Upper East Side Bike Lane Meeting, or Surreal Performance Art?

If you ever go to an Upper East Side community board meeting about bike lanes, bring some popcorn.

Last night, the Manhattan Community Board 8 transportation committee called the bluff of crosstown bike lane opponents. After a parade of people spoke against DOT’s plan to stripe bike lanes on their blocks, even though they support the general concept of bike lanes, the committee asked DOT to explore bike lanes on as many east-west streets as possible. This would spread the “burden” of bike lanes equally.

DOT wants to install three new crosstown dedicated bike routes on the Upper East Side [PDF]. Image: DOT

How many school children will die if DOT stripes crosstown bike lanes on the Upper East Side? Map: DOT

DOT’s plan calls for three pairs of east-west painted bike lanes: on 85th and 84th streets, 78th and 77th streets, and 67th and 68th streets [PDF]. The only change on these streets would be the addition of some thermoplast to delineate space for cycling. After ruling out bolder ideas like a protected lane on 72nd Street, DOT’s proposal is as tame as you can get, with no impact on motor vehicle lanes or parking.

Nevertheless, the mere thought that more people might bike on these crosstown streets was too much for some people to bear.

For nearly two hours, a succession of building managers, block association presidents, school administrators, and even a hospital liaison ticked off their reasons why a simple painted bike lane won’t work on the streets where they live and work.

Denise Goodman, manager of community affairs at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which is located on 67th Street between First and York, spoke on behalf of her hospital. “We are partners with the DOT, we support these bikes lanes, but really this is the wrong street,” she said. Later in the meeting, a number of administrators, staff, and parents from St. Ignatius Loyola School on 84th Street, including an assistant principal, claimed more bike traffic would put young students in jeopardy.

In one of the night’s more surreal moments, DOT Manhattan Borough Commissioner Margaret Forgione had to allay these fears. “We have been installing bike lanes for many years and we have not had instances of collisions with school children,” she said.

Most of the arguments against the bike lanes focused on why conditions on a specific street — like parking abuse by Fox 5 employees on 67th Street or the concentration of schools on 84th and 85th Streets — purportedly make it a bad candidate for more thermoplast. And many people expressed general support for biking infrastructure — just not in their backyard. Some speakers suggested installing bike lanes on every street so as not to concentrate bike traffic.

That led committee member Sharon Pope to ask: Who opposed specific bike lanes but supported the installation of crosstown lanes in theory? More than 30 hands went up.

Committee co-chair A. Scott Falk pointed out the absurdity. “When we were doing the Citi Bike station siting we had people tell us that busy streets were inappropriate — that we had to put them on quiet streets,” he said. “Except the people on quiet streets told us quiet streets were inappropriate — they had to put them on busy streets. The people on the avenues told us they were only appropriate for the cross streets, but the people on cross streets told us they were only appropriate for the avenues.”

The committee’s final resolution called the NIMBYs on their bluff, turning down DOT’s proposal in favor of a request that the department study and propose bike lanes on every crosstown street in the neighborhood. The resolution passed by a vote of 10 to 3, with two abstentions.

As a statement about ridiculous objections to simple street projects, the resolution works brilliantly. As a way to move things forward, it might not work so well. If DOT takes the resolution at face value, another cycle of studying, presenting, and arguing about painted bike lanes will follow before anything gets striped.

Meanwhile, neighborhood bike advocates like Hindy Schachter are stuck waiting for DOT to do something. Schachter said she was supportive of any proposed bike infrastructure improvements, but that DOT’s proposal could go further to ensure safety for cyclists.

“The East Side needs protected bike lanes, the lanes that actually inspire safety for cyclists, pedestrians and for motorists,” she said. “We’ve been told that we’re not getting protected lanes. We’ve been told that 72nd is off the table. So I’m here tonight to try to get what we’ve been told we’re getting.”