Op-Ed: Communities of Color Need Protected Lanes, Too!

Poor neighborhoods on the city's periphery in Brooklyn miss out on Vision Zero.

The site of Abraham’s hit-and-run crash at Montauk and Sutter Avenue. Image: Google Streetview
The site of Abraham’s hit-and-run crash at Montauk and Sutter Avenue. Image: Google Streetview

Ten years ago, I was almost killed by a driver while biking on Sutter Avenue in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Last week, Ernest Askew was killed — only blocks from where I was hit. 

On March 21, 2009, I left my mom’s birthday dinner by bicycle. Minutes later, hit, I lay face down on the ground, unable to move much of my body.

The driver who hit me stopped for a split second — just long enough for me to glance at a fuzzy license plate and see white smoke rise from his tires as he sped away. The next few hours at Brookdale Hospital were a blur of sirens, emergency-room equipment, and doctors’ faces; the next few months, a slow, painful journey back to recovery.

I was already a safe-streets advocate before the crash — in fact, Transportation Alternatives’ Brooklyn Committee chair — but being hit redoubled my drive to create safe streets for all New Yorkers.

Dave "Paco" Abraham.
Dave “Paco” Abraham.

Back then, the route I traveled on the day of the crash, through Brownsville/East New York in the eastern part of Brooklyn, was a bike-lane-free abyss of asphalt. Now, because of Vision Zero, the route has some bike lanes  — but, sadly, not the protected lanes that could have saved Askew’s life. Those lanes have only come to certain wealthier neighborhoods in Manhattan or close to it. 

The bike-infrastructure inequities among neighborhoods are hard to square with Mayor de Blasio’s stated goal of knitting together the “two cities” of New York. The Department of Transportation should seek to rectify those inequities as a basic matter of fairness.

On the 2009 NYC DOT Bike Map, Brownsville and East New York have no bike lanes.
On DOT’s 2009 Bike Map, Brownsville and East New York have no bike lanes.

Now, winning any lanes for Brownsville took many meetings and several years. But all that work did not bring protected lanes, which make the roads safer for both cyclists and drivers. A decade after the city began expanding its bike lanes, we have learned that simple painted lanes do not suffice. At best, paint provides some way-finding and guidelines. But it typically fades in a year or so, especially when two-ton vehicles drive on it. 

On the 2019 NYC DOT Bike Map, the purple and blue lines indicate bike lanes but they offer no physical protection.
On the 2019 DOT Bike Map, there are now lines indicating “bike lanes,” but the purple lines are merely sharrows and the blue lines are merely painted bike lanes. Neither offers any physical protection.

Some may argue that it’s impossible to upgrade the city’s many bike lanes to protected ones. Not true: It takes designers, funds and, most importantly, political will. A side-by-side comparison of the 2009 and 2019 bike maps show that the city has constructed many protected lanes in Manhattan, but not many in the outer boroughs — and especially not in poorer neighborhoods, such as Brownsville. 

Yes, there may be more riders in Manhattan. But without protected lanes to encourage new riders in the outer boroughs, that trend will likely continue. We need a more complete safe-cycling infrastructure network citywide. 

Manhattan 2009 vs 2019
NYC DOT Bike Maps, Manhattan, 2009 (left) vs. 2019 (right). Red lines are paint. Green lines are protection.

True, some areas of Brooklyn have reaped the benefits of Vision Zero.

DOT transformed Fourth Avenue in Park Slope from a high-speed motorway to a road where even elementary school kids can bike safely. After a terrible crash that claimed the life of two toddlers in a Ninth street crosswalk, the department overhauled the corridor to include protected lanes all the way to Prospect Park — a change that took only a year. Flatbush Avenue from Grand Army Plaza to Empire Boulevard along Prospect Park will get a protected bike lane (albeit more than three years after Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams requested it). 

But poorer, farther-out neighborhoods like Brownsville and East New York are a different story — one of neglect.  Brownsville and East New York were to get a protected lane on a small part of Fountain Avenue, but that lane vanishes at Linden Boulevard, a behemoth roadway that DOT  says “ranks in the top 10 percent of Brooklyn corridors by [killed or severely injured] crashes per mile among pedestrians, bicyclists and motor-vehicle occupants.” After years of study and community feedback, DOT has installed only a few crosswalk changes and turn restrictions on Linden Boulevard. 

Brooklyn's Linden Boulevard is dangerously wide and ripe for a Vision Zero overhaul with protected bike lanes and shorter pedestrian crossings.
Brooklyn’s Linden Boulevard is dangerously wide and ripe for a Vision Zero overhaul with protected bike lanes and shorter pedestrian crossings.

Moreover, DOT is presenting absurdly anachronistic ideas for some places in Brooklyn. Its plan for Cropsey Avenue in the South Brooklyn neighborhood of Gravesend shows a wide parking lane by the curb and a 5-foot pedestrian space by the median on this 86-foot roadway. The same design was rejected for the rebuilding of Fourth Avenue in Park Slope and replaced with 5-foot protected bike lane. Why is an upgrade that worked for one district not offered to another?

