Queens Bike Lane Foes Refuse to See Reality

Before the bike lane was installed, we needed to use human beings to protect us. Photo:
Before the bike lane was installed, we needed to use human beings to protect us. Photo:

I have a tendency to write angry when opponents of street safety simply ignore facts that don’t serve their Trumpian approach to protected bike lanes and other improvements.

But the editor of the Queens Chronicle, Peter Mastrosimone, graciously offered me a chance to write a letter to the editor after he published a biased, anti-bike article this week about the ongoing protests in Sunnyside. So I decided to try reason rather than my usual bitterness. Tell me how I did.

To the editor,

Your Oct. 18 article, “Video shows FDNY blocked from Skillman,” was the latest in a series of biased coverage that has become common since the installation of vital safety improvements along Skillman and 43rd avenues in Sunnyside.

I appreciate your invitation to offer your readers a different view. I don’t believe I will change any minds, but I do hope bike-lane opponents will at least hear me out, as I have spent so many years listening to them at community board meetings in my 25 years as a New York City reporter, motorist and, yes, cyclist.

The article — and the bike lane opponents it quotes — seeks to blame the protected bike lane for congestion along the avenues, specifically citing a video of a fire truck unable to turn onto Skillman Avenue. But like other such videos that are proliferating on social media, this one also reveals clearly that the bike lane is not the problem. The problem is the illegally parked cars. Michael Gannon’s article acknowledges this fact in the lede, but then reverts to standard-issue bike bashing.

The story’s centerpiece was a statement by Gerard Fitzgerald, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, who ignored the illegally parked cars in his attack on street safety designs.

“Extended bike lanes affect traffic patterns and block access to necessary equipment for our men and women in uniform to perform their jobs effectively,” he claimed, citing not a single example.

The article should have pointed out that the FDNY was consulted by the Department of Transportation at every step of the debate over the Skillman and 43rd bike lanes. The article should have pointed out that the FDNY supported the installation. I reached out to the FDNY press office after reading Gannon’s article and was reminded by an agency spokesman that Fitzgerald speaks for himself, not the FDNY.

Beyond Fitzpatrick’s statement, it’s worth pointing out that very few FDNY workers live in the communities they serve. Rather, our firefighting heroes typically commute to work via car. Individual firefighters’ opinions are valid, of course, but should be read in the context of people who see a neighborhood as just something to drive to in the morning and drive out of every night rather than residents who care about what’s best for a neighborhood. They are mere commuters who leave when their shift is done. We wouldn’t listen to commuters from New Jersey telling us how New York City streets should be designed, would we?

On that topic, I would also like to remind your readers who drive that the roadways were not created solely for them or for them to store their vehicles when not in use. Indeed, on-street car storage — you call it “parking” — was not common in New York until 1954, when rules were changed to give idle vehicles hegemony over our curbside space.

Isn't free parking glorious?
Free parking ruins everything.

But don’t forget: The roadway is a public right of way, meaning we, as the public, can decide how to use it. In a dense urban area, we should use it to promote the most-efficient, most environmentally sound methods of moving people around a city: public transit. Gannon bemoaned the traffic that he witnessed on Skillman Avenue, but if he viewed the street with objective eyes, he would have seen dozens of single-occupancy vehicles — plus dozens more, motionless vehicles with no one in them at all — taking up the same amount of space in the public right of way that could have been occupied by buses transporting thousands of people. The dozens of bicycles you see on the new bike lanes — and the hundreds more that will soon join them thanks to the safety improvements — also move people far more efficiently and occupy far less space than cars.

Like many articles of this ilk, Gannon’s relies on anecdotes rather than evidence. One convenience store owner claimed, for example, that his business has been adversely affected by the bike lane.

“With less parking, people don’t stop as much,” said Sheikh Akram, who run the shop at the northeast corner of Skillman and 51st Street.

I’ve lived in New York City for 30 years — in four boroughs, no less! — and I cannot tell you a single time I have driven to a convenience store. There is simply no way that Akram is correct that parking has been the foundation of his business. If his sales are suffering — and that’s a big “if” — there are multiple factors at work: changing customer demographics, competition from online retailers such as Amazon or Fresh Direct, his prices, his offerings, his staff, the weather on the day Gannon chose to interview him, etc.

