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TransAlt Volunteers Keep Momentum Going for Midtown Complete Streets

Tom Devito of Transportation Alternatives addresses the crowd Sunday with an assist from volunteer Albert Ahronheim. Photo: Susi Wunsch

Despite being flat, Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue have long been an uphill battle -- for safe biking and walking that is. In 1980, in a decision well ahead of the times, Mayor Ed Koch had protected bike lanes installed on these heavily trafficked corridors, only to wipe away that groundbreaking work by removing the concrete barriers one month later. A few remnants of the original bike lanes still exist, but a lasting redesign of these two key Midtown avenues has seemed out of reach -- until now.

In 2011, Eric Stern, a member of the Manhattan Community Board 5 transportation committee, raised the prospect of extending the current Sixth Avenue painted bike lane up to Central Park, to no avail at first. Fortunately, the idea of improving avenues in the heart of Midtown had legs.

Transportation Alternatives has run with the idea, petitioning for Fifth and Sixth Avenues that work better for walking, biking, and transit for the last few years. With more than 15,000 signatures amassed in support of a redesign, TA brought a proposal back to the community boards for the city to study turning Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue into complete streets.

The resolution has passed unanimously through every community board from Central Park to Canal Street, and every City Council member who represents the area has signed on too.

The Department of Transportation is now working on a feasibility study to determine the effect of altering these major city arteries. In an effort keep the momentum going, TA hosted a Shop/Bike/Walk day this weekend to remind DOT how important this project is to people who walk and bike on these streets and the people who run businesses in this part of town.

On Sunday, despite a cold spell that swept through the city, more than 60 people gathered to celebrate and visit a few of the 150 businesses that support the Fifth and Sixth Avenue Complete Streets campaign.

Lucette Gilbert, who told Streetfilms back in 2011 that she was in her "very late 70s," rode down to Madison Square Park from her home on the Upper East Side. Gilbert smiled and told me, “I always loved biking.” She learned growing up in Paris, but as an adult, she didn’t pick it up again until the 11-day transit strike hit New York in 1980. Many other New Yorkers rediscovered city cycling at the same time.

Some riders came from New Jersey, a state still in its infancy with regards to bike lanes and bike-share. Alex Aiello lives in Hoboken and arrived thinking she might walk the route, but decided to check out a Citi Bike instead. She tied a quarter into her dress to keep it from flying around, strapped her purse across her body, and wobbled off in high heels and sparkly tights.

More than 20 businesses along the route support the complete streets campaign and offered perks to participants on Sunday. Most popular on the route were things that were free: mimosas at GustOrganics, egg rolls at Shu Han Ju, a tiny slice at Slice&Co and goody bag from Stieber’s Sweet Shop. Sid’s Bikes offered a 20 percent discount, as did Metro Bikes. Back Label Wine and Stinky Brooklyn, new shops along West 20th, offered 10 percent off at both stores. Crave.It, a new business on Sixth, offered $2 gelato.

As DOT works on its study and TA continues to raise awareness of the need for safer avenues, biking through the center of Manhattan could soon day be safer, easier, and faster for people like Christian Benjamin, who commutes 10 miles each way from his home in Sunset Park to his job in midtown. Right now Benjamin goes out of his way to ride north on First Avenue. Hopefully it won't be long until he feels safe taking Sixth.

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