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Banned in Boston

June 21, 2011

I know New Yorkers hate looking to Red Sox fans for guidance, but as tomorrow’s court hearing approaches the experience of one Boston neighborhood offers some important lessons for Brooklyn.  Via Boston Biker comes the story of Charlestown’s Main Street, where a set of bike lanes was installed by the city as part of its Boston Bikes program, a vision for the city not too dissimilar in concept to New York’s Bicycle Master Plan or Rahm Emanuel’s ambitions for Chicago’s bicycle network.

Last year, the city of Boston installed a bike lane through Charlestown’s historic commercial drag without much in the way of input from the local Charlestown Neighborhood Council.  Needless to say, the CNC members were none too pleased when they woke up one December morning and saw a set of white lines running down “their” street:

…Mayor Thomas C. Menino promised to install 20 miles of bicycle lanes around the city by 2010. The lanes in Charlestown mark the tail-end of that initiative. But when they arrived in the neighborhood’s main business district in October, it was a surprise to local leaders.

Of course, PPW is proof that a years-long, community-driven process is no protection from the hysteria and legal machinations of a handful of cranky rich people, but not consulting the dozen or so neighborhood council members in historically insular Charlestown proved to be a fatal mistake on the part of the Boston Transportation Department.  The CNC was so upset about being left out that its leaders demanded the Class II bike lanes be removed, striking a familiar refrain in the press:

I don’t think anybody here hates bikes,” said Thomas Cunha, who heads the council. “But anytime we don’t get dialogue in the community about an issue, we’re frustrated.”

In January 20011 the city of Boston acquiesced and removed the bike lanes.  Granted, unlike Park Slope’s self-appointed guardians of “senior citizens, people with disabilities, families with children and neighborhood businesses,” the Charlestown Neighborhood Council is made up of elected representatives.  But the CNC’s failure to separate the personal from the political represented a supreme lack of foresight and a willful ignorance of the immense popularity bike lanes have in the larger community.  As Boston Biker writes, “removing the lanes without any community process wasted a lot of money, and is exactly the kind of thing [bike lane opponents] were so upset about in the first place.”

But a funny thing happened in Charlestown.  After months of phone calls, letters, and intense lobbying from residents, community organizers, and cycling advocates, the CNC tentatively approved a plan to return bike lanes to Main StreetBoston Biker’s reaction is not unlike my own thoughts on Prospect Park West:

So to recap, many dollars were spent to install these lanes, a bunch of “mistakes” were made and many more dollars were spent to remove them, and now additional many dollars will be spent to put them back…These might turn out to be the most expensive bike lanes in the history of Boston.

As I am not politically beholden to anyone (the glories of being a blogger) I think I can say what everyone else is afraid to. This was a massive cluster-fuck perpetrated by a very small group of “neighborhood leaders” who in no way reflected the views of the people they were supposed to represent.

They got in a tiff with the city because the city didn’t sufficiently kiss their ass before installing the bike lanes, so instead of thinking rationally and carefully they wasted a bunch of money and time throwing a tantrum. The end result being that…the same exact bike lanes [will] be re-installed.

I do not know what will happen at tomorrow’s court hearing in Brooklyn Supreme Court, but lets say that despite most predictions the judge rules in favor of Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes.  Instead of installing concrete pedestrian islands the DOT is ordered to remove the Prospect Park West bike lane.  Not only will the removal be in direct opposition to overwhelming community support, but it be done without the community-driven process that is central to the NBBL complaint.

If Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes is successful, PPW will revert to three lanes of traffic.  The very conditions that caused concerned neighborhood residents to ask the DOT for some form of traffic calming that eventually resulted in a bike lane will return to the street.  Cars will have the ability to weave in and out of traffic at dangerous speeds.  Crossing distances will get longer, making it harder for seniors and children to get from one side of the street to the other safely.  Cyclists will go back to riding on the sidewalk, causing another hazard to more vulnerable park visitors.  No one will be safer than they were before, but it sure as hell will be easier for a tiny group of privileged area residents to double park.

In fact, one day conditions on Prospect Park West could get so bad that a group of concerned neighborhood residents might ask the DOT for some form of traffic calming, beginning a four-year, community-driven process resulting in a bike lane.

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