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Paint Ain’t

July 1, 2014
Chrystie Street is a major route to the Manhattan Bridge bike path. The bike lane fades quickly due to high automobile traffic, a sign of failure.

Chrystie Street is a major route to the Manhattan Bridge bike path. The bike lane fades quickly due to high automobile traffic, a sign that the bike lane isn’t a bike lane.

What does it mean when painted bike lanes fade? Scott Shaffer at Streets.MN has some thoughts:

It’s not just the bare pavement that’s the problem. It’s the etiology of the faded paint that destroys the bike lane. (Etiology means the study of causes. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, essentially.) A bike facility with faded paint can still function. The paint has faded on park trails and the Midtown Greenway, but these bike facilities still work great. What I’m talking about it when the paint is worn away by a torrent of car tires, which not only removes the paint, but more importantly it weakens the belief that the pavement is dedicated to bicyclists. The street is saying, “Cars drive here. This is not a dedicated space for bikes. Ceci n’est pas une bike lane.

A bike lane isn’t just a physical thing — it’s a social construct. Like money, it only matters because we all act like it does. Bike lanes serve their purpose if and only if street-users agree that these striped strips of pavement are dedicated for people on bicycles. Not for parking, not for snow storage, not for walking, not for corner-cutting cars, but for bikes. The fading of the paint, and the cause of the fading, erodes this foundation. It erases confidence in the bike lane, not just the paint.

The paint on Prospect Park West is in need of a touch-up, but the service it provides to cyclists hasn’t been diminished in the slightest. On the other hand, I can think of many examples on my regular commute where my “confidence in the bike lane” has eroded along with the paint: Smith Street, Chrystie Street, and parts of Dean and Bergen Street, for example.  In the case of Chrystie Street, merely replacing the paint on such a fast-moving street will never be satisfactory; anyone who’s ridden it regularly for the last few years know that it will only be a matter of time before it’s gone again. As Shaffer says, “Simply replacing the paint won’t replenish the confidence.” Only some level of physical separation, whether its plastic delineators, jersey barriers, a simple curb, grade separation, or row of parked cars, tells drivers that some space, including space for people on bikes, is sacred.

  1. Brandon permalink
    July 1, 2014 2:39 pm

    That Chrystie Street lane is also some of the worst pavement to ride on in the city, with every street fixture such as sewer caps located right in the bike lane generally on a hump where the roadbed has subsided around them.

    To get to this lane from the north cyclists also have to cross Second Avenue without warning from the left side protected bike lane to the right.

    If this is how we are dealing with the approach to one of the primary bikeways in the city (the Manhattan Bridge) its no mystery why we are stuck at only 1% of commuters cycling.

    • July 1, 2014 3:46 pm

      You could probaby say the same for all the approaches to every bridge. Fix those and mode share would go up dramatically. If I’m a new cyclists, it doesn’t matter how calm my ride is through Park Slope and Boerum Hill if Jay Street is a disaster. That would turn any new cyclist off of riding forever.

  2. Anthony permalink
    July 1, 2014 2:47 pm

    I agree with Scott but not always on his critique of using the bike lane for walking. In my commute, I use the Grand Street bike lane, and for the 3 blocks between Wooster and Broadway where the bike lane is adjacent to the sidewalk, and protected by parked cars – pedestrians consistently walk in the bike lane like it’s a sidewalk. I don’t think its a lack of respect for the “social construct”. The etiology is a very narrow sidewalk. I think the pedestrians are simply sharing the safe space (safe from cars). Much has been written here about the multiple beneficiaries of bike lanes. Scott shouldn’t equate the hazards of wayward pedestrians with automobiles. On the Brooklyn Bridge however…

    • July 1, 2014 3:45 pm

      Great points. I do think the “threat” posed by pedestrians in a bike lane is way overblown, and have written before about shared space. People who want 100% compliance with assigned space should go to Amsterdam or other bike-friendly places where hordes of people “violate” space all the time. No one gets hurt because, hey, no cars!

  3. Joe permalink
    July 1, 2014 5:15 pm

    I agree – most of the bike lanes are just paint, and the city is not keeping up with repainting. it feels like the bike lanes are disappearing.

    • July 1, 2014 5:31 pm

      I’ve put in a few service requests, including one for Chrystie Street, but there seems to be no urgency to fix this problem. One wonders how long it would take DOT to respond if a lane of the West Side Highway suddenly disappeared or was rendered unusable.

      • LoraT permalink
        July 2, 2014 11:28 am

        The DOT only acts to paint if politically prodded. It took me two years of asking the DOT and Councilmember Chin to replace the totally disappeared crosswalks at Broome and Crosby in Manhattan, with no result. I finally went to Community Board 2 Traffic and Transportation, had it put on their agenda, and after a full Board vote in favor of something that should never have had to go to them, did the DOT act to replace the crosswalk paint.

