DOT Makes the Case for Bike Routes Parallel to W. Houston St.

Last Tuesday night Ryan Russo and Josh Benson from the Department of Transportation presented a plan to Manhattan’s Community Board 2 to create a safer east-west bike route across Lower Manhattan. With three cyclists having been killed on Houston Street over the last two years and major reconstruction of the street currently underway, members of CB2 led by Ian Dutton have been advocating for  a physically-separated bike lane to be built on Houston Street.

I’m not going to have time to do the meeting justice right now and I hope that people will add to this report in the comments section. The gist of it is this: DOT argues that Houston Street, with its busy, multi-lane traffic and numerous cross streets — 18 intersections per mile, Russo said — wouldn’t work all that well as a two-way protected bike lane. DOT’s Powerpoint presentation is above (Is Streetsblog becoming some sort of New York City government agency Powerpoint clearinghouse?).

Everyone, however, agrees that Lower Manhattan needs a safe, convenient east-west bike route. But rather than directing bicyclists to Houston Street DOT proposes placing the bike lanes on less busy streets that parallel Houston — Prince and Bleecker. The plan, Russo said, is similar to the Bike Boulevard program in Berkeley, California and the popular Dean and Bergen bike lanes that parallel Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. One other possible benefit to Livable Streets advocates: The proposal includes the removal of nearly 200 parking spaces.

Community Board members were impressed with the thoughtfulness that went in to DOT’s study. Russo and Benson "changed some minds" and the presentation "was well received" according to transportation committee chair Brad Hoylman. "We reiterated our support for a Houston Street bike lane but stated that the alternative was a viable option that should be examined further with continued community input."

Bonus Weekend Essay Project: Compare and contrast the DOT bike plan for Lower Manhattan and the process that brought it about versus the one-way streets plan presented last night in Park Slope.

  • AD

    How many intersections to Prince and Bleecker have per mile? Isn’t it basically the same as Houston?

  • AD, The numerous intersections are a problem for a physically-separated bike lane but not a stripes-on-the-pavement bike lane, according to DOT. The lanes on Prince and Bleecker wouldn’t be physically-protected.

  • Aaron is right – that is the point that DOT made at the meeting when they were pressed with that question.

    They cited studies from Idaho (yes, Idaho – we got a laugh out of that) that said that more than 8 “crossings” per mile would be unacceptable for a Class I bike lane. We questioned that applicability of that study, but their general meaning was that bikes in a protected lane would tend to “surprise” motorists at intersections more so than cyclists that were more obvious to the driver in an unprotected (Class II) lane. Thus, there could be considered to be MORE danger at intersections. Ryan Russo and Josh Benson went to great lengths to point out that all three of the Houston St. bike fatalities occurred at intersections, and that as many as 90% of bike/vehicle crashes occur at intersections, where the “protectedness” of a Class I lane offers little benefit.

    Additionally, they pointed out that the pleasant “greenway” effect is lost with too many breaks in the continuity for cyclists. As it is, the Hudson Greenway averages slightly less than 8 crossings per mile. They cited the Ocean Parkway greenway as less-than-ideal for the very reason that there are so many car crossings, with the potential for conflicts.

    Much of the committee believe that the safety issues could be addressed through creative design solutions, but that sentiment did not seem to resonate with DOT.

  • Clarence

    For those who might want a little more info on what the Berkeley Bike Boulevards look like, check it out on StreetFilms at:

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I agree with the DOT people about the element of surprise. I don’t know how John Forester is viewed at TA, but I found his arguments pretty convincing:

  • crzwdjk

    Another example of the protected greenway with “many breaks” is the West Side bike path south of Chambers St, along West St. There definitely are problems there, with the turning cars, the waiting pedestrians, and the curb cuts too, especially if you are going at any decent speed. The bike boulevard idea, with bikes on side streets, is a good one, but one of the keys to making it work is ensuring that the bike boulevards form reasonable through routes and a coherent network. London has signs pointing out bike routes and distances to major destinations, which makes navigating the side streets much easier. Otherwise, cyclists would stick to the main roads simply because they know where they go and they tend to form easy through routes.

