Fear and Loathing on the Upper East Side


A Curbed tipster sent along this photo of the "controversial" new bike lane going in along E. 90th Street.

In the last week or so, the New York Times, the Sun, Gothamist and Curbed have all run stories about the City’s plan to build new bike lanes across the Upper East Side and the community members who are flipping out about it. The whole thing is entirely reminiscent of the intense irrationality surrounding the City’s recently implemented plan to stripe bike lanes on 9th Street in Brooklyn.

The Upper East Side controversy centers on the block of 91st Street between Second and Third Avenues. That particular block is a quiet, pedestrian "play street," closed to motor vehicle traffic for about thirty years now. Here’s how the Times reported it on Sunday:

this month, the quietude has been interrupted by a tug of war over a
plan to install a bicycle lane
through the space. The bike lane would
connect Central Park and the East River bike path with one-way paths
along East 91st and 90th Streets.

Here’s the thing: The Times story, like all of the others, is incorrect. DOT has no plans to install a bike lane on that stretch of 91st St. DOT’s preference and plan is to leave that block alone.

Streetsblog was the only press to cover the Community Board 8 transportation committee meeting on July 9 where the City presented its plan. At that meeting, DOT representatives said repeatedly that they preferred to "to keep the residential feel" of that block by not striping a bike lane or any other markings on that stretch of 91st Street.

Rather, the bike lane would start and end on either side of the block. The pedestrian street would be part of the bike route leading to Central Park’s "Engineers Gate" at 91st Street and Fifth Ave., but it would not be physically changed in any way at all. It would still be a public street and "shared space" prioritizing pedestrians. Cyclists moving through the street would only be permitted to travel westbound, which is actually a relatively steep uphill bike ride. Eastbound cyclists would be directed to 90th Street.

DOT’s "controversial" plan, in other words, is to do absolutely nothing to the community’s beloved "play street" except, perhaps, guiding all potential fast-moving, downhill cyclists away from 91st Street over to the new eastbound bike lane on 90th.

Below is the slide from DOT’s Powerpoint presentation discussing that particular block (download the whole presentation here). Note that, rather than dictating terms to the Community Board, DOT presented four different options for this stretch of 91st Street. Granted, none of the options was, "No Bike Lane on 91st St.," which is what Board members ultimately voted for. The feeling in the room was summed up by one CB8 transportation committee member who said, "I for one believe bicycling is a recreational activity. I don’t believe that it is a legitimate mode of transportation."

And these, dear readers, are the people who help oversee New York City transportation planning and policy on the neighborhood level. Have you looked in to the possibility of becoming a member of your local Community Board?

  • Steve

    Aaron, it’s good to emphasize the point that the DoT is not pushing for the painting of a lane on this block; that has been lost on too many in the the debate. But you can’t pretend that striping the blocks on 91st Street to the east and west of this block as a bike lane will nto increase bike traffic on the block, which is what many opponents are concerned about.

    I think the message of proponents has to be that bikes, pedestrians, kids and seniors curently coexist peacefully in this space, there is no reason to think that will change with an increase in bicyclists in the mix, John Finley Walk (just a few blocks away) demonstrates peaceful co-existence of the same groups in a comparable space.

  • Ian D

    Hey – it’s the slow news time (see also: Mayor Mike’s commute). They’ll dig up anything and try to spin controversy.

    I mean jeeze, I even got quoted in the Times because the community board granted a request from the 6th Pct. to remove some overnight parking spots to better monitor “sketchy activities.” That’s news?

  • Steve,

    Like the neighborhood opponents, I think you are working under the assumption that there are no bicyclists using this street currently. That’s not accurate. Cyclists use this street, as is.

    If it changes anything, I think DOT’s plan takes the most dangerous cyclists — the guys traveling eastbound in the downhill direction — and suggests that they move over to 90th Street.

    We ran across a similar thing on 9th Street in Brooklyn. Neighborhood people were screaming, “You can’t put cyclists on this street!”

    But the cyclists were already there and had been there for years.

    On 9th Street, as I think is happening on the UES, the neighborhood powers-that-be were fighting a DOT plan that, in many ways, was nothing more than an official acknowledgement of cyclists’ presence.

  • Steve

    Aaron, I was pretty clear in stating that I think that a striped westbound Class II lane beginning and ending at this block would increase bicycle traffic on this block, not that it would create bicycle traffic where none existed. I made the same point repeatedly in an earlier post on this topic.