Akram’s comment reminded me of the owner of Ben’s Best on Queens Boulevard, who complained that  the demise of his business stemmed from the life-saving bike lane rather than the fact that there were fewer and fewer customers for expensive, high-fat pastrami sandwiches in diversifying Rego Park. Neighborhoods change over time — and savvy business owners know how to change with the times, offering new residents what they want. The customer is always right. Business that don’t adapt go, well, out of business.

Another anecdote was provided by a resident who said “she had nearly been struck by a cyclist speeding through a red light.”

I’m a cyclist who is “nearly struck” every single minute of my daily commute by drivers, and can refer your readers to thousands of videos posted online of the near misses we cyclists face every day. But if we are going to debate public safety, let’s stick to hard evidence, not the soft bias of commuters who don’t like other commuters who happen to choose a different mode.

So here are the facts: Protected bike lanes make the roadway safer for all users. Data from the Department of Transportation show that crashes resulting in injuries go down by nearly 20 percent; injuries to pedestrians drop by more than 20 percent; and the total number of cyclist injuries drops, even as cycling volumes increase; travel times for drivers on roadways remains the same or actually improves; pedestrians get shorter crossing distances, which makes neighborhoods more walkable and inviting; speeding declines dramatically; and business activity increases. It does not decrease.

I can’t believe that, after more than a decade of these improvements, these facts even need to be restated. I know that change is hard. But change is the only way to fix things that aren’t working.

Gelacio Reyes. Image: Transportation Alternatives/Qns.Bike
Gelacio Reyes. Image: Transportation Alternatives/Qns.Bike

Above all, the article should have reminded the readers of the crucial timeline for the protected bike lanes in Sunnyside: They were initially championed by Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer and Community Board 2 Chairwoman Denise Keehan-Smith after a cyclist, Gelacio Reyes, was killed by a motorist at 43rd Avenue and 39th Street, and cyclist David Nunez was critically injured by a truck driver at the same location 10 days later.

And those crashes were not isolated incidents. Between 2009 and the installation of the protected bike lanes this year, 145 pedestrians and 98 cyclists were injured by drivers on Skillman and 43rd avenues, according to city statistics.

Gannon’s story does rightly point out that the lanes were controversial. But the article foolishly equated the warring camps: “cyclists, environmentalists and traffic safety advocates in favor; and residents divided among both camps.” To me, that speaks for itself: Plenty of “residents” side with (and, indeed, are!) the “cyclists, environmentalists and traffic safety advocates.” That means that the residents who do not are a tiny minority in a neighborhood that benefits every day from better street safety.

If would be great if that dead-end minority would listen to the facts. Instead, drivers have met the enemy — and it is everyone else but them.

Gersh Kuntzman is Editor-in-Chief of Streetsblog. When he gets angry, he writes the Cycle of Rage column. They’re archived here.

 

  • hshiau

    haha, “dead-end minority”

  • Zach Katz

    Beautifully written

  • Joe R.

    Well-written, and a lot more civil than something I would have wrote. People need to understand bicycles and pedestrians are traffic. Even if a design change means fewer single occupancy automobiles can use a street, this doesn’t necessarily make the street less useful as a transportation artery.

    You’re also correct to point out the space used, or more accurately wasted, for private vehicle storage. If I wanted to put a storage container with my stuff by the curb, the city wouldn’t let me. Yet it lets someone else store their private property in that space if this property happens to be a motor vehicle. Given the minority who have cars in this city, but the majority who have too small apartments, it seems like letting people also use curbside space for storage containers would be more democratic. My guess is if we allowed this, probably 95% of curbside space would eventually be filled with these storage containers. Car owners would be left to store their vehicles in garages, or on their own property, which is as it as it should be.

  • Komanoff

    It’s very good, Gersh. I hope the QC will run it in full, and w/ your well-chosen photos.

    If it’s not too late, I want to suggest you slightly soften your tone in the first graph or two. You might consider starting not with “Your Oct. 18 article, “Video shows FDNY blocked from Skillman,” was the latest in a series of biased coverage …” but with something like, “I was disappointed by your Oct. 18 article, “Video shows FDNY blocked from Skillman.” I thought it unfortunately perpetuated the biased coverage that has become all too common since … the installation of vital safety improvements along Skillman and 43rd avenues in Sunnyside.that has become common since the installation of vital safety improvements along Skillman and 43rd avenues in Sunnyside.

