Cycle of Rage: New Streetfilms Doc Shows New York’s Bike Infrastructure Is Ultimately a Joke

Watch the latest Streetfilms documentary by Clarence Eckerson Jr. and you will realize that all we get are tiny improvements, at best, from Mayor de Blasio.

This used to be a highway — for cars. Now it's a well-used bike path. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
This used to be a highway — for cars. Now it's a well-used bike path. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

Cyclists around the world are enjoying a seven-course meal, but New York riders are somehow being tricked into believing they can be sated by Bill de Blasio’s crumbs.

We’ve written about how Paris removed a highway to create a much-loved Seine-side sanctuary. We’ve written how London has taken back control of its core by barring cars. We’ve published so much bike porn from Amsterdam that our brake linings are completely worn down.

But the latest cause for our fury is the most-recent production by Streetfilms auteur Clarence Eckerson Jr., just back from Utrecht, one of Holland’s great cities. Just watch it below. It’s only five minutes. But it will alter your perceptions about what is possible and how American cyclists and pedestrians have so internalized our oppression by car culture that we can’t even see it as oppression anymore.

When you see what was accomplished in Utrecht, it will make you ashamed to live in a city where life-saving quality-of-life improvements are beholden to the interests of the car-owning minority. It will make you disgusted that the Department of Transportation doesn’t even try to build safe cycling and pedestrian infrastructure in Bay Ridge — but offers only a “starter pack” of painted lanes — out of deference to an entrenched community board that prefers to give residents the ability to double-park. It will make you wonder why no one (but Streetsblog) is talking about removing the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway rather than spending $4 billion on repairs to continue Robert Moses’s mistake for another 70 years. It will make you furious that Mayor de Blasio will not even discuss barring cars from parts of the city where car travel is inefficient anyway and destroys our streetscape (I’m, of course, referring to Manhattan below Chambers Street, parts of Downtown Flushing and Jamaica, and key strips such as car-choked 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights or Bergen Street in Brooklyn, where the DOT sluices cyclists to the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, yet does not offer the hordes protection from car drivers.)

“Utrecht and so many other cities are actively removing parking and roads from the city,” Eckerson told me upon his return to these shores. “We need to ramp it up!”

It’s not a matter of imagination — we can literally see the good that comes from keeping cars out of our inner urban core — but a matter of will. In the film, Mark Wagenbuur — you know him as “BicycleDutch” on Youtube — shows maps of a downtown Utrecht filled with multi-lane roadways and parking lots that in just a few years have been converted to bike roadways, public plazas, waterside parks and a walkable, business-friendly core.

Yes, this is a Dutch cop telling a driver to get his car out of the pedestrianized core.
Yes, this is a Dutch cop telling a driver to get his car out of the pedestrianized core.

The cops in Utrecht — they’re on bikes! — even harass drivers who violate the rules. But far more important than enforcement are the street redesigns that discourage driving and increase cycling. Roughly 40 percent of the trips inside Utrecht these days are by bike — and it’s even higher in the city center itself, where 59 percent arrive by bicycle. They built it and the cyclists came. But in New York, the increases in bike commuting that began in the late part of the Bloomberg administration have leveled off as de Blasio has slowed the pace of infrastructure improvements.

So let’s stop settling for less. Let’s demand the kind of livable city that our cousins across the pond enjoy every day. Watching Eckerson’s latest film is the first step.

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

  • Jeffrey Baker

    We don’t know how to build like what you see in the video. No American government or firm could covert that motorway to a canal in one year or even 20 years. Looking out my window I see the SFMTA 2nd Street Improvement project which involves chiefly repainting the stripes on the road for 1500m and slightly widening the sidewalk for 500m. If this project is completed on time, which I seriously doubt as I look out the window, it will have taken 2 years in construction and 5 in planning prior to that, for almost no change. Converting a road to a waterway must be mind-boggling complexity to the American infrastructure professional.

    Updated: Yes, they have already pushed back the schedule by a year, so that’s repainting a street, with literally no other improvements, at 500m per year. Assuming it’s done by late 2020 that is.

  • Joe R.

    You’re 100% correct on this. We’ve lost the ability to do big projects here, or really any projects, in any kind of timely/cost effective fashion. Say you what you will about Robert Moses, but his era was probably the last where things got done early and under budget. Moreover, the standards of that era were much tighter than nowadays to start with, and yet often they beat the timelines. The project you described above probably would have been planned in a few weeks, and executed in a matter of days.

