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DEFINITION OF INSANITY: DOT Still Seeking Community Board ‘Yea’ For Bike Lanes

Back in February, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg announced expansion of the bike network in Manhattan. Photo: Julianne Cuba

You'd be hard pressed to find something that better demonstrates the city's broken process for installing protected bike lanes than the case of Sixth Avenue between 33rd Street and Central Park in Manhattan.

The city installed the most recent expansion of the bike lane on Sixth between 14th and 33rd streets in 2016, and the Department of Transportation has been committed to finishing the bike path for at least four years, with just the relatively easy last portion remaining.

In January, activists marched up Sixth Avenue to demand that the DOT finish the protected bike lane so that there is no longer a dangerous gap between Midtown and the entrance to car-free Central Park. A month later, Transportation officials announced that they would close the gap this year.

And there's virtually no controversy about this lane on this stretch of Sixth Avenue — an excessively wide roadway with four lanes of traffic heading uptown plus a parking lane and bus lane.

But nonetheless, the city DOT is going through its usual process of presenting the final portion to the area's community board — the very same board that approved the stretch between 14th and 33rd streets in 2015, and voted back in 2013 to request DOT study a redesign of the entire avenue. Since the avenue stretches the length of several districts, Community Board 4 gave a thumbs up as well, and Community Board 2 similarly approved the request for the bike lane that's there now between Eighth and 14th streets, according to Janet Liff, a CB2 member and co-founder of the Neighborhood Empowerment Project.

In other words, this is a no brainer that is, nonetheless, taking forever.

"We’ve been fighting to #fix6th for seven years," said Liff.

Indeed, in a show of how little controversy remains, Community Board 5's Transportation Committee unanimously approved the plans for the Sixth Avenue 9-0. That vote sends the proposal to the full board next month.

But the city should not need yet another merely advisory stamp of approval from the same panel for the second time for what's just an extension of a bike lane that's already there, said Upper East Sider Ryan Smith, who was previously the volunteer chairman of Transportation Alternatives' Manhattan committee.

"Community Board 5, along with nearly every elected official representing central Midtown, has been calling for DOT to provide safer walking and biking infrastructure on Sixth Avenue for years. I appreciate that DOT notified the community of their plan through CB5. However, at this point, we already know what the community — and CB5 itself — wants on Sixth Avenue, so I hope that this project will not be delayed any further due to this extra layer of approval that DOT sought," said Smith.

And even as the city has nearly grounded to a halt amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic, the Department of Transportation presented, virtually, to the Manhattan community board Monday night about its plans for finishing the Sixth Avenue bike lane — between 35th Street and Central Park South, DOT wants to remove one lane of traffic in order to relocate the existing painted bike lane to the curb, and install pedestrian islands, according to the presentation made to the board.

DOT's plan for finishing the Sixth Avenue bike lane. Photo: DOT
DOT's plan for finishing the Sixth Avenue bike lane. Photo: DOT
DOT's plan for finishing the Sixth Avenue bike lane. Photo: DOT

The city's reliance on its broken bureaucratic process is particularly troubling when the need for safer bike infrastructure is dire,  one activist said.

“When the parks are jammed and social distancing is literally impossible, it's crazy that we need to await community board approval to open up streets in the middle of a pandemic,” said Melodie Bryant, a member of Transportation Alternatives.

But like all the other bike lanes, finishing Sixth Avenue's won't be done until DOT gets purely advisory approval from Community Board 5. DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg has criticized that very process, but she is still following it to a T. And locals are getting frustrated.

"Why can't you put in orange cone and have a bike lane tomorrow?" asked Andrew Rosenthal during the online presentation.

The local council member similarly called on Hizzoner to loosen otherwise strict processes by which bike lanes get installed.

"In times of crisis, the mayor should give agencies more flexibility to do their jobs," added Council Member Keith Powers. "That said, I am lucky to represent a great community board that is supportive of bike lanes and is working to push this project through."

Delays beyond the normal community board process are expected, a DOT spokesman said.

"We hope to implement the project later this year, though we would also note that the timeline is uncertain given the COVID-19 emergency measures," said the spokesman, Brian Zumhagen. "Note that the vast majority of DOT staff is working remotely or is on call for emergency response, without full access to DOT systems, and this will limit our ability to implement projects in 2020. We remain committed to our full street improvement and safety programs, but also need to be clear that the safety of our workers and the overall health situation of the city will take priority over reaching benchmarks or implementing any particular project."

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