On Prince Street
Speaking only from personal — and highly anecdotal — experience, few crosstown Manhattan routes are as pleasant to ride on as Prince Street on a weekday morning. Running west through Nolita and Soho from the Bowery to 6th Avenue (where it changes into Charlton Street), Prince is one of the best parts of my morning commute, second only to the Manhattan Bridge. Prince features a curbside-bike lane, relatively low volumes of automobile traffic, and huge numbers of cyclists. Squint and you could be forgiven for thinking you were on Elmegade, a hip side street filled with shops and cafes in Copenhagen’s Nørrebro district.
Of course, you’d have to squint very hard. This being New York, the pavement isn’t the smoothest, cyclists don’t always have the utmost respect for traffic signals or pedestrians, and the bike lane is frequently blocked by parked cars. But nevertheless, the street seems to work. With just a little more effort — such as a green wave, a restriction on the giant trucks that frequently get stuck making the tight turns in the neighborhood, and a periodic enforcement sweeps to keep drivers out of the bike lane — the street would work much better for everyone who depends on it, including motorists.
So that’s why it was very surprising and more than a little distressing this morning when I saw that the New York City Department of Transportation had devoted not just one or two, but at least five safety managers to instructing cyclists to stop for red lights and travel in the direction of traffic. Here are two at Mulberry and Prince:
Before you stop reading and scroll down to make a comment about cyclists needing to obey the law just like everyone else, please look closely at the picture above. You can see a grey car parked just a half a block away in the bike lane. Here’s a better shot, taken as I followed this cyclists across Prince:
To the best of my knowledge, these DOT safety managers did not ask drivers to get out of the bike lane.
Here are two more, stationed at Prince and Broadway:
This is actually an intersection few cyclists “run.” The southbound traffic on Broadway would make doing so nearly suicidal, and the pedestrian traffic is so thick that it’s actually quite rare to see someone try to snake through, although it does happen. I’m willing to be proven wrong, but I’d say this spot has some of the highest red-light compliance by cyclists on any stretch on Prince Street.
Here’s another DOT safety manager at Broadway and Greene, talking to someone regular readers may know, Robert Wright. That white object in the bike lane is some sort of newspaper kiosk, the kind of object that would probably win a face-off with a front wheel. Robert, who was coincidentally ahead of me this morning, asked the safety manager to move the obstruction from the bike lane. The metal box was not moved.
So what’s the purpose of assigning safety managers to Prince Street? Safety? Maybe. I have seen a number of cyclists going through intersections with pedestrians in the crosswalk. This is a behavior that drives me crazy, and I would never argue that we should wait until after someone is hurt to encourage safe cycling. Is it culture change? Perhaps. But it’s pretty damn hard to change the culture without the infrastructure changing ahead of it; the minute those DOT safety managers disappear is the minute everything else about the street remains exactly the same.
I’ve argued before that sometimes cyclists “break” the law for very rational reasons. Despite the rather low stakes on Prince Street, at least compared with other streets, some cyclists might go through red lights in order to safely get around a car that’s parked in the bike lane, rather than wait and have to make a merge with moving automobiles when approaching a pinch point. Another reason cyclists might “run” the lights on Prince is the timing of the lights themselves. After getting the green off the Bowery, the light at Elizabeth and Prince immediately turns red, subjecting people on bikes to a rather long wait at a generally empty intersection. The same thing happens when the light changes at Broadway; only the fastest cyclists can make it just one block to Mercer without hitting a red. It’s a pretty poor sequence for cyclists seeking an efficient crosstown journey. It’s also a pretty poor sequence for officials seeking red-light compliance among cyclists. A green wave that allowed reasonably-paced cyclists to turn off the Bowery and not hit another red until they made it to 6th Avenue — or even all the way to Greenwich Street — would go a long way toward making the street more predictable and safe for everyone. (One can wait for the light at Elizabeth Street to change back to green and actually hit a steady stream of changing greens almost all the way past Broadway, but it’s not something that is listed on any sign; I only found out about this recently from a friend and fellow advocate.)
Sadly, the biggest effect that the deployment of safety managers to a location such as Prince Street seems to have is cynicism, not just among experienced advocates such as myself or Robert, but among even casual riders. At least the few I spoke with while waiting for the light at Broadway were scratching their heads about this use of resources and were not too happy about it. “They try to encourage people to use bikes, but they don’t really make it safe,” said one. After surviving the gauntlet that is Chrystie Street and, after that, the Bowery — two streets where trucks barrel through red lights and speed limits are an oft-ignored suggestion — it’s insulting to get to a low-stress street such as Prince and be told, in not so many words, “Behave, cyclists!” That cynicism is certainly not diminished when so-called safety managers can’t be bothered to stop drivers from parking in bike lanes half a block from where they’re standing or when they can’t remove a metal obstruction to the sidewalk. And that cynicism is only enhanced when the police — who are supposed to be the actual safety managers of New York City — are among the worst rule breakers.
This photo was also taken on my trip across Prince Street this morning:
I’ve commented before that bicycles feel like the bastard stepchildren of Vision Zero — despite featuring an image of a car and a pedestrian, a bicycle is conspicuously absent from the official Vision Zero logo — and this morning’s action did nothing to dissuade me of that notion. Considering that an elderly woman was killed about two blocks from Prince Street just a few weeks ago, these kinds of actions won’t get us to Vision Zero. And they certainly don’t make people who ride bikes think that the city is on their side.
The DOT safety managers were back again this morning. Here are two stationed at at Prince and Mulberry:
And here’s one man stationed at Broadway:
Meanwhile, here’s the intersection with Crosby Street: