Vote on UWS’s “No-Brainer” Bike Lane Shouldn’t Have Been a Squeaker

columbus_proposed.jpgDOT’s plan for a protected bike lane on Columbus won’t take away a travel lane or a parking lane. So why the hesitation? Image: NYCDOT

Last night’s Community Board 7 vote to support a protected bike lane on Columbus Avenue was very close — closer than it should have been. The fact that the resolution passed 23-19 reflects the persistent effort of neighborhood advocates and the openness of most board members to change on their streets. But this is a project with big pay-offs and almost no trade-offs. The street design allows a protected lane to be installed without removing travel or parking lanes, and it enjoys strong support within the community and buy-in from local businesses and elected officials. So the fact that the vote came down to the wire is also a testament to the sheer stubbornness behind many board members’ opposition to bike lanes.

Unlike many other streets, Columbus has enough room to add a protected bike lane without taking away a travel lane or a parking lane. All DOT has to do is narrow the current 12-foot lanes — wide enough to meet the standard for interstate highways — to ten feet. Said Manhattan DOT Commissioner Margaret Forgione, "Amsterdam is not a no-brainer, whereas in many ways, Columbus is."

Ten-foot lanes are the standard in New York City, yet some board members spent the evening predicting that narrower lanes would block all deliveries, impede emergency vehicles and strand bus riders. The parallel commercial corridors of Amsterdam and Broadway, each with ten-foot lanes, according to Forgione, function just fine. Forgione also stressed that narrower lanes would calm speeding at night without slowing congested rush hour traffic. 

Not that bike lane opponents were swayed by the DOT traffic analysis. "What looks good on paper does not necessarily look good in practice," retorted transportation committee co-chair Andrew Albert.

Similarly, DOT attempts to work with businesses concerned about loading needs were rejected out of hand. The manager of Food City, a local grocery, was one of the loudest opponents of the bike lane when it was presented to the transportation committee. In response, DOT modified their plan to provide Food City with its own loading area. Unswayed by the attention to his specific needs, the manager complained last night that the bike lane will still make loading too difficult.

Supporting protected bike lanes was a political no-brainer for the community board as well. According to CB 7 chair Mel Wymore, the board received "an overwhelming amount of support" for protected lanes. Letters, e-mails, and phone calls in support of the lanes had poured in, while the opposition was silent. Noting how few opponents of protected lanes had spoken at any of the board’s public meetings, Wymore observed that "there were more people opposed on the community board than in the community."

That was certainly the case last night, where 27 community members testified in favor of the Columbus Avenue lane while only four spoke against it. A closer look at their testimony shows just how deep support for this lane runs on the Upper West Side:

  • Tila Duhaime of the Upper West Side Streets Renaissance presented 457 letters from CB 7 residents calling for a protected lane along Columbus. "Their reasons for supporting it are as varied and as colorful and as passionate as Upper West Siders themselves," she said. She also brought letters from more than 100 local businesses and several rabbis on the Upper West Side.
  • Local businesses came out strong in support of the lane. Barbara Adler of the Columbus Avenue BID and Peter Arndsten of the Columbus/Amsterdam BID both endorsed the project. "Business increases when individuals are able to bike through an area," said Adler, "because each one of them is a potential shopper." Multiple representatives from local businesses also praised the proposal.
  • Supporters also had some celebrity firepower. Recalling biking to auditions, actor Matthew Modine said that "I may have not had a career had I not had a bicycle." Randy Cohen, the New York Times’ Ethicist, told the board about a crash in which he sustained "three broken ribs, a broken collarbone, and a concussion." That a protected lane will make cycling safer, he said, "is not a matter of conjecture." 
  • Support came from cyclists as young as 12 and as old as 74.
  • Perhaps the most powerful testimony came from those who had been touched directly by the effects of dangerous cycling conditions. "My friend used to bike everywhere," said Upper West Sider George Beane, "until he was run over three weeks ago." That friend is now in intensive care, said Bean, and may lose his leg or his life. "If one accident like this can be eliminated," Bean argued, "it’s worth the bike lane." 

