Gridlock Sam Tells the Story of NYC’s First Bike Lanes

Last weekend, former DOT Deputy Commissioner "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz wrote an op-ed in the New York Times urging the city to start creating bike lanes that physically separate cyclists from motor vehicle traffic at some locations. This weekend, as DOT laid down a brand new "shared lane" design on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, a letter to the editor from a regional director of the New York and New England League of American Bicyclists criticized Schwartz arguing that physically-separated bike lanes are more dangerous than riding in the street (it’s worth noting that the writer lives in Waltham, Massachusetts, not New York City).

It seems to be a good moment to check out this short interview in which Gridlock Sam Schwartz tells the story of how New York got its first bike lanes in the early ’80s and why Mayor Ed Koch ultimately ordered that they be taken away.

The Bulldozers Came Out and We Removed the Bicycle Lanes
A Clarence Eckerson Street Film
Running time: 5 minutes 43 seconds

Over the last year or so I’ve been riding a very young child to daycare on the back of my bike three days a week. Increasingly, I find myself unwilling to ride in the street with the baby on board. Here’s a snippet of Sam’s interview that really sums up the argument, for me:

Yes, the very experienced rider in Manhattan traffic can do just fine and mix with the traffic and weave in and out of the traffic, but in 1980 I was a young father. I had a three year old son and he often rode on the back of my bike. I’d rather be in a protected lane. If you’re inexperienced you’re better off in a protected lane. As long as the lanes are ubiquitous enough it makes a lot of sense to have dedicated to roadway space for the bike riders. And I know all of the arguments.

  • mixalittle

    “he often road on the back of my bike”

    Was it a rode bike?

  • John M.

    Can you imagine the paradise that NYC might be if the lanes had remained? I mean I am sure there would have been problems, but by now they would have been solved and we’d probably have some on all the major avenues…

    If we start now, maybe paradise by 2020?

  • Doh! Thanks for the copy edit, Mixalittle.

  • Publius

    John M. believes that barrier-separated paths are the Yellow Brick Road to Paradise. He should read John Allen’s response to this silliness, published in the Times at

    The problems of these lanes defy any solution, because they create conflicts that exist only in their presence. Right turning motorists cross the path of straight-through cyclists, and left turns from such a lane require the cyclist to fling him or herself across three to six lane arterials. These aren’t problems that can be designed out, because they are designed *in* by the lanes, themselves.

    And Mr. Allen knows what he’s talking about. He’s the author of the Bicycle Drivers Manual for three states. He also has published photos that clearly demonstrate why these types of lanes are discouraged by the American Association of State Highway and Traffic Officials, who publish the engineering design guides for bicycle facilities. You can see Mr. Allen’s web pages on this subject at

  • It really looks like Allen is talking more about the suburbs than the city. But regardless, I don’t think you can be fundamentalist about it. Different situations require different accomodations for cyclists. In Copenhagen you see an incredible diversity of bike lane designs, even along the same street.

    I don’t have safety data at my fingertips, but as a rider, I found the bike lanes pictured here to feel remarkably safe:

    And these too:

    These designs have some application for NYC, I think.

  • David Chesler

    John Allen may live in Waltham, but he knows whereof he speaks, and he should not be discounted merely by his location. I live a few miles up route 128 from there in Woburn — but in 1980 I lived in the Bronx, and I worked that summer as a bike messenger. I remember those short-lived lanes were regularly blocked by trucks (and even harder to see, their ramps) — I tried them, but the day my way was blocked by a police cruiser was the day I gave up using them.

    At that time my biggest hazard was not cars, but contraflowing bicyclists, and also, once I’d fallen behind the cars on the sequenced lights, pedestrians crossing en masse against the lights. (As an 18-year-old my reaction to jaywalkers was to simply sound my horn and watch them scatter — I figured that stopping at red lights [and I did, often catching up to the jersey-clad pelotons who didn’t] gave me the right to proceed at green lights.)

    A few years before that my ride from Co-op City to Bronx Science took me on Commercial (later Kazimiroff, apparently now Southern) Boulevard. I tried the new “Bronx Bikeway” once or twice, but I felt safer drafting buses on the Boulevard than dodging toddlers on what to them was the sidewalk.

    (I have a particular sore spot for toddlers, or more particularly parents who assume that anyplace without cars is appropriate for toddlers: my very brief competitive riding period ended after 15 laps and several hours on the Pepsi Marathon when I did an endo coming out of the chutes when I came upon the offspring of such a parent stopped astride his training-wheeled 12″ toy.)

  • Clarence

    To Publius,

    Amazing that with all the separated bike lane successes in Copenhagen, Denmark, Colombia, Montreal, London, and countless other countries, it is only here in the U.S. that bike lanes are predicted to be disastrous.

    Mr. Allen mas valid points and they should for sure be weighed when installing separated bike lanes, but just the fact that these items are discouraged by the Association of State Highway and Traffic Officials does not surprise me. I’m sure that everyone who works for them has bicycled up Broadway on a weekday rush hour and sees that a properly designed, separated bike path would not work and instead we should just live with our painted line of four or five feet width which is constantly parked in and driven over by cars.

    Separated bike lanes have so many varied designs, some of which may work better than others. I think we have to keep in mind, no one is suggesting installing the same bike lanes 1980 all over again, Europe has much better innovative designs we could use and alter.

    I think the key here is to not dismiss them outright as the author would. Or to put a blanket statement over separated bike lanes in general whether it be in the city, country or suburbs. Properly designed, in some places it would help out tremendously and get more people cycling which in turn makes the whole city safer.

  • J:Lai

    The key to the success of any such effort would be getting significantly more people to ride bikes in the city.

