TA Kicks Off Campaign for Safer Fifth and Sixth Avenues

Manhattan’s Fifth and Sixth Avenues are two of the busiest bicycle routes in the city, even without protected bike infrastructure to make cycling appealing to a broader range of New Yorkers. They are also major pedestrian thoroughfares in need of safety upgrades. While DOT’s “6½ Avenue” project can help relieve some of the crowding, both avenues devote wide expanses to motor traffic and could use the kind of overhaul that the city has used to improve conditions for walking and biking on other major streets.

The existing Sixth Avenue bike lane is narrow and subject to frequent incursions. Photo: Will Sherman

Now advocates and volunteers are mobilizing for changes: Last week, Transportation Alternatives kicked off a push for protected bike lanes and pedestrian safety improvements on Fifth and Sixth Avenues. TA and its volunteers are still in the early stages of outreach to build public support for the concept, but this is a major campaign that’s already generating attention from the local press.

Sixth Avenue is the most-biked street in New York, with Fifth Avenue ranking as the busiest southbound avenue in Midtown, according to DOT counts cited by TA following last week’s meeting. Protected bike lanes on Fifth and Sixth Avenues would fill in the center of Midtown with safer routes, providing safer options between the existing north-south pairs of protected lanes on the East and West Sides (First and Second Avenues, and Eighth and Ninth Avenues).

Miller Nuttle, a bicycle advocate at TA, described the meeting as “a brainstorming session about how to organize.” While the campaign does not have specific prescriptions for the avenues, Nuttle pointed to the safety interventions DOT has implemented on other major streets, such as protected bike lanes. Other changes the campaign might investigate include sidewalk widening or improvements to the dedicated bus lane on Fifth Avenue. The campaign has not yet focused on a specific stretch of the avenues.

“We’ll be reaching out over the next several months,” Nuttle said, “responding to the demands for safer and more efficient streets.” Any street safety changes on Fifth and Sixth Avenues will involve working with a broad range of partners, including businesses, commuters and Community Board 5.

In October 2011, the CB 5 transportation committee deadlocked over a proposal by committee member Eric Stern to explore the possibility of extending the Sixth Avenue bike lane — currently a narrow, painted lane — from Bryant Park to 59th Street. At the time, the chair of the transportation committee, Michael Keane, said that the proposal “just doesn’t make sense.” The committee now has a new chair, Raju Mann, and the board as a whole voted 38 to 0 in April for painted crosstown bike lanes on 29th and 30th Streets.

TA’s campaign kickoff was picked up by DNAinfo’s Mary Johnson, who went on Fox 5 to speak with anchor Greg Kelly (Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s son) about the meeting before it was held. True to form, Kelly injected his own doubts about Midtown bike lanes into the segment – “too much commercial traffic, too much stuff,” he said – and cast the work of organizing for safer streets in a cynical light. ”How much was it their lobbying and how much was it Janette Sadik-Khan and this mayor?” Kelly asked Johnson. He glanced at his watch. “They have a year-and-a-half left.”

For the record, last week’s meeting attracted about 40 attendees, who have broken into three working groups. The groups are focused on grassroots organizing, such as letter writing or petitioning; coalition building, including meeting with business and resident groups; and campaign materials and media outreach.

Volunteer Steve Vaccaro is helping to coordinate the grassroots organizing working group. “Pedestrians are the key to this campaign,” he said, while also noting the importance of business interests. “There’s a lot of people who will be involved in the long haul. This won’t happen overnight.” Working group meetings and events, which will be hosted over the next several months, are posted on BikeNYC.org. Late this year or in early 2013, the campaign will reconvene and begin its next phase.