Copenhagen comes to New York?
February 9, 2011 — Despite New York City’s extensive mass transportation network, its streetscape was, for decades, distinctly car-centric. In April 2007, however, there was a seismic shift. Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced his long-term sustainability plan and also removed Iris Weinshall, his commissioner of the Department of Transportation (DOT), replacing her with Janette Sadik-Khan. The new commissioner upended the traditional order of the road with her vision of “Complete Streets” — the physical redesign of roadways to serve pedestrians, bicyclists, and buses, as well as the long-dominant private automobile.
NYC Cycling Map
New York has added more than 250 miles of new bike lanes and commuter cycling has more than doubled in popularity since that time. This sea change evoked remarkably little controversy or opposition for three years. But this past summer, the installation of a new bike lane on Prospect Park West in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn provoked some local residents, including former DOT commissioner Weinshall, to organize and pressure the City for its removal. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz (a Prospect Park West resident), led the charge, calling Sadik-Khan a “bicycle zealot” during a radio interview and speaking out against the DOT’s “anti-car ideology.”
The Prospect Park West controversy received considerable media attention and inspired other outer borough politicians to denounce proposed bike lanes. In Canarsie, a neighborhood in South Brooklyn, City Council Member Lew Fidler led a successful campaign to stop DOT’s installation of two new bike lanes that would have connected a waterfront greenway with an existing network of bike lanes to the north.
Interviews with several bike lane opponents revealed what appears to be a striking unwillingness to recognize either the true demographics of their districts, or to imagine the possibility that current preferences about transit options could be malleable.
“It’s not for us”
While stating support for recreational bike lanes along the waterfront, Fidler finds the idea that his district would benefit from integration with a citywide network to be “ridiculous.” “My district is as far away from the CBD (Central Business District) as can be…nobody who lives in Canarsie is going to get on a bicycle and commute all the way to Manhattan” said Fidler. “It’s a flight of fancy…it’s Manhattan-centric people looking at the world from Manhattan-centric points of view.”
City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca, who oversaw a Dec. 2010 hearing on the bike lane program, criticized the value of the “trade-offs” that have accompanied the expansion of bike lanes, citing the loss of space on the streets for traffic, parking, and deliveries. “Bicycle riding within the Bronx is nowhere near what it is in Manhattan. I’m not against encouraging it but I want it understood that there are other needs here too,” he said.
Peter Koo, who represents Flushing, Queens on the City Council, was even more critical of the potential value of reallocating street space to bicycles. “Cars and buses are very important in Downtown Flushing…there’s over 100,000 people coming through to commute every day, it’s very crowded and there’s no space for bike lanes,” he said.
“We’re Not Copenhagen”
The inspiration for New York’s mission to decrease car use by promoting cycling lies across the Atlantic in Northern European cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Berlin. In the 1970’s, these cities undertook major policy changes in urban transportation, de-emphasizing the automobile in favor of increased public transit and cycling. These changes resulted in a substantial upsurge in the use of bicycles by the citizens of those cities, both for work and recreation. According to John Pucher, professor of urban planning at Rutgers University, the provision of bicycle lanes safely separated from car traffic by curbs, bollards, or parked cars, is a crucial aspect of these cities’ success in promoting bicycling as a viable mode of transport for the masses.
But opponents are highly skeptical of the relevance of the Northern European model in the New York context, doubting that New Yorkers would, like their European counterparts, switch from driving to cycling when provided with the option of a safe cycling network.
When asked if the construction of new bike lanes could, in itself, generate an increase in cycling and a decrease in driving, Vacca thought such change might only be possible in the distant future: “So far, it has not happened in my district. A bike lane was put in on 8th Ave. in Morris Park on the block of my predecessor …and no one uses it. I was talking to her just the other day and she said ‘Jimmy, no one uses this bike path, why was it put here?’”
Vacca, presented with statistics showing an increase in bicycle ridership on streets with new bike lanes, did not become less skeptical. “I [had] asked the [Transportation] Commissioner, ‘How many people who are now using the bicycles to get to work used to take cars?’ And she could not answer the question…I don’t like adopting any model from another city, because New York is so unique.”
Council Member Fidler agreed that bike lanes or not, his constituents are not going to put aside the car keys anytime soon. “It’s not a failure of imagination on our part; it’s a failure by DOT to notice the reality here and think that people in Canarsie are going to do something that they’re never going to do.”
Flushing Community Board District Manager, Marilyn Bitterman, also argued that bike lanes won’t win over outer borough drivers. “I drive and I will still continue to drive, I won’t take a bike,” she said. “The mentality of Queens is ‘I want to go to a store, I want to park right in front of the store.’ I don’t know if you can overcome that mindset…we’re not Copenhagen and our modes of transportation are not like Europe.”
Stereotyping one’s own constituents
In defending the intransigence of drivers and the paramount importance of the car to their communities, these and other outer borough politicians may be ignoring the reality of their own districts.
Statistics from the American Community Survey show that the portrayal of the outer boroughs as “car country” presents only part of the picture. In Canarsie, Flushing, and the Northeast Bronx — the areas that Fidler, Koo, and Vacca represent — nearly half of all residents commute by public transit rather than drive. Depending on the particular neighborhood within these districts, anywhere from 30 percent to 42 percent of households don’t own a car at all. And the majority of commuters actually work within their own borough rather than commuting to Manhattan.
Caroline Samponaro, the Director of Bicycle Advocacy at Transportation Alternatives, cites these statistics, and argues that cycling is faster than public transit and competitive with driving for trips of three miles or less. “It’s just not true that people in these areas don’t cycle and will never cycle,” she said. “Local politicians are responding to drivers because they tend to speak the loudest, even though it’s really their job to be speaking on behalf of all their constituents.”
After Remapping Debate told Fidler about the statistics on car ownership, his view of cycling’s potential in his district remained negative: “Let me say to you that 95 percent of households in Canarsie have no adults with a bike. You can take a statistic for [proving] anything,” he said.