Victory for Safe Streets: Judge Rejects Prospect Park West Bike Lane Lawsuit
Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Bert Bunyan dismissed the lawsuit seeking to reverse the redesign of Prospect Park West yesterday, putting an end to a protracted, ugly chapter in the annals of NYC street safety improvements. The lawsuit, brought this March by a group of politically-connected opponents who failed to participate in the years of public process that preceded the redesign, had no standing because it was filed after the statute of limitations expired, Bunyan ruled.
Official word of the decision came down last night and set off a round of jubilant tweeting from project supporters, celebrating what should be the last gasp of an extended PR attack that opponents waged against the PPW bike lane, NYC DOT, and street safety advocates. With the apparent end of the legal threat to the redesign, Brooklynites can rest a little easier knowing that the improved conditions for pedestrians and cyclists on PPW are here to stay. There will be no return to the old three-lane speedway configuration.
Bunyan’s ruling [PDF] is a major vindication for Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and NYC DOT’s bike and pedestrian program. “This decision results in a hands-down victory for communities across the city. The plaintiffs have been dead wrong in their unsupported claims about the bike path and DOT’s practices,” Sadik-Khan said in a statement. “This project was requested by the community, they voted repeatedly to support it, and their support has registered in several opinion polls. Merely not liking a change is no basis for a frivolous lawsuit to reverse it.”
The legal issues in the case hinged on two main questions: 1) whether the city, in responding to community requests for traffic calming and better bike connections on PPW, had acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner by installing the bike lane, and 2) whether the plaintiffs filed suit before the four-month statute of limitations had expired. Judge Bunyan’s decision rests squarely on his answer to the second question.
The city implemented the redesign in June and July of 2010. The plaintiffs and their attorney, Jim Walden, claimed this installation was a “trial” that did not become permanent until DOT presented data from a six-month evaluation period at a Community Board 6 hearing this January, about two months before they filed suit the first week of March.
But Bunyan rejected this argument, concluding that Walden and the bike lane opponents “presented no evidence that DOT viewed the bikeway as a pilot or temporary project.” He determined that the city committed to a permanent installation of the redesign as soon as the bike lane was built last summer, so the four-month window for opponents to file suit expired in November.
Because Bunyan dismissed the suit on statute of limitations grounds, he had no need to weigh in on the “arbitrary and capricious” question, and his decision does not address that aspect of the suit. From the outset, however, opponents had made the “trial” or “pilot project” issue a pillar of their argument, and Bunyan demolished it. He reserved his harshest rebuke for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who filed an affidavit at the eleventh hour alleging that DOT told him the redesign would be a trial in March 2010:
[T]he Borough President’s conclusory affidavit is devoid of detail and fails to raise a genuine issue of material fact. Moreover, the Borough President never mentioned in his December 9, 2010 testimony before the City Council’s Committee on Transportation that DOT had characterized the bike lane as temporary.
Walden issued a statement yesterday implying that the opponents are still considering an appeal, but it’s not clear they have any further legal path to eradicate the bike lane, now that their initial suit was deemed too late.
The legal victory for the redesign comes long after broad support for it had coalesced at the community level. In the latest community board vote on the PPW project, Brooklyn CB 6 voted unanimously to support several DOT-proposed modifications to the lane. The board first endorsed the design of the bike lane in May 2009, following a written request that DOT study the installation of a two-way separated bike lane in June 2007.
“I am proud of the community-driven process, through which neighborhood residents requested the bike path, suggested modifications, and approved the modified design this spring,” said City Council Member Brad Lander in a statement. “Ever since the bike path was first proposed four years ago by Park Slope’s representatives on Community Board 6, this has been an inclusive, transparent, and community-driven process. While I respect those who do not like the bike lane, this is the way our government is supposed to work.”
The results of the redesign speak for themselves: The bike lane reduced injurious traffic crashes, speeding, and sidewalk riding, and led to big increases in cycling.
But the benefits have been overshadowed for months by the misinformation campaign waged by well-connected bike lane opponents, including former DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall, who is married to Senator Chuck Schumer. It was an anti-bike NIMBY effort on a scale that New York is unlikely to ever see again, unless Kirsten Gillibrand moves to the city and watches in horror as DOT stripes a bike lane in front of her house. To recap:
- Weinshall and the bike lane opponents used political connections to garner white-shoe legal representation, given entirely pro bono, for a spurious lawsuit against the city.
- Using cherrypicked data, the lawsuit made easily refutable allegations about DOT’s evaluation process that were nevertheless picked up and broadcast by the city’s tabloid media.
- Weinshall and former Deputy Mayor Norm Steisel lobbied City Council Member James Vacca in the run-up to last December’s hearing on bike policy, a harbinger of last winter’s intense “bikelash.”
- Senator Schumer reportedly met with some City Council members himself.
Though unsuccessful in court, the bike lane opponents have inflicted damage that can’t be undone overnight. Even in the extremely unlikely event that papers like the Daily News and the Post decide to run full-blown mea culpas about their willingness to reprint falsehoods about DOT’s use of data, it will take time for the agency to recuperate from the opponents’ relentless media attacks. Since the PPW opponents launched their campaign, the expansion of the bike network has slowed and previously-approved projects have been scaled back. Perhaps with the shadow of this lawsuit no longer hanging over the department, the city’s street safety efforts can now continue with renewed vigor.