Sandy Aftermath: Where Would You Reserve More Space for Buses and Bikes?

Pedestrians and cyclists flood the Brooklyn Bridge promenade during the 1980 transit strike. Wouldn't this picture look more balanced if one of those motor vehicle lanes was filled with people on bikes instead?

As the flood waters recede from New York City, it looks like the effects of Hurricane Sandy are going to linger in the city’s subway tunnels. MTA Chair Joe Lhota has called the storm the most devastating disaster to strike the subway system in its 108-year history.

All seven subway tunnels under the East River have flooded. So have several rail yards, though the MTA removed rolling stock to higher ground, preventing damage to subway cars. The exact extent of the damage to tracks, signals, and switches was unknown as of this morning, with Lhota telling WNYC that the MTA would have a firmer assessment later today.

At some platforms, the flooding is all the way up to the ceiling, Lhota said at an 11:30 press conference. The agency is currently in the process of pumping out the tunnels. While the subway system is out of service and gradually comes back online, Lhota said, “We’re going to use the bus system to complement and supplement” the subways.

Right now there is no definite timetable for restoring the subways. Speaking to the press this morning, Mayor Bloomberg said that he hoped some buses would be running this afternoon, with most bus service potentially resuming tomorrow. “Getting transit up and running is going to take more time and a lot of patience,” he said. “The damages they face really are enormous.”

At the 11:30 presser, Governor Cuomo said that the process of getting trains up and running will be “more about restoration of parts of the subway system first.” After the whole transit system is back online, he said, there will need to be a “long-term reconstruction effort,” referring to the region-wide process of recovery from the storm and flood damage.

For the immediate future, it seems, NYC will be without the main arteries of its transportation system, which means the city is going to have to wring more efficiency out of its surface streets.

In the past, large-scale transit disruptions have prompted officials to take innovative steps to keep New Yorkers moving. The 12-day transit strike in 1980 famously led to a surge in bike commuting, experiments in new bike infrastructure, and an ill-fated Koch administration proposal to compel single-occupancy vehicles to take the tolled crossings across the East River instead of the traffic-clogged free bridges.

After the September 11th terrorist attacks, the city for a time banned single-occupancy vehicles from entering Manhattan below 62nd Street, and bus-only lanes were implemented or expanded on Church Street in Lower Manhattan, in the Lincoln Tunnel, and on the Gowanus Expressway [PDF].

During the 2005 transit strike, the city’s plan called for tight HOV restrictions — allowing only cars with four or more passengers — on many highways and river crossings. The city also identified major north-south and east-west streets in Manhattan as “reserved streets” where only buses, emergency vehicles, commuter vans, and motorcycles were allowed.

As New Yorkers get back to work and resume our daily routines in the wake of the storm, we’re going to need innovative measures to keep us moving. Without the subways, most New Yorkers don’t have the option of driving to work, and if people who do own cars start driving solo, the streets will seize up. Dedicated space for buses, bikes, and high-occupancy vehicles will be essential.

In a press release, Transportation Alternatives recommended the following measures “to assist stranded New Yorkers and prevent gridlock”:

– Emergency Bus Lanes to allow swift transit throughout the City until subway service is restored.

– Emergency Street Reservations exclusively for the safe use of walkers, bikers and emergency vehicles.

– Off-Peak Bridge Biking and Walking Lanes to ensure sufficient safe space for people on foot and bicycle and prevent overcrowding on the bridges.

– Emergency Biking Lanes on well-used routes to enable safe mobility, including coned-off Midtown bike lanes.

– Bike Parking Stations and Temporary Bike Storage in major employment centers in Lower Manhattan including Foley Square, Union Square, Herald Square, Times Square, Washington Square Park and Bryant Park.

– High Occupancy Vehicle Requirements on crossings into the most congested areas of the city.

– Carpool Staging Areas offering parking and passenger pick-up locations in support of drivers sharing rides to meet the HOV requirements.

So, while we’re waiting for the official post-Sandy transport plan, let’s open this up. Where would you reserve more room for spatially-efficient transportation modes, Streetsblog readers?

  • Anonymous

    Howabout the City/State provide additional subsidies/credits to NY Waterway Ferries to reduce their fare to $2.50/ride and they waive the $1 surcharge for bikes as long as the subways are down? Combo of bike/ferry is great for novice riders that don’t feel they have the vigor to tackle the bridge crossings, and can be a pretty quick way to get to work if you live/work within 2-3 miles of a ferry stop – that’s people living everywhere from Carrol Gardens to Astora, on the East River or Jersey City to Secaucus on the Hudson River, and reaching most work locations in Manhattan south of 59th Street from either shore.

