Editor’s note: With yesterday’s appellate ruling prolonging the Prospect Park West case, Streetsblog is running a refresher on the how the well-connected gang of bike lane opponents waged their assault against a popular and effective street safety project. This is the fourth installment from the six-part NBBL Files.
This piece originally ran on October 11, 2011.
The primary objective of most members of “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” was clearly to remove the bike lane from Prospect Park West. They didn’t particularly care about bike lanes elsewhere, though they privately cheered every defeat of a sustainable transportation project as a sign that they might wipe out the bike lane in front of their homes. But because the NBBL strategy relied so heavily on impeding NYC DOT bike planning and tarnishing the reputation of transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, their parochial crusade ended up empowering opponents of street safety across the city.
Nowhere is NBBL’s citywide influence more apparent than in the receptive audience they found with City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca. As we reported earlier this year, NBBL leaders including former transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall met with Vacca in the run-up to his December, 2010 hearing on bike policy — a harbinger of the bikelash that peaked later that winter. Communications obtained by Streetsblog indicate that NBBL not only influenced Vacca’s oversight hearings, they also managed to insert their ideas into his legislation.
Messages from bike lane opponent Norman Steisel reveal a close link between his crusade to thwart bike projects with red tape and two bills introduced in the City Council this June by Vacca.
In mid-February, Steisel, a former sanitation commissioner and first deputy mayor under David Dinkins, wrote a lengthy letter to Vacca and City Council Member James Oddo on the topic of bike planning. The letter was triggered by Oddo’s proposal to subject all bike lanes to environmental review, a suggestion that environmental law experts called a waste of taxpayer money. Some of Steisel’s suggestions ended up in two bills Vacca introduced this summer, which are still under consideration in his committee.
“Iris and Norman have been meeting with City Council people privately, particularly Jimmy Vacca who doesn’t like the lanes.”
- PPW bike lane opponent Louise Hainline, December 2010
In the February letter, Steisel put forward a number of recommendations to impede the city’s bike planning process, many of which were gleaned from his personal campaign to remove the Prospect Park West bike lane. For instance, Steisel wrote that bike lanes should be planned with the “historic character” of the surrounding neighborhood in mind (the appearance of the bike lane on PPW chafed at NBBL members’ aesthetic sensibilities). At the same time, he argued that the traffic-calming effect of bike lanes should not be taken into consideration (it irked bike lane opponents to hear that the PPW redesign was implemented to reduce speeding).
Steisel’s knowledge of New York City government runs deep, and his letter reads like the wish list of someone who wants to see bike projects mired in bureaucracy for years.