Baby Steps Forward in Bedford Avenue Bike Lane Debate

2010_1_bikelanedebate.jpgLast night's bike lane debate. From left: Heather Loop, Lyla Durden, Caroline Samponaro, Isaac Abraham, and Baruch Herzfeld. Photo: Gothamist.

The seemingly perpetual conflict in Williamsburg over bike lanes has seen a lot of twists and turns the last few years. The issue has surfaced in City Council elections, on the local community board, and in proposed direct actions -- from a topless bike ride to intentionally blocking cyclists with school buses. Last night, each side took it inside for a debate hosted by Pete's Candy Store. 

The event pitted Isaac Abraham, an activist in the Williamsburg Hasidic community and a former candidate for City Council, against four debaters in favor of bike safety: Lyla Durden and Heather Loop, who planned the snowed-out topless ride, Baruch Herzfeld, who runs a bike repair shop in Williamsburg targeted at the Jewish community and has emerged as something of a bike-friendly ambassador to the Hasidim, and Caroline Samponaro, Transportation Alternatives' director of bicycle advocacy. With only around five Hasidim in the packed house, Abraham called himself "a sheep in a lion's den," though the evening stayed generally cordial. Durden, Herzfeld, and the evening's moderator, James Hook (also a cyclist), all wore "Isaac Abraham for City Council" baseball caps for much of the debate.

To the surprise of no one, the night did not end with a formal agreement on resolving the conflict. When it was over, Abraham still insisted that a bike lane on Bedford Avenue is "never going to sell. Not ever." Even so, the discussion seemed to have progressed somewhat from the point where bike lane opponents were objecting to cyclists' very right to the road. "What we're talking about here is baby steps," said Samponaro. For more on the blow-by-blow, you can check out the write-ups on Gothamist, Gawker, and Voz iz Neias.

As for those baby steps, the debate did raise a number of possible ways to address safety on Bedford Avenue, without necessarily re-striping the bike lane:

  • Samponaro recommended a variety of pedestrian improvements, such as neckdowns or raised crosswalks. "If this is really a pedestrian corridor," she said, "let's prioritize pedestrians."
  • Herzfeld called for installing speed bumps for both cars and bicycles. That would address the safety concerns of both sides of the debate, he argued.
  • Samponaro also proposed making permanent, fixed school bus stops, enabling cyclists to know when schoolchildren would be stepping into the road.
  • One audience member recommended an enforcement crackdown of all traffic laws in the area, targeting both drivers and cyclists. The suggestion got some nods from the debaters. 
  • Finally, there was widespread agreement that any future action should be preceded by a more open public process. Durden complained that the city "didn't treat anyone very fairly." They removed the Bedford Avenue lane overnight, and "when they put in the bike lanes on Kent, they did it on a day when no one could move their cars [due to Shabbat]." She proposed an open meeting to build off the debate.

If there is another meeting, the sides might want to consider hashing out some terms for collecting information on Bedford Avenue. Throughout the debate, Abraham repeatedly mocked DOT studies of neighborhood streets and asserted his own data on cyclist behavior. The facts about street safety, and where the real risks on Bedford come from, might become less contentious if both sides went out and observed the street together. Although some facts are already indisputable.