  • Ben Kintisch

    How about free bike lights subsidized by the city for any cyclist riding without lights for the rest of the week at night time commuting times? How about some free water and snacks for cyclists and walkers crossing on foot or bike using the East River crossings?

  • Ben Kintisch

    One more idea:
    Good citizen cyclists, let’s unite to use rakes and brooms to sweep away dangerous debris from nearby bike lanes so cyclists can get where they’re going without undue challenges.
    (Over in glorious biking city Copenhagen, they plow the bike lanes before car lanes, but we have several decades of progress before we get there…)

  • Mrbadexample98

    Getting the feeling they’re winging it because no one wants to use the term the State used for this scenario– months.

  • Anonymous

    Add this, too: Mayoral edict guaranteeing bike access inside commercial and residential buildings.

  • ln

    Parks are still closed ‘until further notice’, which means the west side and other greenways and prospect and central park may not be available to commuting cyclists until when?

  • Ed Ravin

    take a page from the Kheel plan – don’t charge fare for buses until the crisis ends.  For crosstown buses, that will dramatically speed up bus trips and let them provide much more service with the same number of buses.

  • Anonymous

    @047708a70897c55ef50aeabddc4f3cec:disqus Bravp.Ed — positively brilliant! Ted (Kheel) must be smiling.

  • @047708a70897c55ef50aeabddc4f3cec:disqus Also allow all-door boarding, which would further speed things up.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’ve predicted that because of the long term debt bomb from generation you-know-who, we’d end up with deferred maintenance  (again) and, although most of the subway would probably keep running, parts of it out of action for years at a time as money was scrounged to repair it.  In that context, bicycles become more important because people could ride to a station on the subway that was operating and then take the train.  

    I was looking ten or twenty years down the road.  But here we are.  To the list add bicycle corrals near stations on whatever Brooklyn lines can run through to Manhattan.

  • How about making the island of Manhattan car-free until the subway is back to normal service.

  • Endofact4curtainplease

    I wouldn’t. Long live cars.

  • USbike

    Kevin Love  I think that’s ultimately what everyone needs to see, what the city would be like without all the cars fowling up the air, clogging up the streets, destroying the peace with all their noise, etc..  Because the vast majority of people alive and moving around today weren’t around back before the automobiles came to dominate all the streets.  The history is somewhat accessible but people have to make an effort to reach it, and most are too busy or concerned with other things that that hasn’t happened.  If the people who drive all the time would just try an alternative, they may realize that it’s not so bad, great even.  

  • Anonymous

    Bikes allowed on buses…yes, I mean inside buses since we seem incapable of adding bike racks to the fronts, to get people as close as possible to Manhattan for their commutes.

  • Anonymous

    Dedicated bus lanes on the Manhattan and Queensboro/Koch Bridges for the subway shuttle buses.  Don’t let the shuttle buses get caught in general bridge traffic. Create routes with dedicated street lanes and dedicated bridge lanes and place many-many traffic cops to keep these lanes clear and moving.  Think of the Lincoln Tunnel bus lane that moves!

  • Larry Littlefield

    No one is going to allow bikes on buses when they are crush loaded.  Nor ban cars from Manhattan when the cars can get to Manhattan but the subways cannot — requiring four passengers per car makes more sense.

    The question is, what about bikes and peds on the Brooklyn Bridge?  There will be a period of time when the subways can run in Brooklyn, and in Manhattan to hopefully Chambers but perhaps 14th Street, but not in between.   People will have to walk over the bridge, or be carried by buses, and given the availability of buses most people will have to walk.

    The walkway will be packed.  Should we continue to allow bicycles there?  And if bicycles are allowed there, would it make sense to try anyway (see picture)?

    It sounds like a counter-flow lane should be reserved for bicycles, with enough of a barrier to prevent the cars from killing the cyclists.

  • Anonymous

    Well, after one commute with bus service running, it’s clear that private cars driving into Manhattan are holding up the singular transit connection between Queens and Manhattan. Why on earth did the city not place HOV restrictions on the crossings into Manhattan?!

    There’s precedent for it, obviously, and it’s even more necessary given that two major crossings are still closed. I cannot fathom the city’s inaction on this.

  • KeNYC2030

    With the subways out, buses packed and drivers advised not to use their cars, what does that leave?  I am shocked that the city is apparently doing nothing to encourage more residents to bike during this period, when biking has ended up being the go-to mode for thousands during previous transit shutdowns.  What could the mayor do?  Announce that biking is the preferred mode of transportation and set up de facto protected bike lanes using cones and bollards on key arterials, and set aside two of the four cross-Central Park transverses for bikes and buses only.  

  • Anonymous

    A limited resource (street space) just got a lot scarcer for as long as transit is not back to normal.

    I agree with those that say it makes sense to prioritize travel modes that can carry the most people while using the least amount of street space, which is the limiting factor right now on how well we can get around.

