Envisioning a New York Where Cycling Isn’t Just for Cyclists

At a panel sponsored by the American Institute of Architects last night, two of the city’s top transportation planners joined one of its hardest-working bike advocates to discuss how to make cycling a mainstream mode in New York.

The director of the Department of City Planning’s Transportation Division, Jack Schmidt, DOT Senior Policy Advisor Jon Orcutt, and Transportation Alternatives’ Caroline Samponaro each shared different perspectives on why NYC is well-suited for a boom in biking and how to make it happen. Hovering over the evening was the question of whether the city’s accelerating commitment to pro-bike policies will be matched by long-term public support and political will.

Schmidt brought a wealth of new data to the discussion. DCP recently completed two studies that highlight the potential to expand cycling, especially outside Manhattan. The first crunched Census numbers to examine what DCP calls "peripheral trips," commutes that don’t start or end in the Manhattan CBD. Though DCP began the study expecting to find common origins and destinations that might be appropriate for new transit routes, Schmidt said that isn’t what they found. "What rose to the top," he said, "was there are all these short trips that are good for biking."

Outside of Manhattan, he explained, most workers commute to the same borough they live in, and many go to the same section of the same borough. "If people are living close to where they work," he argued, "those are trips that are not suited to the automobile, that are not suited to transit; they’re suited to walking and biking." 

Screen_shot_2010_08_13_at_10.31.03_AM.pngIntra-borough commutes show a lot more walking and cycling, included in the light blue slices, but rarely less driving. Image: NYCDCP

While DCP’s research shows that New Yorkers are already making a significant number of these short commutes by walking or biking, Schmidt concluded that there’s plenty of room for this percentage to grow. Commuters who stay within their home borough drive at similar rates to commuters with longer multi-borough trips. There is significant untapped potential, Schmidt said, to convert those short car commutes to bike commutes.

Orcutt reinforced this point, citing household travel data showing that 56 percent of all car trips in New York City are less than three miles long.

Schmidt also discussed the potential to integrate cycling with the transit system. "For most of us, the bicycle has a pretty limited range," he said, but as a link to transit, it can help almost any New Yorker get where they’re going. Already, he said, 29 percent of commuting cyclists connect with another mode, usually transit.

If the city built on that, biking could dramatically expand the reach of the city’s transit system. A DCP report called "Bike+Ride" found that while only 29.2 percent of Queens is within the half-mile walking distance of a subway station, a full 71.3 percent is within a conservative biking distance of two miles. In the Bronx, 56.6 percent of the borough is within walking distance to the subway, while 95.4 percent is within biking range. If New Yorkers could easily bike to the nearest station, the subway system wouldn’t just serve most New Yorkers; it could serve almost all of them.

Screen_shot_2010_08_13_at_10.37.32_AM.pngYou can’t walk to the subway from most parts of Queens. But unless you live on the eastern edge, it’s a short bike ride to a station. Image: NYCDCP

But if you can’t park your bike at the subway, you can’t bike there. At 95 percent of Bronx stations, DCP found no bike parking at all. In response, DCP looked at how parking could best be added near transit. At the crowded DeKalb Avenue station in Brooklyn, for example, they recommended installing vertical bike parking.

While Schmidt focused on the types of potential bike trips, Orcutt discussed who would make those trips. Using a framework developed in Oregon, Orcutt argued that while a tiny pool of "strong and fearless" people will bike regardless of infrastructure and a slightly larger set of "enthused and confident" New Yorkers are using painted lanes, the bulk of the city is "interested but concerned." These potential riders use the greenways and are starting to use the new protected lanes, a point Orcutt illustrated by showing photos of young kids riding their bikes along the new Prospect Park West lane.

One way to lower some of the barriers that confront "interested but concerned" New Yorkers is to open up cycling through a public bike-share program. Advancing his slideshow to a picture of a yellow-taxi branded bike-share kiosk, Orcutt received instant applause. When Paris installed its bike-sharing program, he said, cycling quadrupled in one year.

In the Q&A session, Orcutt suggested a readiness for bike-sharing inside city government. When asked whether cycling infrastructure is now safe enough to launch bike-share in New York, he said: "In some parts of the city, yes. In some parts of the city not so much. But in a couple of years, you could have it." Orcutt also argued that new international examples could show that ubiquitous bike infrastructure isn’t a prerequisite for bike-share. "London certainly has far less than Paris or New York in their bike-sharing area," he said.

