Melinda Katz Tries to Kill Queens Blvd Bike Lane in the Name of “Community”

Tuesday night’s meeting on the redesign of Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst was one of the uglier exercises in petty community board obstructionism in recent memory.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz thinks parking mandates are more important than Photo: MelindaKatz/Twitter
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. Photo: MelindaKatz/Twitter

Queens Community Board 4 District Manager Christian Cassagnol said the safety of cyclists should be “an afterthought.”

The board, as is its custom, didn’t allow members of the public to speak about the project until after they voted.

The vote was a hastily-called show of hands, orchestrated by board chair Lou Walker, to “accept the safety plan for Queens Boulevard except the bike lane.” Good luck making sense of that resolution — the safety plan and the bike lane are inseparable.

Who thinks life-or-death decisions about street design should be entrusted to this process? Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.

After Mayor de Blasio instructed DOT to proceed with the Queens Boulevard project in full, Katz released this statement. It’s a classic attempt to kill a street safety project by hiding behind the word “community”:

Safety is paramount, including that of pedestrians, cyclists and motorists. To my repeated requests last summer to DOT for a borough-wide perspective on bike lanes, the agency stated they were unable to accommodate such requests because bike lanes are solely community-driven and community-generated. The Community Board’s vote this week, however, contradicts the assertion that this plan is driven and generated by the community. At the very least, it indicates failure on the part of the agency to adequately address the Board’s concerns on the proposed plan.

Any action to install bike lanes along this stretch at this time, regardless of merit, would therefore and understandably be perceived as an imposition by the administration, running directly counter to and overriding the Community Board’s explicitly-stated wishes. Safety is a shared priority, and there must be a better way to involve communities in expanding bike lanes.

Queens Boulevard spans across not just one but many Community Board and elected officials’ districts. Instead of approaching bike lanes in a vacuum and in piece-meal, segmented fashion, the plan should be postponed for now until the agency can produce a truly community-driven, community-generated, borough-wide plan for the future of bike lanes not only along Queens Boulevard but throughout the borough. In the shared interest of enhancing safety and collaboration, I offer a standing invitation to the agency to present such a plan to the full Queens Borough Board.

In other words: delay, delay, delay, and whatever you do, don’t take action to prevent injuries and deaths. Public safety should be held in check to satisfy the whims of Christian Cassagnol and Lou Walker. As for people who bike on Queens Boulevard, everyone who’s volunteered their time to work on this safety plan, and the residents who’ve been calling on City Hall to put a protected bike lane on the street for nearly a decade — they don’t matter.

Katz is relying heavily on the fact that Community Board 4 includes the word “community.” But community boards are seldom representative of the population at large, neighborhood opinion is never monolithic, and expecting total agreement before proceeding with a major street redesign is a recipe for stasis. Should Katz and the people she appointed to CB 4 trump local Council Member Danny Dromm, Mayor de Blasio, the residents fighting to make their neighborhood streets more walkable and bikeable, and, most importantly, the clear public safety benefits of proceeding with the redesign?

Lizi Rahman at a rally for the Queens Boulevard redesign before Tuesday’s CB 4 meeting. Photo: David Meyer

For the record, the campaign for a protected bike lane on Queens Boulevard goes back to 2008, when Lizi Rahman began calling on the city to act after her son Asif was struck and killed by a truck driver while biking on the street. After seven years of patient advocacy, the city took action and DOT put down a protected bike lane and pedestrian improvements between Roosevelt Avenue and 73rd Street in 2015. When DOT held a public workshop on the second phase of the Queens Boulevard redesign last November, extending the protected bike lane through Elmhurst was tops on the to-do list.

Any borough-wide bike plan would be worthless if it didn’t include a safe route on Queens Boulevard, one of the only continuous east-west routes in Queens. Cutting off the further extension of this bike lane, which currently consists of a 1.3-miles segment in Woodside, is exactly what would produce the “piece-meal, segmented” outcome that Katz purports to oppose.

Queens CB 4 voted to “accept” this project “except the bike lane” — good luck making sense of that.

Some City Council members have recently floated some ideas for community board reform, like term limits and surveying the demographic makeup of each board. Another reform I would suggest is to simply rename community boards so politicians like Katz can’t exploit the association with the word “community.”

“Local appointee board” doesn’t roll off the tongue, but it’s a lot more accurate.

