Why Arguments Against the Amsterdam Protected Bike Lane Don’t Hold Up

Tomorrow night, CB 7 will vote on whether to endorse DOT's proposal for a protected bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue from 72nd Street to 110th Street. Image: DOT
Tonight, CB 7 will vote on DOT’s proposal for a protected bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue from 72nd Street to 110th Street [PDF]. Image: DOT
This is the day Manhattan Community Board 7 will finally vote on DOT’s redesign of Amsterdam Avenue from 72nd Street to 110th Street, which will calm traffic and bring safety improvements — including a protected bike lane — to what is now a surface speedway cutting through the heart of the Upper West Side. It’s been a long time coming: CB 7 first asked DOT to design a protected bike lane for Amsterdam in 2009, and local residents have been asking for safety improvements longer than that.

The case for a protected bike lane and pedestrian refuges is clear. Despite serving as a neighborhood main street, Amsterdam is currently designed like a highway, with four northbound travel lanes that encourage speeding. From 2009 to 2013, two people were killed and another 36 severely injured along the project’s length, according to DOT. Just last month, on January 18, 73-year-old sculptor Thomas McAnulty was killed by a motorcyclist while walking across Amsterdam at 96th Street. Protected bike lanes are proven to reduce fatalities and severe injuries, and the neighborhood currently lacks a northbound complement to the bike lane on Columbus Avenue.

Thousands of residents and hundreds of businesses and neighborhood groups have signed on in support of redesigning Amsterdam, but opponents of the project are still trying to undermine it ahead of tonight’s vote. Here’s a look at why their arguments don’t hold up.

The safety argument. Bizarrely, CB 7 transportation committee co-chair Dan Zweig has argued that a protected bike lane on Amsterdam will make the street less safe, because removing parking spaces will expose pedestrians to drivers who fly onto the sidewalk. The truth is that the same basic design strategies the city is proposing for Amsterdam have reduced injuries by an average of 20 percent on the Manhattan avenues where they’ve been installed. Adding the bikeway will narrow the roadway, reducing the prevalence of speeding, and adding pedestrian refuges will shorten crossing distances for pedestrians while leading drivers to take turns more carefully. New York knows from experience that these changes save lives.

Protected bike lanes have a proven record of making everyone on the road safer. Image: DOT
Protected bike lanes have a proven record of making everyone on the street safer. Image: DOT

The congestion argument. “[Local merchants] are really really worried that there will be gridlock — total gridlock,” Zweig’s co-chair, Andrew Albert, said last month. Many merchants, however, are aware that rush hour car speeds aren’t the big problem on Amsterdam — the big problem is speeding during the other 22 hours of the day. Because Amsterdam is so wide, 59 percent of motorists exceed the speed limit during off-peak hours, according to DOT. Those are the drivers who careen all over the road and kill pedestrians and cyclists, and they need to be slowed down. Simply put, prioritizing rush hour traffic, like Albert does, is what made Amsterdam dangerous in the first place.

As for local businesses, making Amsterdam safer for walking and biking should only help. When a protected bike lane was installed on part of Columbus Avenue, retail sales there increased more than on nearby streets that were not redesigned, according to sales tax data collected by DOT.

The divide-and-conquer argument. At an event last week hosted by the Park West Policy Forum, organizer Norm LaFond attempted to divide supporters of safe streets by framing the debate as a question of bike lanes versus bus lanes. LaFond’s argument is that more people ride the bus, so a bus lane would be a better use of street space than a bike lane.

No doubt a bus lane would be a big help on Amsterdam, but adding a protected bike lane now doesn’t rule out a bus lane later. If anything, putting off a major safety improvement will create more paralysis and forestall any type of change to the street in the future. The immediate choice facing the neighborhood isn’t between a bike lane and a bus lane, it’s between a bike lane and nothing. If you want Amsterdam Avenue to become a complete street for walking, biking, and transit, improving it today can create momentum for more improvements to come.

The put-it-somewhere-else argument. This is a close cousin of the divide-and-conquer argument — suggest that the bike lane should go somewhere else, killing the whole thing while creating the veneer of reasonable disagreement. 