    You seem to be saying there will be no increase. I don’t see how you can say that. I know for a fact that my family will use this lane (including the car-free block between Third and Second) to travel west from the East Side greenway to our home. In the past, we have tended to use other streets in the East 90s to do so, but I always prefer using bike lanes when traveling with kids. I can’t believe I’m the only one who will do so, and I will certainly be encouraging my bicycling neighbors to do so. So the bike traffic on 91st is going to increase with the installation of the lane. That’s the whole point. Hopefully the increase will be significant and there will be an added “safety in numbers” effect.

    If you are advocating a strategy of downplaying the impact of bike lanes as a way of getting communities to accept them, I don’t agree with it. (The impact should not be overplayed, either, it should just be accurately described.) The people who live on East 90th and 91st streets should expect to see more bikes as a result of the lane, and should expect the possibility of a ticket if they block the lane. Bicyclists should use the lane when available and safe, use care not to endanger pedestrians (especially on the car-free block), and show courtesy and patience when they remind motorists to exit the bike lane. The goal should be to foster expectations on the part of all that will minimize friction in the long run–not to smooth over opposition in the short run.

  • Matt

    The Curbed and Sun stories DON’T say the DOT has plans to install a bike lane on that stretch of 91st St. — they seem to say it was being considered, which from the Powerpoint, seems correct.

  • “I for one believe bicycling is a recreational activity. I don’t believe that it is a legitimate mode of transportation.”

    When I spent seven years commuting to work by bicyle, it usually felt more like a form of transportation than like a recreational activity – particularly on rainy days.

    I guess I would have been much more “legitimate” if I had driven to work.

  • Matt,

    First off, yes, those articles do say that the City wants to stripe or install a bike lane or path along that car-free block of 91st:

    The Sun: “Next month, the city is planning to install a bike path along the car-free street.”

    Curbed: “now the street is being considered for a possible bike lane… The problem? Residents don’t want to give up their “park”… Should the bike path be granted on 91st?”

    Second, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the City is “considering” a bike lane for that block. At the CB8 meeting DOT said repeatedly that they’d prefer not to stripe or mark that block and that they see the primary function of the block as a “play street” or park-like environment.

    It’s totally inaccurate, I think, to say that the City is asking residents to give up their park, as Curbed says.

    But, blah, media criticism. Sorry to even get into it.

  • Steve,

    Community opponents and these articles make it sound like the City wants to make physical design changes to the block that will result in taking away the community’s “park” and “play street.” I think that characterization is inaccurate and unsupported and not at all reflective of the presentation DOT gave at the CB8 meeting the other night.

    That’s all I’m really saying.

    I’m sure you’re right about bike traffic increasing on the street. I figure bike traffic will increase on pretty much every street in New York City in the coming years, especially streets with bike lanes on them.

  • Growing up, I used to _play_ on my _bike_.


    You can’t really do that many places in the city. This block is an exception (today, even prior to any stripes of paint on non-stripes of paint).

    Seems like _play_ and _bike_ go together quite well, naturally.

  • Jake

    I tend to agree with EVERYTHING on this blog, but i think this criticism is unfair. Bikes and pedestrians don’t go well together, thats why the law requires people to ride their bikes on the street, and makes it illegal to ride on the sidewalk. I LOVE bike lanes, wish there were more of them. But, if the City was proposing taking park space to add a lane for automobile traffic, or to make room for another Starbucks, this blog would be up in arms. New Yorkers should not be expected to give up their limited amount of park space for any purpose. The fact is this is a street where CHILDREN play.. if a bike lane goes here inevitably we’ll be hearing about some terrible accident between a 4 year old and a biker.

  • Jake,

    No one’s proposing taking away park space. I’ll repeat what’s been said many times already: the DOT doesn’t want to put a bike lane on that block.

    The lane would be on the rest of 91st St. leading to and from that block. Otherwise, the “play street” block will remain as is. Children will still be able to play on it and cyclists will still be able to ride on it. Not a whole lot will change, since these two actions both occur already legally and there haven’t been any terrible accidents between a cyclist and a 4 year old as far as I know.

    Then what’s the point of the bike lane, you may ask? To make the rest of 91st St. safe for bicyclists travelling the corridor between the Central Park Entrance and the East Side Greenway. The bike lane might even make that block safer for kids (it’s an east-bound uphill route) — cyclists who might bomb down the hill might be funneled to west-bound 90th St. lane instead.

  • Steve


    You raise a point that is very important–the notion that “bikes and pedestrians don’t go well together.” Whether that is true depends on the details–the space, the uses to which it is put, and the presence or absence of design elements to harmonize uses. I recall one commenter using the example of the West Side bike path at the 79th Street Boat Basin as an example of bicyclist-pedestrian conflict, and that point is well taken. But the car-free block on East 91st Street is nothing like that spot on the West Side bike path.

