Why Arguments Against the Amsterdam Protected Bike Lane Don’t Hold Up

Tomorrow night, CB 7 will vote on whether to endorse DOT's proposal for a protected bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue from 72nd Street to 110th Street. Image: DOT
Tonight, CB 7 will vote on DOT’s proposal for a protected bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue from 72nd Street to 110th Street [PDF]. Image: DOT

This is the day Manhattan Community Board 7 will finally vote on DOT’s redesign of Amsterdam Avenue from 72nd Street to 110th Street, which will calm traffic and bring safety improvements — including a protected bike lane — to what is now a surface speedway cutting through the heart of the Upper West Side. It’s been a long time coming: CB 7 first asked DOT to design a protected bike lane for Amsterdam in 2009, and local residents have been asking for safety improvements longer than that.

The case for a protected bike lane and pedestrian refuges is clear. Despite serving as a neighborhood main street, Amsterdam is currently designed like a highway, with four northbound travel lanes that encourage speeding. From 2009 to 2013, two people were killed and another 36 severely injured along the project’s length, according to DOT. Just last month, on January 18, 73-year-old sculptor Thomas McAnulty was killed by a motorcyclist while walking across Amsterdam at 96th Street. Protected bike lanes are proven to reduce fatalities and severe injuries, and the neighborhood currently lacks a northbound complement to the bike lane on Columbus Avenue.

Thousands of residents and hundreds of businesses and neighborhood groups have signed on in support of redesigning Amsterdam, but opponents of the project are still trying to undermine it ahead of tonight’s vote. Here’s a look at why their arguments don’t hold up.

The safety argument. Bizarrely, CB 7 transportation committee co-chair Dan Zweig has argued that a protected bike lane on Amsterdam will make the street less safe, because removing parking spaces will expose pedestrians to drivers who fly onto the sidewalk. The truth is that the same basic design strategies the city is proposing for Amsterdam have reduced injuries by an average of 20 percent on the Manhattan avenues where they’ve been installed. Adding the bikeway will narrow the roadway, reducing the prevalence of speeding, and adding pedestrian refuges will shorten crossing distances for pedestrians while leading drivers to take turns more carefully. New York knows from experience that these changes save lives.

Protected bike lanes have a proven record of making everyone on the road safer. Image: DOT
Protected bike lanes have a proven record of making everyone on the street safer. Image: DOT

The congestion argument. “[Local merchants] are really really worried that there will be gridlock — total gridlock,” Zweig’s co-chair, Andrew Albert, said last month. Many merchants, however, are aware that rush hour car speeds aren’t the big problem on Amsterdam — the big problem is speeding during the other 22 hours of the day. Because Amsterdam is so wide, 59 percent of motorists exceed the speed limit during off-peak hours, according to DOT. Those are the drivers who careen all over the road and kill pedestrians and cyclists, and they need to be slowed down. Simply put, prioritizing rush hour traffic, like Albert does, is what made Amsterdam dangerous in the first place.

As for local businesses, making Amsterdam safer for walking and biking should only help. When a protected bike lane was installed on part of Columbus Avenue, retail sales there increased more than on nearby streets that were not redesigned, according to sales tax data collected by DOT.

The divide-and-conquer argument. At an event last week hosted by the Park West Policy Forum, organizer Norm LaFond attempted to divide supporters of safe streets by framing the debate as a question of bike lanes versus bus lanes. LaFond’s argument is that more people ride the bus, so a bus lane would be a better use of street space than a bike lane.

No doubt a bus lane would be a big help on Amsterdam, but adding a protected bike lane now doesn’t rule out a bus lane later. If anything, putting off a major safety improvement will create more paralysis and forestall any type of change to the street in the future. The immediate choice facing the neighborhood isn’t between a bike lane and a bus lane, it’s between a bike lane and nothing. If you want Amsterdam Avenue to become a complete street for walking, biking, and transit, improving it today can create momentum for more improvements to come.

The put-it-somewhere-else argument. This is a close cousin of the divide-and-conquer argument — suggest that the bike lane should go somewhere else, killing the whole thing while creating the veneer of reasonable disagreement. 

Opponents have tossed around any other northbound route in the neighborhood as an alternative to Amsterdam: West End Avenue, Broadway, Central Park West — even Columbus, which is a southbound street and a poor fit for a two-way bikeway. Make no mistake, the only point of these suggestions is to kill the protected bike lane, period.

The redesign DOT is proposing makes perfect sense for Amsterdam, with its excessive width and central location within the Upper West Side. Hundreds of people are already biking on Amsterdam each day, and with the expansion of Citi Bike on the UWS that number will only increase. They need a safe place to ride in their neighborhood.