  • Komanoff

    Let me try that again —

    You could start with “I was disappointed by your Oct. 18 article, ‘Video shows FDNY blocked from Skillman.’ I thought it unfortunately perpetuated the biased coverage that has become all too common since vital safety improvements were made along Skillman and 43rd Avenues in Sunnyside.”

    [similar tone changes later on]

  • William Lawson

    Pretty good write-up if you ask me, hard to argue with !

  • Daphna

    Make sure the paragraph that starts “So here are the facts” is included if it is shortened. I recommend putting that paragraph first! Maybe just repeat that paragraph about the results of roadway re-designs and the following paragraphs about the injury statistics before and after the re-design, and just keep stating those things over and over.

  • Daphna

    I would say to keep it positive, criticize as little as possible (even if it is deserved), limit snark, be gracious – you want readers to stick with reading this article so they need to not realize immediately that you are debunking their objections to street safety improvements.

  • bettybarcode

    Double thumbs up!

  • Don’t ever stop writing angry. Like Rage Against the Machine once said, anger is a gift.

  • Vooch

    Dude,

    23 page Micro Mobility slide deck, packed with data. Pass it on

    https://micromobility.io/latest-news/2018/10/16/when-micromobility-attacks

  • Rider

    I think it’s possible to acknowledge that there are marginal businesses that may well be tipped over by the subtraction of double parking. Even if most of the customers arrive on foot, a decline in the volume of drive-up business could still make that crucial difference. That said, I don’t think it’s a reason not to replace motor vehicle lanes with bike lanes in a residential neighborhood, even if it means making life harder or impossible for certain businesses. It’s hardly fair or reasonable for them to expect that their parking needs will be satisfied by the public sector. They will simply have to find other ways to attract business or else go out of business or move to a better location.

  • BruceWillisThrowsACar@You

    > move to a better location

    Yeah, like out of the city at an interstate rest stop in bumfuck no where so we don’t have to deal with their auto-headed shit.

  • Andrew

    Beyond Fitzpatrick’s statement

    Who’s Fitzpatrick?

  • Joe R.

    I’ve said as much also. Any business that depends upon NYC for free or below market rate parking doesn’t have a viable business model. If they can’t afford to build parking on their premises and still make a profit then they need to move to another location.

  • William Lawson

    So what about the possibility that they’ll increase their business by a similar margin *because* of better cycling infrastructure? Do cyclists not spend money as well?

  • fdtutf

    The story’s centerpiece was a statement by Gerard Fitzgerald, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, who ignored the illegally parked cars in his attack on street safety designs.

  • Mark Moffet
  • mindsasone

    How’d you do? Well, it’s a great fluff piece for a system that serves only YOUR particular needs. Now for a complete rebuttal.

    “On that topic, I would also like to remind your readers who drive that the roadways were not created solely for them or for them to store their vehicles when not in use. ”

    Except that the city has, long before the bike lane, eliminated thousands and thousands of potential spaces with marginally justifiable no-parking and no-standing areas, new hydrants (are four on one block really necessary?) and a whole host of other contrived necessities. I grew up in Rego Park, and have slowly watched space after space disappear, with businesses paying off city officials for “van unloading zones” that criminally take up even more space. And the roads weren’t made for bikes either, but you seem to be very busy arguing just that. They were build for automobiles. Not bikes. remember that.

    “In a dense urban area, we should use it to promote the most-efficient, most environmentally sound methods of moving people around a city: public transit”

    Great Idea! Except NYC has one of the worst, slowest, dirtiest, noisiest, most delayed systems in the country. Slow, barely reaching perhaps a quarter of the neighborhoods in the city, poorly administrated (wait an hour for three buses to come back to back), packed subway cars with no room to even squeeze into, train lines constantly under construction. And are you telling me people are going to bike to work in the dead of winter? Get real.

    “The dozens of bicycles you see on the new bike lanes — and the hundreds more that will soon join them thanks to the safety improvements — also move people far more efficiently and occupy far less space than cars.”

    Pure fantasy. Every time I visit Rego Park/Forest Hills/Kew Gardens, guess how many bikes I see using the lanes: Zero. Zero in the spring. Zero in the summer. News flash: yuppies are not flocking to Rego Park/Forest Hills/Kew Gardens and taking to bikes to cycle their way to work in Manhattan. It’s not happening, and is never going to happen, not in those neighborhoods. These are not blossoming gentrifying communities, and likely never will be.

