Ninth Street Update: Robert’s Rules of Order

First off, please accept my apologies for continuing to torture you with the intensely parochial drama taking place on Park Slope’s 9th Street. I justify all of this coverage by imagining that this story may be useful for advocates working towards Livable Streets goals in other neighborhoods.

For those who are just coming in to the story, a few weeks ago the Department of Transportation put forward a thoughtful, responsive and well-designed "Road Diet" plan for Park Slope’s dangerous, crash-prone 9th Street. Sadly, a rather well organized group of residents led by a Community Board 6 executive committee member named Robert Levine has set out to kill the plan (or, at least, get rid of the bike lane portion of it).

Here is an unedited video clip of Levine making his case against DOT’s plan at last month’s CB6 board meeting:

Levine says at the outset, "I’m not against traffic calming. I’m not against bike lanes. I think the combination of both on 9th Street is a dangerous situation." To Bob, the bike lanes and the traffic calming are two entirely separate things.

I’ve now sat through three community meetings on this issue and have tried hard to explain how neighborhood streets designed to accomodate motorists, pedestrians, transit users and cyclists tend to be safer, more functional and more community-friendly than streets designed only for motor vehicle traffic. Bike lanes, in other words, are traffic calming and congestion relief and even a way to free up some parking spaces if they help people making local trips to leave their cars at home. U.S. planners call this idea "Complete Streets." In Europe, many call it "Shared Space."

While Levine is relatively calm in the video clip above, it has been exceedingly difficult to explain these ideas because each time I have spoken at a meeting he has, literally, tried to shout me down or use some procedural tactic to prevent me from being allowed to speak. It seems that the last thing Levine wants is for his neighbors to actually see DOT’s plan and understand it.

Why all of the emotion and anger over this project (and where the heck was it when a 77-year-old woman was mowed down on 9th St. and Seventh Ave. in August 2004, about four doors down from Levine’s own house)?

Bike lanes are clearly the primary target. But in the video above Levine’s intensity kicks up a notch when he gets to the topic of double-parking:

We were
told years ago that we can double park on 9th Street the way one-way
streets can [on street cleaning days]. The precinct captain told us at a block meeting that we would be
allowed to do that since it wouldn’t block the buses and there would still be
plenty of room because the street is wide. And that lasted about a month until
the meter maids started giving out tickets.

The bike lanes, it seems, are in the way of Bob Levine’s double-parking. And while you might think that city officials would never prioritize double-parking over facilities that keep cyclists safer, get them off the sidewalks and help the city as a whole become more environmentally sustainable, Levine has been effective in getting elected officials to press his case.

State Assembly Member Jim Brennan has contacted DOT on behalf of the Ninth Street Block Association and in a letter to Acting DOT Commissioner Judith Bergtraum, State Senator Eric Adams wrote, "Prior to placing these lanes on a street used as a main traffic hub, one must consider alternatives." Adams asks, "What studies or proof has been provided to demonstrate that bike lanes contribute to a decrease in accidents?" Adams’ Chief of Staff, Ingrid P. Lewis-Martin likewise told me on the phone, "the jury is out" on whether bike lanes make streets safer.

Actually, the jury delivered a clear verdict on that issue.

In September 2006 New York City’s Departments of Transportation, Public Health and the NYPD came out with a report entitled, Bicyclist Fatalities and Serious Injuries in New York City 1996-2005 (PDF). The unprecedented multi-agency study found that of the 225 bicyclists who were killed on the streets of New York over that ten year period, only one fatality took place in a marked bike lane. The report concluded that bike lanes enhance motorists’ awareness of bikes and are a significant contributor to cyclist safety.

If, however, as seems to be the case with Levine, your interest is in removing cyclists from 9th Street rather than keeping them safe, there is still a significant body of independent research showing how a "Road Diet" like the one proposed for 9th Street helps pedestrians and motorists by reducing the rate of car crashes, smoothing traffic flow and making a street safer and more comfortable for all users.

Bike lanes, it turns out, can be beneficial to New Yorkers who aren’t even using bikes.  

Fortunately, Levine seems to be fighting a losing battle. This week’s Brooklyn Papers letters page contains an absolute outpouring of support for DOT’s plan and at its most recent shout-down, the Park Slope Civic Council managed to pass a motion thanking DOT for its "response to long-standing community concerns regarding the unusually high rate
of motor vehicle crashes, injuries and fatalities along Park Slope’s 9th Street" and offering some good suggestions for how to make the plan more palatable to the neighborhood. Council Member Bill de Blasio supports DOT’s plan and it looks like a number of other elected officials are coming aboard as well. There will be an important meeting of CB6’s transportation committee on Thursday, May 17 that supporters of DOT’s plan need to attend.

I’m optimistic that by the end of July we’ll see slimmer, trimmer, safer 9th Street. But the opponents of this plan have the energy, local political clout and free time to make things difficult. Let’s just hope the politicians allow the planners do their job.

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