Is DOT Setting Up the Amsterdam Avenue Bike Lane to Fail?

Up until a few years ago, when neighborhood residents approached DOT about redesigning a street for greater safety, they expected to get shot down by the agency’s top engineers. In 2004, one former DOT official summed up the department’s attitude as, “We will do pedestrian safety, but only when it doesn’t come at the expense of the flow of traffic.”

DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo (top) is sounding a lot like CB 7 bike lane opponent Dan Zweig (bottom). Photos: Stephen Miller
DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo (top) is sounding a lot like CB 7 bike lane opponent Dan Zweig (bottom). Photos: Stephen Miller

DOT has changed since then — there’s a greater recognition that moving cars should not take precedence over safety, economic vitality, and the efficient movement of people. But there are signs the agency is slipping back into old habits.

A test of the department’s commitment to safer street design is imminent on the Upper West Side, where persistent advocacy by local residents finally convinced DOT to develop a plan for a protected bike lane and pedestrian islands on Amsterdam Avenue. DOT is expected to present the plan to Community Board 7 in the near future. The trouble is, agency officials are talking as if they’ll frame the project as a choice between safety and traffic flow. That would be a page out of the old DOT playbook and a huge step backward.

When Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said DOT will come out with a plan for Amsterdam Avenue this fall, she added some caveats. “Amsterdam Avenue is challenging… Just the way the traffic moves and the configuration of the roadway do make it a more challenging road to redesign [than Columbus Avenue],” she said. “But we’re going to come up with some plans and we’re going to lay them out for the community board and for everyone who’s interested.”

Then at a press event late last month, DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo spoke candidly with me about how he views the politics of expanding the city’s bike network. At one point the conversation turned to the Upper West Side, where the agency had to be cajoled into proposing better bike lanes at the bowtie intersection of Broadway and Columbus Avenue last year. Russo defended the absence of bike lanes in DOT’s road diet plan for West End Avenue, saying they wouldn’t have been supported by residents of “green awning buildings” and local Council Member Helen Rosenthal.

I asked Russo why, in that case, Rosenthal is backing a protected bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue. “I don’t know. She hasn’t seen the numbers yet,” he said with a laugh. What numbers? “Our analysis,” he replied. “We’re going to bring it to the community board and explain to people what the implications are, like the commissioner said.”

The implication is that DOT expects Rosenthal and CB 7’s support to wither after the agency presents its plan. And if DOT trots out traffic models that predict carmageddon when Amsterdam has a protected bike lane and one less car lane, the agency will certainly be leading the conversation in that direction.

Although CB 7 has requested protected bike lanes on Amsterdam multiple times, bike lanes have faced consistent opposition from transportation committee co-chairs, Andrew Albert and Dan Zweig. “There is very heavy traffic and it is a truck route,” Zweig, a Rosenthal appointee, told the Post last month. “We don’t know if Amsterdam Avenue can accommodate a bike lane.”

Presenting an Amsterdam Avenue bikeway as a choice between safety and congestion would be troubling for several reasons. One is that traffic models are notoriously inaccurate and fail to account for the complexity of people’s travel decisions. A famous example that Upper West Siders will be familiar with: DOT traffic engineers insisted for years that restricting cars in Central Park would lead to intolerable spillover traffic on other streets, but whenever the city actually expands car-free hours, the traffic nightmare on neighborhood streets never materializes.

On Amsterdam Avenue, it’s not hard to see how traffic would settle in to a new equilibrium once the bike lane is in place. Fewer drivers may choose to use Amsterdam once they realize it’s no longer a speedway out of town. They’ll opt for the highway, where they belong. If DOT is still worried about traffic, the avenue’s curb regulations are begging for an update. Instead of equivocating on a critical safety project, the agency should tackle Amsterdam’s lack of loading zones and demand-responsive parking meter prices.

The fact is, much of the day, traffic congestion already isn’t a problem on Amsterdam. During off-peak hours, drivers regularly exceed the 25 mph speed limit — this is what DOT should be focused on fixing. Citywide, speed is the leading cause of fatal crashes, so it’s no coincidence that Amsterdam is one of the most dangerous streets on the Upper West Side.

And that brings us to the biggest red flag in Russo’s comments. The fundamental premise of Vision Zero, the street safety philosophy that purportedly guides DOT’s decisions, is that public officials have a moral obligation to prevent traffic deaths and injuries. On Amsterdam, narrowing the roadway to make room for a protected bike lane is going to make a big difference for safety, and DOT knows it. Traffic models are no excuse to go soft on a redesign that will save lives.