    Problems such as the need for turning to cars to cross the path of cyclists, or turning cyclists to cross several lanes of traffic, are major issues when bikers are rare and drivers are not expecting them. When there are lots of bikers, drivers will change their driving habits. This is a big part of what has allowed European cities to become bike friendsly – just getting more cyclists on the road.

    In order for bike lines to work, cyclists have to give a little bit also. Right now, many cyclists disregard traffic signals and laws. I admit that I have been guilty of this. When there is no infrastructure, you do what you have to. The addition of some real infrastructure, like separated lanes, would require cyclists to respect the traffic laws and other road users.

    Some experienced riders may resent this – no more blowing through red lights and weaving across 4 lanes of traffic – but I believe it would a worthwhile price for dedicated, separated bike lines.

  • Dan

    And you know those highway officials always looking out for alternative transport folks! But seriously. I’ve hardly spent any time riding bikes but I rode a rented bike in Amsterdam on many divided bike lanes(with contra-flow traffic) and I never felt safer. The lanes have their own signals to prevent cyclists from moving into traffic when they shouldn’t and they make you feel safe when you’re riding. Also, and don’t leave this out, I think you’d get a lot less vitriol from bikers if you treated them like they matter and installed some kind of physical protection for them on the street. There’s nothing more aggravating than feeling like your city doesn’t care about your needs.

  • Clarence

    I also add to Dan & J:lai’s excellent comments…

    Everytime I go to a place where there are more cycling amenities and the general feeling is that cyclists are more respected and taken care of by their government, the fewer numbers of cyclists I see breaking the law.

    In Portland, it is almost unheard of to see cyclists breaking the law. When I first started cycling there, I got yelled at a couple of times – not by drivers – but other cyclists!

  • David Chesler

    >>>> I’m sure that everyone who works for them has bicycled up Broadway on a weekday rush hour and sees that a properly designed, separated bike path would not work and instead we should just live with our painted line of four or five feet width which is constantly parked in and driven over by cars.

    No, you should be riding in the speed-appropriate lanes with all the other vehicular traffic. (I earned my last door-prize that same summer, on Park Avenue, by riding too far to the right. In the quarter century since I learned not to do that I’ve been cursed at a few times, but I’ve never been rear-ended.)

    In the original op-ed, Schwartz writes:
    >> For example, drivers need to know they are forbidden to enter a bike lane to turn;

    That’s news to me. Drivers turning across bike lanes is a recipe for right-hook collisions.

    The little bit of suburbia known as Cambridge, Massachusetts, which does have that critical mass (no pun intended) of bicyclists for which J:Lai has some bike lanes that are better than some other bike lanes it also has. In the less bad, there are clear markings that right-turning cars are to merge with the bike lane (the solid line becomes dashed) or in some cases the bike lane crosses left by one lane for through-going bicyclists, allowing right-turning vehicles of all modes in the rightmost lane.

  • ddartley

    I’m a cyclist with very mixed feelings about bike lanes, even physically separated ones, but since they seem very beloved of this community and, therefore likely to appear one day in New York, I imagine I could accept them ***as long as they’re bloody big enough for cyclists to pass one another!***

    I haven’t seen a single bike lane in New York City that’s really safely big enough for one cyclist to pass another. Of course cars are allowed passing space; they deserve to speed.

  • da

    Last summer my family and I rode the Montreal buffered bike lanes (link to photos in comment #5 above). My wife and 2 teenaged daughters declared the buffered lanes to be very comfortable, safe, and a real pleasure to ride in. They never bike here in NYC however because they find the traffic too terrifying.

  • David Chesler

    Do the painted lanes at Times Square still have signs that say “Walk Bike to Next Sign”?
    I decided that I’d obey that one when they put up the signs that said “Push Car to Next Sign”.

    My brother was much less than 3 sitting on a seat on the top tube of Dad’s Dunelt while I was in a seat over the rear wheel on non-separated streets in Washington Heights. (When he isn’t bicycling, Dad is still driving big cars — he’s no fanatic about human-powered vehicles, just a realistic urban transportational bicyclist, like his sons, and at least one grandson so far.)

  • A barrier-protected bike lane exists on Tillary Street in Brooklyn leading to the Brooklyn Bridge. In my experience, this is a very successful example of a barrier-protected lane. In fact, I wish DOT would install a similar bike lane on Delancey Street for cyclists coming and going to the Williamsburg Bridge.

  • Anne

    the bottom line is: without protected bike lanes, cycling will remain a rarified activity for the lunatic fringe (yes, us). the average citizen simply is NOT going to ride their bike in traffic with cars, and certainly would never allow their child or elderly parent to do so. we all want cycling to become a mainstream and widely used mode of transportation, but this simply will NOT happen without the protected lanes. as several people have cited in examples from more bike-friendly locales, once there are clearly designated sections of the street for cars, pedestrians, and cyclists, every type of enforcement (including peer pressure) will be much more effective.

  • David Chesler

    Does the average citizen use a bicycle for transportation when there ARE separated lanes?

    My understanding is that as always the difference between theory and practice is much greater in practice than in theory. That is, people say they would ride more if there were bike lanes, but when bike lanes (parallel, separated, or painted) are built they don’t make that much difference. You could argue that there just aren’t enough bike lanes — what is the critical mass, and where have they made the difference? Where is it that people are actually riding because there are protected bike lanes? (As opposed to where people are not riding and blaming the lack of such facilities.)

    (IIRC, Davis California is cited as having the most bike paths and bike lanes. How much do people ride there, as compared to California college towns with fewer bike paths and lanes?)


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