Samponaro agreed that bike-sharing could be a game-changer for the perception of cycling in New York. "You’re talking not just about mainstreaming biking in a city," she said, "you’re talking about making biking public transportation."

Of course, making cycling a mainstream mode is also a cultural and political question. The biggest hurdle to expanding cycling in New York isn’t feasibility, said Schmidt. "Buy-in," he said, is the challenge. 

Orcutt agreed that the greatest challenge will be "the battle for public opinion over whether bicycles belong in public policy or not. The test will be in 2014, when we have a new administration. Then we’ll find out who won that battle." 

Cycling is more likely to win that battle, argued Samponaro, if cyclists contribute to a culture of order on New York City’s streets. Anti-cyclist anger, she said, is a manifestation of a general feeling that streets are chaotic. New Yorkers see everyone on the street disregarding the rules and ask, "How can we handle anything more?" By enforcing traffic laws for both drivers and cyclists, and implementing traffic calming devices, the conflict over cycling could be toned down, she implied. 

With leaders from both DOT and DCP on stage, a few other interesting insights into the future of cycling and transportation policy in New York were revealed as well:

  • DCP is currently developing their own routing software for bike trips, to compete with Ride The City or Google Maps. Called NYCyclistNet, the program would add new lanes faster than its competitors, include all public and private bike racks in the city, and perhaps most importantly, have a feedback option that allows users to make recommendations directly to city government.
  • When asked about reforming New York’s off-street parking policies, Schmidt told the crowd to "bear with us," calling the issue "something we’re very concerned about." The department is currently undergoing a major review of its parking policy. Orcutt urged those concerned about the issue to work for its inclusion in next year’s update of PlaNYC, the outreach meetings for which begin this winter. "If not everyone [in city government] got the memo," he said, "there’s time to work on that."
  • The MTA is getting friendlier towards bikes, said Schmidt. "For the longest time, they were really opposed to bikes inside their system," he explained. "Now they’re realizing that bike riders are their customers, too." Though warning not to expect anything in the short term, Schmidt told cyclists that the agency is becoming a more enthusiastic partner on the issue.
  • When an audience member asked a question about traffic enforcement, the panel’s organizer stepped in, saying that "we wanted to get an enforcement person here." Added Orcutt: "It’s emblematic that you don’t."
  • Asked about Parks Department policies that make Central Park an obstacle for cyclists trying to go crosstown, Orcutt revealed that there is discussion of creating a two-way bike route across the park along 72nd Street. 
  • ddartley

    One thing that would advance the mainstreaming of city biking is if more and more people are seen using cargo bikes and the like to transport goods. More people doing that would make others realize that motor vehicles are not the only viable way to transport goods around town, and in a lot of situations, cargo bikes and the like are even better.

  • http://nyti.ms/9Sx5zB

    “We Have a Real Emergency,” Mikhail Gorbachev, NY Times OP-Ed, Dec 9, 2010

    With only the highest regard to those who spoke business-as-usual is no longer acceptable and has not been for some time.

    What should be emphasized is that environmental devastation and the scale of observed climate-change events are accelerating faster than the models predict and immediate action must be taken.

    Cycling technology provides the powerful tools to rapidly reduce the impact of transportation systems based on cars to significantly less than 1% the existing environmental footprint.

    Lack of urgency and such discussions around “The test will be in 2014 . . . ” are absolutely meaningless.

    We are definitely in a situation of the utmost severity.

  • Mike

    Where do I park my cargo bike?

  • Mike

    gecko – if that’s how you feel, then your time might be better spent trying to convince the large portion of people out there who don’t share your sense of urgency or aren’t willing to make the requisite sacrifices. Government works for all citizens, not just you. 🙂

  • #4 Mike, Please translate that what you just wrote.

    FYI, You can park your cargo bike any place you can park your bike.

  • kaja

    Gecko asking for translations. Amazing. I love the Streetsblog commentariat.

  • #6 Kaja, Do forgive a personal humorless moment and consider:

    “One-fifth of Pakistan is under water”

    Perhaps then, you get the idea of the “structurally violent” equivalent of war caused by transportation systems based on cars?


  • But you’re against public transit and electric cars, right?

  • #8. Alon Levy,

    Any vehicle that can be easily human-powered sets the upper limit of the scale (size and weight) of vehicles used on and off public transit.

