling by getting existing cyclists to cycle more.”

She highlighted three initiatives in London key to improving safety and broadening the appeal of bicycling for everyday trips: “cycle superhighways” made of protected paths on major streets, “quietways” akin to bike boulevards, and “Mini-Hollands,” which are transforming three of London’s 32 boroughs into models for cycle-friendly design. To make those plans a reality, London mayor Boris Johnson has committed to tripling spending on bicycle infrastructure, to almost £1 billion over a decade.

Burr’s counterpart in New York, DOT Assistant Commissioner for Street Improvement Projects Josh Benson, gave an overview of Vision Zero, covering lower speed limits, increased enforcement, the Right of Way Law, and street redesigns. He walked through three projects, one of which included bicycle facilities.

“The impetus behind Vision Zero is looking at how we can make the most progress towards zero, and I think it’s pedestrians. Pedestrians are, unfortunately, the majority of people killed and injured in traffic,” Benson said after the event. “I think in the early stages of Vision Zero, that has to be the focus. You have to look at where the problem is most severe.”

Noting that fatality rates per mile are higher for biking than for walking, Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White argued that bike infrastructure shouldn’t be compartmentalized. “It’s incumbent on us here in New York to make bike lanes much more baked-in to Vision Zero than it is now,” he said, “because for risk exposure, it’s much more dangerous to ride a bike.”

“It means cycling facilities are taken out of the realm of being a debatable amenity, and more a required safety improvement, like crosswalks and traffic signal improvements, that are not subject to community board veto or debate,” he said after the event. White called the protected bike lanes planned for Queens Boulevard “a beacon of hope” but said the city needs to set more ambitious goals. (The de Blasio administration recently backed down from its commitment to increase bicycle mode share to 6 percent, instead aiming to double cycling by 2020.)

“Why are we only building five miles of protected lanes a year when we know that they are such effective lifesavers?” White asked. “London’s spending a billion pounds on their new cycling program.”

Benson pointed to DOT’s current crop of protected bike lane projects, including Fort George Hill and filling the First Avenue gap, as evidence that bike safety has a place in Vision Zero. What’s changed, he suggested, is that bike lanes aren’t getting as much public attention as they used to.

“These projects are more welcomed by the community than maybe they had been in the last few years, and therefore they’re a little, maybe, more under the radar,” he said. “That’s not a bad thing. I think people are embracing the change of having more bike infrastructure and not complaining about it as much, and therefore it’s just a little quieter.”

Londoners at the forum were intrigued by New York’s shift away from cycling as a focal point for transportation policy.

“I think the interesting start point in New York, which is around pedestrian deaths, as opposed to cycling deaths, is an interesting start point,” said Steve Whyman, CEO of Broadgate Estates, a major central London office complex. “It’s about all road users and it’s about all people in the city.”

“What I found interesting about a lot of the initiatives in New York is that they are wider than just, say, what needs to be done for cyclists,” said Christian Wolmar, a journalist and advocate who is seeking the Labour nomination in next year’s mayoral elections. “What you’re looking at is a wider vision and I think that’s something we can learn from.”

  • Jesse

    Very typically polite British response. Allow me to be a New Yorker: You are an asshole Benson. You do not need to choose between pedestrian and cyclist safety. Their interests are not opposed; in fact they are very much aligned. There is no lack of resources — be it street space or money or whatever; there is only a lack of leadership and a willingness to allocate those resources to things that actually save lives.

    By qualifying this issue as some kind of tradeoff of one group versus another you are allowing people to die.

  • BBnet3000

    What’s changed, he suggested, is that bike lanes aren’t getting as much public attention as they used to.

    No, what’s changed is that we’re hardly building any high quality bicycle infrastructure like we were in 2007-2010. A bunch of sharrows applied with little regard for traffic volumes that are going to wear off in a year anyway just don’t warrant attention that real bike infrastructure does.

    They still haven’t closed the gaps on 2nd/8th/9th Avenues, or created real low-stress routes to ANY East River Bridge, even in the parts of Brooklyn that supposedly have a 4% cycling mode share. Still no bike boulevards, though locations such as the 6-lane part of 4th Avenue in Brooklyn are yellow “signed routes” on the bike map.

  • Reader

    Benson’s response is so narrow! In addition to compartmentalizing ped safety and bike safety as separate ideas, it takes cycling out of the discussion about NYC’s long-term transportation goals. There’s no question that the city should be protecting peds with curb extensions, speed humps, and other strategies, but that stuff won’t help people get out of their cars or make space on the subway by biking three or four miles to work. Transform an arterial and you can kill two birds – safety and transportation options – with one stone!