    Nowadays it’s years (decades?) of planning, environmental impact statements, and so forth just to get something going. Then once it’s going, heaven forbid you disrupt anyone’s life even to the slightest degree. That often means no work at night, roads can’t be completely closed, etc. A good example was when they installed new water mains in my area. First you get a notice of what days they’re planning to turn the water off. Fine, it’s good to inform people in advance so they can plan around it. However, when the actual work started it was a hour or two of digging to access the water mains, maybe 2 or 3 hours of actually installed them, then an hour or two to patch the street so people could drive on it. Yes, the street was closed for 8 hours but it had to be open for the other 16. End result (besides the obvious extra costs) was that it took 5 or 6 or 10 days to do what likely could have been done with a 24 to 36 hour closure and around the clock work. The latter would have been far less disruptive for my standpoint. Just one time to plan around not having water, not 5 or 6 or 10 times. But no, heaven forbid people are inconvenienced in the slightest by not having access to the street every single day, or having their “beauty rest” disturbed by work outside. It’s not like this would be constant thing. I probably wasn’t born the last time they did water main work. It would be a one-time, temporary disruption which most people would never experience again.

    Every project nowadays is like that. We fix a subway track, we can only close one track, and then only for a few hours at night. We could fix subway lines 20 times faster if we could just shut down an entire line for the duration of the work. Sure, it’s absolutely a major inconvenience when you do that, but what’s better, a month of this, or years of service delays due to doing work piecemeal? That’s not to mention work is generally done to a higher standard if you can proceed uninterrupted from start to finish. If you have to set up and tear down 100 times in the course of the work, that’s lots of chances for something to go seriously wrong. Then you need more labor to do work piecemeal.

    The past may have been worse in most ways, but the way we approached major projects years ago is light-years ahead of how we do them now. Literally nothing significant is going to get done in our lifetimes unless we go back to that mindset.

  • A bike would make for a pretty badass police conveyance, but they don’t realize it. Patrolling the streets with pedal power, a strong, athletic cop (don’t laugh) on a bike could cover a lot of ground, track down perps in crowded urban areas with an ease unavailable to car-bound losers. I am not a scofflaw but if I was I could so easily evade cops in the city on my fast bike.

  • Peter Chowla

    I would also love Utrecht style cycling infrastructure in New York City, but we have to be honest that the two cities are not comparable. Utrecht is 36 square miles and has 1.25 million people. NYC is 300+ square miles and has 8+ million people. The scale issues are a problem for mobility.

    Better comparisons are Paris, Madrid and London – they don’t look like Utrecht but they are making improvements on speed and scale that blast NYC out of the water because we lack leadership with vision.

  • AMH

    “I am not a scofflaw but if I was [sic] I could so easily evade cops in the city on my fast bike.”

    No wonder cops hate cyclists! 😛

  • AMH

    And Robert Moses is a big reason why things take so long now! Many of the rules that slow down public projects were put in place to prevent anyone from getting that much power again.

  • Joe R.

    What about in the rest of the country which didn’t have a Robert Moses? Other countries seem to get by just fine without them. One can hardly accuse the Netherlands of being a country which rams big projects through without thinking of their impact on people, and yet they seem to get things done efficiently.

    It’s not just the planning stage which is flawed, but the implementation stage. Once we decide to actually build something, it ends up taking ten times as long because we’re so afraid to disrupt anyone’s life even in the slightest.

  • Will

    Just got back from Europe where I biked in Barcelona, Paris and Zurich. Great experiences. There is so much less space dedicated to parking in the central cities and much more allowance for cycling and pedestrians. And, the pedestrians and cars seem to get along well with the cyclists. Great examples of what is possible. Quite a change from the last time I was in Paris in 2001 and was one of the few tourists riding around on a bike with very few bike lanes. The roads and paths along the Seine are now a haven for relaxation and leisure thanks to the removal of car traffic. The city is now much more pleasant for everyone.

  • Joe R.