  • JamesR

    “Provincial-Minded Retiree Board” is even more accurate.

    In all honestly, the workload frequently placed on volunteer CB members is often so large that only the retired or financially independent can put in the time without burning out. Folks with young children, those who work long hours, etc can’t keep up.

  • Vooch

    A comprehensive plan already exists, just look at any NYC bike map. The green dotted lines are future bike lanes.

    The Queens Blvd redesign is part of a all boro goal of targeting the most dangerous streets. Queens Blvd. leads in death and destruction. The DOT is redesigning and implementing QB in tiny 1 mile sections. . 4 years to do 4 miles.

  • gneiss

    Tribalism, pure and simple. Since “bikers” aren’t part of their tribe and represent a minority of users currently on the street it’s easy to bash them in public and gain political points. However, people die as a result of these games. Stay classy, Melinda.

  • Not all community boards behave like this. As a matter of fact, this board was particularly incorrect to present and vote on an amended proposal in this fashion. If they’d done the amendment vote properly, it likely would have been defeated.

    Katz has to answer to that, too.

  • From Katz’ statement on Queens Blvd: “To my repeated requests last summer to DOT for a borough-wide perspective on bike lanes, the agency stated they were unable to accommodate such requests because bike lanes are solely community-driven and community-generated.”

    Compare to the petition from the opponents to the Clinton Ave bike lane in Brooklyn: “The changes to Lafayette and Clinton are piecemeal, and are missing an overall vision for traffic in the area. We demand community and NYPD Inclusion in DOT changes – and no changes without a comprehensive, public, area-wide traffic plan.”

    Note the similarities: one calls for “a borough-wide perspective” while the other calls for “an overall perspective” and a “comprehensive…area-wide traffic plan.” In other words, no bike lanes until we can plan them all at once, which everyone knows will never happen.

    There’s almost nothing separated an anti-safety public official from random neighborhood cranks. It would be funny if lives weren’t at stake.

  • Why exactly do we allow Community Boards to have an outsized voice in street planning that affects everyone?

  • Bluewndrpwrmlk96

    Actually, I think the DOT broke the three segments according to the boundary conditions of each community board’s district. If you take the boundaries of CB 2, 4 and 6 and put it on top of the three phases, I bet it would match. Coincidence? i don’t think so.

  • Bluewndrpwrmlk96

    And even still, it was planned already. Bicycle Master Plan of 1997.

  • Simon Phearson

    Given that the BPs are tasked with naming CB members and the CB members are, as far as I can tell, accountable to no one else, I think we ought to get into the habit of blaming BPs when their CBs misbehave. As they did, here; as they’ve done elsewhere when they flout their own rules on transparency and procedure; as they’ve done elsewhere then they’ve openly engaged in racist and sexist commentary; etc., etc.

    Melinda Katz says that the “community” wasn’t listened to, willfully ignoring the long process the DOT has already been engaged in with the affected communities. What she means is that her concerns were not given overriding weight over her community’s.

  • Cristina Carnicelli Furlong

    And- why oh why do city agencies work together to research, print, distribute and recommend the annually revised bike map to hundreds of thousands of cyclists? It’s all there, and most likely any stretch of it has been heard at a community board. True for every borough. Enough already with the borough wide delay. Katz and others citywide desperately need to do some recon on bikes to fully understand, and understand they will in a matter of minutes- when it comes to safety, or hours, when it comes to who is biking, why and where.

  • Queens Resident

    When I heard that Guardian Angels’ Sliwa said he was gonna run for Queens BP, I thought there was no way I could vote for him, even over Katz who I gave lukewarm support to. But now? Could he be any worse? If he runs, he’ll be getting lots more votes.

  • We don’t. Anytime the city wants to add space for cars, it rarely has to send DOT reps before community boards. Only when space is taken away from drivers is community input suddenly important.

  • multimodal

    Aside from a bigger megaphone than your avg neighborhood crank, what power does Katz have to stop the DoT?

  • The mayor is in the right. CB’s are given “advisory” not veto power. I mean, the majority of the folks on the CB have zero expertise in traffic planning, management or engineering, I mean would we trust the DM and CB4 to step in the middle of a heart operation to offer their advice on that? Not much difference.