The lanes also had the backing of local elected officials. "I’m very supportive of the bike lane," Council Member Gale Brewer, whose office is on Columbus, told the community board. She argued that the lane would not only help cyclists, it would also take bikes off the sidewalk. "It’s really about pedestrian safety, that’s what I care most about," she said.

"This is a victory for the Upper West Side and, indeed, all of New York City," said State Senator Thomas Duane, whose staff visited every storefront along the bike lane’s route. Added Duane, "This common sense change to the neighborhood’s transportation
infrastructure will encourage a healthy, environmentally-friendly mode
of transportation and should not negatively impact vehicular traffic."

Of course, this outpouring of support was as unpersuasive to bike lane opponents as DOT’s technical analysis. Transportation Committee co-chair Dan Zweig simply denied the legitimacy of those who had spoken, claiming that "I can’t believe that’s a cross-section of the community," calling the display of pro-bike lane sentiment "a political advocacy campaign." 

When a sizable and influential bloc of the community board rejects both technical analysis and public opinion as factors in their decision, it’s hard to know how to reach them.

  • Bolwerk

    I know they’re colored differently, but why are bike lanes at all designed to resemble the rest of the street? They should be more visually contiguous with the sidewalk.

  • Danny G

    Hey Bolwerk,

    Here we must set aside our own beliefs aside and take a page from the pros. Copenhagen has a high percentage of people who ride bikes to get around, and at times their lanes are clearly marked with a color to help everyone understand what it is. Seems like a little design clarity in urban chaos is always welcome.

  • J


    However, I would love to know how many people who voted against the bike lane owned a car. In the UWS, only 26% of households own a car. I wonder what the rate is on the community board and how representative that is of the community.

  • “there were more people opposed on the community board than in the community.”

    That says a lot right there. How is it that so many people from the community can turn out to be for something and yet the 19 Community Board members that voted against it represent the bulk of the opposition in the community? It’s a huge disconnect that The Borough President and City Councilmembers need to address urgently.

  • J

    Even the elected officials support it. Since electeds are actually beholden to voters, they care more about what the public thinks.

  • JK

    It’s amusing to hear a non-democratically elected, community board member for life, express concern about hearing from a true “cross section” of the community. Since when has the Transportation Committee, headed by the same two aging white guys for the last 20 years, been demographically representative of CB 7’s populace? How many people with school age children are on CB 7 compared to the overall populace? Car owners? Who does the community board represent? They’re not elected, they’re self-selected, they’re not term limited and they’re not accountable to the community they purportedly represent. That’s democracy?

  • That’s the mindset of traditional community board types: they raise holy hell if “the community” (meaning them) isn’t consulted on a change, but then they run roughshod over any requirement that they consider public input. They go into denial mode if they discover that the majority of residents disagree with them on anything. No! The community does not want that! You are not the community! I am the community! I am the community! Not you!

  • J: “I would love to know how many people who voted against the bike lane owned a car. In the UWS, only 26% of households own a car.”

    But among those other 74% of households, there are many pedestrians who are offended by rogue cyclists. This is arguably the cycling movement’s biggest blind spot.

    Sure, bikes are manifestly less dangerous than cars; the number of peds killed by bikes is statistically insignificant. But when people believe themselves wronged — endangered, surprised, flustered, insulted, what have you — then they will act irrationally and monkeywrench bike improvements regardless of their merits.

    This evening I went for my walk in Riverside Park. I had to cross Riverside Drive at 99th St. The light said “walk.” I walked, looking both ways as I did so — though RSD in the 90s is very curvy and parked cars obstruct visibility. I couldn’t see more than a block in either direction. But I did my best.

    Although I did everything right, a cyclist still passed behind me close enough to make me feel the breeze. I’d guess 18 inches. I didn’t have a radar gun on me but this cyclist was moving, easily, at two or three times the average speed of a bike (or car) on RSD. If struck, I would have been badly hurt. This incident upset me.

    Later, my walk concluded, I recrossed the same street in the same place and the same thing happened again. The only difference was that the second bike passed in front of me and wasn’t going quite as fast.

    This is what turns pedestrians into enemies of the cycling movement.