    I’ve said it before many times but it’s worth repeating. Yes, NYC isn’t like Dutch cities. It’s more like an agglomeration of smaller cities bordering each other. We should be looking more at what the Dutch use to get between towns and cities on bikes than at how they get around within their smallish cities as its much more applicable to NYC. The Netherlands has a great system of virtually nonstop bike highways to go longer distances. This is exactly what NYC needs. On-street protected bike lanes are fine for last mile stuff, but they’re not suited to the longer trips which a bike commuter might need to make in NYC. They’re too crowded and too slow for one thing. A good analogy is protected bike lanes should function as the equivalent of local streets for cars, but the bulk of most car trips is done on highways. Cyclists should have the same type of system. We need a course grid, perhaps with one mile spacing, of non-stop bike highways which connect seamlessly to the on-street network. You can use the on-street network only for shorter trips, while the bike highways can take you across the city rapidly.

    The best place to look for what to do might be Asian cities. Those are comparable is size and density to NYC. They’re already starting to build some elevated bikeways. We need something similar in NYC.

  • If you really can’t get past New York’s overall size and population, I think the Randstad might be a more interesting comparison… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randstad

    However, I don’t agree size is really all that important. Any city with some density to speak of has homes and daily and semi-daily destinations (stores, corner shops, schools, parks, perhaps public transport stations and other amenities) at cyclable distances away from those homes. That is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to biking for transport, because last time I checked, half of all trips in the USA is 3 miles or less, but 90% of those are done by car.

    I can imagine it’s difficult to see how to get from your current car-centric city to a Dutch style city, but Barcelona made a nice first step by creating superblocks: https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/08/inside-a-pedestrian-first-superblock/566864/
    Then it becomes a matter of creating sensible walk and cycle routes connecting the superblocks and increasing the superblocks’ size over time…

  • “The Netherlands has a great system of virtually nonstop bike highways to go longer distances.”

    This is true, but really the short trips are the low hanging fruit, including those to the train station.
    Please see my reply to Peter Chowla 🙂

  • Joe R.

    You’re right, that’s why we put in the protected bike lanes first, even if it means taking away car lanes and parking. A year or two at most after that, you build the bike highways.

    We can get most short trips to be done by bike or walking. The bike highways will let a significant number of medium distance trips be done by bike. People will try the short trips, then think about possibly doing longer ones. They will be hesitant at first if there’s no safe, connected, fast place to do those trips. That’s exactly what the bike highways will provide. They’ll also function even for shorter trips. If you can do 2 miles of a 3 miles trip on a bike highway, and you cover those 2 miles at an average speed of 15 mph, instead of perhaps 8 mph in a protected lane with stoplights, that saves you 7 minutes each way, or 14 minutes for the total trip. That’s a very significant time savings on such a short trip.

  • Joe R.

    I already did that, twice, in the early 2000s. I had no idea why they were going after me both times as I didn’t recall doing anything illegal, but I wasn’t about to let them catch me and find out. It may well have been for something stupid like a bell, or maybe my tires. A cop who stopped me once mentioned I was riding on bald tires and he could ticket me for that. Apparently he never heard of bike tires without a tread pattern.

  • pchowla

    All that is great but the likelihood of the majority of people who commute into the city from outer boroughs (or vice versa) doing a trip on bike is very low – even with bike highways. I used to do 7 mi. each way and people thought I was crazy. But you easily have people living 10-15 miles from their work places here. So there is a difference in the use of bike. Where in Utrecht or other Dutch cities it would be hard to do a one way direct ride in the city longer than about 7-8 miles. here we need to think about more take the bike to the subway/train station sort of model.

    Of course local rides are different – for things like errands, shopping, etc – but how many New Yorkers live less than 3 miles from their work places? I’d love to see the data on that.

    Barcelona superblocks seem excellent. I am all for them here. And car-free city centres as being developed in Madrid. Justifying the cost of infrastructure like an elevated bike way would be hard when public transit is so needing investment.

    .

  • Snapperhead

    Misleading example. Utrecht is a medium-sized college town. The video even shows packs of 20-year-olds zipping around town on bikes (probably headed to class). Of course you can tear up highways in a place like that. New York City is a completely different animal – its population is 20 times larger (50 times larger if we’re comparing metro areas and not just the cities proper). New York City is a global commerce hub. Millions of people of all ages need to get to work every day, some coming from great distances. Every inch of space in New York, whether road or sidewalk, is prized. If you want a comparable situation to Utrecht, look at a place like Boulder, Colorado instead.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    It would be OK with me if only the American cities under 500k people got this treatment. That includes the majority of state capitals. An obvious candidate is Providence RI, having about the same population density.

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  • How dare you [sic] me

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