    That means buses should get top priority in most cases, followed by bikes, then multi-passenger cars and taxis, and single-passenger cars given the lowest priority.

    Given that we need an immediate mechanism to re-allocate street space, we don’t have time to create a price-based mechanism.  Situations like this require top-down leadership based on a clear set of priorities.

  • mj10doobie

    that picture clearly shows that cars take up way too much space – there must be 10x as many people on that narrow path as there are people in cars on both sides.  to me this dichotomy really demonstrates that the lion’s share of public space is being given to wasteful luxury.  definitely not an equitable use of public resources.

  • Jesse Greene

    Idea: make Manhattan 5th Avenue an emergency bike-ped-bus boulevard and get rid of the parked cars so it can be a two-way avenue.  Instead it seems like the city has taken the opposite approach.  When I rode down 5th ave today there was a jam in all three travel lanes with cars lined up in the bus lane like I’ve never seen.

  • jim.moore70

    Wherever NYC does whatever to get through this emergency, once its passed it’ll go back to being a car-centric killzone for pedestrians and cyclists, just like it is after all the emergencies mentioned in this article. You all seem to be missing these golden opportunities to make long-lasting changes that will make your cities resilient to such events, which by the way will be happening more frequently. Isn’t there an existing city bike plan that could be implemented immediately?

  • Anonymous

    Why has Bloomberg not ordered car pooling ? What a terrible mistake.

  • Mcsladek

    It is more crucial than ever that a bike/walk path be added to the Verrazano.  The ferries are out of commission, and express bus service is a more spotty, lengthy trip into Manhattan.  I am, for the most part, stranded on SI. People living and working in South BK and SI deserve a walkable route between the boroughs. 

  • Anonymous

    Verrazano emergency walkway: Close one of the lower level roadways to cars and use it for bike and ped crossings.  This is really easy and safe to do, as done for the 5 Boro Bike Tour.  The rest of the bridge is open and clear for motor traffic.

    If the TBTA wants to keep the 92nd St On-Ramp open to cars to SI, they can cut open the north end fence in the Fort Hamilton Parkway playground that leads directly at ground level to the VNB lower level roadway. Peds and Bikes can roll get directly from Ft Ham to the bridge without crossing any active traffic lanes.  TBTA parks a big sand truck to block the lower level roadway, and all is safe.  At the Staten Island end, bikes and peds can enter and exit either via the first School Street exit after the toll booths, or they can be let through the Marathon Gate into Fort Wadsworth.  Either way, car traffic gets to use the upper level 3 roadways, and the bikes and peds use the lower level. 

    Similar easy routing is available on the Brooklyn bound lower level roadway.  From the side of the Toll Plaza offices reachable from SI local streets to the lower level off ramp onto Dahlgren Place near 92nd Street.  Easy on – easy off.

    MTA Bridges and Tunnels – TBTA – should have prepared an emergency plan for walking and biking onto and off SI following 9-11, and certainly recognize the problem after the 2003 Blackout.  Me-thinks this is not just an oversight, but a deliberate policy to keep non-motorized traffic off the VNB. 
    Failure to develop a viable response to catastrophic events is malfeasance by not only the MTA but the city and state as well.  Remember, the MTA is a state agency, and the Mayor appoints several MTA Board Members – the Governor and Mayor control what the MTA does – or in this case, fails to do.

    Cuomo, Bloomberg – telling Lahota to do the right thing – is your job.  Do it!

  • Anonymous

    Brooklyn Bridge – bikes on roadway lane:  this will need barriers, as Larry Littlefield sugests.  Standard concrete Jersey Barriers may be too heavy for the bridge deck.  Lightweight barriers made of aluminum are just as strong but much lighter, however they would have to be bolted down to stay in place.  The city has failed to develop emergency plans for mass movements of bicycles and pedestrians during emergencies.  They should have learned from 9-11, the 2003 Blackout, and transit strikes, that the Brooklyn Bridge Promenade and the other bridges’ paths are too small for emergency capacity.  At this point, they really have to weigh the number of people in cars versus the number on foot and bike crossing the bridge.  Perhaps they need to close one entire roadway to allow for two way bikes and overflow pedestrian traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge.

  • Anonymous

    On the Koch/Queensboro Bridge, the south
    outer roadway should be closed to cars and turned over to either bikes
    or pedestrians, and the other outer roadway would be for the other mode. 
    Alternatively, make each outer roadway one-way, shared by bikes and peds,
    but in one traffic direction on each side.  Either plan doubles the
    non-motorized space and reduces conflicts between bicycles and
    pedestrians.  The south outer roadway can be closed to cars safely and
    should not make the motor traffic mess on the bridge much worse – it’s
    going to be very bad regardless.


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