It has not been an easy year for New York City’s cycling community. As of this month, 18 cyclists have been killed on city streets. That’s nearly double the fatalities suffered in all of 2018—and it’s only August.
After months of pressure from cyclists and transportation advocates—who declared a Vision Zero state of emergency all the way back in May—the de Blasio administration unveiled a $58.4 million plan last month to, as the mayor himself put it, take steps that “are meant to end this crisis now.” Among the initiatives announced as part of the “Green Wave” bike safety plan are installing 30 new miles of protected bike lanes every year—with the goal of creating a full network by 2030—along with cracking down on drivers who block bike lanes and truck drivers who flout traffic rules, and implementing signal timing to make cycling more efficient.
The plan follows in the footsteps of Vision Zero, which was created by Mayor de Blasio and the Department of Transportation in 2014 with the goal of eradicating traffic deaths in New York City. And while conditions have improved on city streets since then—there are more bike lanes, speed cameras in school zones, and safety initiatives than ever before—“progress has not always been linear,” as the city puts it. There were 24 traffic fatalities in 2017, but just 10 in 2018. At the current rate, it’s entirely possible that the city will surpass that all-time high of two years ago.
Will the “Green Wave” help? The jury is still out. Some safe streets advocates have praised the program, and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson—who’s proposed his own comprehensive master plan to address road safety—called it a “major step forward” to making New York’s streets more equitable.
But others argue that it won’t eliminate the biggest danger to cyclists and pedestrians: cars. “The mayor’s plan offered nothing to proactively reduce car driving in this city,” Streetsblog’s Dave Colon wrote in an analysis of the plan. “Instead, he expects that congestion pricing (and the better transit system it is supposed to fund), more bike lanes, and the tripling of the Citi Bike fleet will result in more cycling and less driving. But nothing in his plan specifically seeks to reduce the pernicious effects of the automobile.”
In light of this new initiative, Curbed spoke to several advocates about the problems still facing cyclists—and, indeed, all New Yorkers who don’t use cars—and what the city should be doing to improve its streets.
Too much space is being given to cars.
Robert Moses, the notorious city planner, famously built the city’s network of highways, bridges, tunnels that locked New York City into a pattern of car-centric street design that persists to this day.
But Moses is hardly to blame for the city’s current car culture, which affects cyclists and pedestrians in all sorts of ways, whether it’s vehicles idling in non-protected bike lanes, or angry neighborhood residents suing to block a new lane from being installed because it will take away on-street parking. (It’s also hard to ignore the fact that the mayor regularly uses an SUV for the 11-mile trip to and from his Park Slope gym.)
The de Blasio administration took one major step forward with Vision Zero, but five years later “the car still rules the roost,” says Joe Cutrufo, the communications director of Transportation Alternatives. “Even in streets where we’ve won protected bike lanes and where we’ve won improvements for pedestrians, not a whole lot has changed. Cars still take up the vast majority of the space in our streets.”
Plus, car culture isn’t just bad for cyclists and pedestrians; it’s bad for the planet, too, with gas-guzzlers accounting for 29 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, according to a report from the city’s Department of Environmental Conservation. “We are in the middle of a climate emergency, and this is really an existential threat to the world, but also to a coastal city like New York City,” says Johnson. “We want to be a more green city and [breaking car culture] is another way of doing that.”
For advocates, the path forward is clear: “We need to actually actively take away space from cars,” says Doug Gordon, a co-host of The War on Cars podcast (who tweets as BrooklynSpoke). “I just don’t think you’re going to encourage the sort of interested-but-concerned types of cyclists, and people who might give it a try if it were a little safer, unless you really carve out space. And that means taking parking, that means closing off streets to through traffic, and maybe only allowing buses and local deliveries, but allowing cyclists to roll through.”
Of course, getting the city’s drivers on board won’t be easy—but Johnson believes that people can be convinced with facts. “Sometimes data isn’t sexy and sometimes it can be a little bland for the average New Yorker,” he notes. “But when you look at the improvements that are made on lead intervals at pedestrian intersections, when you look at islands that are put in, which are part of protected bike lanes, and you see the difference in the number of crashes, injuries and, fatalities from previous years to then after these improvements are made, it’s really indisputable. These are life saving measures.”