  • Seth Rosenblum

    They did this in Brooklyn too. They added a Lafayette avenue bike lane, but only from Fulton to Classon because that’s where CB2 ends. They knew if they had to go to CB3, which is much less friendly to safe streets initiatives, it would potentially stall the project.

  • Joe R.

    They shouldn’t even be given advisory power on matters of transportation engineering any more than they should have input on sewer lines. They’re woefully ignorant on this subject. It plainly shows.

  • KillMoto

    How bout we call them “NIMBY Boards”?

  • Queens Resident

    We should just let the DOT do it’s job. They are very smart people. They have gone to school, interned and worked their way up to gain this knowledge. When people on a CB can just vote without even reading or researching the materials on what they are voting on (and they had many, many months to do so) it’s a disgrace. Katz is a disgrace for supporting them. How much money we have wasted over the years (and people dying) because the DOT is limited by the CBs (being that advisory power is usually upheld) is sad. It’s too bad the City Council can’t pass something saying once DOT has a plan that they need only present it once and give the community a reasonable amount of time for feedback and delay. Look at how many years CB4 has delayed and toyed with people’s safety on 111th Street!

  • Community Board watcher

    Here’s how this works:

    – Concerned neighborhood residents work for years to fix a dangerous street, signing petitions, holding workshops, recruiting support from businesses, and reaching out to sympathetic public officials.
    – DOT listens to these concerns and drafts a plan with even more public input.
    – A few people on the “Community Board” use parliamentary tricks to reject the plan. Because parking or congestion or something that hasn’t happened anywhere else.
    – Concerned members of the community get upset, justifiably so.
    – Elected official implies that these complainers are outsiders and not members of the community. She tries to present herself as above the fray, and calls for people to respect the process. She may even call those who remain upset “nasty.” (See Brewer, Gale.)
    – Plan eventually gets implemented anyway, but not before more people are killed.

    Rinse, lather, repeat. Great way to run a city you’ve got there.

  • Joe R.

    Exactly my point. I liken this situation with CBs advising DOT to my customers telling me what parts to use when I design a circuit instead of just telling me what they want it to do. I’m fine with CBs advising DOT where unsafe intersections might be so it can take action. However, whatever form that action takes should be entirely up to DOT. I get tired for example of hearing know-nothings on CBs telling DOT we need a traffic light here or a stop sign there. It’s even worse when CBs start tying DOT hands with stipulations like parking spots can’t be removed. They’re effectively setting DOT up for failure.

    And then you have the idiocy here where the CB is OK with everything except the bike lane. Either they’re being willfully obtuse or just stupid, but the bike lane is an integral part of the entire plan. This isn’t an a la carte menu where you pick and choose only the parts you like. The “missiles on wheels” line about bikes was priceless as well.

    I’m glad the Mayor finally got some balls but he should have done this ages ago. In his shoes my answer to the CB4’s “input” would have been f*ck you and have a nice day. As I said earlier, it’s long past time CBs had no say in the specifics of anything DOT does. If DOT decides a roundabout is the best answer instead of yet another traffic light, so be it. If they decide a bike lane is integral to making the street safer, so be it. If they decide parking needs to be removed for whatever reason then that’s how it goes.

  • thfs

    strangely, yes he could.

  • J

    First, let me say that I support De Blasio’s decision and I think the CB process was really awful. I do think Katz is trying to use the process argument to derail a good project to appease local NIMBYs. However, I also think Katz has a point on how to plan a transportation network. DOT can’t say that they’re only going to do “community-driven projects” but then arbitrarily pick who actually represents the community.

    The problem is that transportation is both a local and citywide problem. Some parts are highly localized (parking, sidewalks, etc.) and some are of citywide importance (bus, bike, and car routes travel continuously through many neighborhoods and boroughs). Effective governance is achieved by making decisions at the level of the issue. Thus transportation decisions must be made at BOTH the local and citywide level. To balance the two, it is necessary to first have a citywide (or boroughwide) transportation plan to ensure that the transportation network effectively links and is continuous across multiple neighborhoods and boroughs. DOT has repeatedly shirked this responsibility. Without a vision for the network, it is impossible to say that any piece is particularly important to the network. Imagine if every few blocks of subway line were voted on by the local community board. It would be a disjointed disaster.

    Local communities can play an important role in figuring out how to best accommodate citywide needs in their local areas. A great example for this was with the Citibike planning. There was a plan for the city, and then the local community figured out how to best accommodate that plan according to the nuances of their area. This should be the type of process for bicycle infrastructure.

    Instead, DOT waits for each “community” to propose a project, none of which are part of any public network plan, then they design those projects and let each Community Board fight over whether they want to actually build them. Sometimes DOT does what the CB recommends and sometimes they don’t. There is no clear reason why they listen to some and not others. This is no way to build a transportation network.

  • AnoNYC

    They should be able to bring attention to an issue, nothing more.

  • J

    Yep. ZERO leadership from DOT. No large scale network planning. Totally opaque and inconsistent decision making. The process seems deliberately designed to create as much conflict as possible.

  • J

    That plan is from 1997, when most bike routes were simply signs on the side of the street. I would hardly say that anyone involved with these issues thinks that the 1997 plan represents the current vision for a NYC bike network.

  • I think you raise a lot of good points here. I think it’s also worth considering how community =/= Community Board. There’s a gap here that’s hard to bridge at times.

  • J

    Indeed. Which is why a broader process of engagement is so crucial. Otherwise it becomes the city arbitrarily picking who gets to represent the “community” in each instance, which is highly problematic.

  • Emmily_Litella

    What bike network in Queens would not include Queens Blvd? Just look at map,there is no alternative east west route through central Queens. If bikes can’t be accommodated on a 150 to 175′ wide street, where would else should they go? DOT is doing its job just fine. QB is the spine that you build more network branches upon.

  • Vooch

    joking right ?

  • Morris Zapp

    How NYC can and should allow DOT to plan and build out bike lanes and other safety measures in a cohesive and comprehensive manner: Remove community boards from the process altogether.

  • J

    I agree that Queens Blvd is an obvious route that can easily accommodate a bike lane. My point, though, was that DOT’s process was terrible. DOT is saying that this is a community-led project but has no definition of who the community is. They say it’s a crucial link in the bicycle network but have no plan for what the the bicycle network will look like.

    While I think the network argument is pretty obvious in this case, in other places (Clinton Ave), the logic is much less clear and repeatedly leads to a watered disjointed network. Overall, not a great way to plan for a bicycle network.

  • J

    DOT hasn’t bothered referring to the 1997 Bike plan in bike route presentations in years, since so few of their projects bear any relation to it anymore.

  • Joe R.

    I agree there should be an overall citiwide vision from DOT regarding things like bike lanes. That’s woefully lacking. It’s one reason we have what is effectively a disjointed, circuitous bike network.

    I’m not sure exactly how a community board could be of use accommodating a particular bike project running through their area unless there are several more or less equally good routes. In that case they might offer input on which route to choose. In the case here, there really aren’t any viable alternatives to Queens Boulevard. Queens in general suffers from a really disjointed street grid broken up willy nilly by expressways, parks, railroads, cemeteries, superblocks, etc. As such, there are few good contiguous north-south or east-west routes.

    Community board input lends itself much more readily to things like the location of bike parking or Citibike stations. There are always loads of alternatives here. I’m all for letting community boards have some say on these matters.

    As for the Queens Boulevard bike lane, I’m not sure what could have been done differently to make it more palatable given that some of the complaints seemed incoherent at best (especially the one likening bikes to missiles on wheels). I personally would have went with an elevated bike viaduct on the entirety of Queens Boulevard for a variety of reasons like safety, travel time, eliminating conflicts with pedestrians. I think such a thing could have been a great showpiece which would have resulted in a lot more such lanes being built along major arterials. Queens Boulevard would have been a natural place to build it. However, the budget just isn’t there for it, at least not now. What we have instead is a decent start. Down the road maybe we could eventually build such a thing but in the meantime you have to walk before you can run. That said, I wonder if CBs would actually be more receptive to bike viaducts given that they wouldn’t require as much parking loss, wouldn’t take away travel lanes, and would put bikes far away from pedestrians. The cost would probably be the main issue, but in terms of NYC’s budget it’s still a rounding error.

  • Vooch

    LOL – funniest thing I read today.