    Hey, I’m glad my neighborhood got a new bike lane. But it’s not me you have to worry about.

    What you have to worry about is the next time a pedestrian is killed by a bike. I know, I know, it’s statistically unlikely, but it will happen eventually. When it does, the media will have a field day. This death-by-bike will have the PR weight of hundreds of deaths-by-car. Then the yahoos will stream into the community boards and the media will give them lots of love and attention.

    Then bike improvements that had no opposition will suddenly have some. Bike improvements that had some opposition — as in the case of the Columbus Ave. lane — will get killed. Streetsblog will cover the story in a judicious and commendable manner. And there will be long strings of comments, some thoughtful, some wacky, lamenting this setback to the cycling movement.

    Imagine all this taking place in the post-Bloomberg, post-JSK era. What will happen to cycling progress then?

    Anyway, congratulations on Columbus Ave. I’m genuinely glad to see it. Many happy returns. I hope.

  • Mark, I don’t think the next death-by-cyclist will be any different from the last. It is always given disproportionate coverage and always used to demonize and stifle progress. But the strategy of insisting on measurable safety seems to be working.

    I’m sorry you’ve encountered a lot of bad cyclists lately. What is anyone else supposed to do about it? I came back to riding a bicycle by way of Streetsblog, and I’m much more a part of what it calls the livable streets movement than any cycling movement. I don’t have any more of a blind spot to the bad apples out there than you, and I’m not any more responsible for them than you either. (That is, not at all responsible.) The best we can do is continue to advocate for street design that encourages safe behavior by all. And separated bicycle lanes—exactly the thing the board was opposing—does just that.

  • Emily Litella

    Our population is aging and getting poorer – two things that everyone is denial about. The lanes are essential to the provision of safe point to point to point transportation for these two groups. Bravo to the administration spending contested and shrinking resources on getting ahead of the curve on this one, intentionally or not. BTW – I’ve heard Andrew Albert speak over the years and he’s about as opinions are about as convincing and wanted as glass of warm flat soda pop.

  • PaulCJr

    I hear what Mark is saying about bad cyclist. I too as a cyclist hate those cyclist that break traffic laws such as running red lights, going down the wrong way on a one way street, and cycling the wrong way on a one way bike lane. I say we should ticket those cyclist like they do in San Francisco. I know some on here would not be in support of such a policy, but that is what needs to be done to correct the behavior.

  • Another victory for people, bicycles and sense over cars. Well done.

  • J

    I’m with Nathan here. Normalizing cycling, is what makes people follow the rules. Even Jan Gehl called cycling in NYC an “extreme sport”. Is it any wonder that many cyclists bike that way?

    Rules should be enforced, but the city must enforced BOTH the rules that regulate (no running lights, wrong way cycling, etc.) and protect (double parking in bike lanes, aggressive drivers, etc) bicycles. Since NYPD does not appear likely to do either, a network of self-enforcing lanes are our best hope, with the theory that with a critical mass of cyclists, comes some self-regulating of behavior.

  • Shemp

    What’s needed is for someone like T.A. to step up and admit cyclists should be subject to law enforcement and to start calling out bad cyclists, and not launching the usual looney-left protest when some riders get tickets. Distributing a 40-page fine print booklet of rules to people who aren’t generally part of the problem doesn’t do it.

  • J. Mork

    What’s needed is for someone like AAA to step up and admit motorists should be subject to law enforcement and to start calling out bad drivers, and not launching the usual looney-conservative protest when some drivers get tickets.

  • Since we’re complaining about annoying cyclists, allow me to address any and all Williamsburg Bridge commuters:

    If another bicycle is approaching slow-moving pedestrians and preparing to pass them in a safe and courteous manner, do NOT blow by that bicycle and group of pedestrians when you know damn well that the bike in front of you is preparing to pass! You are NOT that important! You WILL get to the dentist on time either way!

  • I’ll settle for City Councilmembers to stop trying to negate all traffic and parking law enforcement.

  • Shemp

    Thanks for proving my point about the protest footing of cycling “advocacy” in this town. No one should take on the problem of bad cycling seriously until every other problem is fixed even if city policy has embraced cycling. Enjoy the backlash.