Opponents have tossed around any other northbound route in the neighborhood as an alternative to Amsterdam: West End Avenue, Broadway, Central Park West — even Columbus, which is a southbound street and a poor fit for a two-way bikeway. Make no mistake, the only point of these suggestions is to kill the protected bike lane, period.

The redesign DOT is proposing makes perfect sense for Amsterdam, with its excessive width and central location within the Upper West Side. Hundreds of people are already biking on Amsterdam each day, and with the expansion of Citi Bike on the UWS that number will only increase. They need a safe place to ride in their neighborhood.

  • JK

    You make key point at the end — people are already biking on Amsterdam, mainly food delivery guys, but some of everyone. They deserve to be safe. Let’s worry about them, not just the poor horses. (PS what street are these injury stats from? Citywide?)

  • This is really great, David.

    The case for complete streets has been clear for a long time. It’s a damn shame that it has to be re-litigated each and every time DOT wants to make things safer, all because a few unaccountable community board members don’t want to sacrifice parking spaces. The entire process on Amsterdam has been so absurd and taken so long that whatever happens tonight, DOT ought to institute the changes anyway. It’s clear that there is widespread community support.

    In the future, complete streets ought to be the default, and the case for adding parking or making traffic faster ought to be the thing that needs to be studied for years and years before making any drastic changes.

  • Mike

    Anybody know why cyclist injuries drop the least of all injury categories three years after protected bike lanes go in? That seems a bit counterintuitive to me.

  • Dan Zweig certainly has his false arguments down pat!

  • mrtuffguy

    Because bike volumes also increase. The result is less risk for each cyclist but more total injuries.

  • Mike

    Ah, got it, thanks very much. It would be interesting to see statistics for injuries per individual using each mode rather than just number of injuries.

  • KeNYC2030

    Complete streets in Manhattan, including Col., 1st, 8th, 9th.

  • KeNYC2030

    Re: relitigating this over and over: It is Groundhog Day, isn’t it? Why do I feel like Bill Murray?

  • Simon Phearson

    It will be a good test case to see what really motivates the DOT. Every reason they’ve ever given for listening to community boards cuts against the CB in this case. If they present the plan and then shelve it due to CB opposition, it’ll be clear that they didn’t want to implement it anyway, and are just using the community board process as a way to keep busy without doing the work.

  • Reed Rubey

    Tonight I hope we will put a fork in this issue. I roll the dice every time I bike up Amsterdam Avenue. So far, my luck is holding. But, I’m literally holding my breath waiting for CB7 to either lead, follow or get out of the way.

  • I don’t know how anyone can take that argument seriously. You must have some serious Stockholm syndrome going on. If cars are flying all over the place and removing parking will endanger pedestrians because there won’t be parked cars in the way to stop them, the problem is not the removal of parking, it is the cars flying all over the place.

  • Typically anti-bike lane arguments prove the very thing they’re trying to ignore: that cars are really dangerous!

  • I give DOT a lot of credit for proposing this design on Amsterdam and have a feeling it will pass, but my bigger point is that for Vision Zero to move forward, a lot of the old ways of doing things has to change. And the best way to make that happen is to point to hard information. This stuff works. Period. There’s no reason for delay or deferring to CBs anymore.

  • Bobberooni

    You’d think this would be a no-brainer.

    *) Traffic: Right now, there are more downtown lanes than uptown. If Columbus isn’t hopelessly gridlocked, then that is unlikely to happen to Amsterdam either.

    *) Safety: We don’t have to speculate what the effects on Amsterdam would be, just look a block over on Columbus.

    *) Put it elsewhere: Columbus and Amsterdam are a matched pair. If you’ve put a bike lane on one, it makes sense to do the other. Anything else will produce a lot of imbalnces.

  • walks bikes drives

    I think you mistakenly switched uptown and downtown. Right now there are more uptown lanes than downtown, which matches the rest of your comment.

  • bryduke

    I know the vote in favor of this has already occured… but just have to point out why the arguments in FAVOR of a bike lane are ridiculous.

    Safety: 2 people were killed in 4 years. Wow. So what happens if 3 people are killed in the 4 years after the bike lane is installed. I suppose we’ve proven that installing a bike lane made the avenue less safe. Any loss of life is tragic but there is no evidence that 2 deaths in four years is more than might be expected with or without a bike lane.

    Speeding: If we’re concerned about speeding why not enforce the laws already in place. A bike lane is not the solution to speeding. Police and speed cameras are a much better one.

    Bike Safety: There are already bike lanes on Central park west, columbus, two very wide side medians on west end, and a path up the river. Bikers have many ore options than the UES which is twice the width. Are bikers concerned about safety or simply too lazy to bike up another avenue and then cross a street?

    Children: I don’t want children to die, but we cannot toddler proof the entire UWS. if you’re that concerned about your child running into traffic, move to a nice street in the suburbs!

  • Tyson White

    Years ago when the government started taking drunk driving seriously, people said it would be bad for business because people would drink less.

    When NYC banned smoking in bars and restaurants they said everyone will go out of business. Now there way more bars and restaurants in Manhattan than ever.

  • bryduke

    What’s wrong with Central Park West, West End, or the River?

  • Tyson White

    Safety isn’t just about death, sir. It’s about injuries. That includes pralysis, brain damage and amputations which are counted as “injuries”.

  • Tyson White

    It doesn’t address the safety issues with Amsterdam. Plus, if you’ve seen the DOT presentation, there’s already lots of bike traffic on Amsterdam. Why not make the street safe for everyone?

  • BBnet3000

    Wait, you want to be able to use every single street as a through-route in an automobile with 150 horsepower, but people cycling are lazy for wanting even half of them to be available for use at 1 human power?

  • Maggie

    For the record, the two Upper West Side children killed by drivers in 2013 and 2014 were on the sidewalk, holding her grandmother’s hand, and a 9-year-old in the crosswalk, with the light, holding his father’s hand while they crossed the street to their apartment.

    Agee with you about police and speed cameras. We need these.

  • Andrew

    The Central Park West bike lane is at the far east end of the neighborhood. West End Avenue doesn’t have a bike lane. The Riverside Park bike path is at the far west end of the neighborhood, down a steep incline, and has exits only at 72nd, 79th, 84th, 93rd, 100th, and 129th – great for through riders but not very useful for access to most local destinations.

    What’s wrong with Amsterdam Avenue? (Well, aside from the fact that it’s currently a dangerous and ugly speedway.)

  • Andrew

    And peak hour traffic volumes are higher on Columbus (with three motor vehicle lanes) than on Amsterdam (with four).

  • Simon Phearson

    Safety: We should be concerned also about injury rates as well as the kinds of behaviors that pedestrians and cyclists adopt for their own safety, essentially internalizing the costs of drivers’ unsafe driving. For example, most pedestrians have learned that drivers will disregard their right of way. The fact that pedestrians therefore don’t assert it, in order to keep safe, doesn’t mean that we should accept that arrangement.

    Speeding: Enforcement doesn’t hurt, but you need to understand that driving behavior is shaped and encouraged by street design. If you design a street so that it feels like a speedway, drivers respond to that. If you design the street so that it feels more like a neighborhood avenue, they’ll similarly respond. This is easy to see even in Manhattan, where drivers drive much more slowly and carefully on the cross streets than they do on the avenues. If you want to change the character of the street and the way that drivers use it, the way to do it is by design. Incrementally increasing the risk of getting “caught” will not register with most of the drivers breaking the law.

    Bike Safety: Virtually every street in this city has lanes for car traffic and parking, with two sidewalks on either side for pedestrians. Is it that unreasonable to grant some space to cyclists throughout the city? At any rate, if we’re going to put bike lanes on only selected streets, we should put them on the streets cyclists are actually using. It’s a waste of money to put them on streets that cyclists won’t use because they’re not convenient for their purposes.

    Children: You say you don’t want children to die, but you’re effectively saying that some number of children must be allowed to die because the streets are going to be unsafe for them one way or the other. What’s the acceptable number of children’s deaths, in your view? At what point would you take street safety as a serious concern that needs to be addressed? I personally refuse to accept that my own life must be at risk just so that some number of people can get to where they’re going in cars. No, those people don’t have a license to kill!

  • Andrew

    I know the vote in favor of this has already occured…

    Great news – I hadn’t heard. Thanks!

    but just have to point out why the arguments in FAVOR of a bike lane are ridiculous.

    If you’ve presented the best arguments AGAINST a bike lane, then clearly Amsterdam Avenue needs a bike lane.

    Safety: 2 people were killed in 4 years. Wow. So what happens if 3 people are killed in the 4 years after the bike lane is installed. I suppose we’ve proven that installing a bike lane made the avenue less safe. Any loss of life is tragic but there is no evidence that 2 deaths in four years is more than might be expected with or without a bike lane.

    How incredibly callous. How many fatalities do you need – especially of pedestrians who are doing nothing wrong – before you begin to care? And how about the 513 injuries?

    Speeding: If we’re concerned about speeding why not enforce the laws already in place. A bike lane is not the solution to speeding. Police and speed cameras are a much better one.

    The 20th and 24th Precincts issued (combined) less than 3 speeding tickets per day in 2015 – not only on Amsterdam Avenue but on the entire West Side for the length of Central Park. If those efforts were scaled up by 100 and concentrated on Amsterdam, perhaps that would make a dent in the speeding – but, of course, we know that they won’t be scaled up by 100 and concentrating all enforcement efforts on one street leaves nothing for the rest of the neighborhood.

    As you no doubt know, speed cameras are strictly capped by Albany in number, location, and hours of operation.

    But thanks for the red herring. Especially given the lack of interest on the NYPD side, street redesign is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

    Bike Safety: There are already bike lanes on Central park west, columbus, two very wide side medians on west end, and a path up the river. Bikers have many ore options than the UES which is twice the width. Are bikers concerned about safety or simply too lazy to bike up another avenue and then cross a street?

    Already addressed: “The Central Park West bike lane is at the far east end of the neighborhood. West End Avenue doesn’t have a bike lane. The Riverside Park bike path is at the far west end of the neighborhood, down a steep incline, and has exits only at 72nd, 79th, 84th, 93rd, 100th, and 129th – great for through riders but not very useful for access to most local destinations.”

    Amsterdam Avenue has three other lanes for northbound traffic. If you describe a cyclist who finds the current bike lane options unsuitable as “lazy,” how do you describe a motorist who whines about being left with the three other lanes on Amsterdam Avenue?

    Children: I don’t want children to die, but we cannot toddler proof the entire UWS.

    No, but we certainly can take small efforts to reduce the carnage on a neighborhood street.

    if you’re that concerned about your child running into traffic, move to a nice street in the suburbs.

    How about the motorists who want to drive their cars fast on wide street take their cars to the suburbs, and let pedestrian-oriented urban neighborhoods such as the Upper West Side be safe for pedestrians?

    Did you realize that, in your entire rant, you failed to suggest even one reason that a bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue might be undesirable? You gave many (weak) reasons why you don’t think it’s all that important for there to be a bike lane, but you neglected to note even a single point against.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    what are peak numbers ?

    Sixth at 23rd has 1,600 motors peak

  • HamTech87

    “move to a nice street in the suburbs!”
    The suburbs are a disaster with unsafe streets. Everyone drives everywhere for everything:
    * Kids aren’t being killed because they are rarely on the streets or sidewalks, and endure the silent killer of worse physical health due to a lack of exercise.
    * Walkable and bike-friendly suburban Main Streets have been supplanted for daily needs by the malls, Big Box, and “Super-” stores, with political leaders responding to traffic congestion complaints with more road widenings which are anathema to walkability. (“Successful” Main Streets are usually ones with cool restaurants. Period.)
    * Calls for more sidewalks are opposed by residents who don’t want to pay for them, maintain them, or plow them.

