Residents Prepare Lawsuit on Brooklyn Bike Lane

It’s a who’s who directory of city government. Iris Weinshall, the former city transportation commissioner and wife of U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. A dean at Brooklyn College. Norman Steisel, the former deputy mayor under Edward Koch and David Dinkins. And the other former deputy mayor, Randy Mastro (under Rudolph Giuliani) who introduced the group to a colleague at his high-powered law firm, Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher. And what is all this former government firepower being assembled to do? Remove a bike lane on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn.

Controversy over the bike lane began even before it was installed last June. Though the local community board approved the lane — both to provide a safe haven for commuting cyclists and to slow traffic along Prospect Park West — some residents and their supporters were outraged. They said the two-way lane — which is separated from automobile traffic by a row of parked cars — would cause congestion, change the historic character of the leafy boulevard, and make pedestrian crossing dangerous and confusing.

Marty Markowitz, the Borough President of Brooklyn, who’s known for trying to put the whole borough on a diet and for brandishing Star Wars lasers at graduations, called the city transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, a “zealot” for wanting to install this lane. But cyclists and the local community board remained steadfastly behind it, saying it would improve quality of life for Brooklyn residents, make travel safer, and encourage people to use bikes instead of automobiles.

Last month, the city DOT released its findings. The lane had cut speeding dramatically. One in five cars now speeds, the city says, compared to the three out of four who used to. The consequences, the city DOT says — are potentially life-saving. A pedestrian hit by a car driving 40 mph has an eighty percent chance of dying. A pedestrian hit by a car driving 30 mph will survive two thirds of the time. That, the DOT says, is the difference the lane has made.

There’s more, the agency says: cyclists ride in the lane, not on the sidewalk. Thrilled residents say the lane makes getting around the neighborhood by bike much easier. But opponents, who have formed a group, called “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes,” say they distrust the data. They say they’ve been forced to file a freedom of information request to get complete data. 

"We’re not saying we don’t want a bike lane in this city,” said Louise Hainline one of the leaders of the group and a dean at Brooklyn College. “What is the real data that people were ever driving too fast?  All that I’ve ever asked from the beginning is what is the data. It’s taken months to get the data.”

Hainline says she’s made over a hundred of hours of video tape of the traffic along Prospect Park West, and that it shows frequent traffic jams as drivers try negotiate around delivery trucks in what is now a two lanes of car traffic, instead of three.  And she says the problem could be solved by moving the lane into the nearby park.

But supporters say the bike lane now gives them a safe route for travel and that congestion isn’t an observable problem. They said slower automobile speeds make the lane a success for all the users of Prospect Park West.

City Councilmember Brad Lander did a survey of 3,000 Brooklynites, and found that three-quarters support the bike lane. And that even where opposition is highest along Prospect Park West, half the residents still think the lane should be part of the permanent landscape.

But Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes is not giving up. In late December, a lawyer working pro bono, Jim Walden, wrote a letter to transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan asking for additional data, saying he hoped “this begins a constructive phase of dialogue between DOT and the affected community members.”

Other than the freedom of information request, there’s been no official legal action, though that’s expected to come next week. Neither Hainline, Walden, nor Mastro would comment, and Steisel said he was travelling and would be available next week. The city DOT also would not comment on a potential lawsuit.