The city could face a bumpy ride as it plans to build new bike lanes in underserved neighborhoods.
Last week, the Department of Transportation announced ten “Priority Bicycle Districts” in Brooklyn and Queens, where it will build 75 new bike lane miles by 2022. The districts are areas with disproportionately high traffic deaths and serious injuries as well as an unusually sparse amount of bike infrastructure.
But they include several neighborhoods with community boards that have opposed the building of bike lanes in the past — places like Borough Park, Corona and Bedford-Stuyvesant — over expressed fears regarding safety, loss of parking or increasing congestion.
“In this community of southern Brooklyn, parking is at a premium,” said Theresa Scavo, chairwoman of Brooklyn’s Community Board 15, which represents targeted neighborhoods including Gravesend and Manhattan Beach. “So if there is any chance of losing parking spots, or adding to the traffic, it will be difficult.”
“It’s going to be a huge challenge,” Scavo continued, noting that “whatever the community wants, that’s how the vote will go.”
Though community boards are advisory, the DOT typically seeks their approval before building new bike infrastructure and boards across the city have successfully tabled or watered down projects in the past.
The agency hasn’t yet detailed which streets in these districts will receive new bike lanes, but experts and transit advocates believe its plans could test the de Blasio administration’s resolve on Vision Zero, the mayor’s goal to eliminate traffic deaths.
Last year, Manhattan’s Community Board 8 managed to kill a proposal to add bike lanes to 84th and 85th streets on the Upper East Side, citing safety concerns. Brooklyn’s Community Board 2 tabled a bike lane on Clinton Avenue for the same reason.
“Bike lanes are like sidewalks. They’re basic safety improvements to streets that really aren’t up for debate … but we’ve seen these basic safety projects drawn out for months and even years,” said Caroline Samponaro, deputy director at Transportation Alternatives, “It’s a disservice to the larger community that a small group of community members is dictating whether or not that safety improvement is happening.”
The de Blasio administration has shown a willingness to buck the community boards. In March, the mayor decided to move forward with protected bicycle lanes on 111th Street in Corona, even though Queens’ Community Board 4 tabled a final vote on the project. De Blasio’s action came after one board member said only “illegals” use the lanes.
And last year, de Blasio signed off on installing protected bike lanes on a section of Queens Boulevard even after the same board voted against the lanes.
“We will be working with the local communities to come up with routes that connect to and enhance the existing bike network,” said a DOT spokeswoman in a statement. “This work is ongoing and we plan on discussing options and soliciting opinions in each neighborhood.”
As the agency looks to build more bike lanes deeper in the outer boroughs, some residents expressed confusion at the process. Janine Grey, an East New York resident studying computer science at SUNY Old Westbury, agreed that her neighborhood’s streets were dangerous, but she was unsure how bike lanes could play a role.
“There are a lot of streets that aren’t wide enough for bike lanes — and the wild drivers of Brooklyn make it worse,” said Grey, 24, noting, though, that she would consider cycling if the streets were made safer.
Nohe Gamez, of Corona, welcomed the news. He said the lanes could be a boost for commuters looking to avoid bad subway service.
“It’s a great idea. I own a construction company and it can be difficult for my workers to get to commute, especially on the weekends when 7 train service is rough. Sometimes my workers are walking 25 or 30 minutes to get to work” said Gamez, 41. “This helps give us another option and it’s cheaper — free.”
When the agency presents to community boards, it will be armed with data. Its report out last week, “Safer Cycling,” showed that about 89 percent of cycling deaths occurred on streets without cycling infrastructure. When more people are encouraged to ride, safety improves, according to the report.
Alex Armlovich, a Manhattan Institute fellow, found in his recent report, titled “Poverty and Progress in New York XI: Vision Zero and Traffic Safety,” that the city is still struggling to “overcome neighborhood opposition to traffic safety improvements,” despite the fact that his report found the projects to be a success.
“People are going to come to the community boards and there’s going to be a debate,” said Armlovich. “But these are the exact neighborhoods that my report found disproportionately risky. … If a community board gets heated, keeping a cool head and sticking to the data is the way to keep things from escalating.”
If the city can execute its plan well, Samponaro said it could build an important bike network along arterials, or the main roads running through the outlined neighborhoods.
“Even these residential areas have wider arterials,” she said. “When you start to think about that, there’s a huge potential to quickly create a protected bike lane grid that any rider can plug into.”