TransAlt to DOT: Street Redesigns Aren’t a Zero-Sum Game

Fifth Avenue in Midtown should have both a second bus lane and a protected bike lane, writes TransAlt director Paul Steely White.

Fifth Avenue at 48th Street: Lots of space for cars, cramped conditions on the margins for people walking and biking. Photo: Google Maps
Fifth Avenue at 48th Street: Lots of space for cars, cramped conditions on the margins for people walking and biking. Photo: Google Maps

The redesign of Fifth Avenue isn’t “a zero sum game” where better transit has to take priority over safe bicycling, or vice versa, Transportation Alternatives says in a letter sent to DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg today. The street should have both the additional bus lane DOT has proposed and the safe cycling infrastructure that advocates have called for, argues TransAlt director Paul Steely White.

“We agree that additional bus lanes need to be added quickly, we also believe — and demand — that safety features for cyclists and pedestrians be implemented in the same expeditious manner,” White wrote.

Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue in the Midtown core have no bike infrastructure despite the extremely high demand for travel and access to the biggest employment cluster in the city. Campaigns for “complete streets” on both avenues, with transit lanes, protected bike lanes, and pedestrian improvements, have garnered support from community boards, local elected officials, and thousands of petition-signers over the past several years.

So when DOT showed a plan for a second bus lane on Fifth Avenue in Midtown last month, advocates were alarmed by the lack of bike infrastructure in the project. They urged Community Board 5’s transportation committee to make its vote conditional on a specific commitment from the agency to add a protected bike lane.

In the context of a community board meeting, where DOT takes its cues from the board’s advisory vote, that’s the only kind of leverage advocates have.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Riders Alliance, and NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign have signed on to the effort to bring a bikeway and pedestrian safety upgrades to Fifth Avenue [PDF].

DOT has responded defensively while offering vague assurances that a bike lane will be added at some unspecified future date. In a letter posted to Twitter during Tuesday’s “human-protected bike lane” demonstration on Fifth Avenue, Trottenberg accused the advocacy organizations of opposing “efforts to improve bus service for some of the most underserved New Yorkers”:


In today’s letter, White objects to DOT framing the issue in “zero sum terms as a competition between transit riders on the one hand, and the safety of vulnerable street users on the other.” What advocates are seeking is a “clearly articulated and immediate commitment” to implementing a protected bike lane on this part of Fifth Avenue, he writes:

Since 2013, the Department of Transportation has fielded requests from three community boards, six elected officials, and nearly twenty thousand New Yorkers asking for a complete street on Fifth Avenue. The demand and support for more safety and better transit on Fifth Avenue is there. We still have not heard a compelling reason for your current divide and conquer approach, and given how long the issue has been studied already we believe there is real reason to be alarmed by any implementation timeline that isn’t clearly articulated or immediate.

Tonight at 6 p.m. Community Board 5 will take up DOT’s bus lane plan for Fifth Avenue at Xavier High School, 30 West 16th Street. Before the board votes, there will be a public session where you can weigh in on Fifth Avenue and why a protected bike lane is a must.