Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is the Metro Editor for WNYC News. She has previously served as Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation) The most interesting thing about Assemblymember's Jim Brennan's scientific poll of people living in neighborhoods around Prospect Park is how remarkably consistent opinion is on the two-way, protected bike lane. It was installed last June, reducing automobile traffic from three lanes to two. But there has been noisy discussion around it -- and a lawsuit to remove it -- ever since.
When Councilmember Brad Lander did a 3000-person survey back in December, 49 percent of respondents said they wanted to keep the bike lane as is, 22 percent said they wanted to keep it with changes, and 29 percent said they wanted to remove it.
When Brennan hired a national polling firm to do a statistically significant survey of how some park-bordering communities felt, 44 percent of respondents said keep it as is, 25 percent said it should be altered in some way,and 28 percent wanted to remove it.
Thus, in December of 2010, 71 percent of those surveyed wanted the bike lane to remain, 30 percent did not. Today, 69 percent of respondents want the bike lane to remain (albeit some want changes) while 29 percent wanted it removed. That difference is minuscule, and certainly well with the margin of error on Brennan's poll, 4.5 percentage points.
Given all the press that the lawsuit against the bike lane has gotten -- and all the opportunities for both sides to make their arguments, the sentiment has been remarkably consistent. Nothing is moving these numbers.
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"This is only the most recent proof that bike lanes and this particular bike lane are and is popular,” Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson told me in in a telephone interview. “Sixteen points is a pretty overwhelming margin. If you have a sixteen point electoral victory they call it a landslide.” (Wolfson, having been a top aide in Hillary Clinton's campaign for President, knows something about elections.)
But if this were an election campaign, it's almost impossible to think of numbers holding like this. Some public officials have been loudly and vocally berating bike lanes -- the lanes have literally become a punch line. The tabloids have run anti-NYC DOT headlines for days in a row. Even the NY Times and NY Magazine have raised the question of whether bike lanes can turn New Yorkers against Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Apparently not. The Lander survey -- not scientific, but sampling a broad range of opinions using an array of techniques, the Brennan poll, and a recent Quinnipiac poll showing overall, 54 percent of New Yorkers say bike lanes are "a good thing" vs. 38 percent who do not -- would seem to indicate that, actually, bike lanes are one of the more popular things Mayor Bloomberg has done. (His education numbers by contrast, show only about a third of New Yorkers approve what he's doing in the schools.)
Now, this doesn't mean there isn't dissent. The Brennan poll probed depths of feeling, and found that both sides felt strongly about their positions, but more of those who are opposed felt strongly in their position. That's exactly the kind of feeling that gives rise to angry testimony at the city council, lobbying of elected representatives, and, even lawsuits.
But apparently, these strongly held beliefs are not persuading people on the other side.
Now, there were some interesting secondary questions in the poll. More people than not said the bike lane made traffic, presumably automobile traffic, worse. But that's what the members of Community Board were aiming for -- cars were speeding, they wanted them to slow down, they thought trimming Prospect Park West to two automobile lanes from three would have that effect. In general, slower speeds are experienced as more traffic-- whether you like to drive,walk, or bike.
What would be really interesting to know, and traffic engineers have studied this in elsewhere ,is whether making Prospect Park West a less auto-friendly street has affected the overall volume of automobile traffic in Park Slope.
Gridlock Sam one related to me a tale of how, when the West Side Highway fell down, he and the other engineers at City DOT were convinced that surrounding streets would be inundated with traffic -- and they were, for a while. But as they studied the traffic patterns over time what they found was that traffic was dispersing through the grid, and that a full 1/3 of it simply disappeared altogether as people switched to other modes.
A highway, former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist once argued to me, draws traffic.In fact, because drivers will go out of their way to take a route they see as faster. But if you remove a highway (as he did) it doesn't mean 40,000 cars traveling on the highway will suddenly be plunked down into the surrounding streets. Ultimately, what happened in Milwaukee is that traffic volume dropped as cars dispersed around the street grid.
Was Prospect Park West functioning in the same way, pre-bike lane,when it was faster to drive on? Were drivers going out of their way to take PPW versus, say, Seventh Avenue, two blocks over, a notoriously slow commercial street? (PPW is mostly residential.)
But back to the poll. Jim Walden, the attorney for the group suing to remove the bike lane, was clear in his dismissal of this poll: "Safety is not a popularity contest," he said.
But he couldn't resist parsing the numbers, anyway.
"Pedestrians feel less safe crossing Prospect Park West, as this poll decisively shows. But DOT's own data tell the same story, and the numbers don't lie: people feel less safe because they are less safe. In the end, safety is not a popularity contest.”
The poll does not decisively show pedestrians feel less safe: It shows most of the respondents -- a plurality -- feel neither safer nor less safe. In fact , 44 percent either feel no impact (38 percent) , or aren't sure (6 percent). Thirty three percent feel less safe, and 22 percent feel safer.
The lawsuit argues that the DOT manipulated safety data to make it look as if the bike lane were making the street safer.
Some other interesting numbers -- two thirds of respondents said they owned a car that they used regularly, while only a third said they biked regularly. Which means that drivers are for the bike lane in pretty big numbers.
Unfortunately, the poll didn't ask a follow up question to the 25 percent who said they were "in favor of altering the bike lane and traffic pattern to address driver and pedestrian concerns," so its impossible to know what those people meant -- putting in pedestrian signals, islands, and adding parking spaces, as Councilman Lander has advocated? Make the bike lane one-way, instead of two way, as some bike lane opponents have articulated?
The battle now really does move to the courts, as the court of public opinion seems to have weighed in. The first hearing is scheduled for May 18.
Except, somehow, I'm guessing we haven't heard the last word. From anyone.
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