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Bike lanes the new site of midtown turf wars


(Getty) Photo Credit: (Getty)

The addition of 450 miles of bike lanes — 700 miles, if you include parks and greenways — and 6,000 Citi Bikes has allowed pedalers to wheel around the city with greater ease than ever before. But in a frantic metropolis with frustrated masses of people yearning to move freely, any new public path ignites new turf skirmishes.

Bikers who long dreamed of having their own super highways now find their trips impeded by construction workers guiding over-burdened hand trucks, Garment Center workers rolling clothing racks, people pushing shopping carts and trailing suitcases, wheelchair operators, and of course, oodles and oodles of purposefully striding pedestrians seeking their own obstacle-free commuting lanes.

While vehicles are the No. 1 obstacle for cyclists, pedestrians using the bike lanes are an increasing source of cyclist irritation.

“The bike lanes have become highways for pedestrians — especially in midtown, said Marc Climaco, who started a blog, #GetOffMyBikeLane on July 26 that attracted 4,000 visitors in its first week."The infrastructure we have is not sufficient" for both pedestrians and cyclists, said Climaco, a digital communications specialist for a human rights group.

Climaco, 28, who lives in the East Village, began the blog to vent, but swiftly reconsidered, realizing some cyclists were exhibiting the same sense of entitlement toward human speed bumps that insensitive — and dangerous — motorists once displayed to bikers.

“We all have to become less aggressive and reactive: We’re not fighting for space with vehicles any more,” but with pedestrians who are vulnerable in much the same way that cyclists were before the bike lanes were installed, Climaco said.

A need for better planning

The congestion “demonstrates the need for better pedestrian and bicycle amenities in the central business district,” and better “complete street” planning, especially in midtown, said Miller Nuttle, manager of campaigns and organizing at Transportation Alternatives. “The last thing we want” is for pedestrians and cyclists “to be competing with each other,” Nuttle said. Democratic candidates for mayor will be asked about their plans to further safe, workable streets for pedestrians and cyclists in the Wednesday primary debate TA is co-sponsoring, Nuttle noted.

Pedestrians using tracks not intended for them is a natural outgrowth of their displacement from swarmed sidewalks. “We need to widen our sidewalks to accommodate the constant and enormous flow of people who love to walk in this city," argued Mitchell Moss, director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, who added that sidewalk congestion is now a bigger problem than traffic congestion. Sixth Avenue, Broadway from Canal to 14th Street and certain areas of midtown are all ripe for sidewalk expansion, said Moss. “The people are flowing into the streets!" he exclaimed.
The law, which defines a bike lane as a designated, marked section of the roadway “for the preferential or exclusive use of bicycles,” is vague about who can legally use one. The NYPD did not respond to an inquiry asking if it had issued tickets to anyone for improper or illegal use of a lane.

Walkers taking to the streets

Pedestrians admit they sometimes co-opt space not designed for them. "It's a speed thing," explained John Valiant, 24, a musician from North Bergen swiftly hoofing up Eighth Ave. Walking in a bike lane, "you can get wherever you need to go without weaving through a whole bunch of people on the sidewalks."

Bike lanes complicated deliveries from Andrew Cruz's side-loading beverage truck by depriving him of convenient parking spots, but he cheerfully rationalized the trade-offs as he maneuvered a hand truck piled high with heavy boxes up a midtown bike lane. "I stay to the right so (cyclists) have space not to hit me," explained Cruz, 62, who lives in Kew Gardens. He has made peace with the lanes for the sake of the greater good: “It's so much safer! The bicyclists are all in one lane and not jumping in front of my truck. I've seen bicyclists just get wiped out under trucks," Cruz said.

No one appears to collect data about the injuries caused to pedestrians by bicyclists and whether those injuries occur in bike lanes or elsewhere. According to the NY State Department of Motor Vehicles, 143 pedestrians and 22 bicyclists were killed in 2011 in the city. In 2012 there were 149 pedestrian fatalities and 18 bicyclist fatalities in 2012, according to the city Department of Transportation. "New York City's streets are the safest they've ever been," DOT spokeswoman Nicole Garcia said in an email. While the number of cyclists has quadrupled over the last decade, "the risk of serious injury has decreased by 75%," Garcia said. Streets with bike lanes are 40% less deadly for pedestrians, she added.

An issue for Bloomberg’s successor

The bike lanes, a major legacy of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, had a rocky introduction, but eventually gained acceptance from most New Yorkers and won raves from some. Politically active cycling and pedestrian-safety groups are trying to ensure the next mayor prioritizes bike lanes, but most candidates who once used the corridors as an example of Bloomberg’s autocratic tendencies have softened their criticism of them as they become a fact of New York life. Joseph J. Lhota told The New York Times in February that he “could see” removing lanes he deemed problematic; Anthony Weiner has said he was joking about holding a ribbon cutting to tear out bike lanes; and John Liu has said bike lanes are suited for Manhattan and inappropriate in some outerborough neighborhoods. But the lanes are just one element in NYC’s streets safer. Transportation Alternatives recently asked all the mayoral candidates if they would commit to a plan to eliminate traffic deaths in NYC. Sal Albanese, Bill de Blasio, Liu and Weiner all said yes, with de Blasio later issuing his own plan to reduce traffic fatalities to zero within 10 years which included “adding dedicated bicycle infrastructure to create a safe space for New Yorkers on bikes,” which presumably means more bike lanes.

Christine Quinn promised to halve traffic deaths by 2021. The other candidates either did not respond or gave noncommital answers, said Noah Budnick, TransAlt’s deputy director.

“To create the perfect balance between bicyclists, pedestrians and cars is a Herculean undertaking," but NYC’s progress is impressive, said Gary Toth, the director of transportation initiatives for the Project for Public Spaces. It is inevitable, he said, that in a city as dense and diverse as NYC, there will be hot spots of incredible congestion. In those areas, he said, "everyone needs to go slow, have eye contact, and negotiate things out together."