  • Zero Vision

    Shorter DOT: This neighborhood is not for the people who live there. It is for the people driving through.

    This is not JSK’s DOT. It’s more like Iris Weinshall’s.

  • djx

    Good time to post this – apologies to those who have seen it already

    “High-speed One-ways are like Watering Your Garden with a Firehose”
    http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2015/08/sidewalk-mailbox-6-high-speed-one-ways.html

  • Alexander Vucelic

    trottenberg hates pedestrains and vision zero

    trottenberg already reduced DOT goal of building 5 miles of protected bike lane per boro per year ( ie 20-25 miles per year ) to 5 miles in the entire city per year !

  • Mark Walker

    Our Vision Zero mayor has reduced the speed limit to 25 MPH. The next logical step is to reduce the design speed of streets to 25 MPH. Why is this such a tough lift for our Vision Zero mayor’s DOT? And why is DOT bending over backward to appease anyone advocating for driving behavior that was always dangerous and is now illegal?

  • millerstephen

    Citation, please. Where has DOT promised five miles of protected bike lanes per year in each borough? As far as I know, the agency has only committed to a citywide goal of five miles per year: http://www.streetsblog.org/2014/09/03/trottenberg-promises-to-expand-bike-network-keep-best-bicycling-city-crown/

  • Eric McClure

    If we all want this to be different, we need to be calling City Hall and telling Mayor de Blasio that we want these things, and that Vision Zero is impossible if we sacrifice safety to neighborhood politics. DOT needs to know that they’ll be backed by City Hall if they do what they need to do.

  • Reader

    Except that the community has already done that. Repeatedly. Over and over again.

    http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/activists-board-clash-safety-uws-article-1.2103893

    Even this community board, which isn’t exactly the biggest fan of bikes, asked for something big on Amsterdam.

    http://www.streetsblog.org/2015/07/08/all-eyes-on-dot-after-cb-7-endorses-amsterdam-ave-protected-bike-lane/

    DOT has an open invitation to be innovative here and, from the sounds of it, is going to offer something disappointing.

    There are just too many examples of community boards and community members asking for great things from this DOT and getting something watered down.

    http://www.streetsblog.org/2015/04/07/let-down-by-bike-lane-cb-member-asks-dot-to-put-safety-before-parking/

    We’re banging our heads against the wall while Trottenbeg dials back the progress of the last eight years. It’s a disaster. People need to do more than just make phone calls. They need to demonstrate. TA needs to go on the attack. Something needs to change.

  • Eric McClure

    I’m well aware of all that. If DOT isn’t being bold, I would guess it’s because they’re not feeling certain of being backed up. In my opinion, we need to push at City Hall, not 55 Water Street.

  • Reader

    My sense is that DOT has more support at City Hall than most people think. They’re just not proposing anything worth going out on a limb for, other than Queens Blvd.

  • BBnet3000

    The Vision Zero plans for each borough imply it, though it certainly can be argued that it’s just bad wording. I think that it’s purposely vague wording because they were about to lower the bar at the time of writing:

    That is why DOT will work closely with communities in Brooklyn to expand a bicycle network that improves safety for all road users, including constructing an additional 5 lane miles of protected bike lanes per year.

  • BBnet3000

    If we can’t have a lane on Amsterdam can we at least finish the narrow green painted rutty gutter “protected bike lanes” on 8th and 9th Avenues?

  • Maggie

    For Pete’s sake! This is currently a six-lane road. Cyclists shouldn’t have to worry that DOT’s design puts them at risk of getting smooshed by a truck on their way home or to dinner. There is plenty of room for a complete street with a bike lane.

  • Andrew
  • Alexander Vucelic

    in JSK days – goal was explicility 5 Miles per year in Manhattan of protected bike lanes and implicit in other 3 boros.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    exactly

    a trottenberg has reduced this to 1/5 of the goal

  • rao

    The problem with moving the traffic to the highway is that much of that traffic is trucks. The city really should figure out how to retrofit the Henry Hudson to put trucks on it. Crazy that they go thru city neighborhoods instead.

  • Andrew

    The problem with moving the traffic to the highway is that much of that traffic is trucks.

    Four lanes worth of trucks? (No, not even close.)

  • Miles Bader

    Because reducing the design speed would be much harder to reverse at the drop of a hat…. ><

  • HamTech87

    He is already assuming Rosenthal is going to reverse course? Shouldn’t be too hard for her since her real intentions were made clear when she reappointed Dan Zweig to the CB. fwiw, the folks I know who voted for her in the last election are regretting not voting for Mel Wymore.