DOT's Cropsey Avenue proposal (top) is weak, but its Fourth Avenue proposal (bottom) is strong.
DOT’s Cropsey Avenue proposal (top) is weak, but its Fourth Avenue proposal (bottom) is strong.

And even as Park Slope has enjoyed the benefits of a protected bike path on the west side of the park, riders east and south of the park, in Prospect Lefferts Gardens and Flatbush/East Flatbush remain vulnerable.

I remain optimistic Vision Zero can spread faster and more equitably across the city, thanks to unwavering advocates, growing safe-street support in the City Council and in Albany, and a deep bench of talent at DOT. City planners heroically maintain their composure when ignorant people scream bloody murder at the thought of adding a bike lane or taking a parking spot. 

But there’s bloody murder on our streets: 15 cyclists dead this year — even as I wrote this story, a truck driver ran over a cyclist in Bushwick — surpassing the 10 fatalities of last year. DOT has the moral high ground to end this carnage. The administration needs to give it a green light. 

I was lucky to survive on Sutter Avenue 10 years ago; Ernest Askew was not so lucky. We cannot allow another decade to go by with more carnage. In fact, we should not allow even a single day. 

Dave “Paco” Abraham, a native New Yorker, owns a Surly Crosscheck bicycle, a Toyota Camry, and a green Yoyo stroller for his infant daughter. He wants to feel safe traveling in the city with each mode of transport. 

  • AstoriaBlowin

    Protected bike lanes and narrowing the roadway for cars on a street like Linden Blvd would be a good start, but seeing the photo above just shows again how much land is wasted on insanely wide roads in this city. There’s lots written and spoken about the ways highways have destroyed neighborhoods, but there’s dozens of “regular” streets of highway width across the five boros. Imagine what a difference it would make if the center six lanes were de-mapped and sold off for housing or parks or whatever use that will be better than roadway for cars.

  • DoctorMemory

    And hey, let’s not forget the time that the city removed a protected bike lane across Dyckman street in Inwood, on the grounds that it was more important that people be able to double-park.

    (Yes, I am going to die mad about it.)

  • Geck

    Sadly, the community boards in many of these communities have been hostile to bike lanes and traffic calming measures.

  • Steven Craig

    Written by a DOT Contractor ? Lanes cannot protect people who do not use them or refuse to wear basic safety equipment. Obeying traffic law would be a nice idea as well.

  • dave “paco” abraham

    Nope. Written by a person tired of going to vigils.

  • Joe R.

    Basic safety equipment? Bicycles don’t have any that I’m aware of beyond the brakes. Seat belts wouldn’t make any sense on a bicycle, for example.

    Also, if you had a clue you would realize lots of times it’s safer for cyclists (and pedestrians) to not obey traffic laws. Most traffic laws and traffic controls are designed not for safety, but to move cars as rapidly as possible.

  • Joe R.

    God article but I think there is often one overlooked reason why bicycle infrastructure doesn’t exist as much (and is sometimes opposed) in minority neighborhoods. Generally whenever a neighborhood gets more bike lanes that comes at the price of increased police ticketing of cyclists. It doesn’t have to be this way, but with an NYPD trying to make quotas, posting patrol cars near bike lanes is like fishing in a barrel. Needless to say, those in minority neighborhoods are already fed up with police harassment. They don’t want anything which will invite more.

  • dave “paco” abraham

    Absolutely valid point. Its unfortunate that there is such terrible overpolicing of bike and underpolicing of dangerous driving. The best infrastructure is often self enforcing and doesn’t bring our loonies ranting to the precinct COs to crack down on bicycles or anything.

  • I saw this article and immediately thought of Linden Boulevard and Kings Highway https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/dutch-service-streets-and-cycling/

  • Dan

    This is important to point out. Plenty of community boards in outer boros have rejected bike lanes for numerous reasons – mostly for parking reasons but some groups identify bike lanes with hipsters and gentrification. There’s also the fact that some people feel threatened that their already difficult commutes are going to be even more difficult because there are fewer parking spaces (and public transit is so abysmal that they have to drive).

    I feel for the people who need to drive for work but I see plenty of examples where people just don’t want to lose a single parking spot for the benefit of a much better transit system, such as along where the Q53 bus runs to Rockaway.

  • Dan

    Aka “stroads”

  • The fundamental problem is that DOT is organized in silos: the bike group, the ped group, the plaza group and the bus lane group. Each one uses its own toolkit which is insufficient or inappropriate for a given situation. It is as if the bathroom expert was asked to design your kitchen. Until they Reorganize, they will continue to be inefficient . For each project they need a “street architect” who pickS and choses the best solutions needed for the whole street.

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  • Richard Miller

    Good article but it would have been good to add how the Vision Zero design will help with this and what we need to do turn that law into reality.

  • Lovely to see this pronounced as a goal by Streetsblog NYC. The California blogs using the same name, but under separate ownership now, seem to think that safe infrastructure leads to gentrification and thus it must never be encouraged in low-income areas.

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