NYC learns to heart bicycles
A version of this article originally appeared on Transportation Nation.
Let’s go back in time to December 2010. The city’s tabloid editorial pages are just beginning to sink their teeth into the transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, for — among other things — her avid support of bike lanes and pedestrian plazas. In Brooklyn, well-connected residents are preparing to sue to remove a bike lane.
On Dec. 9, 2010, New York’s city council holds a standing-room-only, overflow-room-inducing, five hour-plus hearing on bikes and bike lanes in New York City. Bronx council member James Vacca, who chairs the council’s Transportation Committee, kicks things off first by warning the crowd to be polite, then sets the stage by pointing out “few issues today prompt more heated discussion than bike policy in New York City.”
In the hours that followed, he was proven correct: Sadik-Khan was grilled, interrupted, and accused of ignoring the will of the public, prevaricating, and acting by fiat.
And she was put on the defensive, repeatedly exclaiming “That’s what we do!” when yet another council member excoriated her for not soliciting sufficient community input.
At one point, Lewis Fidler, a council member from Brooklyn, told Sadik-Khan her answer was “kind of half true. I don’t say that to be snooty. I say it because I think maybe you’re not aware.”
And then he reeled himself him. “This is not like you’ve got to be for the cars or you’ve got to be for the bikes or you’ve got to be for the buses. It’s really not … the cowmen and the farmers can be friends.”
The mood at this week’s Transportation Committee hearing, held in the same room as the 2010 hearing — and with many of the same players in attendance — was markedly different.
“I want to first off say thank you to the agency,” Fidler started, before launching into an encomium. “Quite frankly I don’t always get the answer I like from DOT [Department of Transportation], but we get a lot of answers from DOT. And they’re very responsive, your agency; your Brooklyn office continues to be a very responsive one.”
He then waxed on about major construction work going on on the Belt Parkway — a roadway almost entirely in his council district. “I will say for a project of that size to have gone on, without my getting repeated complaints from constituents — that says something all by itself, and the work that’s been completed looks really good.”
Back in 2010, Fidler’s questioning of Sadik-Khan was one of that hearing’s most contentious exchanges, with the two of them repeatedly interrupting each other. Fidler at that time told Sadik-Khan that her answers were “half true”; he later accused the DOT of failing to solicit community input on bike lanes — a charge Sadik-Khan repeatedly denied.
On Tuesday, Fidler asked Sadik-Khan to look into repairing a bike lane in his district (a lane under the Parks Department jurisdiction since it’s on their land. Sadik-Khan said she’d make sure her office reached out to the parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe.)
So maybe the cowmen and the farmers might be friends after all.
To be fair, Tuesday’s hearing was not one in which members of the public could comment (public hearings on the budget will be held next week), and biking wasn’t the only topic on the agenda.
Peter Koo is the Queens council member who represents Flushing (a neighborhood so heavily trafficked by pedestrians that the DOT said Tuesday that it’s slated for a sidewalk expansion project.) At the 2010 hearing, Koo complained that bikes lanes had been implemented at the expense of motorists and pedestrians, and that they were empty. “I hardly see any people using the bike lanes,” he said at the time. (Transcript here [PDF]; Koo’s remarks begin on page 39.)
At Tuesday’s hearing, Koo had a different complaint. “I find a lot of bicycles chained to the fence, to the trees, light poles, meter poles, everywhere.” He wants the New York Police Department to cut the chains of bikes that are illegally parked. But before that happens, he said, “we have to find a place for them to park.”
Letitia James, long a bike-lane supporter, put the cherry on the Charlotte Russe. “Commissioner, I want to thank you for all the docking stations in my district. I want to thank you for the bike-share program. I want to thank you for using my picture, my image, on your website, on the bike — it’s absolutely fabulous. Thank you for the plazas in my district … thank you for all the street renovations … thank you for the bike lanes, thank you for recognizing that we all have to share the space and no one is entitled to a city street.”
A few minutes after James spoke, the May 29 hearing ended.
“I do think since that hearing in 2010, many actions my committee has taken, and the legislation that we have passed, has brought New York City DOT to a realization that they could do a better job when it comes to community consultation,” council transportation chair Vacca said in a phone interview. “I think there’s been more outreach, there’s been more involvement, so I think that the strongly held views that existed in 2010 have somewhat been mitigated by DOT realizing that it’s better to work with local neighborhoods where possible and to try to seek areas of consensus.”
And is he happy with bike lanes? Yes — even though he said the ones in his Bronx district weren’t heavily used. “I do think in time, though, people will be bicycling more in neighborhoods where they are not bicycling now. And I think the groundwork that we’ve laid legislatively will make that reality more positive, have a more positive impact on neighborhoods throughout the city.”
Vacca said the Bronx bike lanes have been successful in reducing speeding. “They’ve had an impact in slowing down vehicular traffic, and that’s always a positive thing,” he said, adding that that’s a persistent issue for his constituents. “In my neighborhood there’s not a block party I go to, there’s not a civic association I go to, where people are not demanding speed bumps, where they’re not demanding police enforcement for ticketing of people who speed in their cars.”
Next up for the city council: reigning in rogue delivery people — a project they’re collaborating with the DOT on. “We cannot have commercial bicyclists driving the wrong way on one-way streets, we cannot have them ignoring red lights, we cannot have them on sidewalks,” Vacca said, adding that he’s working on legislation to address this. “I think within the next several weeks we should have a consensus bill that will reflect my views as well as the views of the Department of Transportation. We’re working together to come up with type of bill, and I think we’re making good progress.”