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Do As I Say, Not As I Do

November 11, 2010

I attended yesterday’s rally at City Hall to call on the Bloomberg administration and the DOT to extend the East Side bicycle lanes northward to Harlem.  It was a beautiful day for a rally and a great excuse to get out and on my bike.  I rode from my apartment in Brooklyn over the Brooklyn Bridge, which was filled with the typical number of tourists, a fair share of them proudly displaying their marathon finishers medals around their necks.  (Marathon Sunday is my favorite day of the year, and I love to see the way the visitors it brings to New York get diluted throughout the city as the week wears on.)

Despite the brilliant sun and warm weather bringing so many tourists to the bridge, I encountered few creeping into the bike lane.  My entirely unscientific hypothesis is that because so many of them appeared to be from Europe, where people are more used to sharing city spaces with bicycles, they were more aware of the occasional bike than an American would be.  American tourists typically visit from places where even walking is rare; looking out for bikes doesn’t even register for most Midwesterners.

Bike parking at City Hall

When I arrived at City Hall, I looked for a place to safely park my bike, since bicycles aren’t allowed inside the plaza.  There are no racks on the west side of City Hall, which in and of itself seems strange, since so many bikes pour off of the Brooklyn Bridge on nice days that you think there’d be a demand for it.

After asking a fellow cyclist who was there for the rally if he knew where to park, he said he’d try the other side.  He rode off, on the sidewalk no less, and I walked my bike to the other side.  (Not that I don’t break the rules from time to time, but I figure that when you’re at a place to lobby for better treatment of cyclists, it helps to give pedestrians better treatment.)

On that side I approached a security kiosk, manned by a police officer.  A few other cyclists were there, asking to park their bikes on the rack just inside the gate, pictured left.  The rack was full, but we managed to get a few more bikes on there.  I threaded my chain through the red bike and around the rack, reasoning that if the red bike’s owner needed to unlock his bike, it would be pretty easy to find all the other people who had biked down to the rally.  Besides, I figured this inconvenience was better than taking my chances on the street, as other cyclists were forced to do once the officer refused to allow in any more bikes.

I walked in to the rally with a few other cyclists and we all chuckled at the irony. Fifty people show up on their bikes to rally for safer streets for bikers and find no safe place to park.  (If there was a bigger area in which to park bikes, none of us saw it.)  Compare the paltry bike parking offered by City Hall with the space allotted for cars, pictured below right.  There are so many cars in City Hall Plaza that they even park a row of cars in, blocking other cars.  And that’s just one side.  Just to the left of where this picture cuts off is another row of parked cars, maybe another ten or eleven.

City Hall Car Parking

Ample car parking at City Hall

The current mayor heads the most bike-friendly administration this city has ever seen.  Bloomberg himself makes a point of commuting to work on the subway, a no-brainer since City Hall is surrounded by a huge number of train lines.  Yet on one of the city’s most beautiful and historic open plazas–not open in the public sense, but open in the spatial sense–you’ll find as many as twenty or thirty cars.

Look, I’m not an anti-car zealot.  I understand that there may be very legitimate security reasons for the presence of some of the automobiles at City Hall.  But surely the city could eliminate, say, five of the spaces it gives to cars and turn it over to bike parking.  It would send a powerful message, one of practicing what the city preaches.  The city is remaking streets and neighborhoods at a fast pace, much to the chagrin of local business owners whose principal complaint is that there’s no where for their customers, employees or delivery vehicles to park.  Another (false) complaint is that bike lanes are rammed down neighborhood’s throats, so not having bike parking or allowing a lot of cars at City Hall is a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do example that bike lane foes can use to undermine the administration’s noble efforts.

Plus, DOT head Janette Sadik-Khan has been a fierce advocate of cycling as a means of transportation.  But if even City Hall employees have a hard time finding a secure place to park near their place of work, what does that say to building managers and business owners across the city?

Imagine if Bloomberg routinely smoked cigarettes at his favorite restaurant or was photographed washing down a trans-fat-soaked batch of french fries with a Coke.  What if Sadik-Khan, despite riding a bike herself, was filmed in being chauffeured to work in a black SUV.  Despite the laudable improvements the city has made to its biking network, I believe that turning just one parking space at City Hall into bike parking would have a bigger PR benefit to the cause of safe streets than any single bike lane.

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