The Bike Boom and the Lane Lag

Bicycling in New York City is growing faster than ever, which has New Yorkers who ride bikes wondering: Can City Hall keep up?

When Transportation Alternatives first released the Bicycle Blueprint in 1993, the 160-page book analyzing bicycling in New York City was the most ambitious proposal about urban cycling ever published, and it came at a time when conditions for cyclists were some of the worst they had ever been.

“Back then, it was wild and woolly,” explained Michele Herman, one of the four coauthors of the Bicycle Blueprint. “We all had no other option but to ride with the traffic. I commuted at rush hour in those days, and got a lot of outright swearing from men in cars.”

Herman said it taught her to have a thick skin, and a lot of riding skill, but the riding experience she describes is notably less idyllic than bicycling in a protected bike lane in 2017.

“The exhaust was bigger and dirtier in those years. I would come home and have to wash off my shins in the summertime because it would cling to the sweat, and I would look like I was breaded with pepper,” said Herman. “In those days, there were really no bike lanes at all.”

Picture New York City with no bike lanes at all. Today, it feels unimaginable. This is in part because in 1993, the Bicycle Blueprint laid out a 151-point plan to bring bicycling into New York’s mainstream — and in 2017, much of that ambition has been realized. According to the latest counts, cycling in New York City is growing faster than transit ridership, faster than the economy, and faster than the population.

In some ways, that’s great news, and a testament to how successful the Bicycle Blueprint, combined with two decades of Transportation Alternatives advocacy, has been.

In other ways, it keeps TransAlt’s staff up at night.

“There are so many cyclists in New York City right now that during rush hour, there are traffic jams in the bike lane,” explained TransAlt’s Deputy Director Caroline Samponaro. “I worry for us riding out there, because there is not enough bike infrastructure to hold us all.”

If you build it, they will come is a transportation planners’ truism that is known to work both ways: if you build more highways, more people will drive to work, and if you build more bike lanes, more people will bike to work. But in New York City, the growth in cycling has leapfrogged the infrastructure. Today, masses of New Yorkers from every borough are rolling out on their first bicycle ride, and in large part, our streets remain unprepared.

“I put cities into two categories of bike transportation,” explained Jon Orcutt, another coauthor of the Bicycle Blueprint, and a former executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “One is doing the minimum because they’re under pressure to do something, a begrudging and painstaking route to progress. The other made an official decision to embrace bike transportation, and try to make it work. New York flipped from the first category to the second in 2007.”

That year, Janette Sadik-Khan was hired as commissioner of the Department of Transportation, and Orcutt became a senior policy advisor there. What followed was a dramatic expansion of the bike network, a lot of design innovation, and the introduction of Citi Bike, “an accelerant to bike transportation,” according to Orcutt.

“Places that have come late to cycling, like Paris and London and New York, have been able to put a lot more people on bikes using bike share in connection with a program of changes on the streets,” he explained.

Despite that watershed year, and the decade of progress since, Orcutt admitted that there is much more to be done.

According to an issue brief on Vision Zero published earlier this year by the Manhattan Institute, New York City’s poorer residential neighborhoods are more dangerous for biking, per resident and per square mile. A person biking in one of New York’s ten poorest neighborhoods is 9% likelier to be killed or injured than in an average residential neighborhood in the city. And by the Manhattan Institute’s count, low-income neighborhoods have not received safety improvements relative to their risk.

In one part, this is a byproduct of historic disinvestment, from Robert Moses on up. The infrastructure and resources offered for cycling in New York have, in large part, been restricted to the neighborhoods where the most money is earned and spent.

But there are hints that this inequity is starting to shift. The de Blasio administration has made a commendable effort to recognize and respond to the mismatch between investment and need, often butting heads with local community boards and elected officials. City Hall recently published a plan to focus cycling infrastructure improvements in long-overlooked South Brooklyn and Eastern Queens. The mayor has gone so far as to twice override Queens community boards that attempted to block bicycle safety improvements, a mayoral first.

Today, there is a protected bike lane on Queens Boulevard, and a protected bike lane destined for 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. These lanes will eventually stretch for miles, through conterminous neighborhoods, like the protected bike lanes on Manhattan avenues do today. This will provide a spine from which a bicycle network can grow.

But it will take a lot more than two bike lanes in two boroughs to correct a hundred years of spending less money on streets in poor neighborhoods.

“Any attempt at building out a bicycle network in New York that does not take into account historic disinvestment in underserved communities is a failed attempt,” said Charles Brown, senior researcher at the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, who studies equity in transportation policy.

That is not a simple task, but it is the only route to a real bike network, said Brown. “First, there has to be acknowledgment of the historical fact that transportation resources have been directed to places other than underserved communities. The second step is to give priority funding to those communities that have been ignored.”

The third step, said Brown, is ensuring that communities help determine where investments will go. “It is critical to work with the community to identify where these investments are necessary, to understanding not only the mobility needs, but also the social context in which they live.”

In the lyrical introduction to the Bicycle Blueprint, its authors set the book’s intention:

Let us banish the fear from cycling. Let every New Yorker who wants to, feel free to hop on a bike.

We have begun to banish fear from cycling, but in large part, the tough, resilient citizens of New York City have shown that fear alone is not enough to keep them off of bikes. Infrastructure has not kept up with demand, unsafe streets persist, and yet, bicycling in New York City is growing at an unbelievable pace. So instead of focusing on fear, it is the next clause that needs attention — Let every New Yorker who wants to, feel free to hop on a bike.

When will every New Yorker feel free to hop on a bike?

When there is a bike lane nearby to every New Yorker.

“If every new cyclist is a return on the investment in a bike lane, then the City of New York is doing better than Warren Buffett,” said TransAlt’s Caroline Samponaro. “But in bike lane dollars, some New Yorkers have been wealthier than others. There are over 1,000 miles of bike lanes in New York City — but there are also 5,000 miles of ready and waiting streets, mostly outside of Manhattan. If we focus on the neighborhoods that have been left out, think about the cycling city we could become.”

You can read more about the history of the Bicycle Blueprint in What’s Left to Be Done for #BikeNYC. Or you can learn about New York City’s growing cycling population in The Bicycle Workforce.