Vote on UWS’s “No-Brainer” Bike Lane Shouldn’t Have Been a Squeaker

columbus_proposed.jpgDOT's plan for a protected bike lane on Columbus won't take away a travel lane or a parking lane. So why the hesitation? Image: NYCDOT

Last night's Community Board 7 vote to support a protected bike lane on Columbus Avenue was very close -- closer than it should have been. The fact that the resolution passed 23-19 reflects the persistent effort of neighborhood advocates and the openness of most board members to change on their streets. But this is a project with big pay-offs and almost no trade-offs. The street design allows a protected lane to be installed without removing travel or parking lanes, and it enjoys strong support within the community and buy-in from local businesses and elected officials. So the fact that the vote came down to the wire is also a testament to the sheer stubbornness behind many board members' opposition to bike lanes.

Unlike many other streets, Columbus has enough room to add a protected bike lane without taking away a travel lane or a parking lane. All DOT has to do is narrow the current 12-foot lanes -- wide enough to meet the standard for interstate highways -- to ten feet. Said Manhattan DOT Commissioner Margaret Forgione, "Amsterdam is not a no-brainer, whereas in many ways, Columbus is."

Ten-foot lanes are the standard in New York City, yet some board members spent the evening predicting that narrower lanes would block all deliveries, impede emergency vehicles and strand bus riders. The parallel commercial corridors of Amsterdam and Broadway, each with ten-foot lanes, according to Forgione, function just fine. Forgione also stressed that narrower lanes would calm speeding at night without slowing congested rush hour traffic. 

Not that bike lane opponents were swayed by the DOT traffic analysis. "What looks good on paper does not necessarily look good in practice," retorted transportation committee co-chair Andrew Albert.

Similarly, DOT attempts to work with businesses concerned about loading needs were rejected out of hand. The manager of Food City, a local grocery, was one of the loudest opponents of the bike lane when it was presented to the transportation committee. In response, DOT modified their plan to provide Food City with its own loading area. Unswayed by the attention to his specific needs, the manager complained last night that the bike lane will still make loading too difficult.

Supporting protected bike lanes was a political no-brainer for the community board as well. According to CB 7 chair Mel Wymore, the board received "an overwhelming amount of support" for protected lanes. Letters, e-mails, and phone calls in support of the lanes had poured in, while the opposition was silent. Noting how few opponents of protected lanes had spoken at any of the board's public meetings, Wymore observed that "there were more people opposed on the community board than in the community."

That was certainly the case last night, where 27 community members testified in favor of the Columbus Avenue lane while only four spoke against it. A closer look at their testimony shows just how deep support for this lane runs on the Upper West Side:

  • Tila Duhaime of the Upper West Side Streets Renaissance presented 457 letters from CB 7 residents calling for a protected lane along Columbus. "Their reasons for supporting it are as varied and as colorful and as passionate as Upper West Siders themselves," she said. She also brought letters from more than 100 local businesses and several rabbis on the Upper West Side.
  • Local businesses came out strong in support of the lane. Barbara Adler of the Columbus Avenue BID and Peter Arndsten of the Columbus/Amsterdam BID both endorsed the project. "Business increases when individuals are able to bike through an area," said Adler, "because each one of them is a potential shopper." Multiple representatives from local businesses also praised the proposal.
  • Supporters also had some celebrity firepower. Recalling biking to auditions, actor Matthew Modine said that "I may have not had a career had I not had a bicycle." Randy Cohen, the New York Times' Ethicist, told the board about a crash in which he sustained "three broken ribs, a broken collarbone, and a concussion." That a protected lane will make cycling safer, he said, "is not a matter of conjecture." 
  • Support came from cyclists as young as 12 and as old as 74.
  • Perhaps the most powerful testimony came from those who had been touched directly by the effects of dangerous cycling conditions. "My friend used to bike everywhere," said Upper West Sider George Beane, "until he was run over three weeks ago." That friend is now in intensive care, said Bean, and may lose his leg or his life. "If one accident like this can be eliminated," Bean argued, "it's worth the bike lane." 

The lanes also had the backing of local elected officials. "I'm very supportive of the bike lane," Council Member Gale Brewer, whose office is on Columbus, told the community board. She argued that the lane would not only help cyclists, it would also take bikes off the sidewalk. "It's really about pedestrian safety, that's what I care most about," she said.

"This is a victory for the Upper West Side and, indeed, all of New York City," said State Senator Thomas Duane, whose staff visited every storefront along the bike lane's route. Added Duane, "This common sense change to the neighborhood’s transportation infrastructure will encourage a healthy, environmentally-friendly mode of transportation and should not negatively impact vehicular traffic."

Of course, this outpouring of support was as unpersuasive to bike lane opponents as DOT's technical analysis. Transportation Committee co-chair Dan Zweig simply denied the legitimacy of those who had spoken, claiming that "I can't believe that's a cross-section of the community," calling the display of pro-bike lane sentiment "a political advocacy campaign." 

When a sizable and influential bloc of the community board rejects both technical analysis and public opinion as factors in their decision, it's hard to know how to reach them.