  • Guest

    The City sets community boards up for failure. They lack clear mandates, structure, and procedures; dozens of volunteers are expected to self-organize with virtually no staff to deal with every issue confronted by City government. Plus the agencies have no real partnership to help them. Some agencies ignore them entirely, some are hostile and deliberately misleading, and others show up at random times as strangers to provide thoughtful, well-intended plans that are complicated for novices to follow. The City should decide if it wants to give the boards some structure and resources and treat them like partners, or disband them and provide better community outreach directly from the agencies. The current set-up just creates ill will all around.

  • J

    Indeed. There is even a law that requires DOT to present to CBs before removing a bike lane, but they simply ignore it. Because cars!

  • J

    ??

  • Kevin Love

    Or adjust their mandate. Streets connect every part of the city. Street safety should be like public water safety: not part of the community board mandate.

    Let them comment on liquor licences, etc. Not street safety.

  • van_vlissingen

    Rename: Advisory Board

  • Flakker

    Precisely, this is the point J drove at earlier and I think it’s fair for Streetsblog to take an official stance on this issue: everyone’s best off when local unelected boards don’t get a formal say on transportation issues. They just don’t know what they’re talking about. They often feel like they do, because they have experience with local roads. It’s analogous to everyone feeling like an expert on education because they spent years in school.
    Let’s stop pretending that there’s some kind of local homespun wisdom from the simple locals in every neighborhood. The evidence suggests that on average, there is not.

  • Flakker

    I have not seen an article on Streetsblog ever come this close to a point I’ve been making for a while now: “community” is a cloying, meaningless word in politics and we should all stop using it outside of specific circumstances.

    It seems to me that “community” could be almost anything, from a catchall word for a polity no matter how un-communal (unincorporated rural upstate hamlet) to a few blocks in a city, to, as is our case here, an arbitrary grouping of neighborhoods. It’s useless. It exists solely to abet politicians and advocates in being vague about everything.

  • Flakker

    For a bonus article in this genre, let’s look back to last year where a not-particularly-progressive community board actually approved a bike lane without incident, after the SI Advance had whined for months about such things being imposed from above by alien, “urban” bureaucrats. Can you guess the response of Sen. Diane “Find a f-ing bike lane and get in it” Savino?
    http://www.silive.com/northshore/index.ssf/2015/09/oddo_savino_raise_concerns_abo.html

    ‘Community Board 1 was sold on the entire proposal.

    “The bike lanes were a small part of a bigger plan to improve
    traffic,” said Community Board 1 Chair Nicholas Siclari. “When [DOT
    Deputy Borough Commissioner] Ed Pincar came to the community board with
    the proposal, I said, ‘That’s what we need to get traffic moving.'”

    Savino was not as enthused.

    “This shows maybe these decisions shouldn’t be left solely to the
    Community Board,” she said. “We need to talk about expanding the process
    for approving things like this.”‘

  • JamesR

    Agree 100% with the above, it’s all true based on my experience on a CB.

  • JamesR

    The CB is the NYC equivalent of a local town planning board. They were originally Community *Planning* Boards. The main difference is that your typical town planning board will have 5-8 members and deal solely with land use, while a CB has dozens of members and deals with the full gamut of local government issues, yet without any real binding authority. IIRC the original impetus for the creation of CBs 40 years ago was as a check on Moses-style technocracy running rampant over local communities. Perhaps it’s swung too far in the other direction.

  • Vooch

    get yourself a paper copy of the 2016 NYC bike map from your local bike shop – the DOT master plan is very clear. It’s the dotted green lines. It’s so obvious there does not need to be a big discussion about it.

    implementation is data driven

  • Jeff C

    Since they’re already using funds to redesign Queens Blvd, I wished they had considered a creating a separate bus lane for all the numerous express buses that so that they don’t have to be stuck in traffic. I think all express bus riders can agree that our commutes have only gotten longer compared to a decade ago because of increased single-person occupied vehicles.

  • snrvlakk

    Yes, you’re right about that–the phases do jibe exactly with the CB boundaries. It is unfortunate that it will take 3 years to implement this plan (assuming it does finally get done). On the other hand, this phasing does allow us to see, in Woodside, how very well the redesign works, undercutting CB4’s baseless opposition.

  • Bernard Finucane

    As I recall from a recent video on the project I saw on this site, the city is planning a $100m “capital project” to turn the street into a multiway boulevard. I guess the city government has gotten outside funds to do this, and doesn’t want its plans interfered with.

  • Vooch

    DOH ! great Insight

  • Vooch

    Phase 1 of a 2 Phase project

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