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Bikes, Buses, and Thinking Bigger

January 25, 2019

David Meyer at Streetsblog has a good rundown of the mayor’s latest comments about bike lanes and transportation on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC. I had some longer-than-tweet-length thoughts about them which I figured I’d compile into a post. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments.

Cyclists are not a defined or set group of people who exist separate from other New Yorkers.

When asked why there is not a commensurate bike-lane-enforcement plan to go along with the newly announced one for bus lanes, the mayor seemed to see these as completely separate issues. “We don’t have the resources to [enforce bike lanes] right now in the way I think some folks who advocate for the bicycling community would like to see,” he said. It was a revealing comment. Forget the very basic concern of whether or not people on bikes deserve a safe commute. (Blocked bus lanes inconvenience bus riders while blocked bike lanes can actually kill cyclists.) The mayor continues to see cyclists as a fixed group of people—“the bicycle community”—and not a population that can and should be cultivated and increased through policy. He’s about 20 or 30 years behind smart cities in this regard and New York City can’t afford to wait for him to catch up.

Smart leaders understand that cycling feeds transit and vice versa.

De Blasio continued his comments about keeping cars out of bike lanes and defended the limited focus on buses: “We absolutely believe in enforcement in bike lanes, but the point is this specific approach is about something vast.” This siloed view of transportation is holding New York City back.

Because de Blasio uses just one means of transportation—a car that takes him from, say, the front door of Gracie Mansion to the front door of the Park Slope YMCA—he doesn’t understand the first thing about multi-modalism, which is a fancy term for “how most New Yorkers get around.” People can be pedestrians, transit riders, AND cyclists, oftentimes on the same trip. In fact, one of the best uses for cycling in a city is for connecting to the subway or a bus. Community leaders in so-called transit deserts often clamor for Citi Bike stations since they’re a good way of turning a 15-minute walk to a distant subway station into a 5-minute bike ride. Even in transit-rich neighborhoods, bikes can help residents avoid an inconvenient subway transfer or the pain of waiting for a bus that’s stuck in traffic.

Again, Mayor de Blasio is way behind other cities here and that’s perhaps most obvious when one looks at New York’s moribund bike parking program. Try riding your own bike to most subway stations or bus stops around town and there’s often no place to lock up. It’s not just about keeping bike lanes clear; I’m not sure the mayor gets how much untapped potential there is in providing more bike parking near transit hubs. That’s perhaps related to my first point about how he sees “the bicycle community” as a fixed group of people; I’m not sure he can even imagine a scenario in which someone might take two forms of transportation to one destination.

Vision Zero is great, but it can give politicians an easy out.

New York is bucking national trends when it comes to traffic fatalities and deserves to have that achievement not just noted but celebrated. Likely because of that, one could sense a bit of frustration in the mayor’s voice as he responded to the question of keeping bike lanes clear. (“I’d also like the acknowledgement to be there that Vision Zero has been the central approach—and clearly working.”)

Here, the mayor’s comments reveal the limitations of leaning too heavily on Vision Zero. New York City shouldn’t just build safer streets because we want fewer cyclists to die. New York City should build safer streets because it wants more people to choose cycling. Unfortunately, the city isn’t building the kind of all-ages-and-ability infrastructure to make this possible. Trying to use a bike for even the most basic of trips remains incredibly frustrating and stressful for all but the most confident of riders, and even many of those people will give you an earful about how bad it can be out there.

Statistics only tell a small part of the story. One can have a city where no cyclists die or are seriously injured that still sucks for getting around by bike.

New York needs someone who thinks about transportation holistically.

The next mayor needs to go beyond the narrow focus of reducing death and injury and must include livability, efficiency, and affordability as part of the city’s transportation goals. Doing that will almost by default create a safer city.

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