  • Increase in people riding bicycles and how far they ride? Where are you getting the increase number? Is it total injuries? Rate of injuries like injuries per gross miles ridden? Does it account for types of injuries?

  • Bernard Finucane

    It sounds more like an argument for robust bollards than against the bike lane anyway.

  • Kwyjibo

    You lost, and you’re going to keep losing.

    If you’re so offended by streets that allow everyone to travel safely, it’s you who belongs in the suburbs.

    Though eventually you’re going to lose there too.

  • JudenChino

    I think he was being sarcastic. Like, what’s wrong with riding in the River.

  • Bobberooni

    Speeding: yes, let’s enforce the laws in place. The day the city can place as many speed cameras wherever they like in order to enforce (within 10mph) posted speed limits, I will take seriously your exhortion to “enforce the laws in place.” But we all know that speed cameras yield a loud crop of self-righteous speeders who don’t like getting caught.

    Bike Safety: Columbus and Amsterdam are a matched pair. You mentioned other bike lanes, let’s see…

    CPW: Not protected. Rather scary.

    West End: Not even a bike lane.

    Hudson River: good for through traffic. But it’s way down a hill, hard to get to and from, and provides limited access to the UWS. It’s like suggesting that we close Amsterdam Ave. to cars because they have the Henry Hudson.

    The only othe real alternate route is Central Park, and that’s practically on the East Side! Again.. it’s only really good if you’re heading to 110St or north.

    Suburbs: None of you know what you’re talking about. I actually do live in a burb. And biking isn’t tremendously better or worse there than in NYC, just different. But after I commute in for the day, being able to safely bike uptown on the UWS is still incredibly useful for me. That’s what we’re discussing here.

  • Judah Schiller could ride in the river.

  • MatthewEH

    West End is actually pretty good for biking from 72nd to where it ends at 106th, though it isn’t a bike-specific facility. 59th-72nd is a _problem_, though.

    The CPW lane is damned scary, yes.

  • Tyson White

    Not to mention, would a woman bike in Riverside Park after dark? I wouldn’t.

  • Andrew

    Good point (and I say that as neither a woman nor a cyclist).

  • Andrew

    Amsterdam: http://ftp.dot.ny.gov/tdv/YR2011/R11/04_New%20York/04_1120.pdf – Peak hour is between 1377 and 1466.

    Columbus: http://ftp.dot.ny.gov/tdv/YR2009/R11/04_New%20York/04_1150.pdf – Peak (weekday) hour is between 1686 and 1748.

  • ahwr

    http://ftp.dot.ny.gov/tdv/YR2011/R11/04_New%20York/04_1126.pdf

    Average weekday high hour is 1991 MVs on sixth at 37th, DOT doesn’t have a count at 23rd.

  • linstur

    Cars and people don’t mix. If you want every street to feel like a highway and have no walkability move anywhere else in America. NYC is unique in that people (yes, families with children and non-drivers and seniors) can actually live a life without cars.

    What about traffic? You cannot build roads wide enough to eliminate traffic. The only hope is fewer cars – which means more public transportation, walking and bikes. Life in the suburbs is about hour-long commutes to get anywhere and people spending 2+ hours per day alone in their cars. How is this better than some bike lanes?

    Los Angeles opened a mall called The Grove that community groups fought tooth and nail until it opened. It has been transformational because it’s several blocks of stores (of course) and a park and cafes — and no cars. It’s become a family destination and is packed morning to night. We think we want to just get places fast. Maybe what we really want is to be somewhere and enjoy it.

  • JPChance

    Most cars spend 95% of their time sitting in place.

    If overnight street parking was illegal before 1952, shouldn’t the law be changed so that protected bikeways (and busways) are prioritized over street parking on most city streets?

    How many lives would be saved every year?

    How many more people would choose cycling over other modes of transit?

    How much traffic congestion would be prevented?

    How much money and other resources would be saved?

    http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2016/01/future-parking-self-driving-cars

  • bryduke

    Wow, this is a very emotionally driven rant. (not exactly rational as you pretend). But you’ve won – so why so angry?

  • Andrew

    If mine is a very emotionally driven rant, then what’s yours?

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