    “Like many articles of this ilk, Gannon’s relies on anecdotes rather than evidence. One convenience store owner claimed, for example, that his business has been adversely affected by the bike lane.”

    Regardless of Ben’s, your perfect straw man, there is no doubt that businesses have been affected. The many restaurants in the Forest hills area, especially the Russian ones, relied heavily on those spots, as parking along the side streets in Forest Hills is next to impossible. The same goes for supermarkets, salons, and many stores that serve shoppers schlepping lots of bags and parking briefly. Now those spots are gone, and it is doubtless that such business will suffer. You dismiss out-of-hand another owner’s claims because they don’t jive with your fantasy. I guess he wouldn’t know, and you would. Contrary to your fantasy, not all businesses are fast-food grab and go and convenience stores. Many still rely on those spaces, and on customers parking or short times, and DID have a viable business model, until the unused bike lane.

    “I’ve lived in New York City for 30 years — in four boroughs, no less! — and I cannot tell you a single time I have driven to a convenience store.”

    That’s wonderful. But in real life, there are businesses other than convenience stores along Queens blvd, as I have outlined above.

    “I’m a cyclist who is “nearly struck” every single minute of my daily commute by drivers, and can refer your readers to thousands of videos posted online of the near misses we cyclists face every day.”

    Well, too bad for you. Maybe you shouldn’t be biking in a busy city like NYC, and taking the mass transit you claim is so amazing? Next, you will complain that there aren’t dedicated electric scooter lanes, dedicated hoverwheel lanes, dedicated rollerblading lanes. Heck, let’s ban ALL cars from the road, so that any possible mode of transport, even if used by 15 people yearly, will work. With no cars, fatalities will be zero, right? Sorry. The city is not here to serve the needs of cyclists. Drivers make this city function, not cyclists. Unless you invent a delivery bicycle capable of restocking supermarkets.

    And guess what? Cyclist are dangerous too. I have been nearly struck MANY TIMES by cyclists flying through Manhattan at 20-30 miles an hour. Iv’e been nearly hit getting out of my car, because the bikers could not care less that cars park abutting the bike lane. I’ve been almost hit crossing the street. 99% of cyclists have ZERO DUE CAUTION when riding and simply pedal as fast as they can, pedestrians be damned.
    And I HAVE BEEN HIT by one of those cyclists. Took MONTHS for my hand to return to normal, luckily I avoided physical therapy. The guy was going 20-30 mph down a street in Manhattan, regardless of the red light right ahead of him, and smashed right into me. This is a daily occurrence for pedestrians in Manhattan.

    “So here are the facts: Protected bike lanes make the roadway safer for all users. Data from the Department of Transportation show that crashes resulting in injuries go down by nearly 20 percent; injuries to pedestrians drop by more than 20 percent; and the total number of cyclist injuries drops, even as cycling volumes increase; travel times for drivers on roadways remains the same or actually improves; pedestrians get shorter crossing distances, which makes neighborhoods more walkable and inviting; speeding declines dramatically; and business activity increases. It does not decrease”.

    Except that you likely took that data from another city. None of that applies in NYC, and is laughable fantasy. Perhaps you fabricated it entirely. As someone who has worked in NYC Emergency Rooms, I can say 100% that biker injuries have INCREASED DRAMATICALLY since the Manhattan bike lanes were implemented, as have PEDESTRIANS injured by the many maniac cyclists with no regard for speed or safety. And NYC is not any more walkable; now pedestrians have to worry about accidentally stepping into a bike lane (many on side streets are poorly marked and unexpected) and being struck by speeding biker maniacs. Not everyone knows they are there.

    “If would be great if that dead-end minority would listen to the facts. Instead, drivers have met the enemy — and it is everyone else but them.”

    It would be great if you stopped cherry-picking facts, and creating pure fantasy out of wishful thinking. NYC is not here to serve cyclists needs. It’s here to serve the majority, which is, and never will be, the cyclists. The majority is drivers and pedestrians. You want to bike? Go to a park or go to Long Island. The city is not for you, and, no matter how much green paint is splashed down, never will be.

    Wonder who is refusing to see reality here.

  • mindsasone

    I see how this works. Basically, any posts that disagree with you are deleted immediately. Honest journalism for the win, eh…

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