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Eyes on the Street: East Side Crosstown Bike Lanes Re-Emerge

12:01 AM EDT on August 25, 2021

The bike lane on 61st Street, looking west toward Lexington Avenue. Photo: Liam Jeffries

Our heroes are getting their crosstown bike lanes — finally.

Many months after they first appeared as temporary lanes during the height of COVID — and years after the community began requesting them — the permanent 61st and 62nd Street protected bike lanes are becoming a reality ... albeit slowly.

The Department of Transportation installed the temporary lanes in 2020 as an emergency measure order to accommodate rising numbers of cyclists, especially many delivery cyclists and frontline workers commuting to and from East Side hospitals. Then, the safety of this brave contingent that was keeping New Yorkers alive and fed was paramount. The DOT began the installation of the permanent lanes in late June, when it scrubbed the temporary lanes in advance of repainting.

As if to demonstrate why protected bike lanes were and remain so necessary here, the sudden absence of the lane markings stoked the re-emergence of the aggressive driving that the lanes had helped tame, especially from motorists coming off the Queensboro Bridge. At 61st Street and Third Avenue, near the bridge exit, drivers instantly reclaimed the unmarked bike lane to use as a haphazard turn lane onto Third.

As the  DOT has begun installing the permanent lanes, however, this reckless driving has slowly receded, although the project has created its own hazards: The glacial pace of the DOT installation has made for wildly inconsistent safety conditions from intersection to intersection as cyclists navigate uncompleted to almost finished stretches.

The installation of permanent bike lanes on 61st and 62nd streets culminates a drawn-out saga that was widely considered ugly even by normal "bikelash" standards. Extreme hostility from bike-lane opponents (including negative comments from a woman zooming into the first meeting from California) marred the community board meetings on the lanes, leading the board to punt on a motion in support of the lanes twice before finally voting in favor of them in April — after three meetings and nine hours of comments from the general public and board members.

So where are we now, in late August?

An incomplete lane marking. Photo: Liam Jeffries

On 61st Street, the bike lanes are almost done from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue and Lexington Avenue to First Avenue, with the only missing elements being green paint and plastic flex posts. Similarly, on 62nd Street, the lanes are almost complete from the bridge off-ramp to Park Avenue. On these sections, conditions for cyclists largely mirror those of the temporary lanes: With the exception of illegally parked cars and vans and a few construction blockages, cyclists can use the lanes like they would any other dedicated bike lane.

Outside those stretches, however, the lanes are laughably incomplete, being only partially or halfway painted or completely untouched from the reference markings meant to guide their installation. Thus drivers still use those segments as de facto parking and turning lanes, a situation made even more dangerous between Park and Fifth avenues, where outdoor-dining sheds present obstacles for cyclists.

The plan’s much-heralded connection between these lanes and the Queensboro Bridge bike/pedestrian path (which is to be separated into two, discrete paths next year) is also still a work in progress. The fence blocking cyclists coming off the bridge from turning directly onto E. 60th Street between First and Second avenues is still there; where an on-street connection does exist, construction blocks it from being useful, notably at squares of ripped-up pavement that mark the future sidewalk ramps that will take cyclists between 61st and 62nd streets.

As for the two-way bike lane on 60th Street between First and York avenues, that's also only partially painted and far from complete, with parked cars and an unchanged bus layover area at York Avenue for the M57 bus making it all but impossible to bike toward First Avenue against car traffic (well, for the faint of heart anyway).

The department is trying: The lane on 60th, looking east toward York Avenue. Photo: Liam Jeffries

All this represents a disappointing showing by the DOT for a bike project that has been both many months in the making and highly anticipated by Upper East Side residents and workers. It simply shouldn’t take this long to install painted bike lanes spanning a total of about two miles. If the project involved much capital work, the delay might make sense, but the only major work involves installing the sidewalk ramps for cyclists along the 59th Street Bridge exit road and, at a stretch, removing the fence along the 59th Street Bridge bike path. Outside of that it’s all paint and flex posts, which, considering everything in the DOT’s purview, is an easy project for it to do.

Asked to comment on the slow and inconsistent pace of the installation, DOT Deputy Press Secretary Alana Morales told Streetsblog that it “[takes] into account emergency utility work, ongoing construction, and outdoor restaurant setups in the area, as well as weather.” She said that the DOT expects the project “to be substantially complete by the fall,” but did not give a specific date.

Liam Jeffries is a safe-streets activist and freelance writer in Manhattan. 

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