More Than Just Same-Old at Upper East Side Bicycle Forum

From the first (and only) town-hall meeting of the Manhattan Borough President’s Planning for Pedestrians Council in 1987, to Manhattan Community Board 8’s “Bicycle Forum” this week, I’ve sat through innumerable gatherings on cyclist-pedestrian conflicts.

KomanoffCrowd96thParkAve_7Jan2007.jpgCycling and pedestrian advocates, with Charles Komanoff at left, gather on the UES in 2007. Photo: Jonathan Barkey
Each session has been suffused with elephant-in-the-room syndrome. Somehow, the agenda never includes motor vehicles, even though cars, cabs and trucks do 99.5 percent of the traffic maiming and also commandeer street space and mindshare to the point where clashes between bikes and peds become inevitable.

The CB 8 forum on Tuesday evening did have hopeful elements, however. Local residents wanting more bike and pedestrian infrastructure and fewer cars outnumbered those who wanted cyclists put in their place. None of the five elected officials in attendance played the anti-bike card; all seemed receptive to the livable streets agenda. And one or two attendees who professed to be terrified by bicycles even took pains to support bike lanes.

Some highlights:

  • Deputy Borough President Rosemonde Pierre-Louis “commend[ing] City DOT and Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan for their visionary work to make New York City more walkable and bikeable.” (City Council Member Jessica Lappin had a more guarded version of the same message.)
  • Council Member Daniel Garodnick deflecting criticism from a pro-congestion pricing audience member by insisting he had been a “strong, outspoken supporter” of Mayor Bloomberg’s toll plan and, by implication, could be counted on to champion traffic pricing in the future.
  • A diverse collection of Upper East Siders — a 50-something male attorney who has cycled to work for decades, a young woman who recently took up bike-commuting, a female African-American community board member, and a husky pedestrian who pronounced himself too un-coordinated to ride a bike — passionately and eloquently speaking up for cycling and cycle facilities. Here are some of their remarks:
“Cycling makes me healthy.”
“After biking to work, I feel good all day.”
“Cycling is saving my life.”
“Broadway is really great, Second Avenue is awful.”
Summer Streets was fabulous.”
“There’s been nothing to teach people how to use these new streets.”
“A message should be sent by the community board to the District Attorney and the NYPD that there needs to be a re-evaluation of our priorities to protect cyclists and pedestrians.”

Okay, it wasn’t all a lovefest. There were these complaints from several women of a certain age, CB 8 members all:

“Transit is a priority, cars are a priority, bikes are not a priority.”
“The thought of having double, triple, quadruple the number of cyclists terrifies me.”
“The bicyclists have become the darlings of the [Bloomberg] administration, even though the number of bicyclists is a rounding error compared to the number of fire engines, buses and taxis.”
“One day we woke up to find all these circles and lines on our streets.”
“You’re afraid to go outside … You can’t be sure you’re not going to be killed [by a bicyclist].”
“I’d like to see bicycles registered and bicyclists licensed.”

None of the electeds took up the call for registering bikes. NYS Assembly Member Jonathan Bing and NYS Senator Liz Krueger did call on Albany to stiffen penalties for restaurants whose delivery cyclists flout laws against riding on sidewalks. Lappin has a local law in the works to allow the city to penalize the owners of restaurants and other businesses whose delivery staff ride on sidewalks or violate one-way rules or red lights. A hearing on her Intro. 624 is set for 10 a.m. next Thursday.

Garodnick has a bill pending, Intro. 813, to require the NYPD to post delivery-bicycle violations on line “to help send a message and give restaurants a reason to improve their practices.” Garodnick is also drafting legislation to increase penalties for operating motorized bicycles, which in his view are becoming more common (I agree), on sidewalks.

My verdict on the forum? The pervasive tonedeafness toward bikes (e.g., transportation committee co-chair Jonathan Horn categorizing all cyclists as either recreational or delivery) would have dumbfounded a visitor from Portland or Copenhagen. Any practitioner of risk management or harm reduction would have been appalled by the electeds’ indifference to motorized mayhem. And it’s still possible that the make-the-bikes-go-away ladies will carry the day at the October 7 CB 8 Transportation Committee meeting, when issues raised at the forum get turned into resolutions.

There was also a disconnect between the officials’ insistence that “pedestrians’ grievances about bikes is one of our top complaints” (Garodnick) and the sparse turnout (around 50, many of whom were pro-bike). Still, I came away feeling that, unlike 22 years ago, the embattled minority isn’t cyclists but the anti-bikes. We may never get them to turn against autos, but we might, finally, be outnumbering and out-organizing them.