Streetfilms: The Case for Bicycle Boulevards in NYC

We’ve seen lots of new, innovative bikeway designs appear on New
York City streets over the past few years. But there’s one very
promising concept we haven’t seen — bicycle boulevards. Bicycle
boulevard design uses a variety of techniques to create low-traffic,
low-speed streets where cyclists mix comfortably with cars. They’re
very popular in Portland and Berkeley, two cities with high bicycle
mode-share. Here in New York, though, they don’t seem to be part of the
playbook yet. In this Streetfilm we ask: Why not?

We spoke to Mia Birk, who helped introduce bicycle boulevards to Portland. She’s also the co-author of a new guidebook to bike boulevard design.
Here we explore some of the concepts in the guidebook and show how they
might be applied to New York. Outside Manhattan, especially, important
cycling routes could benefit from the bicycle boulevard treatment.

  • Sassy

    One thing is for certain, Sasquatches in Portland love riding on the Bike Boulevards:

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’d like to see it on Park Avenue, Union Square up to the vincinity of the Queensborough Bridge, to provide safer bike access to the East Midtown job center.

    The street would have to be interrupted for motor vehicles at intervals to discourage through traffic. The interruptions would have to be sited to avoid blocking key linkages: NYCT buses and express buses from 14th Street to 25th Street, access from the Queens Midtown Tunnel up to the Grand Central area, etc.

    The lights could be timed at 15 mph.

    No one likes through traffic, so compared with bike lanes, locals might not even complain, particularly on Park Avenue South, which is substantially residential.

  • Park Ave would be great, LL, but may be too ambitious a place to start. An obvious candidate is West 77th Street, west of Columbus. It is already a Class II (on-street painted lane) bike route connecting the Central Park Loop with points west; it has a number of schools and has two speed humps already installed; and a 15 MPH limit for a key stretch between Columbus and Amsterdam.

    Yet with all these features, it is still an incredibly lawless, chaotic and dangerous situation because there is too much curbside space devoted to long-term parking private cars (both unrestricted and board of ed placard holders), leaving insufficient room devoted to school buses and other vehicles with embarking/disembarking school kids. Kids are constantly on the street amidst moving traffic because of misallocation of the curbside spaces and failure to regulate parent-motorists, who think nothing of double-parking or sitting in one of the five or so spots for drop-off for long stretches of time. To their credit, the private schools like Trinity and Dalton send staff out in the morning to direct and expedite the vehicular pick-ups and drop offs, which puts some limits on the congestion and danger (although in my experience these staff often direct the parents waiting to drop off to block the bike lane).

    A radical way to tame this street would be to limit traffic to local pick-ups and drop-offs from 8 am to 6 pm; use chicanes to make the street as undesirable as possible as a through route; free up all or almost all of the curb space from 8:00 am to 9:00 am and 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm for pick up and drop offs, and enforce those rules with routine ticketing. Yes, the people who live on the block will scream bloody murder that “their” free city-provided parking spaces are being taken away but I’m sick of subsidizing these people’s private transportation and consumption preferences with my tax dollars and my personal safety (as a bicyclist who often travels this route and is forced to contend with the danger).

  • Why would anyone be using a *car* to pick up or drop off kids at school in *Manhattan*? There’s your problem right there.

  • If I understand the concept, there’s actually a bike boulevard in the Bronx along Tibbett Avenue from 230th to 240th streets. It’s part of the East Coast Greenway route through New York City. Elizabeth, why don’t you go check it out?

  • After watching the video I still don’t understand how a bike blvd is different from a bike lane. Is it just a bike lane on a street where auto traffic is intentionally slowed?

  • Here’s my suggestion: let’s call them “healthways” and look to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for leadership here.

    The New York City Community Health Atlas, on page 3 has a chart by neighborhood of Weight/Exercise/Nutrition milestones, such as “Walked/biked for transportation in the past month,” “Rode bicycle several times a month in past year,” and Physical Activity at Healthy People 2010 levels.”

    Develop Healthway corridors in each poorly performing neighborhood that are between 30 and 40 city blocks long (1.5 to 2 miles). Ensure that corridors terminate close to express stops on subways or bus transfer points to help residents integrate Healthways into their daily commutes. Avoid commercial strips to minimize presence of illegal sidewalk-blocking street vendors.

    Create street treatments for each Healthway in accordance with bike-boulevard designs. Every quarter-mile (five blocks) build mini plazas with water fountains, shade, benches, NYC Green Carts, newsstands, wi-fi, and signage about the healthway and the distances involved, as well as distances to points of interest. Ensure that the Healthway has adequate bike parking at each mini plaza and at both ends.

    Publicize Healthways and fitness objectives to neighborhood groups, particularly youth and seniors. Schedule passegiatas at specific, posted times when neighborhood residents are encouraged to come out and stroll together. Summer-Streets style auto-free days are also a possibility.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “After watching the video I still don’t understand how a bike blvd is different from a bike lane. Is it just a bike lane on a street where auto traffic is intentionally slowed?”

    What what I know of them (and I learned it here and from Planning Magazine), a bicycle boulevard first and foremost is a street that is a through street for bicycles but not for motor vehicles. Imagine a set of bollards across the street every ten blocks.

    That means local motor vehicle access to the street is preserved, but motor vehicle through traffic is displaced to other streets. And with fewer motor vehicles traveling at slower speeds, through bicycle traffic is attracted.