  4. July 1, 2014 6:51 pm

    The Clinton Street lane in Brooklyn Heights, is barely there.

  5. Gary permalink
    July 1, 2014 10:05 pm

    So right. Smith Street as you noted, has gotten bad recently. There the paint really made a difference in organizing the different modes. Chrystie Street, on the other hand, is hopeless-only a parking protected lane along the park will really work there. And yes, approaches to the bridges should be prioritized for protected lanes.

  6. July 2, 2014 9:20 am

    The broader issue is the city’s pavement markings of all kinds is fading away, and pavement quality is deteriorating, as money disappears into rising debt and pension costs run up by Generation Greed.

    • July 2, 2014 9:44 am

      Absolutely. Many crosswalks are faded if not completely gone, meaning that parked cars block ped ramps and drivers violate ped space more easily. It’s actually quite amazing what paint can accomplish, if it’s maintained.

      • July 2, 2014 10:06 am

        Don’t forget the effect driving. Since I don’t rely on a car, I seldom have to drive a car at light. But when I do, I increasingly find I can’t see the lines.

        The rough pavement, however, is definitely tougher to deal with on a bike.

  7. July 2, 2014 10:12 am

    This isn’t just an issue for bike lanes either. Look at the disastrous implementation of Select Bus Service. In most cases, the “bus lanes” are painted on and faded to irrelevance within 6 months. We need curb separation, or at the very least rumble strips in these areas.

    • July 2, 2014 1:55 pm

      Great point. Goes to show that drivers really will take every inch available to them… and many inches that aren’t.

  8. July 2, 2014 12:03 pm

    Thanks you, Scott Shaffer of Streets.MN, and thank you, Brooklyn Spoke! A topic that sorely needs addressing! Yes, Scott, each driver that rolls over the bike lane marking is disrespecting it, and cyclists. They are illegitimizing the lane’s existence and purpose. It’s sad that the shoulder, whether a designated bike lane or not, is always available for whatever motor vehicle-related use becomes necessary.
    In the town where I used to live – a supposed bike-friendly place – what few bike lanes existed were painted with an inadequate type of paint that faded in a matter of several months. This was greatly accelerated in the inside of curves, where drivers are incapable of keeping themselves from cutting corners. Some years, bike symbols were painted in the lanes, and sometimes not. Nice going, Bainbridge Island, WA.
    And nice going, drivers.
    And yes, when I lived in MN, I can attest to the fact that the roadways became smaller and smaller the more snow we got.

  9. Rob permalink
    July 2, 2014 12:12 pm

    The reaction I expect to faded bike lanes from bike-unfriendly engineers and policymakers is, “see! we said these bike lanes are too difficult and expensive to maintain. And we were right! Better to not have them at all.”

  10. Anthony permalink
    July 2, 2014 2:27 pm

    OK 1 more comment and a question. While I’m never afraid to yell and complain about cars driving unnecessarily in the bike lane, of which there are plenty. And I must add that I encounter alert and conscientious drivers here in NYC every day. Every day!
    The thing that really makes me postal though – cyclists that are absolute assholes – not only to pedestrians but to other cyclists. The 2 worst practices are; blocking the crosswalk (or riding circles in it) while waiting for the light, and blowing past other cyclists in the bike lane where there isn’t enough room to pass safely. I don’t care about weaving through traffic, or other acts of self-endangerment though.
    Do any of you other readers say anything to other cyclists when you see stuff like this?

    • July 8, 2014 1:58 am

      Anthony, yes, I call out crummy rude cyclists. If we can’t be civil to fellow non-motorized travelers, we’re bound to fail. The only time I pass cyclists or walkers rather closely is when they have been guilty of hogging the lane or sidewalk by spreading out and being oblivious to anyone behind them.

  11. nhamblen permalink
    July 5, 2014 10:16 am

    To add to the chorus here, I don’t know if it’s a seasonal cycle but we do seem to be at a low point in the condition the bike lanes that I use most often. Christie St, definitely. How about that sunken manhole cover when you’re heading towards the bridge at Grand St? I usually buzz encroaching pedestrians to get around it, but every day’s a different deadly adventure at that intersection. 😐

    Another bad one for me currently is Adams “Street” (auto sewer connecting to Brooklyn Bridge). Motorists are encouraged to drive fast on Adams by design, but when the bike lanes are fresh they usually give you space when passing (but not double parking). Right now the stripe has worn away on the portion leading away from the bridge, with the result that motorists who know perfectly well that it’s a bike lane drive inside it for no reason. For example, an MTA bus driver during one of our recent monsoons decided to honk at me repeatedly, and pass extremely close, as I was riding directly over the intact cyclist symbols inside the vanished lane.

    Motorists insist on driving as close to the center of whatever lines happen to be visible. This is the reason I think that painted lanes are better than nothing, but come on NYC — you do have to keep them painted!


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