Today’s news:

Mean streets

The Brooklyn Paper

Brooklyn is in the midst of a bike-riding explosion — but like many explosions, this one is coming with too much collateral damage.

A 75-percent increase in bicycle commuting over the last eight years has led to cyclists, drivers and pedestrians increasingly finding themselves in a bitter struggle for control of the streets — and last week’s collision deaths of 8-year-old cyclist Alexander Toulouse in Boerum Hill and 50-year-old Jonathan Millstein in Park Slope once again brought that battle into stark relief.

“There is a real clash over who has a right to what,” said Teresa Toro, chair of the transportation committee of Community Board 1, the Williamsburg-Greenpoint group that has seen both a call for more bike lanes — and a backlash against them.

“In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be this dispute between bikes and cars because everyone would understand and accept that all street users are equal, but there are still so many people who view bikes as some sort of recreation — not an important way to get around the city, especially considering fuel prices and the cost of mass transit,” she said.

Since the invention of the horseless carriage, paved streets in New York City have been the sole provence of the automobile. Urban planners have often sought a balance, but the pendulum of street control swung in favor of the need to get drivers around town quickly.

Mayor Bloomberg — and high gas prices — has helped swing the pendulum is the other direction. During the last two years, the Department of Transportation has sought a car-bike compromise by laying 48 miles of cycling lanes in Brooklyn alone, extending car-free hours in Prospect Park, distributing 12,000 helmets and 200,000 bike maps, and installing over 1,000 bicycle racks this year to cater to New York’s 131,000 daily riders.

Additionall y, the city plans to double the number of bike lane miles by 2009.

Yet, for all those bike-friendly efforts, cycling advocates say that the battle for the streets is worse than ever.

“We still find ourselves wrestling with the notion that streets are all for cars, are the time,” said Transportation Alternatives spokesman Wiley Norvell.

The conflicts don’t just show up at community board hearings. Increasingly, busy streets in Downtown and quieter residential lanes have begun to resemble video games. The flashpoints are many:

• At Jay and Tillary street in Downtown Brooklyn, bikers heading for the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges sometimes outnumber cars — and frequently ignore the stop light at the dangerous intersection. Near-misses occur regularly as bikers run the light and drivers make illegal U-turns due to a recent change the traffic pattern to reduce congestion near the bridge entrance paths.

• Smith Street, which is popular for bikers because it is wider than other nearby, city-approved bike routes like Clinton Street, has become a major through-route for bikers because several key east-west bike routes converge there. But the width of the street encourages drivers to sometimes travel two abreast, squeezing cyclists out.

• The timing of lights on Park Slope’s Eighth Avenue allows cars to go faster than the speed limit, endangering bikers — but the bikers ignore city efforts to discourage them from using such a busy street, which does not have a painted bike lane.

• Narrow commercial strips that have bike lanes — such as Myrtle Avenue in Fort Greene, Fifth Avenue in Park Slope and Bedford Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant — become a game of chicken whenever trucks are making deliveries (which is pretty much all day). Drivers double-park in the bike lane, forcing cyclists to swerve, sometimes into oncoming traffic. That very scenario was the cause of the 2005 death of 28-year-old biker Elizabeth Padilla, whose “ghost bike” still sits as a memorial at the corner of Warren Street and Fifth Avenue.

It’s no wonder that “the bike issue” keeps coming up at neighborhood meetings. Two years ago, residents of Community Board 2 rallied against some of the bike lanes that the Department of Transportation proposed in Fort Greene, claiming that there were too many bikers using the neighborhood as a cut-through to the Manhattan Bridge.

And last week — around the time that Millstein was hit by a school bus on Eighth Avenue — South Williamsburg resident Simon Weisser rallied support among the neighborhood’s Satmar Jewish community against the proposed Kent Avenue Greenway, which would connect waterfront neighborhoods from Sunset Park to Greenpoint with a continuous bike lane segregated from car traffic.

“That would put three bike lanes on three parallel streets, and the lanes on Bedford Avenue and Wythe Avenue are already putting a strain on the cars coming through,” said Weisser. “These lanes have made it a misery to get from one end of the community to the other and they make the streets one lane wide, so whenever a car stops it blocks traffic.”

And in the crowded streets of South Williamsburg, Weisser says he has witnessed bikers collide with pedestrians, though most crashes go unreported.

That’s why Robert Sinclair of the New York chapter of the American Automobile Association believes that cyclists need to be held accountable for their actions — which claimed the lives of 11 walkers between 1996 and 2005, according to the Department of Transportation.

“Certain motorists aren’t obeying the laws and that creates problems, but a heck of a lot of cyclists aren’t obeying the laws either and they have to realize that they are subject to the same laws as motor vehicles,” he said.

For cycling advocates, it will take a combination of improved bike lanes, protected cycling routes, motorist education, and slower traffic to resolve the war between bikes and cars.

