BEEN THERE, WON THAT: Lessons from the PPW Bike Lane Fight

The Central Park West bike-lane lawsuit is nothing more than a carbon copy of that reviled failure, the Prospect Park West bike-lane lawsuit.

Rich UWS NIMBYs are trying to stop this Prospect Park West horror from coming to their neighborhood. Copyright Dmitry Gudkov, all rights reserved. Used with permission.
Rich UWS NIMBYs are trying to stop this Prospect Park West horror from coming to their neighborhood. Copyright Dmitry Gudkov, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

If at first you don’t succeed (in making streets less safe for everyone), try, try again.

That could be the motto of the rich NIMBYs suing to stop the Central Park West bike lane — a fight that bears a lot of similarity to an equally misguided, equally litigious, equally well-funded, equally car-focused and, we hope, equally unsuccessful, fight by wealthy Brooklynites against the Prospect Park West bike lane a decade ago.

The Prospect Park West lawsuit, of course, was thrown out of court and then shambled, zombie-like, through appeals for years on end. This time, it’s the uber-rich of the Century Condominium — an Art Deco edifice on Central Park West where Jeff Bezos hangs his hat — who are trying to get rid of a bike lane that had overwhelming local support. The one thing the Upper West Siders lack — for now — is a disingenuous name for their anti-safety efforts. (Remember “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes”?)

But, for the most part, the wealthy protectors of free parking are certainly running the same playbook.

An Article 78 objection? Nice try, kids: PPW foes and their fancy white-shoe lawyer Jim Walden tried to suggest in 2011 that the Park Slope bike lane could be taken out by a piece of state law that allows a judge to review administrative actions. The argument back then rested on the idea that the bike lane was installed in an “arbitrary and capricious manner,” a charge a legal expert told Streetsblog wouldn’t fly, given community-board support for traffic-calming measures and Department of Transportation statistics that showed a protected bike lane makes an area safer. And behold, in 2018, Manhattan Community Board 7 Transportation Committee unanimously asked the DOT to design a protected bike lane along Central Park West. In June of 2019, the Transportation Committee unanimously voted in favor of the proposal the DOT came back with, and the full board voted 27 to 7 in favor of the protected bike lane just weeks later.

Completely unfounded appeals to safety? You have to wake up really early to cherrypick stats that suit an anti-life agenda if you want to keep up with the Prospect Park West crew. In the case of PPW, that coalition of wealthy fear-mongers pointed to data that showed there was one more injury on the street the year of the installation of the PPW lane, compared to the year before the lane’s installation. But no reputable statistician would endorse the data because of the limited timeframe they used in order to try to prove their point. The Central Park West crew, on the other hand, just goes with vague “cyclists are unsafe” language that would embarrass even Marcia Kramer. It’s probably because DOT has plenty of data — like 10 years’ worth — showing that protected bike lanes make roads safer for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists, with total injuries dropping by 15 percent.

“All available evidence contravenes the idea that this design would somehow lessen safety on Central Park West,” Eric McClure, the executive director of StreetsPAC and a veteran of the Prospect Park West bike-lane fight, said. “Prospect Park West opponents made all sorts of claims about how the protected bike lane would lead to all kinds of pedestrian injuries, how it would be deadly to get in and out of cars on the passenger side of the parking spaces along the path, that it would lead to more injuries on PPW among motorists. In fact, with the exception of the horrific death of Sammy Cohen Eckstein, which was in no way related to the redesign, the post-redesign PPW has been incredibly safe.”

Demanding an environmental review? Is this a serious piece of legal literature or a bad Rolling Stones cover band? Back in 2011, the environmental-review crowd got laughed out of the room by a series of traffic engineering experts, who said things such as “No bike lane would fail an environmental review” and “it’s a waste of taxpayer money.” The plaintiffs from the Century Condominium are pushing the same line — that a protected bike lane is such a huge infrastructure change that it needs an environmental review, despite the fact that such a line has never worked. It’s a line that NYU law professor Roderick Hills Jr. said was “pretty weak” when Prospect Park West opponents peddled it, because the bike lane was classified as a “traffic-control device” installation that falls outside legal requirements for environmental-impact statements. But yeah, sure, go in front of a judge and do your off-key rendition of “Dead Flowers”; it’s your money you’re burning.

Trying to drag the tabloids into it? The Prospect Park West lawsuit crowd, led by DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall and former Deputy Mayor Norman Steisel, had plenty of reporters and editorial boards willing to push its anti-cycling agenda. These days, that point of view is down to one ridiculous anti-cycling tabloid, now that the Daily News has looked around and realized that the addition of cycling to the city’s transportation landscape didn’t turn New York into a charred wasteland resembling the future scenes from The Terminator. The Post is still doing its best (worst?) to make the case that the people who keep getting killed are the ones who are ruining New York, but it’s just not the same anymore. Things have progressed so much in city since both tabloids were running bikelash pieces that the Post editorial included in the CPW lawsuit was rightly seen as death-cult nonsense and not a serious argument for how to manage the city’s streets.

The good news is that the judge overseeing the case refused to grant a temporary restraining order against the city, which means the bike-lane construction can proceed as planned while we wait around for the next court date on August 20. You never know what a judge is going to decide when looking over legal arguments, so we won’t guarantee that this lawsuit will get tossed and live the same awful, shambolic afterlife of the Prospect Park West lawsuit. But we will say that the CPW suit should be looked at for what it really is: a sequel no one asked for to a movie that everyone hated the first time.