During a recent trip through my neighborhood, I noticed this new traffic configuration near the intersection of 3rd Street and Prospect Park West.
Here’s the old configuration:
Most people on bikes who come up 3rd Street cross PPW to either pick up the bike lane or head straight into the park, so the new traffic pattern keeps them out of the way of drivers making right turns. It also makes things more convenient for drivers, who can turn right without having to wait for people on bikes to get out of the way. While the safety of this change is debatable — 3rd Street is uphill, so the right-hook risk has now been replaced with a move that places slow riders directly in the path of possibly angry drivers trying to make the light — one thing is clear:
This change did not require community board approval.
The new striping went in late last year after DOT repaved 3rd Street as part of its routine maintenance program. There was no presentation to the transportation committee, no vote, nor any notification to the board whatsoever.
Now before I continue, let me be clear: Even as a member of the Transportation and Public Safety Committee of Community Board 6, I don’t think that such changes should require community board approval. DOT saw a chance to change the street to make it safer and they did it. If it winds up not working out, DOT can always switch it back. It’s just paint.
This new traffic configuration grabbed my attention a bit more than such a change normally might since I happened to notice it just a few days after a rather contentious meeting of the Community Board 6’s Transportation and Public Safety Committee.
The big topic of the night was the Amity Wiggle, a proposal to improve the bike connectivity between Amity Street and Dean Street. Streetsblog breaks it down:
The street network has no good, officially-sanctioned bike connection from points west of Court Street onto the Dean Street bike lane. But hundreds of cyclists each day make their own route, taking Amity Street, then doing a short jog against traffic on Court Street to hit Dean. That maneuver… is technically illegal, and there’s no infrastructure to formalize it.
The legal way to the bike lane on Dean Street from Amity takes people 4/10 of a mile out of their way and involves a short hop on Court Street, which is nobody’s idea of a pleasant biking street. You can see why people opt to take this short cut:
DOT’s solution to making this already common practice legal is pretty simple, boiling down to just a few new signs at the intersection, as well as a class-2 bike lane on the overly wide Amity street. Simple, right?
Not so fast. The meeting, which was actually DOT’s second presentation on the subject to the committee, quickly descended into a game of Bikelash Bingo. At least three of the people who were against the proposal began their comments by pointing out that they were generally supportive of cycling, before going on to list the ways in which they felt that this proposal wasn’t safe, a rhetorical tactic that’s familiar to longtime readers of this blog. There was a small amount of concern trolling, as some justified their opposition based on a sense of duty to protecting cyclists, even though the people in the room who biked attested, one after the other, that this proposal would protect them. There were anecdotes about scofflaw cyclists and admonishments that bikes need to follow the same rules as cars before cyclists can get special treatment. Others opposed the Wiggle based on the fact that they didn’t personally understand it or see the need. And in one of my favorite but perhaps least explored anti-bike tactics, one person suggested that the Amity Wiggle should be shelved in favor of a more comprehensive plan to improve the overall bike network on a neighborhood or even district-wide level.
As is often the case, most of these arguments seemed to serve as cover for the kind of status-quo bias that permeates so many community board discussions surrounding bikes. This isn’t 2010, so there’s no need to counter each one.
Unfortunately, the overall effect of the discussion was that the Amity Wiggle only mustered enough support on the committee to get six yea votes. Five people opposed and one abstained. Since that’s as good as a tie it means that getting the full board to approve the proposal will be an uphill battle. It might involve a letter-writing campaign by advocates or the intervention of a City Council member. All for a proposal that merely involves legally codifying what people are doing anyway by putting up a few signs and painting some lines on the ground.
Last week’s drama and my observation up near Prospect Park West led me to ask a simple question: Why did the Amity Wiggle have to go before a committee when the new traffic configuration at 3rd Street and PPW was installed without community notification or approval?
The Wiggle may seem like a small example, but it’s indicative of a larger trend, one that’s been holding New York City back for far too long. When things that expand convenience and safety for people on bikes require DOT to jump through multiple hoops, while things that expand the convenience of people in cars can be installed without any sort of notification to the affected community, that’s a recipe for stagnation. It means that anything bike-related, which already faces fierce opposition from parking- and driving-obsessed community board members, is often destined to fail or be watered down to the point of uselessness.
The Amity Wiggle was not invented by the DOT. It grew from a bottom-up proposal by Ian Dutton and other community activists. It’s a minor tweak to the traffic law that doesn’t actually change what’s already happening at this intersection. No concrete has to be poured. It enhances safety for people on bikes at no expense to the safety of other street users and makes bicycling a more convenient transportation option in a neighborhood that certainly doesn’t need more car traffic. It doesn’t even take parking, for goodness’ sake.
In a vacuum, community boards’ preference for the status quo is not necessarily a bad thing. But we don’t live in a vacuum. New York City’s transportation challenges and the looming threat of global climate change that many of us will live to see require the rapid implementation of innovative solutions at every conceivable level. If the city can’t make minor tweaks to the transportation network without coming hat in hand to a dozen people on committee, what hope is there when the solutions need to be far bigger and implemented at a much faster pace to stave off disaster?
For these reasons and more, regardless of what happens at the full board level DOT should go ahead and install the signage to make the Amity Wiggle legal. There’s a chance here for the agency to use this small tweak to start a citywide revolution of innovation. DOT shouldn’t miss it.