The Brooklyn Bike Battle: How a Little Lane Created a Big Divide
Just as summer began to heat up in New York last year, the city transportation department installed a new bicycle path on the avenue abutting the west side of Prospect Park in Park Slope, the Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up. It was a response to residents’ complaints that the three-lane avenue had become a “speedway,” with cars barreling down the street at 60 miles per hour, twice the city’s legal speed limit, injuring motorists and pedestrians.
I was out of the country when the path was installed but heard about it from friends and family and was not at all surprised to learn that my neighborhood had acquired another bike route. You may have heard of Park Slope—it’s often mentioned in snide remarks about uppity young professionals who shop for uber-organic local products at the Park Slope Food Coop, or about the many famous writers who inhabit some of its most beautiful and expensive brownstones. Maybe you’ve seen the neighborhood on TV, on that HBO series Bored to Death,where characters constantly trip over baby strollers left out by Park Slope residents who believe that their children take precedence over anything and everything else on the sidewalk. It’s changed quite a bit since I was a kid in the 1980s and ‘90s, when gentrification was in its early phases and the neighborhood had a more working-class feel, but that pretty much sums it up today.
I used to cross Prospect Park West, a pretty, tree-lined avenue with beautiful limestone and brownstone homes, almost daily to enter the park. There are not many traffic lights along the avenue, and in my memory it was always a fast-moving street. Replacing one lane of cars with a bike path sounded like something most people in the neighborhood would appreciate. Instead of three lanes of motor vehicle traffic, there would be two, with the bike path protectively sandwiched between the sidewalk and a row of parked cars.
But when I returned to New York last fall, I found that Park Slope had become a battleground over this eight-foot-wide, two-mile-long strip of painted green pavement. By winter, the Prospect Park West bike path had sparked a community-wide dispute that drew the attention of New Yorkers throughout the city. I was baffled by the amount of opposition in my old neighborhood. That a bike lane, which symbolizes environmental sustainability and street safety, would anger the politically correct, eco-friendly parents of Park Slope seemed completely paradoxical.
Opponents claimed that the path was installed without adequate community consultation, that it caused traffic congestion, that it was unsafe and just plain ugly. One of the most common arguments I heard was that the path had become an obstacle for parents struggling to unload both children and groceries from their cars after parking along the avenue. Children wouldn’t be able to cross the path unescorted because they could get hit by passing cyclists. The mother of a friend who grew up on Prospect Park West complained that the path gives the right-of-way to bicyclists over pedestrians. If pedestrians have the “walk” signal, why do they have to stop and look both ways for cyclists before walking? I heard the same argument from another longtime Prospect Park West resident I spoke with who also said that one of the two lanes is now often backed up with double-parked cars and school buses, and that fire trucks and ambulances, which used to use the third lane, now have a hard time getting anywhere quickly.
In March, a group of bike lane opponents with close ties to former Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Iris Weinshall, wife of New York’s U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer, took the dispute to the next level by filing a lawsuit in Brooklyn Supreme Court against the DOT and current Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan for installing the path. Schumer and Weinshall are longtime residents of Prospect Park West, and as a nine-year-old I played little league softball in the park with one of their daughters.
The petitioners were organized under the somewhat misleading names of “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” and “Seniors for Safety.” They got legal representation from the same high-power law firm that represented George W. Bush in the 2000 election recount suits.
Bike path proponents had a field day criticizing this politically well-connected crew. Some residents created their own groups called “Neighbors for Better Neighbors” and “Seniors for Civility.” One prominent street activist blogger labeled opponents “shameless, selfish pigs” and “the worst of what the baby boom generation has to offer America” in a comment on a blog post. The blogger, Aaron Naparstek, an area resident who founded Streetsblog, later referred to his comment in an email exchange with a DOT official who suggested that bike path opponents would require “neutralizing.” This email was presented by the petitioners in their lawsuit as evidence that the DOT conspired with bike lane proponents to squash the opposition.
I was blown away by the comments coming from both sides of this dispute. Instead of remaining a conversation between neighbors, it took on the character of a heated political debate. And I wasn’t the only one in the neighborhood to feel this way. Gene Aronowitz, the founder of “Seniors for Civility,” said he started the group as a reaction to the surprisingly vicious comments he began to hear from the community and because of several “harassing” subpoenas that were issued by the petitioners to a number of community leaders and bike lane advocates.
“I started the group in an attempt to tone down the rhetoric,” said Aronowitz, a 73-year-old resident of the nearby Sunset Park neighborhood who uses the Prospect Park West bike lane regularly. “People can talk with one another, have disagreements, people can even go to court, but this has gone overboard.”
Some bike lane opponents echo those feelings. The situation “has gotten blown completely out of proportion,” said Don Matteson, a member of “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” and “Seniors for Safety” who has lived on Prospect Park West since 1994. “It seems bizarre to me for a neighborhood where we have so many shared values and concerns.”
The main arguments of the lawsuit were as follows. The opposition claimed that the DOT used faulty traffic and safety data to justify their actions and did not sufficiently allow for public input. In addition, they argued that the path is unsafe for cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists alike.
But the DOT maintained that they had solid data. And supporters say that the neighborhood was given plenty of opportunities to weigh in on the decision to install the lane, and that the majority of area residents backed it.
Ultimately, the process originated with Park Slope residents, when they asked the local community board to find a way to slow traffic on Prospect Park West. After the board spoke with DOT, transportation officials proposed the bike path design. That design was then voted on and approved unanimously by the board and presented at an open house in the community. It was only when the project gained what board officials recall to be overwhelming support from the neighborhood that they gave the city the go-ahead to make the change. To me it seems that anyone who was interested in challenging the process had ample time and opportunities to do so before the path was actually installed. And it is surprising that such a politically active opposition would not organize until after the fact, reacting to the new path once it was already in place.
But Don Matteson said that opponents felt from the beginning that the DOT and community leaders did not take them seriously. In an email exchange, he told me that opponents would not have had to go to such great lengths to make a case “if officials and leaders had only listened to our concerns to begin with instead of just creating a barrage of rhetoric and spin to make the lane appear to have achieved their safety goals, and seem popular with all but a few disgruntled old rich people along the park.”
In a phone interview, Craig Hammerman, district manager of the local community board, told me that the lawsuit came as a “surprise and disappointment.”
“Everything we do is very visible, transparent, and hyperlocal,” said Hammerman. “So it was disappointing when a group of people filed a lawsuit claiming that our actions had not been publicized enough.”
Then, in mid-August, the judge dismissed the lawsuit. But instead of making a judgment call about the arguments, he ruled that the case had no standing because it was filed after the statute of limitations had expired. The state law that allows citizens to challenge actions by city or state governments requires them to do so within four months after the action in question becomes final. Unfortunately, because of the technical nature of the decision, neither side could say that they won the argument.
Yet cycling advocates still rejoiced on Prospect Park West after the ruling. One tweeted, “I am on #PPW bike lane right now with bike radicals. It’s like Tahrir Square up here. Come sue us!” Supporters in all boroughs hailed the decision as a vindication of their feeling that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s changes to city streets have benefited New York.
But the fight is not over. The opposition has not yet decided whether or not to appeal the decision. In a statement to The Daily News after the ruling, the petitioners’ attorney Jim Walden said, “Although we respectfully disagree with the Court’s determination on the statute of limitations, we will need time to review his comprehensive analysis before deciding on our options.”
The DOT expressed its satisfaction with the ruling, with Commissioner Sadik-Khan stating that petitioners were “dead wrong” in their claims about the bike path. “Merely not liking a change is no basis for a frivolous lawsuit against it,” she said.
In recent years, more and more New Yorkers have been using their bikes to get to work. Many of my friends have started cycling as a way to avoid the increasing subway fares and to stay in shape. According to the DOT, the number of people who commute on bicycle to and from Manhattan has more than doubled since 2005, more than tripled since 2000, and more than quintupled since 1990. Mayor Bloomberg’s “PlaNYC 2030,” a comprehensive design for the sustainability of the city over the next twenty years, outlines a large increase in the number of bike lanes. In just three years, the city nearly doubled the citywide on-street bicycle network, building 200 miles of bike lanes in all five boroughs between 2006 and 2009.
Though the Prospect Park West bike path dispute reached new heights, it wasn’t the first time that the DOT faced resistance from residents over the installation of a new bike lane. The first so-called “protected” bike path (on-street bike paths that are protected from vehicular traffic by parked cars, like the Prospect Park West path) was installed along Ninth Avenue in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan in 2007. It provoked a negative reaction from people in the community, but Caroline Samponaro, director of bicycle advocacy at Transportation Alternatives, a New York City pedestrian, bicycle, and public-transit advocacy organization, said that the conversation “started antagonistic, but people settled down, and now it’s a non-issue.”
“If you look at what has happened with the lanes along First and Second Avenues [in Manhattan], you can see how much the conversation has evolved . . . there’s a huge amount of public support,” says Samponaro.
Samponaro and the rest of the Transportation Alternatives team have been on the frontlines advocating for more inclusive, “complete streets” for years. They are extremely intelligent, motivated and tireless, and their work elicits praise from many but perhaps just as much ire from others. With the bike revolution, the city has become increasingly polarized between bikers and motorists and pedestrians. Bikers feel that their lanes are not honored, as they’re often blocked by double-parked trucks and cars, pedestrians waiting to cross the street, and trash cans and other obstacles that have been carelessly placed. In turn, pedestrians feel disrespected by bikers, who whiz past them, running red lights, opposing traffic, and sometimes traversing sidewalks. Motorists also complain about the failure of many bikers to abide by traffic laws, and the atmosphere has become downright nasty.
