Solving the West St. biking problem

It’s certainly not as hostile yet as the Wild West, but with students returning to schools near West St. next week, it is likely the increasing tensions on what was the Downtown section of the West St. bike path will escalate faster.

About a half mile of the path has technically been closed to bikers for quite some time now due to nearby construction, but cyclists routinely ignore the signs between Chambers and Albany Sts. Traffic agents make no attempt to enforce the rules and pedestrians who feel endangered are left to argue with bikers.

Responsibility for the problems rests with the State Dept. of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the adjacent Route 9A in addition to the former path. It was a foolish decision to attempt to shut down the path until the end of next year, and D.O.T.’s poor execution has in many ways made it worse.

We are tempted to say we are glad the agency is making less than half-hearted attempts to enforce a ridiculous rule, but it is never good public policy to allow blatant flouting of the law, particularly when it leaves citizens — in this case bikers and walkers — to fight it out among themselves.

In most of the supposed closed off area, there are already rubber bollards, which should be used to mark off separate areas for bikers and walkers. In some areas, there are even service roads and separate walking areas. There is room in almost the entire area for everyone.

State D.O.T. has compounded the problem with confusing signs. Bikers cycling south see clear signs saying they must dismount starting on Chambers St., but those coming north from Albany St. have less clear directions. There are cycling traffic lights and a sign about bikes sharing the walkway.

One might think that cycling is permitted to the north but not the south. A D.O.T. spokesperson told us it’s prohibited in both directions. A Downtown Express editor cycling over the weekend asked a traffic agent to explain the rules, and she said he could ignore the dismount signs. When the editor pointed to the narrow scaffolding tunnel near the Goldman Sachs construction site, the agent told him that he could cycle there too.

This narrow tunnel may be the only area in the closed off section where a biking prohibition could be justified. But if D.O.T. gives any thought to its plan — and we don’t see much evidence of that yet — there may be a way to create a detour or allow bikers to go slow at less busy times. That certainly is better than the current situation in which bikers routinely blow through the tunnel at whatever speed they feel comfortable.

Increasing the number of bikers, as we have said before, is an important part of making this city greener. Protecting cyclists from traffic is the only way to get more people out of cabs and overcrowded subways onto bikes. City D.O.T. understands this and has led the effort. If only its state counterpart saw the light.

The protected West St. bike path is the country’s busiest, and the only reason there has not been a noticeable drop-off in ridership is because state D.O.T. has not enforced the rule. We fear our inquiries on this might change that fact but we hope instead, D.O.T. takes a new look at its rules and makes room for bikes.

Bikers aren’t the enemy, pollution is.