  • WoodyinNYC

    Retrofit what?

    There’s no overhead crossing on the Henry Hudson until your truck is deep in the Bronx.

    So we should open the Henry Hudson to buses immediately.

  • ahwr

    http://i.imgur.com/9TN28NL.jpg

    In the Bronx SB approaching the HH bridge.

    http://i.imgur.com/4Wosuv3.jpg

    NB near the GW bridge. A little higher in the middle I guess. How tall is a bus?

    What’s the condition of the highway structure? It doesn’t need to be built as strong to hold cars as it does to hold buses and trucks. How about the entrances and exits? Can all of them be used?

  • Matthias

    I’d love to see the avenues returned to two-way traffic. In addition to making it easier to get around since they’re so far apart, this would calm traffic somewhat and perhaps allow a planted median. There’s clearly a need to travel both ways, as the “salmoning” phenomenon demonstrates.

  • SheRidesABike

    There is at least one overpass on the NB Henry Hudson in upper Manhattan — the walk/bike path at 181st Street. It’s low enough that I’ve seen at least one semi pulled over because it was too low (edited! didn’t meant to say “too high”) to go under (and the driver recognized that before doing any damage). So perhaps I misunderstand, but there is a fairly low overpass up there. That might present problems for allowing busses and trucks on the NB section. Which is too bad.

    I used to see SB Academy busses on a regular basis when riding or walking the Hudson River Greenway, so you may be right about the SB lanes. I don’t recall seeing any overpasses on the uptown SB lanes.

  • KeNYC2030

    I’ve been told that it’s not just a matter of retrofitting — it’s a matter of changing state law, a more daunting challenge. If anyone knows more about this, I’d appreciate hearing. But I question whether “much of the traffic” is trucks. I’ve done evening rush-hour counts at 86th and Amsterdam and found about 5 percent is trucks, with very few 18-wheelers.

  • J

    The problem is that Russo’s traffic models assume that people never change route/modes/travel times when streets change. I bet they also predict that traffic will continue to grow at 1% per year until the end of time.

  • ahwr

    Overpass at 181

    http://i.imgur.com/zS1dx3g.jpg

    SB buses might have trouble entering Manhattan though, the Henry Hudson bridge is a two deck bridge, south bound is on the bottom with a posted height restriction of 9’9″. I think buses need permits to use parkways, assuming they fit on the stretch they want to use, I don’t know how often they use them without a permit. The B83 in Brooklyn uses Shore parkway for one exit.

    http://i.imgur.com/jIpyEQM.jpg

    Several express buses use the FDR

    http://i.imgur.com/6ICQDqv.jpg

  • ahwr

    The problem is that Russo’s traffic models assume that people never change route/modes/travel times when streets change.

    Have a source on that?

  • J

    Years of experience submitting traffic analyses to NYCDOT. Someone should ask them directly: “Does your analysis assume that existing traffic volumes stay the same in the scenario with fewer lanes?” I’d bet quite a lot of money that the answer is yes.

    The dirty little secret, though, is that the more you tell people that traffic is going to suck after the changes, the quicker people will adapt their behavior, and the lower the impact, but I doubt Russo is that savvy or that invested in promoting bicycling to pursue that line of logic.

    Point is, though, that people are fairly rational, and no one is going to just sit in terrible traffic if they have other options to get around, and on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, there are LOTS of options.

  • BBnet3000

    This is the one option that is never on the table and draws a blank stare from the powers that be.

    It was a 1950s “innovation” to move more cars into Manhattan and has made Manhattan a worse place to be outside of a car, but we appear to be stuck with the one way avenues.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    two way avenues would do more to calm traffic than most any other single improvement.

    but it’s never going to happen within our lifetime – imagine the teaching and learning curve to even begin to start a discussion on the subject. better to focus time and energy on building on JSKs legacy –

    ‘streets are for people’
    ‘complete streets’
    ‘increase space for pedestrians via plazas, bump outs, and wider sidewalks’
    ’20 miles of new protected bikes lanes annually’
    ‘enforce 25 MPH speed limit’
    ‘market clearing prices for street parking’

  • millerstephen

    That’s just not true. Again, citation please.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    see below

    I do know JSK DOT explicitly had a goal of 5 miles of protected bike lane per year for only Manhattan.

    Brooklyn & Queens implictedly had each a 5 Mile goal rather strongly bit still implied.

    Bronx – less strongly implied but still There

    SI – well There’s always an reception idd’t there ?

    5+5+5+?+o+0 = 15 – 25 Miles per year

  • ahwr

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/stratplan_compplan.pdf

    Published in spring 2008.

    Mobility Actions
    Make bicycling safer and more convenient

    Install 15 additional miles of protected on–street bike lanes by 2010 and 30 miles from 2011–2015.

    Not clear from that report what years the first 15 miles covers, but I would’ve guessed 2008-2015, so 5 miles a year citywide.

    2011-2015 the goal was 6 miles a year citywide.

    If you look at the update published the next year,

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/ss09_update_lowres.pdf

    Install 15 additional miles of protected on street bike lanes

    is listed as 2007-2009 project. So 5 miles/year.

    And then in 2013…

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/2013-dot-sustainable-streets-lowres.pdf

    As of summer 2013, there were 30 miles of protected bicycle lanes in New York, with additional miles such as Vernon Boulevard along the East River in Queens still undergoing implementation

    If they were meeting a goal of 15+ miles a year and they started in 2007 wouldn’t they have a lot more than 30 done by 2013?

    What city document or press release or public statement said they’d be building 15-25 miles of protected bikeways a year under the previous administration? Or that they planned for the next administration to do so, since clearly they never did.

  • Andrew

    I strongly disagree.

    I’ve found that motorists making left turns off of two-way streets are much less likely to remember to watch for pedestrians than motorists making left turns off of one-way streets.

    When traffic isn’t heavy, one way streets are also incredibly easy to cross safely mid-block, when it’s clear that no traffic is approaching. Two-way streets require timing one’s cross for when traffic isn’t approaching from either side, which is less common and is harder to watch for.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    true if we are talking about trying to cross 6 12′ lanes of two way motor traffic (72′ wide) moving at 45mph.

    however, I’m thinking we are envisioning two-way Avenues having 2 10′ lanes in each direction ( ie 40′ wide ) traveling at the 25 mph speed limit. ( or even better and more sensible traveling at a 20 mph limit like First World Countries demand ) That would be safest. 🙂

  • Alex 3speed

    I wasn’t reading much over the weekend. But this is basically what it feels like to bike down Amsterdam. https://youtu.be/kcFKItTtIxM?t=1m4s And it’s even worse at night.

    The Cb will gripe over pushing traffic to Broadway, which is already a hassle and dangerous in its own right. Drivers will not want to do this because anyone who has tried to coast up Broadway knows you simply cannot ride green lights in the same way as you can on Amsterdam. Of course, this is not a reason to oppose a redesign, but absolutely why one needs to happen.

    As a few have already mentioned, traffic on Amsterdam is already lighter than it was on Columbus. So while the protected lane actually decreased travel time on Columbus, traffic calming/increased travel time should be the goal on Amsterdam. The problems on Amsterdam are more related to lane changing and speeding because of 1) too many lanes and 2) due to lack of loading zones and 3) underused metered parking. Getting traffic moving smoothly and safely should be the goal under Vision Zero.

  • 1soReal

    Overhead clearance isn’t the only factor. Many of NYC area highways are too antiquated to accommodate lots of truck traffic. Lane width, lack of shoulders, short to no merging/decelerating lanes, and curves are other reasons for commercial/truck restrictions on parkways.

  • WoodyinNYC

    Robert Caro, in his landmark biography of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker”, suggested that the reason they
    planned to keep buses off the parkways was to keep undesirable from the city (blacks ESPECIALLY, and Puerto Rican immigrants, but all poor persons in general) from reaching the lily white suburbs.

    I doubt if anything about that policy has changed in the minds of those with power.

  • Andrew

    Doesn’t address my point. At all.

  • WoodyinNYC

    OK, so the trucks wait until the road gets a regular rebuild, this time strengthened to handle the heavier vehicles. But with the NB overpass above, well, I’m no engineer, but in my mind’s eye I see a bunch of standard issue machines digging a few feet deeper into the bedrock and then lowering the roadway to allow easy passage for busses. I see busses going SB near this same spot in one of the photos below.

  • WoodyinNYC

    Great photo of the overpass. Well, raise it a few feet next time it gets a major overhaul. (Looks like that could be soon.) Or dig down and lower the roadway a few feet.

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CB 7 Members, Upper West Siders Back Amsterdam Ave Protected Bikeway

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The room was packed last night for DOT’s long-awaited plan for a protected bike lane and pedestrian islands on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side [PDF], with about 120 people turning out at the Manhattan Community Board 7 transportation committee meeting. Most residents and committee members praised the plan, though no vote was held. DOT says it […]