    Such myopia! Where’s the leadership at DOT? Why are they holding back?

  • jooltman

    Doesn’t this DOT public servant read his own agency’s reports and look at the data that has been collected over the years? Bike infrastructure improves safety outcomes for ALL street users. Anyone who doesn’t know this, or who for some other unknown reason speaks publicly against complete streets, should not be employed by the City of New York.

  • Josh Benson does really good work and is most definitely not an asshole. Do I agree with how he framed street design policy in this response? No, and I think it reveals a lot about how the current leadership at DOT has squandered good opportunities to build better bike infrastructure.

    But if anything, the problem is that Josh isn’t enough of an asshole. An asshole for bike lanes.

  • JK

    Josh Benson is former NYC DOT czar during the Sadik-Khan bike push. He has been championing bike infrastructure for a long-while, and has spent more late nights being subjected to imbecilic community board attacks on bike projects than everyone else here combined. He has huge bike cred. This said, it is really unfortunate to see Vision Zero framed as, one: the end all for all street planning — which is a total fiction since DOT is allowing plenty of traffic sewers to go unsolved or Two: a choice between bike initiatives and pedestrian safety. There will be no progress on bike projects without complaints. NYC motorists are the ultimate entitled class and they will fight and complain forever about paying for their share of public space or for the violence and environmental ills they inflict on the broader public.

  • I moved from London to New York in August 2012 and I find it amusing how often people on both cities say, “Look over there – they do things much better there.” There are still people in London banging on about how London needs to start making the kind of progress on cycling that New York has. They tend not to look at the fact that New York’s initiatives have brought the proportion of commuting trips by bike up to 1 per cent, while London’s initiatives have brought the figure to 4 per cent. (I know, before anyone points it out, that the figures are for the whole of New York and levels in some parts are much higher – there’s the same issue in London, though, so I think the point’s valid).

    I was initially very skeptical when Streetsblog and others wrote about London’s new cycle superhighways. Under Boris Johnson, the current mayor, there was a program called Cycle Superhighways that consisted of putting blue paint down arterial roads and calling them cycle routes. These superhighways were absolutely deadly and often terrifying to ride on. As a fairly experienced cycle commuter, I avoided most of them. A lot of people sadly died riding on them.

    It does, nevertheless, now appear that London is finally – if, tragically, because of the death toll on the original cycle superhighways – building decent cycle infrastructure. It is absolutely a program from which New York should learn. As other posters have pointed out, there remain huge gaps – such as those on 1st avenue and 2nd avenue – in New York’s provision. Cycling won’t start growing properly, taking strain off subways, highways and the city’s environment, until those issues are addressed in New York.

  • Reader

    To me, all of that speaks to leadership. Josh Benson did a great job pushing through some big bike projects under JSK, but is now giving this political doublespeak under Polly Trottenberg. The only thing that’s changed is the person at the top. Josh isn’t going to act more forcefully if the person or people above him don’t have his back.

  • To find your leadership problem, look farther up. The problem is the current mayor, who has none of the commitment to livable-streets issues that the last mayor did. Never forget that de Blasio as Public Advocate denounced Sadik-Khan.

    The DOT can bring about no improvements to the streets without assurances of strong backing on the part of the mayor against the entrenched interests and against the idiot media. Sadik-Khan would have achieved nothing without Bloomberg’s unwavering support; and even she woud be ineffectual under the current mayor.

    So, when fixing blame for the current ineffectuality of the DOT, don’t blame Benson, Trottenberg, or anyone at the DOT. Blame their boss.

    If de Blasio had been interested in livable streets, he could have retained Sadik-Khan. If this guy can hire Giuliani’s police commissioner, he certainly could have hired Bloomberg’s DOT commissioner. The fact that he didn’t even consider doing this told us all we needed to know about his priorities, and signalled the definitive end of the Bloomberg-era golden age during which our quality of life consistently improved.

  • Jonathan R

    In New York, there are many limiting factors to bicycling other than safety. The paradox that the filthy and disgusting subway is far more popular than healthy and joyful bicycling should be kept in mind. It makes sense for DOT to focus on safety for people on foot since everyone is a pedestrian as they walk to and from the subway station or bus stop. It’s peevish for Mr. White to complain now about Vision Zero not including bicycling when his organization has been banging the drum for Vision Zero since January 2014.

  • BBnet3000

    Some of the largest improvements in pedestrian and auto occupant safety have been where cycling infrastructure has been put in. I strongly suspect that a hard look at the data will show a huge portion of safety improvements that De Blasio is going to take credit for are actually from Bloomberg projects.

  • BBnet3000

    Even with CB support the level of design they generally propose is piss poor.

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