East Side Re-Design Moves Ahead, But Full Bike Corridor Is on Hold

The re-design of First and Second Avenues has been a complex project to judge since the initial plans were unveiled earlier this year. From the beginning, it's been the most ambitious re-envisioning of a major corridor we've seen in New York City to date: 250 blocks of faster bus service and safer traveling for cyclists and pedestrians. But it has not met the high expectations of New Yorkers who held out hope for a truly high-performance busway and a continuous, protected bicycle corridor.

first_second_basic_map_phase1.jpgThe plan unveiled today for First and Second Avenues leaves bigger gaps than anticipated in the bike network above 34th Street. Click here to enlarge [PDF]. Image: NYCDOT
Today, at Mayor Bloomberg's official announcement of the project, the ambiguities intensified. Construction is moving forward, but large segments of the protected bike path will not be built this year. For the time being, at least, the protected bikeway will extend only between Houston and 34th Street.

While Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan attributed the delay to the time constraints of building such a large project, stressing DOT's intention to finish the job, there is lingering uncertainty about the full 250-block re-design. The city's plans call for more bike and pedestrian improvements to be built during next year's construction season but no longer specify the addition of protected lanes to segments of First and Second north of 34th Street.

As presented to several Manhattan community boards, the project was supposed to include protected bike lanes on Second between 100th and 125th, and on First between 34th and 49th and between 57th and 125th, with a buffered lane in the gap. (Here's an earlier map of the project.)

Following today's announcement, it's unclear whether the mayor is committed to delivering all the bike and pedestrian improvements in the original plan. Above 34th Street, the changes on tap for this year call only for widening the existing bike lane on upper First Avenue by one foot and adding a painted buffer. The project web site does not identify segments that will receive protected bikeways in the future, going only so far as to say that the 2011 and 2012 construction seasons will bring "additional pedestrian and bike improvements throughout the corridor."

For now, advocates for safer streets will need to keep up the pressure to ensure that Midtown, the Upper East Side, and East Harlem receive the bike and pedestrian safety features originally promised. Today they stressed the groundbreaking nature of the re-design and the importance of completing the bikeway.

"When it's completed up to East Harlem, the East Side will have the best streets for biking, walking and buses anywhere in the country," said Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White. "It's critical that the full slate of improvements -- including physically separated bike lanes -- be extended north as rapidly as possible."

Support from local residents and representatives has been robust along the length of the East Side corridor. Last December, 19 elected officials representing the East Side signed a letter requesting physically separated bike lanes and bus lanes along First and Second Avenues. This spring, Manhattan Community Board 6 approved a design including major segments of protected bike lanes north of 34th Street. Community Board 8, which represents the Upper East Side, passed a resolution supporting protected bike lanes for East Side avenues last fall.

"For the city to kind of back off of its plans for Upper Manhattan, that really makes you scratch your head," said Michael Auerbach, director of Upper Green Side, a neighborhood advocacy group. "They have the support of the community. People want to see safe streets right now."

The Select Bus Service portion of the plan remains mostly unchanged. October 10 is still the target launch date, and work begins on resurfacing the streets next week. 

There was one significant addition to the bus plans. Starting in 2011, buses on First and Second Avenues will receive priority at traffic signals, with green lights lasting a bit longer if buses are approaching. Traffic signal priority, which is currently in effect on the Fordham Road SBS route, wasn't part of the original plans for the East Side. 

Enforcement of the bus lanes remains a big question mark, however. The plan calls for automated cameras to keep dedicated lanes clear of traffic, but that requires an OK from Albany -- far from a sure thing. The MTA's Ted Orosz wouldn't specify how much Select Bus Service would be slowed by the potential lack of camera enforcement, but noted that a delivery truck blocking the bus lane in a particularly congested area, such as near the Queensboro Bridge, could slow a bus by five minutes. 

When asked what the city's back-up plan was for enforcing the bus lane if Albany doesn't come through with enabling legislation in the next few weeks, Bloomberg answered only that "it makes it more difficult." He then proceeded to make the case for action by the legislature. "It's right that they should do it," said the mayor. "It's our city."