Mayor de Blasio has instructed NYC DOT to move forward with the redesign of Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst following a contentious meeting of Queens Community Board 4 last night, in which the chairman hastily pushed through a vote against the bike lane portion of the project.
“I respect those who disagree with us, but in the end, the safety of our neighbors and our children is the most fundamental responsibility we have in this work,” de Blasio said in a statement released this afternoon. “Today, I have instructed the Department of Transportation to move forward on the next phase of safety enhancements to Queens Boulevard, including a protected lane for cyclists.”
The CB 4 meeting last night was a travesty of public process even by the standards of New York City community boards.
Immediately after arguing that Queens Boulevard “is not a park, it is a very heavily traveled vehicular roadway,” CB 4 Chair Lou Walker moved to “accept the safety plan for Queens Boulevard except the bike lane.” The resolution passed in a quick show of hands, with one member opposed and one abstention, but multiple board members appeared to be confused by Walker’s phrasing and the rush to vote.
Some board members walked out in dismay right after the vote, and dozens of people in the audience who supported the bike lane turned their backs to the board and then left the room.
The median bikeway is a centerpiece of the Queens Boulevard redesign and the project would make no sense without it. DOT implemented the same basic template — claiming space on service roads to create continuous paths for walking and biking on the medians — on 1.3 miles of Queens Boulevard in Woodside last year. The proposal on the table at CB 4 last night would extend that design another 1.2 miles from 74th Street to Eliot Avenue. A third phase through Rego Park and Forest Hills is scheduled for 2017.
Queens Boulevard is one of the only direct east-west routes across the borough, and many people already brave its chaotic traffic on bikes. The portion of the street covered by this phase of the redesign includes the block between 55th Road and 55th Avenue where a truck driver struck and killed Asif Rahman in 2008.
At a rally before the meeting, his mother, Lizi Rahman, called for action. “It’s been more than 8 years, and ever since I lost my son I have been fighting for a bike lane on Queens Boulevard,” she said. “It was pretty difficult from the beginning — almost for the first seven years I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The phasing of the project has been public since early 2015. DOT started laying the groundwork for this portion in October, notifying CB 4 about its plans. At a DOT public workshop in November, many attendees said this 1.2-mile stretch of Queens Boulevard needs a protected bike lane.
At the November meeting, Walker said, “We need a bike lane. That’s for sure. But we need to not impede traffic.”
DOT also worked with businesses along the corridor — including Queens Center Mall — as it developed a plan that it presented in March to the CB 4 transportation committee, where Walker was also present. The plan has been available on the DOT website since then.
Nevertheless, last night Walker and other members of the board’s leadership insisted throughout the meeting that the plan had somehow been sprung on the board all of a sudden. “This is the first time the board saw this, and I don’t think we can digest it as quickly as you’d like us to,” said transportation committee member Jimmy Lisa, who was also at the March meeting where DOT presented the plan. It is typically a committee’s responsibility to convey the substance a plan to the rest of the community board.
Last night was the first time the full board heard the presentation directly from DOT. During the hour-long board discussion of the project, many members seemed open to the redesign and supportive of the bike lanes, with some more skeptical than others.
One board member, Erica Cruz, said she had studied the proposal and even met with DOT. “This is a start,” she said of the plan. “It’s something that we can do to help make changes. There needs to be changes made.” Arguing that Queens Boulevard is currently too dangerous, Cruz brought up a crash the previous evening outside her church — the Rock Church on 57th Avenue. “It was right where, the children inside the church — they saw this accident happen.”
Other board members expressed explicit support for the bike lane. “It’s very important to me that there should be a bike lane because what I’m seeing as a driver — it’s dangerous if you don’t have a bike lane,” said board member Priscilla Carrow.
With Walker, Lisa, and CB 4 District Manager Christian Cassagnol opposed to the bike lane, however, supporters on the board were outgunned. Cassagnol referred to bicycles as “missiles on wheels” and said the redesign should make Queens Boulevard safer for motorists and pedestrians, and cyclists should be an “afterthought.”
In response to the board’s vote, members of Transportation Alternatives’ Queens Committee stood with their backs to Walker and the board’s leadership, then circled the room and exited before the public comment section of the meeting. (CB 4 house rules call for votes to be held before the public weighs in.)
Immediately after the meeting, DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo tried to process what had happened. “We have to take [the board’s resolution] back, we have to consider it,” he said. “But I think people don’t really want a shared lane or people sharing the traffic lanes with cyclists, so I’m really not sure what the board’s expectations are.” With de Blasio’s directive to proceed with the project, it’s clear that DOT will go ahead with the redesign as planned regardless of what the board’s expectations may be.
Council Member Danny Dromm, who spoke in favor of the project at the beginning of the meeting and stayed until the vote, challenged the argument that the project had not been given a fair public hearing. “I don’t understand why they would say that there was not outreach done,” he said. “In fact, more outreach was done I think on this project than almost any other project I know of.”
The board, he said, should have handled the public process differently. “It’s unfortunate that there’s this anti-bike lane sentiment that exists within the board,” Dromm told reporters. “It takes a culture change, and when you’re talking about a change in the culture, there’s a lot of emotion and there’s a lot of things that are going to go on.”