Small Step for Pedestrians & Cyclists; Giant Leap for NYC

wburg_cityplanning_images.jpgThe Department of Transportation's recently announced streetscape renovation at the Bedford Avenue L subway station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn marks the first time ever in New York City that car parking spaces have been removed to make way for bicycle parking.

Since breaking the news of this development on Monday, Streetsblog has learned more about the project. DOT's plan is to widen the sidewalk by five feet for approximately 112 feet along the southeast curb of North 7th Street at Bedford Avenue. For the real estate brokers out there, that's 560 square feet of new sidewalk space for Williamsburg. New bicycle racks will provide approximately 25 bike parking spaces. DOT is aiming to complete the project some time within the first six months of 2007. It will cost about $32,000 and the funding is coming from DOT's general budget.

This sidewalk widening project has been about three years in the making. In the last few years, the Bedford Avenue L subway station has become a popular park-and-ride for bicycle commuters. With increasing complaints of bikes blocking the crowded sidewalks, in 2004 the NYPD began dropping in and sawing bikes off of the street furniture with chain saws.

"Clearly, that was a bad solution," says Teresa Toro, chair of Community Board 1's transportation committee and New York City Coordinator at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "Everybody in the community recognizes that there are so many more people biking. There was much frustration around the police doing those bike raids, clipping locks."

Toro credits Brooklyn DOT Deputy Borough Commissioner Dalila Hall for working with the community to develop solutions. As plans were being developed to build out the sidewalks at Bedford and North 7th, DOT fast-tracked the installation of about 150 new bicycle parking spots in the neighborhood.

In April 2005, Brooklyn Community Board 1 approved a plan to widen the sidewalks and remove parking along two stretches of North 7th Street at Bedford Avenue (see the draft plan below). The widening along the southeast corner -- the part of the project that DOT has agreed to get done in the next six months -- is aimed more at improving pedestrian access to the crowded subway stairwell than increasing bike parking. "There will be a few bike racks away from the subway stairs. But the northwest corner would have been the one with a ton of bike racks on it," Toro says.

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The sidewalk build-out and bike parking on the northwest corner is on hold for lack of funding. The southeast corner is being done first, Toro says, because "It has been recognized as a real need for a while. The city's Subway-Sidewalk Interface project (PDF file) identified that as a trouble spot and it came up again during the Williamsburg-Greenpoint rezoning discussions."

This raises the question: On the northwest corner, couldn't DOT install the bicycle parking directly on the street rather than taking the time and money to build-out a sidewalk extension? There are many successful designs and models for on-street bike parking in other cities. Greg Raisman of the Portland DOT pointed out in Streetsblog's comments section that the 13 on-street bike racks pictured in this video cost only $4,000 to install. Raisman also notes one downside to on-street bike parking: The street sweepers can't get in to clean the curb.

That question aside, convincing an outer borough Community Board to get rid of car parking spaces is no small task. For Livable Streets advocates interested in pushing for similar projects in other neigborhoods, Toro's Community Board political savvy is worth noting. One of the reasons why her community didn't mind giving up ten car parking spaces to bicycles is because Toro's committee was simultaneously working to reclaim curbside parking space elsewhere in the neighborhood.

"We had a lot of outdated parking restrictions from when this was an industrial community.  The use had changed for lots of buildings but the parking rules had not," Toro says. By the time the vote came up to approve the sidewalk widening and bike parking plan, her committee had already freed up 40 or 50 new parking spaces in the area. "So, it wasn't a hardship to give up five or ten parking spots. There wasn't much opposition to this," Toro says.

Only 30 percent of the households in Brooklyn's Community Board 1 own cars. "More people walk and bike than drive on Bedford Avenue. I see this as an equity issue and an acknowledgement that car owners are not the only ones who use the street and use public space."

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The Department of Transportation's sketch.