  • Mitch

    I’m a major fan of parallel streets as bicycle routes, but the planners should not write off Houston St. completely. Even if Prince St. and Bleecker St. are turned into bicycle paradises, some bikers will insist on staying on Houston St. — some because they’re pigheaded, others because they have destinations on Houston St. The presentation says Houston St. has “limited destinations,” but some blocks have places where many bikers will want to go; after all, Times Up is located on Houston St.

    It’s good to encourage bikers to use alternatives to Houston Street, but no attempt to do so will be 100% effective.

  • John

    I would argue that, at a minimum, a buffered Class II bike lane like the one on Eighth Avenue should be created on Houston IN ADDITION TO the proposal for Prince and Bleecker Streets. Three cyclists have died on Houston, and cyclists will continue riding on Houston in the future, especially since the DOT’s own free NYC cycling map clearly designates Houston as recommended route for cyclists. As the map encourages people to bike on Houston, I’d argue that the city his a duty to make the street safer for cycling.

  • Fendergal

    As former resident of downtown and someone who used to ride on a regular basis on all three of the streets discussed, I do not believe bike lanes on those narrower streets would be that enticing to cyclists. I prefer wider, faster streets like Houston because of the better timing of the lights, and the lesser chance that pedestrians step off the curb without looking. Prince and Bleecker have so much foot traffic and parked cars that I would not feel as though I would be able to ride at my preferred speed.

    And, Mitch, why would a cyclist be pigheaded if they chose to ride on an un-bike laned street? Is a cyclist pigheaded if they don’t ride on the greenway because an avenue is more convenient for them?

  • ddartley

    Reduce speed limits (on the books and with physical calming) and obviate the need for bike lanes and their exhaustive attendant discussion.

    These are city streets, folks, not highways. City means people. These streets existed before cars did. There’s no reason to assume high car speed is a right or a force that can’t be altered.

    I know, I’m dreaming. But I’m right, aren’t I?

  • P

    Excellent point ddartley- why do DOT and NYPD allow so many streets to run far above the speed limit? Are they so desperate to get cars through Manhattan that they will ignore the obvious safety risks of cars travelling at high speeds in highly crowded pedestrian corridors?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I think you are right, Ddartley, with one clarification: some of those streets did not exist before cars. In particular, Houston Street was widened during the 1930s, in part to aid the construction of the Independent Subway, but also to “accommodate” more cars. This New York Times article and this Forgotten New York page have more details. Similarly, Sixth Avenue was extended south to Church Street at around the same time, creating a wide avenue where there were buildings before.

    I think it was a mistake to make those streets wide enough to accommodate so many cars, a mistake that should be rectified. I used to work on that part of Sixth Avenue, and it was very unpleasant to try to cross, compared with the narrow streets of SoHo. If that were made two-way it would be a big improvement for the neighborhood. Houston is two-way but it’s even wider, which is why it’s just as unpleasant if not more.

  • mfs

    crzwdjk- very good point. navigation cues will make side street lanes more palatable.

  • moocow

    ddartley I second that, well said.

    And yes, that is dreamlike.

  • rachael

    I think the reason cyclists would continue to use Houston instead of Prince/Bleeker is because unlike Bergen/Dean routes, Prince and Bleeker streets end at Bowery. Prince and Bleeker aren’t convenient if you’re trying to get across town. Did they talk about that in their presentation?

  • Mitch

    Fendergal —

    I was using “pigheaded” to refer to bikers who would insist on riding on busy streets to make a point about bikers’ rights, even when a parallel route would serve their needs just as well.

    I wasn’t using the term as criticism; a certain amount of pigheadedness — willingness to annoy the powerful and provoke confrontations — is essential in any movement. The people who ride on busy streets to make a point are making an important point, and I’ll defend their right to ride there, even if I think they’re crazy to do so.

    But if I had to ride in that neighborhood, I’d look for a less intense ride, a block or so away.

  • Nobody is going to use the route on slide 23 – they’ll never follow it, they’ll have no idea that if they go south down Bowery they will later be able to hook up with a cross town route after Houston. So that is just unrealistic.

    I’d rather just use Prince as is and ride down the middle of the street – you get some honking, but at least you are completely visible and not getting sideswiped.