  • All cyclists should heed Mark’s comments. I’ve started experimenting with very gently questioning cyclists on the Central Park loop who I observe refusing to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk with the right of way. All of them were clearly irritated, though the gentle approach avoided eliciting outright anger. If those cyclists are anything like me, and they get this treatment a few times, they will change their behavior (as I have after receiving heavy, obnoxious criticism from pedestrians in Central park about cycling on the paths). These kinds of one-on-one interactions are what is effective–not highly-publicized criticism of cyclists by TA.

  • As David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington reminds us, The transportation infrastructure serves (not always perfectly) the people who commute now. New infrastructure is not really for them. It’s for the new people. Looking at the CB7M debate from this perspective, the bike lane on Columbus is not for people who live there now, it’s for new people who will want to move to the neighborhood because they are attracted by the bike lane. At the risk of going all Larry Littlefield on this thread, discriminating against future residents isn’t illegal; in fact, it’s encouraged, most obviously by the rent-stabilization program, which makes new residents pay nearly 20% more in rent than current ones. Resisting bike lanes is just another technique toward the same end.

  • Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful responses to my comment.

  • Ken

    One more hopefully thoughtful response: giving those who choose to travel by bike an actual place on the street, rather than just letting them fend for themselves in traffic, will do more than anything to regulate their behavior. It will be a slow process as the lanes draw out the huge untapped market of risk-averse riders (not just new residents, Jonathan), which will inevitably moderate the behavior of all and lead to more infrastructure and less CB resistance. BicyclesOnly’s call for one-on-one interactions is a good one and is perhaps the only thing individuals can do at this point, but changing the infrastructure to embrace cycling as legitimate transportation will have a far broader effect. Re: the Central Park hellions, we should remember that most are riding not to get from point A to point B but to train. So there it’s a clash of users in a confined space, with one use specifically involving never stopping, so it’s a somewhat different problem.

  • J

    Jonathan, I strongly disagree that the bike lanes and other green transportation infrastructure is only for new residents. I also think it’s a dangerous way of discussing these projects. What resident isn’t going to reject infrastructure that is explicitly “Not for Them”.

    There are many many areas of NYC that have transportation deficiencies. One of the most obvious is the 1-2 mile trip within or near the neighborhood. It’s either 1) a long, time consuming walk, 2) a short subway/bus trip where the walking to and waiting for the vehicle are often longer than the transit trip itself, or 3) an moderately expensive taxi trip. This is where bikes can solve a ton of transportation problems, and there is definitely a latent demand there. In the UWS, you’ll see many people trying it out, and finding out how convenient it is.

    Numbers don’t lie, and the rapid increases in cycling is largely from existing residents trying out biking. We’d be naive to think that bike infrastructure alone is enough for someone to move to a city.

  • Ken and J: it might be true that current residents would shift modes to bicycle from taxi, foot, bus, subway, or automobile after bicycle facilities are constructed. What I’m trying to get at with my comment is that the real change to the neighborhood comes when new folks move in expressly because of the bike lanes. Those residents will see the bike lanes as intrinsic neighborhood infrastructure that they depend on, not as whimsical temporary alterations to the streetscape.

  • JK

    Shemp, how about the city agencies which promote cycling teaming with the advocates, interested electeds (Stringer, Brewer etc) and the PD to craft some enforcement strategies which address the biggest public complaint. (I’m guessing these are failure to yield, and riding on sidewalks.) A sustained combo education and enforcement campaign in areas with the highest complaints from 311 and Pct Community Councils would be a good place to start. A seemingly insoluble problem has been the PD’s incredibly ham handed enforcement, which is clearly quota driven, unsystematic, inefficient, unsustained and generally arbitrary in every possible way. I know that TA was eager to work with the police on a more systematic cycling enforcement campaign when I was there. But except for one commander in the 19th Pct — who rotated out after two years — police brass equated bike enforcement with harassing Critical Mass and a Super Bowl half-time confiscation of food delivery bikes ridden on the sidewalk. Maybe a combo of DOT, Parks, Health and DCP could get the PD to take a fresh, and more comprehensive look at reducing dangerous cycling.

