Marc Lefkowitz | 02/16/15 @ 2:00pm
I visited New York City last week to see what lessons I could glean from their Vision Zero campaign to reduce traffic fatalities involving cyclists, pedestrians and motorists to zero. Mayor Bill DiBlasio launched Vision Zero a year ago in New York, making it the most visible and wide-ranging effort to reach America from its origin in Sweden (other cities working at it include San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle). The concrete steps New York has taken are well documented. The headline makers include the city lowered speed limits everywhere from 35 to 25 mph. Laws also changed to put motorists, such as taxi drivers, on notice that hitting a pedestrian would incur a serious infraction.
It has been a few years since I last visited New York. The last time I was there, the Bloomberg Administration had just launched its PlaNYC, a "blueprint" that focuses on making the city more resilient, more sustainable.
It coincided with a more inclusive vision for streets championed by the city's Department of Transportation and its now-famous Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. Five years later, the impact is evident. Bike lanes, in particular, barrier-protected lanes, have made New York a changed place. The aggressive driving we’ve come to expect is starting to be tamed. On the wide avenues of Manhattan, the decision to convert one of six lanes to provide a safe place for biking has had a profound effect on “mode shift.” New Yorkers young and old are gravitating to two-wheels.
I met with transportation advocates and cyclists and asked if physical changes in the form of hundreds of miles of bike lanes have lead to a culture change that accepts bikes as a real form of transportation? Data seems to support a "build it and they will come" idea with a year-to-year doubling of New Yorkers shifting to biking. Bikes are even visible in the frigid cold winter.
I start by trying bike share for my second time (my first was in Salt Lake City). At a self-serve station on E. 15th Street in Union Square, I dip my credit card and tap my way through the sign up screen. Citi Bike's base option is a day rate of $9.99 which means non-members can ride a blue bike for 30 minutes at a time and dock them at another station near their destination (there are hundreds of stations like this concentrated, for now, in Manhattan). We head uptown from E. 15th on the protected bike lane of 1st Avenue. Joining me for the ride and, later, a tour of the growing bike presence across the East River in the boroughs such as Queens, is Steve Scofield. A construction manager with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), Scofield volunteers for Transportation Alternatives (TA), an advocacy group that has helped build the base of support for safer streets.
First, a thought about biking in Manhattan. The bike lanes and blue bikes are visible reminders of the new normal. For an infrequent visitor like me, five years in to this new golden era of biking in New York, it helped calm an initial case of the nerves about biking with so many cars. It feels like the most natural thing. It was really an exhilarating feeling to be moving with such relative speed and ease on the surface streets of the big apple. And what a way to see the city (those with a little more experience biking can sneak a peak every now and again of the skyline or famous landmarks). For those who think they would never try to bike in New York (myself included) the protected bike lanes definitely feel like a game changer. That said, while you do feel well removed from traffic while in the lane, the intersections are still places to be heads up for turning cars that can stack up and block the way. Only once did we have to leave the lane to circle around cars blocking the bike lane. Thankfully, many intersections are equipped with bike traffic signals intended to give cyclists a head start. But, it’s still a good idea to look over your shoulder to check for turning cars, Scofield warns. In no time, we’ve biked to 42nd Street and Grand Central Terminal where we hop a subway train bound for Queens.
Citibike’s expansion to Queens was delayed when Superstorm Sandy damaged stations and bikes, and so we walk from the first subway station into the western Queens neighborhood of Long Island City (LIC). Because of its proximity to Manhattan, LIC is gentrifying and that march of the young and well heeled has included a growing bike population. The new and old residents haven’t always seen eye to eye on the need for biking infrastructure, says Scofield, a lifelong resident of the eastern area of Queens known as Astoria (the home of notorious crank, Archie Bunker from the TV series). Scofield rekindled his love of biking in the 1970s as a bike courier and today spends time working to help local business owners and older residents understand that bike infrastructure benefits not only the “hipsters in their 20s.”
“Parking is the Holy Grail. Businesses get concerned when one or two parking spots are removed for bike corrals,” says Scofield. “They think trucks aren’t going to be able to park. They don’t understand that (bike lanes) will increase traffic.”
“Even if we disagree, we can have a dialogue,” he adds. “Streets are not just car-moving machines. Bike lanes are cheap. Bollards are cheap. You don’t have to build the Taj Mahal.”
New York has created 100 miles of bike lanes annually for the last five years starting in Manhattan and spreading east into hipster/yuppie enclaves of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Park Slope.
Vision Zero can be effective at bringing focus to which streets and intersection are the most deadly. For example, twenty cyclists were killed in crashes with cars last year (up from 13 the year before), and most of the deaths occurred where no bike lanes existed, says Scofield standing at the base of the Pulaski Bridge which connects Queens and Brooklyn. That has helped TA lead a (successful) campaign to add a protected bike lane on the bridge. It has also raised the urgency for putting the six-lane, fast moving Queens Boulevard on a road diet.
“We frame this as a pedestrian issue,” Scofield says. “Bike lanes are better for grandma crossing the street. What happens to a pedestrian when they are hit at 40 miles per hour is tremendously different than at 25 mph. It’s a 20% survival rate. And it’s not going to affect traffic times dramatically.”
It helps that City Hall placed equity at the center stage of a policy reform agenda. Last week, DiBlasio introduced a far-reaching affordable housing policy. New York media polled the mayor’s stronghold in the liberal, gentrified areas of Brooklyn and found skeptics (and NIMBYs) for his affordable housing plan. Meanwhile, Scofield says, a recent poll put the favorables for bike lanes in New York at 60 percent.
Biking has a practical impact on his work at MTA which recently had its largest day of ridership in its 110 year history. “I’m freeing up a seat for a paying customer. It’s about transportation choices.”
Now that Vision Zero has brought safety and equitable division of streets into greater focus, is New York bound to be America’s bike as well as transit Mecca? I ask Streetsblog editor Ben Fried for his thoughts on the lessons from Vision Zero for cities like Cleveland. He credits PlaNYC and Citi Bike for starting the movement. He sees the potential of Vision Zero as a framework for action. He observes that it might help cities like Cleveland (perhaps in the form of the city’s new Streets Commissioner) galvanize support for an expansion of its bike plan.
Vision Zero also includes laws requiring safety officials to release crash data monthly instead of every few years. Old data has considerably less impact. Vision Zero is encouraging a productive dialogue, Fried tells me, with major stakeholders like the taxi commission and the police department. Moving forward, signs to watch are how the city enforces the laws.
Scofield points to education as the key to making Vision Zero stick. He and another TA volunteer/former lawyer held a workshop at experimental art space Flux Factory in Queens. It centered on knowing your legal rights and responsibilities when biking.
When I visit Flux, I ask director Doug Paulson if he feels like the city’s investment in bike infrastructure is part of broader acceptance of bikes. He jokes that it felt like everyone he knows went out one weekend and got a bike. More seriously, Flux is involved in community outreach with bike advocacy playing a role in everything from how it can be helpful to the urban farming community to building up a carfree society. Leaving off on a happy note, Paulson tells me about a guy he knows who started a bike shop that teaches repair skills classes and home brewing lessons. This is a marker of a healthy bike culture and a serious effort at making the capital of capitalism deliver on this moment when equitable cities seem to be coming back in vogue.