What They’re Saying About Protected Bike Lanes in East Harlem

signing_east_harlem.jpgWriting letters to the mayor in support of protected bike lanes for uptown. Photo: BicyclesOnly/Flickr

Last Saturday, a group of volunteers with Transportation Alternatives set up a table on East 117th Street, gathering handwritten letters urging Mayor Bloomberg to extend protected bike lanes up to 125th Street, as originally planned. I’ve been meaning to write up a short dispatch about it all week. After a short period where we’ve seen some highly sensationalized bike
coverage
on CBS2 (last night’s installment being the exception), grand
theories about bike-related culture wars in the Daily News, and
equivocating from Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith about the
administration’s commitment to street safety improvements north of 34th
Street, lets get back to the basic reasons why the way we allocate street space matters.

New Yorkers don’t feel safe when they have to deal with streets like this:

First_Avenue_Two.jpgFirst Avenue at 117th Street. Photo: James Garcia

Here’s what people were saying on Saturday:

  • Dina Montes, 35, moved from the East Village to 112th Street six years ago. "Riding uptown is just a lot more nuts than riding downtown," she said. Right now, she rides for recreation and to make trips to the store, often with her two-year-old daughter in a rear-mounted toddler seat.

    She goes out of her way to avoid Second Avenue. "I will detour all the way to Fifth to avoid Second," she said. "I definitely would feel safer having an on-street lane that notifies drivers to stay off that path. That’s what we need, because drivers drive crazy around here."

  • Valerie Tossas, 27, has lived in East Harlem since she was born. She doesn’t ride a bike now, but she said that could change if she could use protected lanes. "I think I would," she said. "I’m not very confident about other drivers on the street, so that’s why I’m reluctant."

    Protected lanes for the East Side, she said, "would not only make the street safer, but it’s a healthier and more environmentally friendly form of transportation."

  • Heather Gillis lives in the neighborhood and teaches music at a public elementary school. "I’d like to see more opportunities for children to exercise and learn healthy habits," she said. "If we make it bike-friendly, then parents will be more likely to take their children out and teach them healthy habits."

  • Otoniel Santiago was out with his wife, Clara Reyes, and their daughter Milena and son Cahid, both grade school age. Otoniel works in a restaurant on the Upper East Side and bikes in the neighborhood. With Milena translating, Otoniel said that without the protected bike lane, he wouldn’t ride with his kids, because it’s not going to be safe.

  • A man who gave his name as Patrick has lived in East Harlem for nine years. Patrick is 48, works as a real estate agent, and hasn’t been on a bike in ages, because he’s been afraid to ride in the city. "I do a lot of walking," he said. "I’m concerned about the safety too."

otoniel.jpgVolunteer Steve Vaccaro with Otoniel Santiago, Clara Reyes, and their kids, Cahid and Milena. Photo: James Garcia

East Harlem already has some of the highest bike commute rates in the city. Children there are also more likely to be killed in traffic than in neighborhoods downtown that have received street safety improvements, according to a report published by Department of Health earlier this summer. But there’s no guarantee yet that East Harlem will get the same changes.

James Garcia, who was collecting signatures alongside the event organizer, Steve Vaccaro, put it this way: "I pay my property taxes. Why can’t my money pay for infrastructure above 96th Street? We deserve the same improvements."

  • Jacob

    I’ve lived in East Harlem for a year and half, and tend to run my errands on my bike. I get nervous riding on East Harlem streets, and I’ve spend most of the last year commuting to a job in the Financial District. Drivers in the neighborhood speed constantly and the roads are in terrible condition. More than once I’ve looked down and realized I got lucky missing potholes so large I thought I might have been dismounted if I hit them. Protected bike lanes would go a long way toward increasing bike safety and ridership.

  • Joe R.

    Jacob,

    Potholes are a city-wide problem. A lot of the bike lanes here in Queens are loaded with so many potholes I find I need to ride in the traffic lane half the time. And then you have those concrete bus stops where the blocks get misaligned, so you fall a few inches going from one block to another. It’s great we’re adding cycling infrastructure, but the planners need to be aware that slapping a little paint on a potholed street doesn’t cut it. A pothole which might be merely uncomfortable in a car can throw a cyclist to the ground. We need to keep all streets, especially bike routes, in much better repair. ConEd needs to be held accountable when they break up freshly-paved streets. They should be required by law to repave the entire street, rather than just putting in patches which turn into potholes. A little coordination would be nice as well. Perhaps streets shouldn’t be repaved until ConEd is done digging them up. Once repaved, ConEd shouldn’t be allowed to touch the street short of an emergency.