  • JL

    As a former resident of Portland and as a current resident of Brooklyn, I dream about the day when bicycle boulevards will come to New York. When will that day come? I truly don’t know considering all the anger that arises from the mention of bike lanes and cycle tracks. New York is not Portland or Berkeley, both physically and ideologically speaking. Therefore New York will require an extensive investigation on the implementation of a bicycle boulevard system.

    The outer boroughs would serve as ideal candidates considering the low traffic volume that is required for a bicycle boulevard. The city of Portland after all did not close off high traffic streets, they simply linked together many low volume side streets outside of their central business district. Given that fact, many outer borough side streets would be ripe for bicycle boulevard designation. There are many neighborhoods that would love to see decreased traffic and speeds on their streets. A bicycle boulevard system could be a win win for NYC DOT. It would calm the streets for residents while providing a safe passage for bicyclists. All this could be provided without instigating the anger that is associated with a bike lane.

    I only hope NYC DOT is considering a bicycle boulevard system. Although they still have plenty of other things to tackle. One thing is for sure, don’t expect bicycle boulevards in Manhattan any time soon. It just isn’t feasible at this time given the huge traffic volumes.

  • “After watching the video I still don’t understand how a bike blvd is different from a bike lane. Is it just a bike lane on a street where auto traffic is intentionally slowed?”

    I addition to what LL said and a very important point (which makes them different than bike lanes) as a cyclist in a bike BLVD you are suppose to take the entire lane.

    JL is onto something, fundemental attitude shift needs to happen to make bike blvd a reality in NYC.

  • nowooski – you can download the guidebook from Portland (linked in the text above) which goes into some detail or check out this wiki for more bike blvd knowledge.

  • I agree with JL and shishi. The attitude and reckless driving habits of NYC cars would make bike bouvlevards hard to be actualized. Even in the outer boroughs where there are less cars, people still drive horribly. Even if there was all the signage, most drivers would still disregard it, the way they do bike lanes. I think bike paths are the best way forward for NYC at the moment

  • Hilary Kitasei

    Parkway service roads make ideal bicycle boulevards. Henry Hudson Parkway in the Bronx is perfect.

  • Let’s bring a bike boulevard to the UES.

    I think I heard someone say Park Ave?? Ambitious yes. Doable, maybe. Expanding the medians on Park to include a bikeway similar to the new cycle track on Allen Street on the LES would be an ideal system to copy. Of course, the protective barriers would have to conform to a landmark-type approval process. Who knows, they could become NYC’s next great public art display…I think that by stressing the addition of public space to the Avenue, combined with a traffic calming program with identifiable locations for cyclists to be (and for pedestrians to see them) could prove to be a worthy advocacy tactic. Worth a shot…

  • Clarence Eckerson

    cloudsofviolet wrote: The attitude and reckless driving habits of NYC cars would make bike bouvlevards hard to be actualized.

    You might be right in general about NYC drivers behaviors, however, bike boulevards are not installed in a vacuum, there is an entire strategy to them. Almost all the drivers you find on a typical bike boulevard are people from the neighborhood in the final leg of a journey, thus they have an investment in driving slower and more cautiously around neighbors. Diverters and other traffic calming measures are used to make sure drivers are slowed or diverted off neighborhood streets.

  • The B65 bus, which in one form or another has used Bergen and Dean Streets for nearly 150 years, carries 4760 people every weekday. Although those two streets may indeed be Brooklyn’s bike highway, perhaps it would be worth considering build a bike boulevard on Sterling Pl and Park Pl, which are parallel through routes but don’t have bus lines using them.

  • The section of Dean St where this was filmed does not have a bus route.

    There are things that can be done to allow thru buses but not cars. This would improve conditions for cyclists as well as bus riders.

    Sterling Place does not go thru between Court St and 4th Ave. It’s also too far up the hill to be a nearby alternate to the Atlantic Ave corridor.

    A 2-way traffic calmed Pacific St is worth pondering, unless Atlantic Yards gets built.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.
  • Mike, you could make the bus-not-car changes you describe, but who wants to ride behind or ahead of a city bus?

    Furthermore, a bus sharing a bicycle boulevard (usually a local, two-lane street) plays a game of leap-frog with cyclists, overtaking them, then stopping to let off passengers at bus stops. As bicycle traffic increases on the bicycle boulevard, average bus speed will drop and bus-bike conflicts are likely to increase.
    For these reasons, locating a bicycle boulevard along a transit route (or vice versa) is not generally recommended. However, depending on the frequency of transit service and the length that it travels on the bicycle boulevard, shared use of the route may present no problems.


    When you were talking in the video about a “bike highway,” I thought you were referring to the four miles of bike-lane-striped sections of Dean and Bergen east of Flatbush, which reach all the way to Brownsville. That kind of infrastructure development would be a helpful tool to address the poor health outcomes and lack of physical activity seen in those neighborhoods.

    If you seriously advocate for making it more difficult for cars to travel through the rich neighborhoods around Dean and Bergen Streets west of Flatbush Avenue, auto-minded politicians will instantly tar your project with the label “gated communities for the rich.” On the other hand, if you are advocating for linking the James E. Davis Memorial Healthway to jobs and transit in Downtown Brooklyn, who can argue with that?

  • David_K

    Healthway is a good moniker for a livable street.


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