“Painted bike lanes are a step, but if we can picture streets that are designed for cars to go 15 or 20 miles per hour, we are going to have much fewer accidents,” said Ethan Kent, vice president of the Project for Public Spaces. “When streets are slower, they are more comfortable for bikers and walkers — that means that retail improves and you get a really great street that becomes a destination instead of a thoroughfare.”

But Craig Hammerman, district manager of Community Board 6, which has welcomed one of the most elaborate webs of bike lanes anywhere in the city, says that bikes lanes do the exact opposite to businesses along Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue.

“It has become harder and harder for merchants to get deliveries because there is no place for the delivery trucks to load and unload,” Hammerman said. “We are not saying we need to pull out the bike lanes, but we just haven’t been able to find a solution that works for everyone.”

Hammerman has worked with the Department of Transportation to try to find a solution that would accommodate the cyclists, motorists and pedestrians, but so far nothing has worked.

“They say that good fences make good neighbors, but there just isn’t enough room to stake out different spaces for bikes, different spaces for cars, and different spaces for pedestrians,” he said.

— with Evan Gardner and Gersh Kuntzman

Pin It
Print this story Permalink

Reader Feedback

r rothe of kramer wigs from brooklyn says:
the hasidic rabbi isaac abraham ruunig for council member for williamsburg

the ny post

Abraham later said another major concern is the safety of children, noting that cyclists "aren't obeying traffic laws. Green lights and red lights are the same
Sept. 19, 2008, 1:25 pm
Anarcissie from LIC says:
People on Bedford Avenue are in far greater danger from cars and trucks than they are from bicycles, but they complain about bicycles more because bicyclists are seen as a lower class, subordinate to serious people who run big machines. I saw that just today, biking from Bed-Stuy home to LIC, where one man pulled another elderly man out of the path of a careening truck, saving his life. People shrug this sort of thing off, but if the truck had been a bicycle, they'd be clucking like a flock of hens.

What we really need to do is ask what the streets are for, and whether people have equal rights to use them, or some people have more and better rights than others, which is the evident feeling of many motorists.
Sept. 20, 2008, 8:53 pm
mike from carroll gardens says:
Cars kill hundreds of pedestrians a year in the city - where's the moral outrage? Build adequate infrastructure for bikes and people will follow the laws.
Sept. 22, 2008, 1:24 pm
David from Navy Yard (work) says:
I bike, follow all the blinking laws (don't believe me? leave me a message here and we'll get in touch so you can follow me every day on my commute), and I'm constantly coming close to getting killed. Especially on Bedford and on Kent. Bus drivers, minivans, you name it. Really: follow me and try to pretend that the dangers are my fault. Try it.
Sept. 22, 2008, 9:34 pm
Stephen from Park Slope says:
Whenever I bike Hasidic Williamsburg, down Bedford avenue, it amazes me how the Jewish adults jaywalk with impunity. I don't understand how they can blame all their problems on the bikers, given cars are so much more deadly then bikers. Could it be that Shimon has a vendetta against a different culture than his?
Sept. 22, 2008, 10:45 pm
Cheni from Williamsburg says:
So of all the problems in the world it is people on bikes who are to blame? I know as a pedestrian I would rather be hit by a bike than by a car, van, truck, or bus.
Sept. 23, 2008, 4:45 pm
Michael from Bay Ridge says:
I am in full agreement with Mike from Caroll Gardens.
I think that most bikers do their best to follow the rules, but the actual situation on the street makes it very difficult to do so. Building better bicycle lanes, and better education for drivers on how to deal with bikes on the reoad will make a better situation for everyone and save lives.
I am also shocked by the attitudes of many drivers who somehow feel that cars take precidence over other means of street transport, and that bicyclists are the only ones not obeying traffic rules. I see car drivers breaking as many rules as bikers.
Sept. 25, 2008, 7:26 am

Enter your comment below

By submitting this comment, you agree to the following terms:

You agree that you, and not BrooklynPaper.com or its affiliates, are fully responsible for the content that you post. You agree not to post any abusive, obscene, vulgar, slanderous, hateful, threatening or sexually-oriented material or any material that may violate applicable law; doing so may lead to the removal of your post and to your being permanently banned from posting to the site. You grant to BrooklynPaper.com the royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual and fully sublicensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such content in whole or in part world-wide and to incorporate it in other works in any form, media or technology now known or later developed.

First name
Last name
Your neighborhood
Email address
Daytime phone

Your letter must be signed and include all of the information requested above. (Only your name and neighborhood are published with the letter.) Letters should be as brief as possible; while they may discuss any topic of interest to our readers, priority will be given to letters that relate to stories covered by The Brooklyn Paper.

Letters will be edited at the sole discretion of the editor, may be published in whole or part in any media, and upon publication become the property of The Brooklyn Paper. The earlier in the week you send your letter, the better.

Links