    Electric power and modularity gives vehicles the broadest range of accessibility and functionality both on and off systems.

  • Why does it follow from global warming that all vehicles have to be human-powered? What is exactly wrong with e.g. the zero-emission C-Train?

  • Gecko is right that human-powered vehicles are all you need for short trips, say up to 20-30 minutes. The need for motorised vehicles for short journeys is dogma, just like the need for large-scale car traffic is dogma. Public transit just happens to be much less problematic than large-scale car traffic. But that still doesn’t mean there’s an intrinsic need for an engine for short journeys.

  • #10 Alon Levy, This is not what was said in #9 gecko.

    It was not said that all vehicles have to be human-powered.

  • #11 Erik Sandblom, Yes, this is good!

    The first statement sets the scale and gives an idea of the maximum size and weight of vehicles. Of course, they can be much smaller and lighter and practicality is assumed.

    To repeat the first statement:

    “Any vehicle that can be easily human-powered sets the upper limit of the scale (size and weight) of vehicles used on and off public transit.”

    If a vehicle is easily human-powered then, in many instances that may be the most practical way to power it. There are many instances where being limited solely to human power is not practical and where the second statement applies:

    “Electric power and modularity gives vehicles the broadest range of accessibility and functionality both on and off systems.”

    The elderly, disabled, and women with young children may not be able to easily move these with human power alone. Going up steep hills is another issue and electric assists improve on the practicality of these vehicles. Electric powering can extend the speed and range to that of any land-based vehicle.

    Modularity makes it easier to adapt these vehicles to various requirements as-needed such as electric powering, traveling on systems, increasing the ability to carry additional loads, traveling with several people to name four.

  • Sorry, “hybrid human-electric.” What is actually wrong with conventional buses and trains, other than you personally don’t like them?

  • #14 Alon Levy, Why do you continually misstate what has been written and persist with belligerent off-topic statements and questions typical of subversive denier troll tactics?

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-cohen/a-sustainable-city-requir_b_669241.html

    “A Sustainable City Requires Increased Mass Transit Subsidies,” Steven Cohen, Executive Director, The Earth Institute, Columbia University, Aug 3, 2010

    “As Mayor Bloomberg argued repeatedly during the debate over congestion pricing, we need to make driving cars more expensive and mass transit less expensive, more convenient and more comfortable.”

    This is what is proposed by the technology (at #9 gecko) with minimal environmental footprints and funding requirements:

    “Any vehicle that can be easily human-powered sets the upper limit of the scale (size and weight) of vehicles used on and off public transit.

    “Electric power and modularity gives vehicles the broadest range of accessibility and functionality both on and off systems.”

  • I don’t misstate anything. I seriously want to know why, if global warming is the concern, electrified trains are not a solution and bikes are. Or, if you’re okay with trains, why you keep talking about human-powered vehicles when trains are anything but human-powered.

    It’s not trolling. It’s not denialism. (Public transit as the face of the oil industry? WTF?) If you can’t tell the difference, go to the school where you learned reading comprehension and ask for your money back.

  • “The Driver’s Seat,” Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, August 16 & 23, 2010, pages 36-39

    (Absolutely hilarious.)

    “According to an analysis by the New York City Department of Transportation, the weekday traffic in Manhattan from Sixtieth Street to the Battery moves at an average speed of 9.5 miles per hour, which the Times compared to the speed of a sprinting chicken.”

  • #18 gecko (continued),

    “The Prius, along with the Ford Fusion and the Mercury Milan, handles so well that you’ll swear that you’re still destroying the planet.”

  • #18 gecko (continued),

    “You’re not supposed to feel sorry for car salesmen, but I do — even if the Better Business Bureau did report that new-car dealers are the fourth-most-complained-about business in the country. (Used-car dealers were No. 7.)”

  • It strains my suspension of disbelief to hear that used-car dealers are only #7, and are behind new-car dealers.

  • J:Lai

    Here is the problem with switching to an all or largely human powered economy: It would use vastly more energy than is now required to maintain anything like the current state of civilization.

    Humans are far less efficient than internal combustion engines, electric generating turbines powered by almost anything that burns, or even any kind of steam engine. Otherwise, the industrial revolution would have produced little more than toys.