    Instead, the proper comparison is to John Finley Walk, a stretch of the East Side greenway running from 82nd to 90th Streets on the East River. That is a Class I bike lane and a true promenade filled with pedestrians, including lots of seniors and children (including kids being taught to ride their bikes one of the most disruptive forms of traffic there is), dog walkers, skaters, joggers, kite-flyers, anglers casting with long fishing poles, and every other type of traffic and activity you can imagine. The space is about 40′ wide and is lined with benches on either side–just like East 91st Street.

    I ride there quite a bit and have never seen a pedestrian-bicyclist collision. There is a certain level of chaos to be sure, but everybody co-exists peacefully. (Clarence, if you are ever up that way with your camera, please try to document this!)

    Creating an uphill bike route on East 91st cannot possibly create even the same minimal level of pedestrian-bicyclist conflict on the car-free block as that now seen on John Finley Walk, for the following reasons:

    1. John Finley Walk has much more traffic of all types than the car-free block on East 91st ever will, and as a part of the Class I greenway network it has a greater proportion of bicyclists in the traffic mix than East 91st Street ever will.

    2. John Finley Walk is divided up into two painted lanes each of which is shared by pedestrians and bicycles, while the East 91st Street car-free block would have at most a single, one-way painted lane for bicyclists, minimizing conflict.

    3. John Finley Walk has a hill at its northern terminus almost as steep as the East 91st St. car-free block, with extremely limited sight distance due to a curve around the Gracie mansion retaining wall. Thanks to signage warning downhill bicyclists to proceed slowly, there do not appear to have been any pedestrian-bicyclist collisions on this hill. (At least, I have not heard of any, and if collisions had occurred one would expect the opponents of the West 91st Street bike lane, who live three blocks away from that hill, to be raising them.) In contrast, establishing a one-way bike route that included the steeply uphill car-free block of 91st Street would not pose anywhere near the collision risk than that posed by the current design of John Finley Walk does.

    It is inconceivable to me that the incremental addition of eastbound, uphill cycling traffic to the mix on the car-free block of 91st Street would materially increase the risk of collisions. The bicyclists who use class II bike lanes tend to be less aggressive than average. Any aggressive bicyclists channeled onto East 91st Street by the proposed eastbound route will be “tamed” by the steep uphill. As Mike K. points out, the westbound bicyclists will choose the downhill route on the westbound 90th Street route. As Aaron suggests, the handful of bicyclists who might inexplicably be tempted to go out of their way and ride downhill on East 91st Street will not be noticed amidst the substantial, already existing downhill traffic on this block that is composed of (a) the kids whose play opportunities are the supposed rationale for keeping out the bike route–I assure you their play would be greatly diminished if downhill bicycling or skateboarding were banned on this block;–and (b) the many bicycle delivery guys who are summoned to this block nightly by the residents of residents of Yorkville/Ruppert Towers.

  • Hilary Kitasei

    A bike lane is a transportation route with less impact than a road and more impact than a hiking trail. I would like to see bike space displace auto space,rather than park or public square space. We should think in a hierarchy of impacts. We should steer developments to brownfields and highways, and protect open green space. Better to turn street lanes/whole streets into bikeways rather than pave parkland.

    Robert Moses put parkways through existing parks and also created parks for them. The first is what we want to avoid and the latter something worth emulating.

    Therefore, we should use the opportunity of this new greenway segment to improve a bad street. I haven’t seen the alternative streets being considered, but can’t help imagining it be a better outcome if the neighborhood ended up with the existing “play street”/public square AND a block of a bike greenway — landscaped and protected?

    Why settle for one, when there could be two improvements?

  • Kevin

    Correction: Central Park’s “Engineers Gate” is at 90th, not 91st. In fact, you can see it in the photo that begins this blog entry. Or here:


  • Steve

    Game over . . . the westbound lane of the crosstown route has been laid on 89th Street, at least between York and Second. It would make no sense for them to continue it on 91st after Second given the controversey stirred up by the Yorkville/Ruppert Towers crowd. I don’t think 89th Street is a terrible choice for westbound lane, I’m glad the lanes are here at last. But it is a disappointment that knee-jerk, uninformed anti-bike sentiment apparently played a role in the routing decision.

  • Steve: Some lanes were planned on 89th all along. See the original proposal at http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/pdf/east90st.pdf

  • steve

    Mike–you are right–thank you! I forgot about the 89th Street “stub.” So perhaps the issue of 91st Street is still unresolved.


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