  • AA Minus

    I was in a big group meeting with Andrew Albert many years ago at the Manhattan Boro President’s office. They were brainstorming ideas on ways to make the streets safer for pedestrians. Every time he opened his mouth with an idea people in the room looked at each other like he had no clue. Guess he still doesn’t.

  • Woody

    Police enforcement that I best remember consisted of grabbing some black guys on bikes. That’s what the police do automatically anyway, grab black guys. Responding to a letter about reckless cycling from a big shot in Rockefeller Center (when I complained to the officer on the scene, he showed me the letter, with his thumb over the name), the cops were grabbing every single bike messenger going up Sixth Ave., reckless or not. OK, they weren’t ALL black guys. But they all got tickets for not riding in the bike lane. I protested that there was no bike lane in that section, and the officer pointed to a relic sign mounted on a lamp post that read, Bicycle Lane. But aside from the sign, there was no such thing, not even faded paint on the pavement.

    Otherwise, police enforcement is aimed at bike riders who annoy motorists, or who try to get away with stuff that annoys motorists. Immaterial whether the offending behavior is safe or unsafe to anyone. Lots of us will stop at a red light and then look left and right before easing through the empty intersection. ‘How dare you!!! Drivers can’t do that! Here’s your ticket for the impertinence.’ That’s not what offends most pedestrians, but it does offend drivers, and the police.

    Wonder what percentage of the uniformed force do not own cars? A majority, like such households in NYC? ha ha ha ha. But I digress.

    What most offends pedestrians — and us mostly rule-abiding riders — is speeding bikes, high-speed wrong-way bikes, riders on crowded sidewalks especially those going fast or loaded up with wide delivery packages. Effective enforcement against such offensive behavior would probably require cops on bikes. Hold your breath for that coming day. Or put Immigration officers on bikes. Well, otherwise, we won’t see much change.

  • Woody

    Riding on the paths in Central Park? I often used to. Last year I was firmly scolded by a Parks manager driving her official Parks Dept SUV on the path at 97th St. where I planned to ride, as soon as her SUV was not blocking its entire width. On that November day, there was not another person on that path as far as I could see, about a long city block ahead. But I was wrong to attempt to ride on it. I asked the officious woman, where could I cross the park if not on a path? I couldn’t go up to the dead road at 103rd St without going the wrong way on the Park Drive to get there. Was she suggesting that I ride down to 72nd St to get to my physical therapy appointment on East 92nd? Or squeeze into the traffic in the transverse below us? No, she suggested that I dismount to cross the park. I suggested that she could dismount her fat behind and get on a bike herself, and I left, on foot, with every step paining my arthritic hip. Yeah, I’m sort of sorry that she provoked me to lose my temper, but I’m not very sorry.

    The Conservancy and the Parks Dept could come up with ways for bikes to get from one side of the Park to the other if they wanted to. Instead, they are content to hear the complaints from the pedestrians and equally ignore those from bike riders. Designating, and clearly marking, the former bridle path/police parking road at 87th St would be a good start. Another good route would be the path at about 63rd St, immediately south of Sheep’s Meadow, which has little pedestrian use.

    But why solve a problem when you can send the police to issue tickets? The City needs the money from the fines.

  • New Yorker

    There is a beautiful-to-ride bike lane, indeed most of the time a few bike lanes, a block away from Columbus Avenue.
    It is called the West Drive in Central Park, and it starts on 110 Street and ends on 59 Street. That’s over 50 blocks!

    Going through the expense to install a questionable bike lane a mere block away for a short 20 blocks distance, or about 4000 feet, or about 1500 average human steps, seems to be truly totally unnecessary.
    By the way, have you heard of the recent guidelines about walking 10,000 steps per day to help your health?
    Do you know that riding a bike at 10mph burns 26 calories per mile?
    Do you know that a tablespoon of fat, it can be olive oil or butter, has about 120 calories?

    It seems to be far more beneficial to ride your bike a block away in Central Park where you can achieve higher speeds and burn more calories than the Columbus Ave. bike lane.
    Indeed, walking those 20 blocks will be more beneficial to your health than bike riding them.

    So, why this obsession by all these “vocal proponents” who “represent the community” to do this?

    It clearly seems as an unnecessary and expensive thing to do given the above and today’s financial realities, if not downright “nutty”.

    A “real” bike lane going down Queens Blvd. from the Quensboro Bridge to Jamaica and beyond makes clear sense.
    A 20 block bike lane on Columbus Ave., a block away from a beautiful park with bike lanes, clearly does not.

  • This is just the first phase. The eventual plan is to extend it uptown and downtown, link it with other protected bike lanes farther downtown, and add a paired northbound lane.

    The park has very limited entrances and exits, is closed at night, is often full of aggressive drivers, and is well out of the way for many trips within the neighborhood.

  • Michael Steiner

    @New Yorker
    There is a beautiful-to-ride highway a few blocks west of Columbus Avenue. So i guess we can remove the bikelanes and close Columbus Avenue also to all car traffic, restrict it to Bus and Deliveries and get tons of livable space back. As you said, walking is healthy, so no need to drive to it. I’m looking forward to Columbus Park Avenue …

  • New Yorker

    Aha! Park Avenue!!!
    Now, that’s a GREAT Avenue for bike lanes going BOTH directions.
    These lanes can start way Uptown and end way Downtown.
    There are no bus routes on a great part of its length.
    And there is really no need for FREE curbside parking for most of that length. The BMWs, MBs, Audis, etc, that park there now for free can REALLY afford paid garage parking spaces.

    But, unfortunately, it’s not going to happen, ever.
    Because that’s where the $$$$$ lives.

    Columbus Ave. with its plethora of Mitchell Lama projects, its neighboring brownstones, and other rental buildings full of rent stabilized/controlled apts never had a chance! It’s NOT where the $$$$$ lives.

    On second thought, how about bike lanes on cross city streets, like 96 St., 86 St., and 79 St., the Mayor’s street???
    There is NO NEED for free parking there either.
    Dedicated two way bike lanes and Bus lanes would greatly enhance these cross streets.
    Riding a bike would be great there, and taking the bus would not take 45 minutes to get from Riverside Drive to York Ave. Just ask the kids and their parents who take these buses to various schools cross town. They would love it!
    And I think the mayor would approve, don’t you think???

  • jim

    No brainer is right.

    The lanes on Columbus are now narrower-10 foot lanes. These are just fine for 9 foot wide buses. Why would you want more than 6 inches (if perfectly centered) between vehicles that weigh 16 tons?

    I’ve seen one bike in about 5 blocks, on a Sunday. How many bikes will be using these lanes once it snows?

    I’m pretty sure snowplows won’t fit in a 5 foot wide lane

  • Mike

    Standard bus width is 8.5′. 10′ wide lanes are plenty wide, and will reduce speeding when the street isn’t congested.

    Snowplows fit fine. As do fire trucks. There are no obstacles narrower than the width of either. You really think DOT didn’t think of that when designing these?

  • BicyclesOnly


    The bike lane is wider than 5 feet when you count the buffer. Lanes woth the same configuration on Grand St. and 8th/9th Aves downtown were plowed last winter. I have no reason to believe they won’t plow these as well.

    Narrowed lanes slow traffic. That’s a good thing on Columbus Avenue, where the 14 wide traffic lanes meant that motorists often exceeded 30 absent congestion. I know this because I have a speedometer on my bike and ride Columbus daily with my son to school. Even with the narrowed lanes, the MV traffic is well between 20-30 between 96th and 83rd, where the congestion casused by the atypical traffic flow at 81st St.starts.

    Professional bus drivers are specially trained to navigate narrow lanes safely. This roadway is now engineered for speeds of 20-30 MPH–as it should be–and so collisions will be attributable to human conduct, not any engineering flaw.

    Anecdotal information like your observation of only one cyclist on 5 blocks of bike lane during some unspecified period of observation is meaningless. I watched the lane for a half hour during rush hour while it was raining, and saw 16 commuters. Neither observation is reliable. I’m sure there will be an accurate census taken by a reliable source at some point.


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