Mythbusters: The Queens Boulevard Bike Lane Didn’t Do in Ben’s Best Deli

Blame the punishing economics of running a kosher meat emporium in 2018, not the redesign of Queens Boulevard that's saving lives.

Jay Parker, the owner of Ben's Best Deli, says a reduction in parking on Queens Boulevard put him out of business. But there are a dozen garages near the deli, some selling car storage for less than a side of health salad. Image via Google Maps
Jay Parker, the owner of Ben's Best Deli, says a reduction in parking on Queens Boulevard put him out of business. But there are a dozen garages near the deli, some selling car storage for less than a side of health salad. Image via Google Maps

Jay Parker, the owner of Ben’s Best in Rego Park, is going out of business, the latest casualty in the long attrition of Jewish delis that’s claimed institutions as popular and venerated as the Carnegie Deli.

I learned to salivate at the sight of chopped liver at a young age, and I would love to head over, pay my respects, and wolf down some hot pastrami and pickles before Ben’s Best is gone for good. But it’s hard to muster much sympathy for Parker when he tells anyone who’ll listen that he can’t stay solvent because of the Queens Boulevard bike lane.

The line Parker has been peddling is that Ben’s Best wasn’t done in by the punishing margins, skyrocketing beef prices, and shrinking market for kosher meat that have wiped out so many other Jewish delis. Nope, it was the bike lane’s fault.

As wild as that explanation may seem, reporters are eating it up like kreplach. WPIX ran a whole “bike lanes killed my deli” segment. A Daily News piece where Parker blamed the bike lane was approvingly quoted on Twitter by Council Member Chaim Deutsch, whose Brooklyn district is nowhere near Queens Boulevard.

It’s a toxic message. The Queens Boulevard redesign has cut the number of pedestrian injuries in half, while cycling has more than doubled. No one has been killed while walking or biking on Queens Boulevard since DOT implemented the first redesigned segment in Woodside in 2015, an unprecedented safety streak on the former “Boulevard of Death.”

The redesigned Queens Boulevard. Photo: NYC DOT
The redesigned Queens Boulevard. Photo: NYC DOT

New York needs a lot more of these projects to make cycling safe enough for most people to give it a shot, and it’s a myth that the local retail economy will suffer in the process.

Earlier research has proven that in general, bike lanes and other projects to make NYC streets less car-centric aren’t harming storefront businesses. And in the specific case of Ben’s Best, the argument that poor customer access was a decisive factor in its demise doesn’t hold up.

The deli sits right on top of a subway station served by three lines, near a confluence of local bus routes. Crammed within a few blocks are a dozen parking structures containing giga-feet of car storage, including garages at the Rego Center Mall where you can buy three hours of parking for a measly $3 (cheaper than a side of health salad at Ben’s Best).

Ben’s Best launched in 1945, but the parking spaces that the bike lane replaced only date back to 2001, when DOT added a parking lane to slow down drivers who were killing people by the dozen on Queens Boulevard. Street changes don’t explain its declining business — the challenging economics of running a kosher deli in 2018 do.

In a sign that Parker was cutting corners before the bike lane appeared, Ben’s Best, like the Carnegie Deli before it, was sued by workers for wage theft in 2015. The segment of Queens Boulevard near the deli wasn’t redesigned until mid-2017.

Speaking to the Forward (h/t Bike Snob), Parker acknowledged that the customer base which used to sustain the deli just isn’t there anymore:

Parker could have gone out with class, without taking a swipe at a project that’s saved lives. Instead, he chose to blame the bike lane.

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