In Historic Vote, City Council Passes Bicycle Access Bill

yassky_sadik_khan.jpgDOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan speaks at a press event yesterday. That's bill sponsor David Yassky in the green tie.
The New York City Council voted 46-1 this afternoon in favor of Intro 871, the Bicycle Access Bill, opening the door to significant gains in commuter cycling. Cyclists who do not commute by bike have long cited the lack of a secure place to lock up as the most important factor holding them back. Intro 871 will give thousands of them a new legal framework to petition for bicycle access at their places of work, but stops short of guaranteeing access to all buildings. All told, its passage marks the biggest legislative victory ever achieved by bicycle advocates in New York City.

"This will open up commuting by bike for New Yorkers," said Council Speaker Christine Quinn today. "We can use bikes as a main mode of transportation." She was speaking to a packed house. The security guards at City Hall were turning people away from the council chamber because the galleries had reached capacity.

"No other city in the country has a policy like the one City Council passed today," said Transportation Alternatives director Paul Steely White in a statement on the significance of the bill. "When we open the doors of New York City’s workplaces to cyclists, tens of thousands of commuters are going to get on two wheels."

For many cyclists forbidden to bring their rides to work, today's vote was a long time coming. TA first called for bicycle access legislation in 1993, as a plank in its Bicycle Blueprint. Since then, multiple bills like Intro 871 have come and gone without becoming law.

"This is historic, a very, very major step," said John Kaehny, who served as director of TA from 1994 to 2004. "I can't think of something that comes close to this from the City Council. This is very important because they've done something big. More than anything else, it validates bicycles as legitimate."

Gaining passage for Intro 871 entailed a combination of confronting and cajoling one of the quintessential New York City interest groups: the real estate lobby. Organizations like REBNY -- the Real Estate Board of New York -- don't like the idea of a bicycle access mandate, and they wield a lot of influence. To overcome that inertia, everything had to line up perfectly.

TA's constant advocacy has mobilized efforts over the course of many years. This time around, all the other pieces fell into place: a persistent sponsor in David Yassky, a Council Speaker in Christine Quinn who represents a cyclist-heavy district, and perhaps most crucially, a mayor and DOT commissioner who came out strongly for the bill. Even with the stars seemingly aligned, it took one last push from more than a thousand cyclists to put the bill over the top.

What does this all mean for bike commuting in New York? Well, the change won't happen overnight. The bill takes effect in 120 days, and then it's up to individual tenants to petition their building managers for access (we'll explain how to do this in a future post). Odds are, as Kaehny told me, "it's going to be a fight the whole way." The bill sets the stage for thousands of mini-battles between bike commuters and landlords who will try to claim exemptions from the law. Ultimately, the bill will be judged a success if commuters come out on top in the vast majority of those fights.

There are gaps in the legislation that will need to be plugged. The bill explicitly covers one building type -- office buildings that have freight elevators -- so there's plenty of room to extend its applicability. A future bill could fortify this version, for instance, by guaranteeing bike access to schools, or to office buildings without freight elevators. After today's vote, there's every reason to believe those improvements are achievable.