New York is finally getting in gear on bike lanes

By Florent Morellet

Dear neighbors and fellow merchants, trust me, the sky is not falling yet. Like many other metropolises, our city has turned a corner and we have a great new dawn in front of us, but we need your help.

A century ago, our streets were public open spaces, meeting places with markets and stalls, and children playing all around. As our love for the automobile took over, so did vehicular traffic.

Bit by bit, every inch of roadway, and chunks of sidewalks and parks were taken over to ease the ever-growing flow of traffic. Today, some people believe we need more tunnels, bridges and roadways to ease the traffic. Others accept the status quo and fear change.

As a resident of Soho/Nolita and as a businessman, I embrace the new vision and direction that our mayor and our Department of Transportation commissioner are implementing.

Most of the changes proposed by D.O.T. have already been in place in other cities and have proved successful and popular. New York City is behind the curve, lagging behind London, Paris and smaller cities.

Allocating more space to people, public transit and bicycles will mean minor changes to our lifestyle. When I moved to Lafayette and Spring Sts. in 1978, one could park anywhere most of the time. If you had a car like me, you could have a suburban lifestyle, shop by car, park in front of your building and unload your groceries. I used to drive back and forth to my restaurant all the time.

But the times they are changing. When parking became impossible in the Meatpacking District, I started to commute by bicycle, even in the dead of winter. I had no idea how much I would enjoy it.

Living at the core of a high-density metropolis, I don’t believe that I am entitled to the convenience of parking and unloading groceries in front of my building. (Fat chance: Firemen “on duty” are parked two abreast on Lafayette St. all the time.)

But I believe I am entitled to a city with cleaner air and safer streets. Grand St. between Varick and Chrystie Sts. is the most dangerous street in our neighborhood, averaging 14 pedestrian injuries a year.

Grand St. was and remains a one traffic-lane street, but New York drivers (myself included) utilize each and every square inch of roadway that doesn’t have an obstacle, and the result was a mess. You would end up with two or even three cars or trucks jockeying to be first, to little avail, for the traffic always funneled back to one lane. I observed this congestion mess close up, perched on my bicycle, having to ride around the traffic, as the bike lane was always blocked.

Bleecker St. was the same free-for-all, a congested, honking mess, until the new design was installed with one designated lane of traffic, which proved a boon for traffic fluidity. Given a chance, the one-lane sanity will work wonders on Grand St.

People say they “like the old bike lane,” “it worked.” Yes, of course — what’s not to like in an unprotected bike lane? It’s great for illegal truck parking, deliveries, resident unloading, idling black cars, etc…

A business complained that deliveries had to be done before 11 a.m. I believe that, as business owners, we should ask for morning deliveries with priority parking and follow the model of many European cities, where delivery hours are regulated (mostly night and mornings).

Also, in the Meatpacking District as well as in Chelsea and now Grand St., D.O.T. has started to allocate parking spaces for deliveries at certain times. I believe this is a great boon to businesses, and I encourage businesses to ask for more allocated spaces for deliveries. Regarding loss of business due to loss of vehicular traffic, I have a couple of points to make:

First, every study seems to show the same very low number of actual customers driving in and around the city, under 20 percent. The more on-street parking, the more traffic generated by cars searching for spaces, reaching close to 40 percent of traffic in Soho on some days.

Second, the latest loss of business in Little Italy has to be taken with a grain of salt; there is not one friend of mine who has not seen his restaurant business drop dramatically as of late. With the greatest collapse of Wall St. ever, I don’t think it is fair to blame business loss on the little bike lane that could.

Furthermore, my former restaurant — Florent, on Gansevoort St. — did very well when people could park. It did better when people couldn’t park. And when traffic came to a standstill because of the nightlife, it was packed.

New York is not so different from London, Paris and other cities. If you make it attractive to people — i.e. pedestrians — they will find their way and come en masse. Businesses will flourish.

Florent Morellet is a public member of Community Board 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee.