Bigger Sidewalks But No Protected Bike Lane for Houston Street

east_houston_1.jpgA photosim of the East Houston Street plan; existing condition shown inset. Image: DCP.

The reconstruction of East Houston Street will include wider medians, bigger sidewalks, fewer traffic lanes, and a new bike lane. But instead of installing a physically protected path for cyclists, the city plans to paint a buffered, Class 2 lane. The project, which received funds freed up by stimulus spending, will go out to bid this summer.

Up-to-date plans of the new street geometry were not available as of this writing, but the design is based largely on the Department of City Planning’s East Houston Street Pedestrian Project, finalized in 2006. A spokesman for the Department of Design and Construction said the project would incorporate many, but not all, of the recommendations in that report [PDF].

There’s a lot to like in the 2006 plan, including two big pedestrian areas where Houston angles across the regular grid of Manhattan at Avenue A and Avenue D. Based on recent descriptions, the final project will incorporate those two plazas. Street space would also be reclaimed with wider medians, pedestrian refuges, and sidewalk neckdowns to shorten crossing distances. But will the new East Houston feel safe for cyclists?

Currently, 70 percent of drivers on East Houston Street speed, according to studies conducted by Transportation Alternatives.
"It’s hard to imagine that paint will offer the kind of protection
mainstream New Yorkers will need to feel safe biking on this crucial,
yet dangerous corridor," said TA’s Wiley Norvell. "The city has innovative physically-protected
designs on hand, and to not use them on Houston would be a huge missed

In response, DOT emphasized the project’s pedestrian improvements. DOT considers protected bike paths less-than-ideal for typical two-way streets, and the agency expects the removal of two traffic lanes to reduce vehicle speeds.

Even if traffic calms somewhat, the buffered lane will invite the same double-parking that plagues other Class 2 lanes. People choose to bike based on their perceptions of safety, and a buffer can only shift perceptions so far.

"Houston is by no means a typical two way street," said Norvell. "It is exactly the type
of wide arterial roadway that calls for a physically separated lane.
This city’s bike network will continue to remain unusable for the average
New Yorker until streets like Houston are provided with the protected
lanes they require to be safe."

  • Glenn

    I would absolutely not ride on a buffered lane on Houston. Way too dangerous for my taste. Physical separation is really the only solution there.

  • Not acceptable.

    I’d be cheering this development if it was 1999. It’s not. The “old” department said that this design was unsafe for West Houston 3 years ago; I’m quite sure that the new team wouldn’t be serious arguing that this is a safe design for East Houston today.

    DOT has developed a modernized toolbox for which the department deserves the stream of credit that it is receiving and they will hopefully look at E. Houston as an environment that demands the new tools.

  • J-Uptown

    This is a big missed opportunity for DOT. There is ample space on East Houston Street to try all sorts of options, and the fast pace of traffic will make this lane be used mainly by cyclists who already ride down Houston.

  • afs

    I’ll be in the minority here, but: this seems like the right decision. The separated bike lanes are a nice idea, but in practice, they’re miserable — I’d rather contend with vehicular traffic than the pedestrians who wander through the 8th ave separated lane any day.

  • A buffered Houston Street bike lane is certainly better than none, even if it doesn’t provide a true river-to-river crosstown connection. DOT should take a serious look at designating bike lanes that actually take cyclists from one place to another. A Houston Street Bike Lane is a good start. Bike lanes on First and Second Avenue, from Houston Street to East Harlem should be the next step.

  • Brooklyn

    Agree with AFS. Keep your eyes open and there’s ample space to ride around double-parked cars. Perception of safety is one thing, but sorry, Houston Street is never going to stop being an arterial cross street — just too much traffic feeding to and from the FDR Drive to the East and Broadway/Soho/West Street on the other side.

    Thus, it will never be a place for the wobbly-hybrid or kids-bike crowd. Not until driving is priced so highly that there are actually less cars around.

    Perception of safety is one thing? How about getting around with some speed? I’ve had some good experiences on Grand Street and early-morning Broadway, but also never forgotten that you’re essentially stuck riding a green-painted gutter, with no opportunity to bail ahead of an obstacle blocking the lane — like anytime I’m riding on Ninth Avenue, dodging splayed-knee wrong-way deliverymen.

