Manhattan Community Board Rejects Bike Lane Extension, But "We're Not Done With This"

(photo by Kate Hinds)

Over 100 people turned out Tuesday night for a marathon community board hearing to discuss extending the Upper West Side's only on-street protected bike lane. The city wants to extend the Columbus Avenue lane from its current terminus at 77th Street down to 59th Street, where it would connect to a bike lane on Ninth Avenue, giving Upper West Side bikers a protected ride to Midtown Manhattan.  The city would also lengthen the Columbus Avenue bike lane up to 110th Street.

Many of the attendees wore stickers supporting the Columbus Avenue lane, and over the course of the meeting, dozens of people -- including the former "Ethicist" columnist for the New York Times -- spoke out in favor of a proposal to double its length. But by the time the three hour meeting was over, the transportation committee of Community Board 7 failed to pass a resolution supporting it.

Here's how it went down.

First up: the  New York City Department of Transportation presented data about the Columbus Avenue protected bike lane as it exists now.  The DOT's Hayes Lord painted a rosy picture: cycling has increased by 48 percent since the lane was installed. Vehicular speeding is down. The travel time for cars has improved. But the real benefit, Lord said, is that while total crashes have increased slightly, pedestrian injuries along the corridor have dropped by 41 percent. Moreover, he said, the bike lane is good for business: the retail occupancy rate for the Columbus Avenue BID south of 82nd Street is at 100 percent.

("I don't believe a word of it," hissed a man sitting next to me, one of the relatively few naysayers in the audience.)

Josh Benson (L) and members of Community Board 7 (photo by Kate Hinds)

In fact, said the DOT's Josh Benson, who was up next to talk about the lane's extension, the biggest problem with the lane is its "lack of connectivity" to the city's bike network.

As Benson got into the nuts and bolts of how the lane would be extended, two facts immediately stood out:  to accommodate necessary turning lanes and pedestrian islands, he said, the DOT would need to eliminate about 61 parking spaces along the east side of Columbus Avenue -- affecting 24 percent of the available parking. Also, because of the way Columbus and Broadway intersect, the bike lane south of 69th Street would not be protected. Instead, he said, it would be an "enhanced shared lane" -- meaning cars and bikes would mix together in a travel lane, with the understanding that cars won't be allowed to pass bicyclists. And south of 64th Street, ongoing long-term construction projects would hamper the installation of a permanent lane.

Crowd at CB7 meeting (photo by Kate Hinds)

When the public comment period opened, most people spoke out in favor of the extension. School children talked about commuting to school on the protected lane. The manager of the local Patagonia store said "it has been nothing but a positive for our business." The worries of a business owner -- who operates a moving company -- were assuaged by the DOT's assertion that it could create loading zones for moving trucks.  Two future City Council candidates spoke in favor of the lane. Even Randy Cohen -- the former "Ethicist" columnist for the New York Times-- said supporting it was a moral imperative.  "The improvements in safety are so fantastic," he said, "it seems like an ethical responsibility." But even that impassioned plea couldn't save the proposal.

When debate opened, it became apparent that committee members were divided. The loss of parking was a major objection. There were other, more arcane concerns: if the lane is on the left side of the street, one wondered, how would bicyclists safely make right turns? And some worried about the safety of the proposed enhanced shared lane. "Perception is everything," said board member Ken Coughlin. "If the lane is perceived as being unsafe for cyclists, it's not going to be used by cyclists." He presented a resolution in support of the lanes -- and asking the DOT to look into turning the shared lanes into protected lanes when construction of the water tunnel is done. But Coughlin made clear, "I would rather see an enhanced shared lane than nothing."

Nothing was what he got. When it came time to vote, Coughlin's resolution didn't get the majority it needed for committee support.

But Mark Diller -- the chair of Community Board 7 -- said it's not over.

"The resolution failed -- for tonight," said Diller. "But there's still potential for other resolutions, so we will continue to work on it."  Because the community board had to be out of the space by 10pm, the clock ran out. At future meetings, Diller said, "I'm sure somebody else will present another resolution, and I'm sure that will be discussed and hopefully we'll finally get to one we can approve."

Andrew Albert, co-chair of the transportation committee, said the board wanted more details about parking, loading zones, and its outreach plans for local businesses. "When DOT gives us the information we asked for," he said, "next month there will probably be a very different kind of vote."

"We're not done with this," added another board member, "by any means."

For a PDF of the DOT's presentation, click here.