04 August 2017

Making More Sense Than The Department of Transportation

The New York City Department of Transportation seems to operate from the same misguided notions that guide other cities' efforts to be--or seem--"bike friendly". 

Once again, the NYCDOT is showing its ignorance in a report it released recently.  That report, among other things, designates two Brooklyn neighborhoods--Ditmas Park and Sheepshead Bay--as "Priority Bicycle Districts" that could receive new lanes.

Now, if you've been reading this blog, you know that I am, at best, ambivalent about bike lanes, at least as they are usually conceived, designed and constructed.  From what I can see, the NYCDOT wants to repeat the same mistakes it has made in other parts of the city, the most egregious of them being "bike lanes" that are little more than lines painted on asphalt and run next to the parking lanes of streets--into which drivers open their doors, delivery vehicles stop and drivers of all kinds double-park.  

An all-too-typical "protected" bike lane in Brooklyn

Oh, did I mention that too many of those lanes lead cyclists straight into the paths of turning or merging vehicles?  I wouldn't be surprised sif the proposed lanes did the same.

Anyway, of the two neighborhoods I mentioned, one--Ditmas Park--might welcome the new bike "infrastructure", at least somewhat.  Parts of it are quite charming, with Victorian houses and the kinds of cute little shops one finds in neighborhoods with young creative people before they turn into, well, Williamsburg.  That means there are a number of people who cycle for transportation as well as recreation.

The other neighborhood--Sheepshead Bay--lacks such cyclists.  It lies further from the central areas of Brooklyn and Manhattan than Ditmas Park and is far less served by mass transportation.  In fact, one subsection of Sheepshead Bay--Marine Park--has no subway and little bus service at all.

What that means is that most residents of Sheepshead Bay drive.  Some drive their cars to their jobs; others are building contractors or self-employed in other ways and are therefore dependent on their vehicles to transport equipment and for other purposes.  Sometimes families ride their bikes to the park, or individuals might go for a late-day or Sunday ride, but relatively few ride for transportation.  

It is in such neighborhoods that one finds the most opposition to bike lanes and other amenities.  Some of it is class or generational resentment:  Cyclists are seen as entitled elitists or worse.  Some of the other objections, if they don't have merit, are at least understandable:  People who depend on their motor vehicles in places where streets are narrow and there is no room to expand are, understandably, wary of anything that might make driving or parking more difficult or, at any rate, more inconvenient.

Something really interesting is happening, however in Sheepshead Bay--especially in and around Marine Park. In New York, when a city agency like the DOT makes a plan, it is presented to the local community board for the neighborhood that would be affected by the plan.  Last year, the DOT sent a proposal to the local community board for Sheepshead Bay/Marine Park.  The community voiced its objections to it, partly for the same driving and parking issues I've mentioned.  

But they also made some of the same arguments I, and other experienced cyclists, have made against bike lanes.  They pointed out that a cyclist is no safer in a bike lane that runs next to a parking lane than he or she is in a traffic lane.  They also mentioned, as I have, that too many lanes lead cyclists directly into the path of turning or merging vehicles.

They also described a situation that makes their neighborhood different from the more central urban areas like Williamsburg and most of Manhattan.  Sheepshead Bay--especially the Marine Park area--bear more semblance to a suburban town than a city neighborhood in at least one respect:  The majority of residences are detached or semi-detached private houses with driveways rather than than apartment buildings.  Cars and vans frequently pull in and out of those driveways.  

The proposed bike lanes would have run right in the path of those cars entering and leaving the driveways.  Too often, drivers pulling out of driveways are driving in reverse, which makes it more difficult to see cyclists (or anyone or anything else) in the bike or parking lane.  And, when cars make turns to enter driveways, they would turn right into what would be the path of the proposd bike lanes.

So...While we still need to help drivers who aren't cyclists understand, if not empathise with, cyclists, we still need to hear them out--especially when they're making more sense than the Department of Transportation!


  1. Since most cyclists agree that the bike lanes of Copenhagen and Amsterdam are the ne plus ultra of design I often wonder why we can't import their methods wholesale into this country and just cut to the chase as it were. Why should we have to live through the evolution of several generations of bad design when good design already exists and is proven? Mikael Colville-Andersen of copenhagenize.com fame has organised a design company to export the technology to other countries and seems to be making a comfortable living doing so. Are our traffic engineers just too arrogant to ask for help? Are they suffering from NIH syndrome(Not Invented Here). I've never been to Denmark or Holland so maybe I'm just naive. Is their some compelling reason why it wouldn't work here?

  2. Phillip--I think NIH arrogance is as good an explanation as any. Also, I think our traffic engineers are more auto-centric than their Dutch and Danish counterparts. It's a bit language: The first language, if you will, of American traffic engineers is the internal combustion engine, and they have to "translate" to cycling and walking. The Dutch, Danes and other Europeans, on the other hand, think cycling and don't have to "translate".

  3. I speak as an American expat who has been living in Europe for decades. A "bike lane" is a parrellel road for bikes separated from car roads by a grassy space of at least three meters. Where the bike roads and car roads intersect, cyclists and drivers are equal under the law and obey the usual rules of the road. In the US I always feel like I need an extra pair of eyes in the back of my head. The network of these "lanes" is being expanded here (Finland) and currently one can travel hundreds of kilometers, from town to town, on them.

    I agree with Justine that people here and other European countries "speak" bike, but there was a time in the 50's and 60's when the car dominated even in Holland and Denmark and slaughter ensued on the roads. There was a strong reaction, the language changed, and people relearned "bike". American drivers are too proud and stubbern to learn a new language. Like Americans in general. (Sorry about that...)