    A shift toward human power would require a concomitant and massive reduction in how far we travel, how much we consume, and almost every other aspect of how we live. Given the amount of infrastructure and other investment in our current situation, this would mean a huge write-off of existing capital with an equally huge deployment of capital to re-engineer everything about society. Besides the fact that such a re-organization may be beyond the scope of what we can do, it is far from obvious that it would be a net savings of energy.

  • J:Lai, you’re overlooking obesity, as well as the energy cost of manufacture and maintenance of cars and roads. I don’t see anyone saying all transportation should be human powered, just that short trips, up to 20-30 minutes could be human powered.

    New York Times: Obesity Rates Keep Rising, Troubling Health Officials
    Streetsblog: Our Waistlines Are Expanding In Sync With Our Car-Dependence

  • #22 J:Lai,

    re: “Here is the problem with switching to an all or largely human powered economy: It would use vastly more energy than is now required to maintain anything like the current state of civilization.”

    That is crazy!

    First, that is not what is being proposed; but, then again are you proposing that the human race stops walking?

    The idea is that when people find human power to be practical they should and will use it. Cycling is 3 to 4 times more efficient than walking so, even using this simple machinery instead of walking emissions drop precipitously for basic mobility.

    Second, there are 430 million cyclists and over 120 people using electric bikes in China and they just beat out Japan as the world’s second largest economy. Emissions in China have rapidly accelerated as they move more and more to heavy industry, machinery, cars etc., which China seems to be rethinking — departing from the “Hong Kong” model — because of tremendous environmental and global warming problems. Luckily, it seems that they are adopting more efficient processes to contain emissions somewhat but, it is still a major problem.

    Third, there are a lot of ways to provide services with energy not provided by fossil fuels and extremely wasteful technology with large environmental footprints.

    Fourth, regarding the “massive reduction of travel” and “huge deployment of capital” infrastructure required to support 25 pound vehicles is many times less than one hundredth the cost of infrastructure to support 2500 pound vehicles and the disparity in the energy requirements to move these vehicles is also on the same scale. Twenty-five pound vehicles can go just as fast and far as 2500 pound vehicles and it is much easier to design and broadly implement safe systems for the much smaller vehicles since the forces are much less.

  • #24 gecko (continued),

    . . . Just consider skiing where the “vehicle” is quite light, fitted to the size, weight, and skill of the person and speeds can be quite fast with only hybrid human-gravity power.

  • #22 J:Lai, “Humans are far less efficient than internal combustion engines, electric generating turbines powered by almost anything that burns, or even any kind of steam engine. Otherwise, the industrial revolution would have produced little more than toys.”

    Burning stuff was an easy solution which did not consider environmental costs which will cost many $US trillions to undo. China estimates that its cost is something like US$25 trillion.

    Electric motors are much more efficient, simpler in design, produce minimal emissions, and have higher torques. One-mile-long coal trains weigh so much that they have to use electric motors since diesel engines can’t deliver the torque.

    If the environmental costs were considered from the beginning things would be quite different.

  • Ian Turner

    J:Lai: Are you sure about that? Consider the amount of energy required to transport the energy source, which you get for free with human-powered transportation. Anyhow, internal combustion engines are themselves rather inefficient: You can expect to see 60% energy loss in combustion, and that’s before all the energy costs of manufacturing and transporting vehicles themselves.

  • Hong Kong actually has the lowest per-capita carbon emissions of any developed country. It has only 74 vehicles per 1,000 people, half the rate of Manhattan, and is by far the most densely populated first-world urban area, and is among the most densely populated urban areas worldwide.

    And no, 25 pound vehicles can’t go as fast as 2,500 pound vehicles, to say nothing of 100,000 pound vehicles. Check the top speed of bicycles, and compare it to the top speed of cars and trains. American proponents of private transportation used to be bicyclists, but once cars came along became drivers; there are reasons for this.

  • #28 Alon Levy, “And no, 25 pound vehicles can’t go as fast as 2,500 pound vehicles, to say nothing of 100,000 pound vehicles.”

    This is crazy!

    What is the top speed of a bullet which is a lot smaller and lighter than a bicycle?

  • #29 gecko (continued),

    Cyclotrons move extremely small particles to close to the speed of light.

  • #30 gecko (continued),

    Mass gets in the way.

  • Bicycles aren’t bullets. They’re not powered by an explosive of huge power compared to their mass; if they were, both they and their riders would explode.

  • My apologies, there’s just complete communications failure and we will leave it at that.


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