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DOT Still Lacks a Plan for Better Walking and Biking in the Heart of Midtown

2:05 PM EDT on September 26, 2017

Fifth Avenue at 48th Street: Lots of space for cars, cramped conditions on the margins for people walking and biking. Photo: Google Maps

Sidewalks are overflowing and the bike network still doesn't provide safe access to the biggest job center in the city. Between 34th Street and Central Park, east of Eighth Avenue and west of Second Avenue, the only protected bike lane is the southbound route on Broadway. And it looks like DOT has no plans to change that.

At a Community Board 5 transportation committee meeting last night, DOT presented a project that would add a second bus lane to Fifth Avenue in the Midtown core [PDF]. Improvements for biking and walking were absent from the agency's proposal, however, and for several committee members, as well as a room full of volunteers with Transportation Alternatives, that was a glaring oversight.

Four years ago, CB 5 passed a resolution asking DOT to study transit priority, protected bike lanes, and pedestrian improvements on Fifth and Sixth avenues. While Sixth Avenue got a protected bike lane up to 34th Street in 2016, and DOT added protection to the Fifth Avenue bike lane below 24th Street this summer, the agency still hasn't extended a safe, north-south bike route through the heart of Midtown.

"There is no safe route to get to that area for cyclists and it is somewhat miserable for pedestrians," said Greenwich Village resident Janet Liff, a leader of TransAlt's campaign for complete streets on Fifth and Sixth.

The existing Fifth Avenue bus lane carries about 75,000 bus riders each weekday, making it by far the most intensively used of the street's five travel lanes. DOT is proposing a second bus lane between 61st Street and 34th Street to further prioritize those trips and speed up transit travel times.

Liff and about 30 other attendees urged the committee to make its support for the bus lane expansion conditional on the inclusion of protected bike lanes.

"I make a choice very often not to make rides that I would, because I'm too afraid in that area," said Elisabeth Dyssegaard, who lives in the East Village and works in the southern part of Midtown. "I'm forced to take the subway when I'd much rather take my bicycle."

DOT wants to add a second bus lane to Fifth Avenue, but is holding off on bike and pedestrian improvements. Image: DOT
DOT wants to add a second bus lane to Fifth Avenue but has no plan for biking and walking improvements. Image: DOT

DOT Manhattan Deputy Borough Commissioner Ed Pincar said the agency would look into protected bike lanes but offered no concrete commitments.

"This really is not the last time we'll be looking at Fifth Avenue," he said. "We are starting with this small bus lane change that we think is going to help, and we will continue to evaluate the whole corridor for potential enhancements."

Some committee members weren't satisfied with DOT's slow, piecemeal approach to walking and biking improvements in the area. "We're only getting a little bit of something each time, and that's not good enough for the value of this real estate," George Haikalis said. "Is this the way to manage property that's worth millions and millions of dollars?"

The committee ultimately voted 10 to 6 endorse the bus lane expansion without conditions.

While the project will make bus trips faster, DOT's hesitance to create a cohesive network of wide sidewalks and protected bike lanes in the busiest part of town is wearing thin. "It's just not good enough any more that the answer is still 'maybe in the future,'" said committee member Jesse Laymon.

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