First Avenue Bike Lane Designs Prove, Again, There’s No War On Cars

Here’s a question for the tabloids: if Janette Sadik-Khan is really a “psycho bike lady,” why isn’t there a protected bike lane on First Avenue in midtown Manhattan? To ask the question is to answer it. Under Sadik-Khan, the Department of Transportation has been implementing more innovative and progressive policy than under previous administrations, but anything that would increase congestion remains off-limits. That’s true even on First and Second Avenues, home to what is perhaps New York’s most ambitious complete streets redesign.

If DOT is out to impede drivers, why isn't this a protected bike lane? Photo: Noah Kazis

Ryan Russo, the assistant commissioner for traffic management at DOT, said as much at last night’s Community Board 8 meeting. When cyclist Paul Gusmorino asked whether it would be safe to install protected lanes on First Avenue on either end of Midtown but leave cyclists vulnerable in a shared lane between 49th and 59th Streets, Russo explained the decision to install shared lanes “reflects the reality that we’re dealing with in having to tailor the design to traffic.” The entire project, he said, is designed “so that we’re not going to cause a traffic nightmare.” Later, when a bike lane opponent argued that the narrowing of the street might slow down traffic speeds, Russo referred back to the midtown gap in the protected bike lane to show DOT wouldn’t let that happen.

Bus improvements are similarly constrained by DOT’s unwillingness to risk greater congestion. Russo explained last night that where the First and Second Avenue Select Bus Service runs in the curbside lane, as opposed to the more effective offset configuration, the intent was to keep travel lanes available for existing traffic volumes.

Last May, DOT bike and pedestrian director Josh Benson also said that the Midtown protected bike lane gap was created in deference to drivers. “We need all five lanes for cars,” he said. On the Queensboro Bridge, as well, bus improvements were held back by the mandate to not slow private vehicles.

From a budgetary perspective, too, the projects on First and Second Avenues devote more resources to private vehicle travel than to bike or bus improvements. As part of the work, the streets will be repaved, which Russo said costs 15 to 30 times as much as the construction of the bike lane and pedestrian islands. “The cost is a fraction of just filling the potholes,” he explained.

That’s consistent with regular operations for DOT. As Matt Chaban reported in the New York Observer, under Sadik-Khan, DOT’s capital spending has increased by 50 percent, but only 1 percent of it goes to bike lanes and pedestrian plazas.

When finished, First Avenue will boast six miles of camera-enforced bus lanes and six miles of parking protected bike lanes. It’s as progressive a redistribution of street space as has been implemented anywhere in the city, yet even there, DOT won’t tamper with traffic capacity. Janette Sadik-Khan isn’t a radical with a war on cars; she’s an innovative department head, unafraid to try new things, who’s found an enormous amount of low-hanging fruit.