Since Commissioner Sadik-Khan’s tenure began in April 2007, the DOT has implemented many pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly initiatives. Perhaps the most striking single change was the pedestrian plaza in Times Square, where the DOT halted vehicular traffic in one of the most crowded areas of the city, on Broadway between 42nd and 47th streets, and set out metal tables and chairs in the street for passing pedestrians.
In another attempt to relieve traffic congestion in the city, the Bloomberg administration proposed legislation that would charge vehicles for driving into or within the central business district of Manhattan, similar to a system in place in London. But the State Assembly refused to vote on the measure because of strong internal resistance. This was another inflammatory issue for street activists and motorists, both of whom lobbied extensively with politicians to promote their side of the debate.
Opposition to the congestion pricing legislation and other aspects of the Bloomberg administration’s ambitious redesigning of city streets has been fierce. Opponents frame it as a war on cars in New York, with Commissioner Sadik-Khan at the helm. A New York Post editorial about the DOT’s push to install traffic cameras to help police enforce the city speed limit illustrates a bit of the vitriol being thrown around in this debate:
Team Bloomberg’s plan may appear reasonable at first. But don’t give this crew the benefit of the doubt for a second: Safety isn’t the name of the game. Speeding cameras are yet another front in DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s four-year auto-kampf. Don’t forget the context: Major streets turned into “pedestrian plazas.” Roads carved to bits to make way for bike lanes that go unused.
Commissioner Sadik-Khan refuted these very points at a recent press conference announcing the city’s new bike share program, which will put 10,000 bicycles on New York streets which the public can use for a small fee. The system, set to launch in 2012, will be similar to those in London, Paris, Boston, and Washington, D.C. (That announcement obviously rattled feathers at the New York Post).
“We’ve actually doubled the amount of cyclists that we’ve had on the road in the last four years and our streets have never been safer. Actually, traffic fatalities and injuries are at their lowest point in one hundred years since the city started keeping records,” said Sadik-Khan.
In response to the Post editorial mentioned above, and others like it, Streetsblog, which follows sustainable transportation issues, looked into how much New York City streets have actually changed. They estimate that though it may seem like a tremendous change, only “less than one half of one percent of NYC’s street space has changed in the past three-and-a-half years.” Samponaro, from Transportation Alternatives, says that the changes made to city streets are, relatively speaking, “like drops in a bucket.” But she acknowledges that they will take some getting used to.
“It’s a really new idea to change our streets. They haven’t been touched in fifty years—of course people are going to react,” said Samponaro.
Among those adapting to the new “complete streets” paradigm is the New York City Police Department. Reports surfaced in the winter that orders from high within the department had been issued to officers to crack down on bicycle riders failing to obey traffic signs, breaking the speed limit, and committing other offenses. But the crackdown orders were taken to the extreme in some cases by officers who were not quite sure about biking rules in the city. Cyclists wrote into Streetsblog and other publications about wrongly receiving tickets for actions that are not illegal, like hanging a tote bag on the handlebars while riding a bicycle and not wearing a helmet (New York City law only requires cyclists 12 years-old and younger to wear helmets).
Samponaro says the NYPD is exhibiting a learning curve as they get used to the increased number of cyclists on the streets and adapt to the corresponding increase in the number of complaints they receive about cyclists. But she notes that the department has since cooled off on ticketing cyclists for minor offenses that do not endanger anyone, like running red lights in the Central Park loop while no one is around. Transportation Alternatives recently reached out to local precincts and they collaboratively set up “education checkpoints” in areas with new street designs, where officers talk with motorists about the developments and Transportation Alternatives staff inform pedestrians and bikers.
Though the Prospect Park West bike lane lawsuit is over, it remains to be seen whether the neighborhood dispute will settle down. Officials have installed a number of safety modifications, like speed bumps, to ease people’s concerns. But opponents still feel strongly that the lane is unsafe and that traffic has only gotten worse in the smaller amount of space allotted for cars.
With the DOT’s plans to install 50 miles of new bicycle lanes per year for the next nineteen years, the city is likely to face continued resistance. But given the success of the Bloomberg administration so far, it appears that opponents will be left with no choice but to adapt to the changes on New York City’s streets.
As for Park Slope, it may just be a matter of time before everyone gets used to the bike path. The other weekend, not long after the lawsuit dismissal was announced, my father and I ran into Don Matteson, the outspoken opponent I interviewed for this story, jogging on Prospect Park West. He waved hello and asked if we had heard the news about the lawsuit. We said we had, and he leaned in, pointing to the path, and said, “I’m actually kind of getting used to the thing.”