Donovan Richards: Every Neighborhood In Queens Deserves A Connected Bike Network

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards (inset) wants more bike lanes.
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards (inset) wants more bike lanes.

Don’t tell this borough president, “No one bikes in your neighborhood.”

Queens Beep Donovan Richards laid out an ambitious, aggressive transportation agenda in his 2021 State of the Borough, an agenda that focuses heavily on creating a safe and humane transportation system that benefits every inch of the city’s largest borough (and also positions him nicely for re-election).

“Enough is enough, lives are on the line with every change of a traffic light,” Richards said in the first of what he hopes will become yearly addresses.

Richards laid out his agenda as one that fixes a transportation system that not only fails to get people where they’re going on time, but whose fixes have a life and death imperative to them.

“For millions of us, no matter how we get around, not a day goes by where the system doesn’t fail us. Sometimes it means being late for work, but for far too many families it means a funeral. So the safety of our streets will always be a top priority in my office. We owe that much to the 25 pedestrians, 33 motorists and one cyclist who lost their lives on our [Queens] roads last year alone,” he said.

To fix that, Richards said he wants to make it possible for people to safely bike and walk in every part of the borough, no exceptions. To Richards that means more than just finishing the city’s work on the Queens Boulevard bike lane or making Northern Boulevard safer. It means expanding Citi Bike further into Queens, building bike parking hubs at subway stations, embracing the push for the Five Borough Bikeway and ensure that a buildout of protected bike lanes makes a real network that

“We can transform our bike network into a borough-wide interconnected web for all our families to enjoy, and making the bicycle a legitimate mode of transportation no matter what neighborhood you come from. You should be able to ride from Forest Hills to the Flushing Bay promenade or pedal from Glendale to Glen Oaks without fear,” said Richards, who is currently serving the last year of his predecessor’s term, and will be on the ballot in the June primary for a full four-year ride.

The push for a fully connected, protected bike network in Queens is not shocking to hear from Richards, who years ago was pushing for lower parking requirements and improved transit infrastructure for his Far Rockaway district even in the face of community board demands for parking. Richards’s agenda also comes at a time when mayoral candidates across the Democratic Party’s ideological spectrum are proposing massive expansions of the city’s protected bike lanes and turning it into a real connected network. (The next mayor will also be bound by the Streets Master Plan, which calls for 250 miles of protected bike lanes and 150 miles of dedicated bus lanes every five years, instead of the city’s current piecemeal approach.)

Crucially, Richards is also delving into community board reform, to ensure his plan doesn’t get bogged down in a morass of four-hour meetings where people insult widows in an effort to block a protected bike lane. The Queens BP called community boards “vital, small-d democratic institutions” in his speech, but also said the boards need to be rejiggered.

“In order for the Queens community boards to excel at greater heights, the boards need to be better reflective of the neighborhoods they serve. Most of you who have attended a community board meeting know there needs to be a makeover from top to bottom,” Richards said, before laying out a future plan to deal with board diversity, member conduct, transparency and modernization of board by-laws.

Safe streets advocates happily greeted the combination of street safety and community board reform as a hand-in-hand effort.

“He’s taking a very strong stance saying having the community boards actually reflect the community will help result in the same transportation outcomes he’s advocating for,” said Transportation Alternatives Queens Organizer Juan Restrepo. “So much of this stuff ends up at community boards where we have months-long conversations that go nowhere, and so much of why nothing has happened can be traced to not having advocates for these things on the community board. And that created the inequitable bike map we have, where large swathes of it don’t have anything at all, because the city will often feel like it doesn’t want to go to a community board that will just kill a project.”

Richards also said he would push for more and better open streets in his home borough, with a particular emphasis on expansion efforts focusing on schools and neighborhoods that aren’t close to green space. Richards, while a proponent of open streets and making the 34th Avenue open street permanent, has also been a persistent critic of the program’s inequitable distribution.

The BP called the program’s initial rollout “shameful” when the city left the coronavirus-stricken Far Rockaway neighborhood out of the program, and seemingly in response to the way that de Blasio administration left out blocks and neighborhoods that didn’t provide neighborhood volunteers, proposed doing things differently.

“We must expand our open streets program while creating a model in partnership with the Department of Transportation that does not rely so heavily on community volunteers setting up and breaking down corridors each day,” Richards said, also calling for the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection to help streamline the vendor permitting process to allow street vendors to hawk their wares in the community spaces.

Bus and train riders were not left out of the Richards transportation agenda either. Picking up on his City Council days, Richards called for an Archer Avenue busway, as he previously suggested in 2020. The beep also asked for more community involvement when the Queens bus network redesign restarts, a larger Jamaica bus depot, which he said would help run better bus service in the borough, and full electrification for the MTA’s bus fleet, which is scheduled to be completed in 2040.

Richards pushed for the Biden/Harris administration to approve congestion pricing and the revenue stream it can bring the MTA, but also pushed for a permanent and improved Atlantic Ticket, the pilot program that provides discounted intracity rides on the Long Island Rail Road.

“Enough messing around with southeast Queens. The Atlantic Ticket program must be made permanent and it must come with a free subway transfer. We will accept nothing less,” said Richards.

The street safety agenda does have a little political juice attached to it. Richards is facing a primary from City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who has himself earned cycling hosannas because of his support for a dedicated bike lane on the Queensboro Bridge and a protected bike lane network in his Long Island City district. But even if there’s some electoral calculation behind Richards turning Borough Hall into a bully pulpit for cycling, open street and transit expansions, it’s a miracle of sorts that the situation has changed to the point where a those kinds of expansions are seen as vote getters. After all, it was only 2018 when a civil war (complete with bike lane shrapnel attacks) erupted in Sunnyside over protected bike lane installations on 43rd and Skillman avenues.

Van Bramer himself upped the ante on the campaign angle by endorsing Transportation Alternatives’s “NYC 25 x 25” plan, as well as highlighting his old work on street safety issues.

“I’ve been working on these issues for years,” Van Bramer said in a statement. “I’ve marched and biked with advocates, fought for the protected bike lanes on Queens Boulevard and the dedicated lanes on the Queensboro Bridge. I don’t just talk abut these issues. I live them. But we need to go farther — Transportation Alternatives’s ’25 x 25’ plan asks for 25 percent of the space designated for vehicles to become space by 2025 for pedestrians and cyclists. We can and should be bolder on community board reform. More new applicants are good, but what we really need are the vacancies to get them actually appointed. We need everyone in this fight to reduce pedestrian deaths and make Queens a cleaner, greener borough, but now is the time for bold ideas.”

Ultimately, Richards’s agenda will rely in part on how the next mayor executes their own safe street and transit agendas, as well as the whims of the MTA. But it’s undeniably helpful that the message coming out of Queens Borough Hall is that among other equity efforts, “our borough deserves safe streets.”

“Everybody understands that with New York City having such a strange and debilitating time in its existence, it’s time for a truly radical way to change the way we go about things. It’s not crazy that the borough president is gleeful about congestion pricing and what it would do for queens, but we’ve also all been thinking that if we’re advocating for congestion pricing, what do we do for people who live in transit deserts? It’s how do you make things come together to give people a chance to not use their car,” Restrepo said.

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