The necessary infrastructure isn’t there.
The city’s goal of adding 30 miles of new protected bike lanes per year is an admirable one—but it’s also something that, as de Blasio himself admitted, is “as ambitious as possible.” Other elected officials have gone further in their proposals: Johnson’s five-year master plan calls for installing 50 miles of protected bike lanes per year, while councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez introduced legislation this year that would bump that number up to 100 miles per year, for a total of 700 miles by 2026.
It’s also critical that the city maintain the bike lanes it currently has in place. “A lot of the infrastructure that the city built under the Bloomberg administration and even in the first few years of the de Blasio administration is really showing its age, and they’re not always so great about fixing it promptly,” says Gordon.
But bike lanes are just one piece of the infrastructure puzzle. New York has tens of thousands of racks where cyclists can lock up their rides, but finding one that’s free is a much more difficult proposition—and even then, you have to worry about having parts or your entire ride stolen.
Facilities that offer safe, dedicated parking for two-wheelers are lacking, particularly in comparison to cities like Amsterdam, where a single parking garage below the city’s central train station can accommodate 13,500 bikes. In 2018, a start-up called Oonee installed a modular kiosk with parking for 20 bicycles in the Financial District, and quickly saw its membership grow to nearly 200 people within a few months. But despite its popularity—and the support of elected officials, including Johnson—the kiosk ultimately closed this summer, due to red tape and sponsorship issues, according to its founder, Shabazz Stuart.
“London has 2.5 million bike trips per day and New York has has less than 500,000. To bridge the gap, we need to think holistically about the cycling experience, which means tackling issues related to secure bicycle parking,” says Stuart. “A network of secure, affordable and attractive bike parking hubs will go a long way in making the cycling experience more convenient and reliable.” (Oonee is currently working with the Port Authority on a pilot program that would bring one of its pods to Jersey City’s Journal Square.)
Elected officials need to think bigger.
Advocates acknowledge that even with the uptick in cyclist deaths this year, things have improved for New York’s cyclists, thanks to factors like Vision Zero and the debut of Citi Bike, which is now a major presence throughout the city. “There’s a more pervasive idea [now] that the streets belong to cyclists, too; therefore, they must be safe for cyclists,” says Cutrufo. “Whereas a decade ago, it was accepted that biking is not safe in New York. New York was not a cycling city, and now it very much is a cycling city.”
But many have expressed frustration with the fact that it took 15 deaths (at the time the Green Wave plan was announced) for the city to act on creating a comprehensive approach to cycling safety—and that it doesn’t address the issue of reducing vehicular traffic in the first place.
“Clearly there are a lot of talented people at DOT who worked very hard to put the Green Wave plan together, which raises the question of why they couldn’t have been tasked by the mayor with making cycling safer and extending bike lanes to more communities in our city much earlier in the year, if not long before,” Gordon says. “This is a plan that would have been very exciting in 2014 or 2015, but this far into the de Blasio administration and Vision Zero feels a tad underwhelming.”
It’s also important that elected officials not cave to recalcitrant community members who would rather keep the status quo on New York’s streets. “Community boards should not be able to simply veto these life saving improvements that are necessary,” says Johnson. “It’s important to consult them because sometimes they have a more hyperlocal understanding of how to implement something. But it needs to be about working towards implementation, not towards allowing a project to be scrapped.”
The city is already putting that into practice in Bay Ridge and the Upper West Side, where some community residents have pushed back against the implementation of a larger bike lane network and a protected path along Central Park West, respectively.
In Bay Ridge, Community Board 10 voted against new lanes that would not have even eradicated any street parking; the DOT plans to proceed regardless. And on the Upper West Side, DOT will begin installing a protected bike lane near Central Park, even as residents of a nearby condo sued to stop it. (A judge ruled it can proceed, but the case will go to court later this month.)
And while Johnson supports de Blasio’s Green Wave plan, he’s still pressing forward with getting his own master plan off the ground, and believes it can solve many of these problems. “I want every neighborhood in the city to feel like home to every New Yorker, no matter how you get around,” he says. “We shouldn’t be doomed to having a city that’s dominated by constant honking, pollution, and near misses with cars. We, the city, control our streets, and we know how to fix them. Now we just need the will to get it done.”