Good Riddance to the Prospect Park West Bike Lane Lawsuit

Here to stay. Photo: NYC DOT

The people suing to remove the Prospect Park West bike lane have given up, more than five years after initiating a lawsuit that nearly sank New York City’s bike program.

In a statement, Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes and Seniors for Safety (“organizations” that, to the best of my knowledge, now stand in for two people — former Brooklyn College dean Louise Hainline and former deputy mayor Norman Steisel) say they are dropping the lawsuit because it “is unlikely to result in any significant change.”

The irony, though, is that the lawsuit was the centerpiece of a campaign that did lasting harm to the whole city.

Steisel and Hainline filed suit in March 2011 after months of saber-rattling by Jim Walden, a corporate lawyer at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher whose services they acquired pro bono thanks to former NYC DOT commissioner Iris Weinshall.

The purpose of the lawsuit wasn’t so much to win in court as to inflict maximum political damage on NYC DOT until the city cried Uncle. It was news because it was a lawsuit about bike lanes, not because it had any legal merit. And it was the perfect vehicle to lob unsubstantiated attacks at the city’s bike program.

A core tactic was to identify vacuums in public knowledge and shamelessly exploit them. Walden, for instance, got a ton of mileage out of the fact that most people — including most reporters — have no idea what the standard procedure is to assess the impact of a street redesign on injury rates. Which method is trustworthy — the DOT method that says the street is safer with the bike lane, or the Jim Walden method that says it’s not? There was a correct answer, but the NBBL crew knew that most reporters would be pathologically averse to taking sides.

Discussing the bike lane on NY1 at one point, Walden, who helped take down the Bonanno crime family when he worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, said that “as a former federal prosecutor, I’ve never really seen something like this.” The DOT bicycle program — worse than the mob!

They were relentless, and for a while it seemed like they might permanently cripple the city’s ability to implement protected bike lanes. For about eight months, I woke up in a cold sweat every night thinking about how Streetsblog should counter the latest attack.

The city never did say Uncle. What saved the bike lane were four things: the lawsuit’s lack of basic merit; the refusal of Council Member Brad Lander, DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, and Mayor Bloomberg to cave; the advocates who fought back; and the large number of people who used and appreciated the new design, which worked really well. If, at any point, the city had actually removed the PPW bike lane, the protest would have been enormous.

After the lawsuit was dismissed in August 2011 (it staggered along on appeal until yesterday), Streetsblog acquired and published emails from Hainline, Steisel, and Weinshall that revealed the astounding network of political and media contacts they recruited for their campaign.

It turned out that the principal players in NBBL had instigated tabloid editorials against NYC DOT initiatives, drafted legislation to slow the progress of street redesigns, and prodded surrogates in government to generally gum up the works for DOT. There was no visible connection to NBBL and its members at the time these attacks were happening. It wasn’t until Streetsblog published their correspondence that people could see their fingerprints.

As much as I would like to be gracious in victory, the fact is Hainline and Steisel set back New York City’s street safety efforts by at least a few years. The bike program survived, but it lost a lot of momentum because of this lawsuit. In some ways, NYC DOT still seems scarred by it and more hesitant to think big about street redesigns.

Yesterday’s NBBL statement is not an apology. It’s a longwinded attempt to save face and maintain the fiction that they sued to erase a perfectly safe and functional bike lane out of a sense of civic duty, not selfishness. It’s their last jab, a final round of misinformation to plant in the news cycle.

The only thing left to say is good riddance.


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