12 December 2010

Spotlight on NYC

Photo: NYC Bike Maps
New York City often comes up in discussions about bike lanes these days.  Apparently over 250 miles of bike lanes have been created within the last four years alone.  Popular grassroots support for better and safer cycling infrastructure, an increase in ridership, and strong willed municipal political support have made this possible.

NYC may be a sexy place to talk about bike lanes and bike culture, but it is not necessarily the leader in the U.S. Other cities like Portland, OR and Madison, WI have long been good cycling cities.

But there is a sense that if such a huge, congested and heavily populated city like New York can manage to redesign its streets to support the bike, then so can just about any other city.

While 'European style' bike lanes have been floated in the media, this past summer, when Toronto was very close to trying a pilot project on University Avenue by installing physically separated bike lanes, they were often described as 'New York style' lanes (like in the photo above).

Two articles of interest:

Despite the great progress in NYC, there have been some set backs. A friend of mine has sent me a few news stories from the Times: one is about how backlashes to newly installed lanes has resulted in lanes being taken away; the other is about some bike lanes that seem to go underutilized by cyclists.

The first article highlights a common theme that rides across North American cities that are coming to terms with redesigning their streets. Like New York, Toronto has been struggling with it's own backlash to bike lanes (e.g. the recent mayor election campaigns, the redesign of Jarvis St. and Bloor St., etc.).  When there is limited public space, the debate unfortunately becomes one of 'my rights versus yours'.

The second article is perhaps more curious.  At a recent Toronto Cyclist Union meeting I heard the following interesting anecdote: more bike lanes were installed when Mel Lastman was mayor than when David Miller was mayor; Miller's retort was that Lastman put all the easy lanes in.  This is to say that bike lanes are political and often cycling infrastructure goes in where there is least resistance rather then where it is needed most. For example, there is a shiny new bike lane of sorts on Harbord St. but no bike lane on Bloor despite the fact that Bloor would make a heck of a lot more sense for an East-West biking corridor.

Photo: Copenhagenize
The NY Times article on an underutilized lane begs just this question: are we willing to build a cycling network that addresses the needs of cyclists, or do we prefer to build a patchwork system that is most feasible.  While I don't know much about the lane mentioned in the article - whether or not it makes sense in the larger scheme of a NYC network - one way to solve this issue is to have people out on the streets tracking cyclists.  Several years ago, Copenhagen employed people to stand at intersections and count the number of cyclists that rode by. Now they have an automated counter.

With respect to the NYC lane, user comments provided other perspectives to the 'cause' of the lane's underutilization, like it being winter. Here's one example:

"Wow, such a scientific study on bike lane usage. A 2 month old, 19 block long bike lane in winter wasn’t used for the half an hour this reporter stood around. And the conclusion is what, in the headline? Perhaps look at a bike lane that’s built properly, that’s of sufficient length to take people somewhere, when weather is not freezing, and you’ll see something different. The person from the TA is right, bike lanes become useful when you have a whole network of them to take you where you want to go, not just a 19 block stretch. All you have to do is take a look at the east or west side bikeways along the rivers, during the summer, to see how many people want to ride bikes in a safe place. If there were protected bike lines the entire length of Manhattan, they would be used. But you have to start somewhere, which is why you have small stretches of bike lines now, which hopefully in the future will grow into a usable network. - san"
For more on cycling in New York, check out the following links:

NYC Department of Transportation

NYC Department of City Planning

Transportation Alternatives

NYC Bike Maps

Cycling in New York Wiki

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