  • BicyclesOnly

    Road conditions are a major issue on upper First Avenue, which is paved not with asphalt but with concrete. The gaps between the beds of concrete, which run parallel to the direction of traffic, have widened with weay over the years to as much at 3″ wide, creating a very serious navigation hazard for cyclists. (There are also potholes). This problem will become worse when the new buffered bike lane on upper First Avenue is striped, because the gap is positioned right in the middle of the new bike lane. (In the previous design, the bike lane was only 4′ wide and was squarely in the door zone, but the gap between the concrete beds defined the outer edge of the lane). It’s kind of like riding continuously on one of those tire-eating storm grates.

    My understanding from DoT officials’ presentation at the June Community Board 8 Transportation Committee is that re-paving this concrete roadway is either infeasible or prohibitively expensive. The officials said there would be repairs to the roadway, but they may have just been thinking of the potholes, not these gaps that are a particular problem for cyclists. This will have to be brought to DoT’s attention. Maybe they can fill them with caulk or something.

  • Big props to those who are collecting the letters. I hope they have them printed in English and Spanish!

    This situation highlights the absurdity of DOT’s bike lane placement – They say, “Let’s start where they are biking the most” but I think it’s more like “let’s start where the Community Boards are friendliest to street reconfiguration.”

    I live in West Harlem, and I’ve been to Harlem Community Board meetings. (Note- I don’t know which Community Board represents East Harlem). I attended a DOT presentation about bike lanes to the CB transportation committee a year ago. I was struck by the serious hostility and skepticism demonstrated by board members. One prominent woman, who had lived in Harlem for many years, expressed dismay about “the kind of people who use bike lanes” (I guess that’s code for bike lanes bring more gentrifying white folks like myself.) Others noted that many churches have congregants from the outer boroughs who drive in. So, once a week double parking makes striped bike lanes a non-starter. The committee skewed older and wealthier than the average Harlem resident, and I suspect many of them owned cars.

    One person conceded, “I have Grandkids who like to bike, but they go to the parks.” It was as if they were rendering invisible the thousands of cyclists who either live in Harlem or travel through.

    It’s a funny conundrum: if you love to bike, you can choose to live in an area with good bike infrastructure, or somewhere like Harlem, where it’s more of an uphill battle. But we’ll get there someday.

    T.A.’s new “Rider Uprising” campaign will focus on Harlem and the outer boroughs, and many hundreds if not thousands of new names will be gathered who want better transit. Perhaps some of these folks can be brought into our fold, fighting for safer streets – if you’re losing your bus line, you might reconsider using a bike.

  • BicyclesOnly

    Community Board 11, which represents East Harlem, is actually quite supportive of this project. When DoT officials visited the CB11 Transportation Committee in June to explain that the northern portion of the project had been postponed indefinitely, the officials gave various explanations. One was that DoT was simply following traffic–starting at Houston and working its way up. The CB members instantly recognized this bogus reasoning ans asked why not start at 125th St. and follow the flow of traffic on Second downtown.

    Joe Barr of DoT then proferred the explanation (with an advance apology that it would not be satisfactory to East Harlemites) that the downtown portion of the Bikeway had priority because in “connected up” with existing cycling facilities south of Houston, and Dot wanted to focus on expanding a connected network. There’s some merit in this explanantion, but it ignores that DoT has built many cycling facilities that don’t connect up with anything, where the need to calm traffic or local cyclists’ usage patterns dictate–especially outside the Manhattan and Brooklyn CBDs.

    In the case of this East Side Bikeway, the uptown portion would “connect up” with substantial cycle traffic from the Bronx using the lower Harlem River crossings, as well as with cycltraffic forced to exit at the terminus of the East River Greenway at 60th Street.

    These loose ends of the existing network, the high levels of cycling in East Harlem, the compelling public health rationales for an East Harlem cycking and pedestrian facilities, and the strong and vocal support of community leadership for the project, all weigh in favor of extending it to East Harlem. Yet now Deputy Stephen Goldsmith reveals that the suspension of the project at 34th Street is less a matter of construction schedules and timing (as DoT stated to various community boards in June) and instead a matter of the “legitimate question” of whether and where to extend cycling facilities, the need for “getting the balance right,’ and avoiding the “ancillary external byproducts” of cycling facilities–whatever the hell that means.

    Peel away the doubletalk and this issue is potnetially quite explosive.

  • This certainly sounds like an environmental justice issue to me.

  • What a lot of people here don’t get (and BicyclesOnly is an admirable exception) is that politely asking DOT to maybe consider giving Harlem bike lanes is about as productive as politely asking Robert Moses to consider not routing the freeway to split Tremont. In both cases, the city’s transportation people are building infrastructure explicitly for the rich. JSK has shown no more interest in what minorities think than Moses. And in both cases, you’ll only get things rectified if you get a commissioner and staff who think of transportation as serving all people, not just those with the right skin color or income level.

    So, no shit, it’s an environmental justice issue. Nearly everything the city does is a fill-in-the-blanks justice issue.

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