Opinion: Citi Bike? Outdoor Restaurants? We Can Have Both — Just Limit the Cars!

Gene's is a great old restaurant that wants a Citi Bike rack moved. Photo: Google
Gene's is a great old restaurant that wants a Citi Bike rack moved. Photo: Google

Editor’s note: In an Instagram post heard ’round the world last week, actor Sarah Jessica Parker begged Citi Bike to move a docking station in front of Gene’s restaurant on W. 11th Street in Greenwich Village. But Citi Bike doesn’t site the docks — the Department of Transportation does. In the days since SJP’s post, a battle raged between supporters of Citi Bike and supporters of the restaurant — even though the real battle should be with owners of stored cars, who fill most of the curbside space. Now that the rack has been reconfigured, one local resident thinks people were waging the wrong battle. Here is his opinion piece.

Samir Lavingia
Samir Lavingia

Citi Bike has been a transportation lifeline for thousands of critical workers throughout the COVID-19 crisis, and a rock for New Yorkers for over seven years. As a resident of the West Village, I can say there isn’t a better way of getting around my neighborhood than biking: it is a safe, socially distant mode of transportation. It’s an added benefit that it’s also a really enjoyable way to connect with the city, which I can enjoy without even owning a bike myself!

So it has been dispiriting to see the recent fight over a Citi Bike dock in front of Gene’s restaurant on W. 11th Street, not because I don’t think Gene’s shouldn’t have outdoor seating — of course, it should! — but because the conversation became mired in a place it shouldn’t have.

People — unintentionally, I believe — wound up pitting two great uses of street space against one another, to the detriment of both. Bikeshare is more important than ever, and moving critical transportation infrastructure just shouldn’t be a serious option for New York City right now. But it’s also vitally important for the city to be flexible enough to make sure that struggling small businesses, like Gene’s, are supported in every way possible. These two things can be true at once.

The good news is that there isn’t actually a conflict here! There is plenty of space on New York City streets for both critical transportation infrastructure like bikeshare docks, as well as all the outdoor restaurant seating we could ever use.

This conversation would have been so much different had the de Blasio administration looked to repurposing the 90 percent of street space on W. 11th Street that is currently given to the owners of parked cars rather than setting against each other other road users who are grasping for crumbs.

I was glad that a resolution was finally implemented Friday that shifted some docks from directly in front of Gene’s, and then adding them — plus more — to the ends of the station. We’ll wind up with a street that both has more bikes, and more outdoor dining, than ever before (and fewer parking spaces). That’s not a bad outcome by any stretch of the imagination.

Still, from my vantage point this specific solution isn’t a panacea, and there are even better ways to navigate these situations in the future. Ultimately, the city needs to create a process for restaurants that want to be able to set up outdoor seating, but currently can’t because their storefront is adjacent to a bus stop, a fire hydrant, a Citi Bike station, emergency loading, or other critical infrastructure.

Instead of the adequate, but clumsy arrangement we see now, the solution would look more like creating an administrative framework for restaurants that want an exemption to the above scenarios that allow them to set up their tables next to (or across the street from) that critical infrastructure, as the situation permits.

Moving or fiddling with critical transportation infrastructure on a case-by-case basis is bad as a matter of principle, but it’s also highly time consuming, and unnecessary. If this were to become the norm, crews would be so busy playing musical chairs that there wouldn’t be enough time in the day to expand Citi Bike into the Bronx, Upper Manhattan, or deeper into Queens and Brooklyn either. These neighborhoods and communities have already waited too long for Citi Bike — delaying it further would be an abject moral failure. Forcing Citi Bike to do this for a potential series of restaurants would be simply inequitable, putting more time and effort into more affluent, whiter, neighborhoods at the cost of less well off, typically non-White, residents.

And don’t get me started on what moving bus stops would mean for the already strained MTA. This plan for Gene’s is great as a one-off, but it simply doesn’t scale.

With flexibility on the city’s part, we can easily create a framework that allows restaurants that have no other potential revenue streams to set up outdoor dining areas in parking spaces next to critical infrastructure without ever pitting outdoor dining against bikeshare stations, bus stops, or bike lanes.

Let’s push the city and our local elected officials to be more creative in the future, as we no doubt will hear more of these kinds of situations going forward. We want a city built for people, not cars. We won’t get there the way this played out.

Samir Lavingia is a West Village resident and a member of Transportation Alternatives’ Manhattan Activist Committee. Follow him on Twitter @lavingiasa.

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