The New York City Department of Transportation is nurturing a culture of safer streets that it expects to outlast the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, DOT policy director Jon Orcutt said at last Friday’s Regional Plan Association annual assembly.
Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, where DOT installed the city's first on-street, two-way protected bike lane in 2009. Photo: Ben Fried
Speaking at a panel on the politics of multi-modal streets, Orcutt described Bloomberg’s PlaNYC as a “mandate” not only to modernize city transportation policy, but to “reinvent the public realm.” Building on infrastructure improvements that came about prior to the era of Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, including East River bridge bike paths and the west side Greenway, DOT’s physically separated bike paths and other more recent innovations have made cycling more accessible, Orcutt said, and have helped double the city-wide bike count over the last five years.
“One of the ideas here,” said Orcutt, “is you don’t have to be an endurance athlete or some kind of risk-taker to ride a bike around town.”
Fellow panelist and city traffic guru “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz recalled the now-infamous yarn of how Mayor Ed Koch ripped up protected bike lanes on Fifth and Sixth Avenues in 1980, following a spate of fatal cyclist-pedestrian collisions and a visit from President Jimmy Carter. As the story goes, Koch, Carter and Governor Hugh Carey were riding through Manhattan in Carter’s limo when Carey, in reference to the bike lanes, said to the president: “See how Ed is pissing away your money?” The lanes were removed a month after they were installed.
Schwartz cited the late 60s experiment that closed Central Park to cars from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., undone after Abe Beame’s wife got stuck in Manhattan traffic, and Rudy Giuliani’s Midtown pedestrian corrals, still in place today. To Schwartz, these are cautionary tales that point to the fluid nature of city transportation policy.
But Orcutt made a convincing case that the current effort has taken root. Last year’s media-fomented “bikelash” had the unintended effect of arousing public interest in bike lanes when many New Yorkers might otherwise have been indifferent, he said. When opinion polls consistently showed overwhelming support for bike infrastructure, said Orcutt, the negative stories disappeared. The anti-bike propaganda push, he said, “sowed the seeds of its own demise.”
As the city has added 200 miles of bike lanes, Orcutt said, communities are lining up to request public space improvements. With bike-share to launch this summer, some 10,000 sites were suggested for 600 stations. Pedestrian plazas are popular with business groups that understand the value of foot traffic, and more applications have been submitted than DOT can accommodate. “People are coming to us and asking for these things,” said Orcutt.