The Spatial Payoff of NYC Bike-Share

The curb space taken up by five standard parallel parking spots can accommodate 39 bike-share docks. Photo of Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights: Doug Gordon

Last night’s Brooklyn Community Board 2 hearing on bike-share was hardly the “battle” anticipated by the Brooklyn Eagle. About 20 people testified after DOT presented the draft station maps for the district [PDF, pages 10-15], and almost all of them supported the bike-share program in general, with several residents expressing delight at the prospect of a new travel option for Brooklyn Heights, Downtown Brooklyn, and Fort Greene. Some speakers objected to specific stations, and it will be interesting to see how DOT adjusts the station map in this area before the July launch.

Numerically, Brooklyn Heights residents who welcomed bike-share kiosks had the advantage last night over those who didn’t. The objections, most of which were of the Not-In-My-Front-Yard variety, revealed the strange double standards that often surface when the subject turns to bikes. There were, for instance, a few Brooklyn Heights residents concerned about how the sleek bike-share kiosks would look in front of the “historically significant structures in the city’s first landmarked district” — kiosks that would occupy the same streets where late-model luxury sedans and SUVs sit parked at all hours. And Brigit Pinnell of the Montague Street Business Improvement District insisted her members would be better off with five metered parking spaces than with 39 public bicycle docks.

One pattern that stood out last night was the tendency to overestimate the space that bikes take up and to underestimate the space that cars take up. Residents of the Oro luxury condo development in Downtown Brooklyn said the space in front of their building was ill-suited for a bike-share station because Johnson Street is narrow. But the stations are only six feet wide, taking up less street width than the placarded personal vehicles belonging to city and court employees who park there illegally all day long. By placing the station on the same corner of the block as the Oro, bike-share planners would actually improve safety at that corner — keeping placarded vehicles out of that space will enable pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists crossing the intersection to see each other better. (Oddly, the Oro residents were fine with putting the station across the street from their building.)

The gap between perception and reality really came into focus when discussion turned to a 39-dock station proposed for Clinton Street between State and Atlantic.

It sounds like a big number — 39 — but because bikes are small this station can slide right into the block. When DOT staff said the station would be 100 feet long, equivalent to about five parking spaces, a few members of the transportation committee were incredulous that so few cars fit in that space. Glance at municipal codes or street design guidelines [PDF, page 24], though, and you’ll see that the typical length of a parallel parking spot is indeed in the 20- to 22-foot range. All those 16- to 18-foot SUVs and midsize sedans need buffers around them so parkers can maneuver into spaces.

Some people might not be able to envision the spatial efficiencies of bike-share stations until they’re on the ground. But among the other shifts in perception that will accompany the launch of bike-share, I think more New Yorkers are going to start appreciating the fact that you can do more with bicycles than with cars in the same amount of space. This is especially relevant in New York, where 56 percent of car trips are less than three miles long [PDF, page 3] and would make for very convenient bike trips. The Montague Street merchants are going to see many more customers arrive at a new bike-share dock than they did when the space was for parking cars.

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