  • notacommie

    I wrote the DOT commish to create the bike lanes inside the median that separates the east and westbound lanes on E Houston St. It’s doable. Bikes would need to wait for the lights to change the same way etc. Then bikers can have a protected bike lane. The city wouldn’t have to listen to complaints from businesses and motorists about the bike lanes near the curb.

  • Ian Dutton @#2 got it right! In 2006 when various community and cycling groups argued for a bike lane on Houston Street, DOT said ‘No’, claiming the street was too dangerous.

    Not believing the spurious claim, we asked for proof. DOT said it only had a single study to back up that claim. A single study, we asked?

    Questioned further, DOT said a study reported that any roadway with more than 18 intersections per mile is considered dangerous. Since Houston has some 18 intersections per mile, ipso facto it is dangerous, DOT asserted.

    Since 18 intersections per mile are de rigueur in NY, we were perplexed and questioned the survey further. NYCDOT admitted that the survey was commissioned by the Idaho State DOT. The room burst out in laughter. Idaho? Idaho?

    So, DOT: Is the study valid or not?
    If it is valid, why are you putting a bike lane on an unsafe roadway?
    If it is not valid, why aren’t you then continuing the Houston Street bike lane from river to river?

    Sorry, guys, you can’t have it both ways.

  • Mike

    Also, the new protected bike lanes on 8th and 9th Avenues have 20 intersections per mile. By that standard, Houston Street should be safe too.

  • I’m fine with it not being “physically separated”. I need to merge into traffic somehow. It would be great if they took the space that they would theoretically be using to create the barrier and use it to widen the bike lane. Having as much room as a car lane would give space to dodge opened/opening car doors and safely pass slower cyclists. A safe bike lane doesn’t need slabs of concrete to cage us in; we need space–not just a little landing strip–and a crackdown on errant drivers who idle in the bike lanes.

  • David

    This plan is based on an already severely outdated study. That study omits all the recent dense construction (Chrystie Avalon, the Ludlow, the hotel on Allen, etc.) and the correspondingly increased pedestrian and vehicular traffic. This demands a more comprehensive and radical plan. It is increasingly difficult to merely walk on the south sidewalk of Houston on a weekend evening.

    The sidewalks need widening throughout, not just at the corners. Double parking rules need to be more enforced. And there’s no reason why a Grand Street style bike couldn’t be substituted for the current plan. A Ninth Ave plan would be better still, but probably more difficult to get approved.

  • The main advantage of physical separation is it creates a 24/7 contiguous bicycle lane. Lafayette’s painted bicycle lane has a nice, big buffer, but it’s all for naught when someone decides to pull a car into it, about once per block in my experience. Worse, it’s used as a regular traffic lane on Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights. As police aren’t preventing that flagrant lawlessness, it’s unreasonable to expect they’ll engage in the everyday crackdown that would be required to keep people from stopping in striped lanes. Those lanes are useful in that they pave the way for real infrastructure, but with the excess of asphalt on East Houston, striped lanes are a sorry and unnecessary compromise. We could easily have enough protected space to accomodate riding, passing, sprinting, whatever.

  • LN

    Here we go again with the Houston street bike lane. The DOT has had so many stories about this its hard to know what to believe. For sure everyone BUT the DOT has wanted a lane here from the get go.

    it was on the map for 10 years as a designated bike route and a planned bike lane.

    Politicians and activists got together and held a rally for a bike lane on Houston after several cyclist deaths.

    then we were told it was too dangerous because of turning cars and trucks on Houston.

    then said politicians and activists got behind the euphemistically named ‘alternative Houston Street’ bike lanes on Prince and Bleeker

    now we are told that there’s going to be a substandard Houston St bike lane, that was never integrated into the almost completed street redesign.

    will it ever be safe to ride on Houston street? Debatable.

  • DOT, are you listening? Install a protected bicycle lane on Houston Street and transform a Boulevard of Death into a Boulevard of Life.


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