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Jimmy Van Bramer Consummates His Craven Reversal on Protected Bike Lanes for Sunnyside

Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer called for a protected bike lane on 43rd Avenue in April 2017 alongside Flor Jimenez, whose partner Gelacio Reyes had been killed biking on the roadway — a call that set into motion a year of “regrets.” Photo: David Meyer

Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer has sided against a DOT plan for projected bike lanes on 43rd Avenue and Skillman Avenue, 14 months after calling on DOT to install protected bike lanes on 43rd Avenue.

"I don’t believe we can move forward with this DOT plan at this time," Van Bramer said in a statement to the Times-Ledger, because it "failed to gain enough support among residents, community institutions, elected officials and Community board 2." Van Bramer says he still "supports" a protected bike lane on 43rd Avenue, which is meaningless if he doesn't endorse moving ahead with a redesign.

The statement is the culmination of several months of waffling by Van Bramer. Last April, he was standing in solidarity with Flor Jimenez, the widow of Gelacio Reyes, to call for a redesign of 43rd Avenue, where a driver had struck and killed Reyes as he biked home from work. At the time, he said DOT should take "immediate" action to determine "not if, but how" a protected bike lane could be installed on the street.

A few months later, Van Bramer said on Twitter that he agreed with the campaign for protected bike lanes on 43rd and Skillman Avenue, its westbound pair. Together, the streets form an important link between the Queensboro Bridge and central Queens, including the developing bike lane on Queens Boulevard.

I agree! After the tragedy, I called for protected bike lanes and traffic calming measures here. We've got to keep fighting for this.

— Jimmy Van Bramer (@JimmyVanBramer) July 12, 2017

But Van Bramer didn't keep fighting. He lost all conviction as soon as DOT released a plan showing how a protected bike lane would work on these streets.

In November, DOT presented a redesign of 43rd and Skillman that would flip the existing bike lanes and parking lanes, install pedestrian islands at some intersections, and remove a car lane on less-trafficked blocks to deter speeding [PDF].

Because the plan would repurpose one or two on-street parking spaces per block, it encountered the usual resistance from a few local merchants and residents. All bike lane projects run up against these complaints, which always recede a few months after installation, once people can see that the sky hasn't fallen. Council members who want safer street designs recognize this and power through. Recently, Council Member Andy Cohen overruled a community board in the northwest Bronx and supported DOT's installation of a protected bike lane on Broadway along Van Cortlandt Park.

Not Van Bramer, who never stood up for the project he himself requested, instead echoing complaints about parking loss and citing the "grave concerns" of local businesses.

He also led DOT around by the nose before finally declaring that he's against implementation of the project. First he said his support was contingent on DOT installing safety improvements outside P.S. 11 and P.S. 343. When DOT moved forward with those requests, Van Bramer's "concession" was to hold a town hall on the bike lane project. At the town hall, he expressed support for protected bike lanes in general, but took no position on the Skillman/43rd plan and did nothing to push back on concerns about parking.

When Community Board 2 finally voted on the plan earlier this month, Van Bramer's chief of staff Matthew Wallace said he couldn't make it due to "budget negotiations." But Van Bramer, who is said to be exploring a run for Queens Borough President, was meeting with leaders of the borough's Indian-American community "from Queens Village, Richmond Hills, Bellerose, and Jackson Heights" -- neighborhoods all outside of his council district.

At a succession of community board meetings, town halls, and public workshops, Van Bramer never once defended the redesign, even as DOT reworked it to cut the parking reduction from 158 spaces to 116.

In his statement today, Van Bramer would not concede that he has sacrificed public safety to appease a few parking absolutists, instead pinning everything on DOT. "DOT’s initial community outreach, including a meeting with PS 11 parents, was disastrous, making the process even more painful," he said.

Letting Van Bramer dictate policy here would leave a giant gap between the Queens Boulevard protected bike lane, which terminates at 49th Street, and points west. It's no way to build a safe bike network.

Asked about the project on WNYC last week, Mayor de Blasio said that he had "no problem" moving forward with street redesigns when public safety is at stake and DOT has made a good faith effort to incorporate feedback.

"I have no problem saying, when we’ve come to the judgment that it’s about safety, that even if there is opposition or concern, we’re going to make that judgment in the name of protecting lives, but I do like to hear from communities," de Blasio said. "I do like to see if we can balance concerns and get people to hear that we’re actually trying to adjust where we can for real and honest needs."

It remains to be seen whether DOT will move forward with the project. But in a statement, DOT explained why the agency views protected bike lanes on both 43rd and Skillman as the proper treatment to prevent crashes like the one that claimed Gelacio Reyes's life and critically injured David Nunes ten days later:

DOT proposed the safety redesign to calm traffic on Skillman and 43rd Avenues following two tragic crashes that killed one cyclist and left another in critical condition, and in response to the growing use of the two avenues as a vital link for bike commuting between Queens Boulevard and the Queensboro and Pulaski Bridges.

Community Board 2’s Transportation Committee voted to approve the proposal after DOT engaged in a year’s worth of outreach during which we sought community input and did everything possible to minimize impacts.

DOT looked at the option of a two-way protected bike lane on 43rd Avenue only, but we determined that this alternative would not work for the following reasons:

  • More conflicts.  Adding another direction of bike traffic on 43rd Avenue would increase the number of conflict points between drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, who would not expect to see cyclists coming in the opposite direction.
  • Reduction in travel lane and slower vehicle traffic. In order to make the space for a two-way path, a travel lane would have to be removed for the majority of the corridor and signal timing would have to be modified to include dedicated turn phases, resulting in increased travel time delays.
  • Parking loss.  The alternative design would switch all of the parking burden from Skillman Avenue to 43rd Avenue, meaning there would likely be just as much parking loss.

Finally, If we were to remove Skillman Avenue from the project, there would be no traffic calming elements along that corridor, including the shortened pedestrian crossings that are part of the current proposal, traffic calming elements that the community has requested from DOT for several years.

For all of these reasons, the Skillman/43rd Avenue redesign remains the best plan for protecting all street users while addressing the growth of cycling in communities across Queens.

Correction: This post originally said the 43rd/Skillman plan would repurpose 51 parking spaces. The correct number is 116 and the post has been amended to reflect that.

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