    You gotta buffer the lanes – which they will never do on the side streets. I personally hate riding on the Carlton and Dean st paths – cars act crazier on the side streets than they do on the big roads – at least on the big roads they are mostly going fast in their lane in a straight line. I’m smart at intersections and know to be on full alert.

    The real solution of course is to stop turning the cross streets into mini-highways. DOT needs to slow Houston, but since that will never happen I’ll settle for a buffered lane on Houston that will at least protect cyclists using that road.

    DOT clearly doesn’t want to do anything to offend the car people. So it will take a few more deaths i guess until they are completely embarrassed into changing Houston. Creating lanes on the side streets surely won’t prevent more deaths from happening.

  • After hearing DOT’s Prince/Bleecker proposal and everyone’s comments, I think the best compromise would be buffered bike lanes on Houston similar to the one on Eighth Avenue. In my experience, the buffered lane on Eighth Avenue is the best bike lane in the city.

  • ddartley

    I think I agree with John. Houston is too much of a wide-open, sunny gem that’s lovely to cyle on (when you’re not intimidated) for it to be allowed to move more towards all-car. Prince and Bleecker move so slowly as it is, do they really need a lane?

  • John

    I sent the following e-mail message to Community Board 2, Transportation Alternatives and the DOT today:

    I am writing with regard to the Department of Transportation’s proposal to put
    a bike lane on Prince and Bleecker Streets instead of on Houston Street.

    As a cyclist, I find that the Prince/Bleecker proposal is flawed for four reasons.
    First, it is circuitous. Second, the official NYC cycling map, which is printed
    and distributed by the DOT, clearly designates Houston Street as a proposed/planned
    bike route. Neither Bleecker nor Prince Streets are designated bike routes on that
    map. Because the DOT’s map encourages cyclists to ride on Houston Street, I
    believe the DOT has a duty to put a bike lane on Houston and take steps to prevent
    additional fatalities and accidents on Houston. Third, a bike lane the entire length
    of Houston from the FDR to the West Side Highway would provide cyclists a clear
    shot all the way across Manhattan. Fourth, many cyclists will continue to ride
    on Houston Street even if the DOT creates bike lanes on Prince and Bleecker Streets.
    Thus, the DOT has an ongoing responsibility to make Houston Street a safer place
    to cycle.

    After studying the DOT plan and the CB2 bicycle subcommittee’s proposal for
    a Class I bike lane, I would recommend a compromise. Instead of the DOT’s proposal
    for Bleecker/Prince, a buffered bike lane similar to the one that presently exists
    on Eighth Avenue should be created in one eastbound lane and one westbound lane
    on Houston. In addition, the DOT could significantly enhance safety for both cyclists
    and pedestrians on Houston by reducing the number of intersections where left hand
    turns are permitted.

    Thank you for considering my suggestion.

  • Peter

    I wasn’t at the meeting so my comments are based solely on what’s posted here. However, as a long time crosstown bicycler, I was initially impressed by the DOT idea of using Prince and Bleecker as bicycle arteries. These are my primary routes already, so the idea of making them more bicycle friendly is very appealing. They’re not bad now, the biggest risk is probably being doored. The intersections are all pretty manageble if you’re not running red lights.

    You can’t pay me to ride on Houston more than a block as it is now. The road is in awful shape and it is THE major high speed cross town artery for car, and like it or not, that’s not going to change, even if they finally finish fixing the road.

    However, I was swayed a bit by the argument that people are going to ride on Houston no matter what and that the DOT has a responsibility to make it reasonably safe for bicycles. This makes a good deal of sense too, though it’s a somewhat falacious argument since it would be wonderful to ride up West Street or Broadway, but no one is talking about putting protected bicycle lanes there. (Yeah yeah, I know there’s the greenway path.) Also arguing that the DOT has to make Houston safe because it’s on the bicycle map as a route is a ridiculous argument as well. Makes more sense to argue to change the map than the street.

    Anyway, my thoughts are a little scattered, but in an ideal world, cast one vote for bike protections on Houston AND lanes on Prince and Bleeker. When could more bike lanes not be a good thing.

  • Peter M

    One thing that is often overlooked is the benefit of reduced street noise in the neighborhood with a bike lane. Car alarms are a big problem, and reducing the number of parked cars will greatly help.

