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Opinion: It’s Past Time for Protected Bike Lanes in Downtown Jamaica

There is no safe, legal, and easy way to ride through downtown Jamaica. It's time for that to change.

12:00 AM EDT on November 3, 2023


Buses are moving faster on Bill de Blasio’s busways.

As one desirable mode of transportation is rightfully and finally prioritized, another gets pushed to the margins: With the arrival of two busways in downtown Jamaica, Queens earlier this year, safe and legal passage for bike users has appareuntly gone out the window.

Samuel Santaella

Since October 2021, two red-paint bus lanes have provided a clearer path for 26 bus lines in Jamaica: one on Jamaica Avenue between Sutphin and Merrick boulevards, and another eastbound only on Archer Avenue between 153rd and 160th streets. In May, the city announced plans to make those bus lanes permanent in the form of the Jamaica NOW: Urban Design Strategy and Streetscape Plan. At the same time, officials planned to extend the Queens Boulevard bike lane to Hillside Avenue from its current terminus at Union Turnpike, and expand the e-scooter sharing program to the area.

It's great that our area has been getting street changes that put people and transit ahead of cars. As a regular bus rider on the Q4, Q44, Q56, and Q83 lines, I celebrate these changes.

As a bicycle user, however, the changes ultimately made it harder for me to ride home. There is no safe, legal, and easy way to ride through downtown Jamaica. I previously called for building bus and bike infrastructure together in 2019; nothing has changed since.

Worse yet: The plan for the area fails to address safe and legal bike access through Jamaica, leaving the forthcoming Queens Boulevard bike lane to essentially dead-end at Hillside Avenue at the western edge of downtown. The plan’s only beneficial cycling-related commitment is to build more bike parking. That parking will be useless without a safe access for biking.

Thankfully our neighborhood does have some legal options for cycling westbound towards Queens Boulevard (and Brooklyn and Manhattan).

Archer Avenue is one option, with a regular car lane next to the westbound bus lane — but the cars, dollar vans, and many buses that stop for pick-ups and drop-offs there create chaotic, unsafe conditions. A painted, unprotected bike lane on 89th Avenue is the best choice to pass through the area, but it leaves riders further away from the Jamaica Center subway station for the J train to Brooklyn, and from many shops.

Annotations: Samuel Santaella

The bigger challenge is cycling eastbound in the other direction — towards my home in St. Albans.

If I'm coming from Queens Boulevard or Brooklyn, my preferred route, Jamaica Avenue, is now a busway the entire way, where most cars and bikes are technically prohibited. Liberty and Hillside Avenues are basically highways and too treacherous for my personal risk level; 89th Avenue is one-way in the opposite direction; and the street grid doesn't offer me other short and direct options.

Archer Avenue is also a no-go. Three blocks of Archer are a busway, which creates a legal barrier to riding. The sheer number of pedestrians and waiting bus riders on the strip makes dismounting and walking your bike a hassle. The rest of Archer that is not busway – with regular car lanes next to bus lanes – puts cyclists in the literal middle of the road, sandwiched between buses, so there's nowhere to cower off to if a driver behind is too impatient and threatening. Not even a door zone.

Given how NYPD treats cyclists, giving tickets for things that are not against the rules or even running over them “for their own safety,” I'm not going to just ride on the busways anyway, which will eventually be camera-enforced, or ride the wrong way on 89th Avenue. Devices moved by human power (bicycles) are banned from bus lanes under NYC Traffic Rule 4-12(m)(4). And I think we all agree that no one wants me riding on the sidewalk.

The absence of safe bike infrastructure makes the area treacherous for two-wheelers, of whom 255 were injured between 2016 and 2023, according to Crashmapper. The area was listed as a “Vision Zero Priority Area” when the city used that designation from 2015 to 2019, meaning officials knew the area needed safety interventions because disproportionately high rates of traffic injuries.

A better streetscape plan would put north/south bike lanes on Sutphin, Parsons, Merrick boulevards, and 168th Street — as well as east/west access on Archer Avenue to be able to ride to/from Queens Boulevard and the subway.

Driver access could be limited except to get to the over 3,000 off-street garage park spaces scattered throughout the area. The ensuing decline in car traffic would make streets safer and buses faster in an area where public transit users and pedestrians far outnumber drivers, according to DOTs open house presentation from August 2021.

Even if cycling on bus lanes were legal, this would fail the all ages and abilities test without question, which is why I call for separated bike lanes, instead of legalizing cycling on bus lanes. There's always another bus in Jamaica. The fact that MTA drivers are trained does not matter to me since they still perform close passesdrive and park on bike lanes, and threaten other cyclists. Red paint is not protection!

Respected safe-streets advocate Doug Gordon blogged: “Blocked bus lanes inconvenience bus riders while blocked bike lanes can actually kill cyclists.”

I am both bus rider and cyclist. If safety is truly first – and if both share other goals in public health, accessibility, equity, and climate – the choice is clear. The “Jamaica NOW Streetscape Plan” must do more for people, including bicycle users.

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