    It will also improve the flow of traffic. With cars pulling in and out of parking spaces, things slow down considerably, and people are tempted to honk.

  • Stacy

    According to DOT’s presentation, one of the advantages to a Bleecker Street bike lane is that Bleecker Street is said to have no bus traffic. This is simply not true. Bleecker Street is overwhelmed with tour busses, both single and double decker, as well as a bevy of chartered busses with out-of-state or Canadian plates. As a resident cyclist I’d much rather contend with city bus drivers who are aware of, and accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists.

    But the real disadvantage to Bleecker and Prince Street bike lanes is that neither street is truely a through street. Neither one begins or ends anywhere near the East Side or West Side greenways. Where are cyclists to go west of Sixth Avenue or East of the Bowery? We need safe routes that will actually take us somehwhere.

  • Stacy: take a look at the presentation above. Bleecker and Prince are the streets that the routes are based on – there is much more to the full route.

    The proposed routes are less direct than straight-through on Houston St. – that’s part of the tradeoff and why the CB was initially skeptical of the DOT plan, until hearing out the presentation.

    For everyone that has been contributing to this thread – note that there is a public discussion at the CB2 Transportation Committee meeting on Tuesday, 4/10 – see the StreetsBlog calendar.

  • dreamon

    An elevated bikeway should work very well on Houston; especially over the median.

  • Elevated Veloway

    At last! A chance to write about elevated bike paths or “veloways.” Yes friends, this is actually a real concept, and one that is included in the official LA County Bike Masterplan. Why stop with Houston St? consider the Park Ave elevated veloway, or how about modernizing Ocean Parkway as a 21st century elevated veloway and skip all those annoying turning cars.
    West Los Angeles Veloway
    This Bicycle Plan designates Class I and Class II facilities in the vicinity of UCLA and the Veterans Administration complex in Westwood as an endorsement of the West Los Angeles Veloway. The ultimate alignment of this facility may vary from that shown on the Bicycle Plan map(s); final design is subject to the approval of responsible agencies. The elevated Class I portion of this bikeway would provide for direct bicycle access to and from Westwood Village/UCLA campus over Wilshire Boulevard, ultimately linking up with the Santa Monica Transit Parkway Bike Path at Sepulveda Boulevard.
    Bicycle access to Major Economic Activity Centers requires particular attention regarding the mapped Bicycle Plan Citywide Bikeway System:

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Can I just nip this idea in the bud? Here are a few reasons why elevated veloways are a bad idea:

    1. Studies have shown that the more familiar motorists are with cyclists, the less likely they are to hit them. Elevated bikeways separate bikes from cars, removing this familiarity.

    2. Bike lanes, if done right, have a traffic calming effect. Separated bikeways do not.

    3. Elevated structures require a lot of maintenance.

    4. Separated paths require extra policing.

    I’d support an elevated bikeway in three circumstances: (a) an adaptive reuse of an existing structure, like the High Line, (b) a short connector between existing greenways or (c) converted automobile facilities. If you want to convert the BQE into an elevated bikeway you have my full support.

  • Chris in Sacramento

    One very attractive feature of the Berkeley and Palo Alto bike boulevards is that at certain points thru motor vehicle traffic is diverted while bikes proceed directly. The result is that the vast majority of vehicular traffic is neighborhood-focused (i.e., slower). Another key consideration is granting the bike boulevards priority at most intersections. Otherwise, bicyclists inclined to stop at stop signs or traffic signals will find these routes much less convenient (and less safe) than arterials.

  • Joe in Noho

    A Class 1 bike path on Houston is less than worthless. It won’t protect you at intersections, which is where you’re most likely to get seriously injured. Worse, it will probably increase the risk of accidents at intersections because you will be only slightly more visible to motorists than if you were riding on the sidewalk.

    Use of Class 2 bike lanes is generally more sensible where there are many intersections. Personally, even if a Class 2 bike lane were created on Houston, I’d still use the nearby one-way streets. Major arteries like Houston St. in Manhattan and Queens Blvd. in Queens will continue to be dangerous for peds and cyclists until speed limits are enforced.


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