Power, Politics, and the Prospect Park Bike Lane

Thursday, October 20, 2011 - 12:01 AM

Last March, Mayor Michael Bloomberg dined privately with a small group of guests that included his former transportation commissioner, Iris Weinshall, and her husband, the United States Senator, Charles Schumer.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, at podium, in 2006 when Iris Weinshall (right) was his DOT Commissioner (photo by Eugene Patron via Flickr)

By that time, both Schumer and Weinshall had made known their displeasure over a bike lane that had been built across the street from their home – on Brooklyn’s leafy Prospect Park West.

According to two sources familiar with what was said at that dinner, Schumer asked the mayor: “Can’t you get rid of that lane?”

“You don’t like it?” the mayor responded.  A beat. “I’m going to make it twice as wide.”

Neither Schumer’s office nor the mayor’s office would comment.

But the clash of two broadly powerful men is typical of the Prospect Park West bike lane story, which was never really about a bike lane. Or rather, it was never only about a bike lane, but rather about the perennial New York City question – who decides what goes where in the densely-packed urban streets we call home, and how they get to decide.

The city’s aggressive effort to install new bike lanes – some 260 miles of them have been added since 2006  -- has roiled many neighborhoods.  But only one group – the one that included Weinshall -- sued to have a lane removed.

And now a fresh batch of emails unearthed by Streetsblog, a decidedly pro-bike-lane website, sheds new light on how this group of influential New Yorkers managed to raise their fight above all the rest, marshalling the services of one of the city’s premier law firms, and then, as the emails show, tried to make sure that information never got out.

“We should never say how we got Randy!”  Weinshall implored, referring to a senior attorney at one of the city’s top law firms. Read on for more on what that all means.  (Click here to hear Andrea Bernstein and Soterios Johnson discussing the story.)

(from email correspondence obtained by Streetsblog)

Prospect Park West runs along the Olmstead-designed Prospect Park from Grand Army Plaza to Bartel Pritchard Square -- a distance of less than a mile.  PPW is populated with elegantly detailed mansions and stately pre-war apartment buildings. The avenue itself is a wide, five-lane boulevard.

Before the bike lane was installed, PPW had two lanes of parking, with three lanes of traffic in the middle. Cars, the city DOT says, would routinely speed – about three quarters would go over the legal limit of 30 mph. So it wasn’t a tough sell to convince the local community board to install a two-way bike lane along the park side of the street, buffered from what would now be two lanes of car traffic by a lane of parked cars.

(images courtesy of the NYC DOT)

Proponents argued the lane would provide a safe place for cyclists to ride and slow down automobile traffic.

In June 2009, the bike lane got a green light from the local community board, the most-grass roots level of city decision making (and not the playground in which the truly powerful tend to play).

Following that vote, influential dissenters began to mobilize. In October, 2009, the Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz, wrote a letter to transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Weinshall’s successor. “I reside directly across the streets on Prospect Park West,” Markowitz wrote. (Markowitz has since moved to Windsor Terrace, about a mile away.) “This proposal would definitely reduce the number of parking spaces, further exacerbating this already-intolerable situation.”

And, Markowitz noted, he was joined in his request for more extensive scrutiny “by former DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall, who absolutely agrees that the installation of a two-way, barricaded bike lane would cause incredible congestion.” Weinshall, as it happened, had launched the massive expansion of bike lanes while she was DOT commissioner, the one that was to add 200 miles of bike lanes by 2009 (There are now about 500 miles of bike lanes in New York City). “We’re committed to being the safest city for cycling,” Weinshall said in a 2006 press release announcing the initiative.

(from a 2006 NYC press release, when Iris Weinshall was NYC DOT commissioner)

Even so, compared to her successor, Janette Sadik-Khan, Weinshall was a much more traditional DOT chief. Sadik-Khan has worked to radically reshape how people view streets:  not just as pathways for cars, but as parks, cafes, playgrounds, walkways, plazas, and, yes bike-lanes.

Through the fall and spring of 2011, Markowitz pushed his case. In an April 2010 interview with WNYC he called Sadik-Khan a “zealot,” and no less boisterously made his case that the lane was ill-advised.

In June 2010, the city began installing the lane anyway. Sometime around that time, Weinshall contacted Randy Mastro, a lawyer for the well-connected law firm of Gibson, Dunn, Crutcher.  Mastro had been a deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration, at the same time Weinshall had served as DOT commissioner (she stayed on for the first five years of Bloomberg’s tenure.)

At Gibson, Dunn, Crutcher, Mastro is the co-chair of the firm’s litigation practice group, and also co-chairs the firm’s crisis management unit, which makes him The Good Wife’s Will Gardner and Eli Gold rolled into one, but with a temperament most like Cary Agos.

(Clockwise, from top left: Matt Czuchry as Cary Agos, Josh Charles as Will Gardner, Randy Mastro, and Alan Cumming as Eli Gold)

According to the emails published by Streetsblog, on July 3, 2010, Weinshall emailed her daughter, Jessica, a recent Yale Law graduate who had volunteered to work against the bike lane. The email said: “spoke with Randy Mastro he said he would help you with the Article 78” (the legal proceeding).

Streetsblog obtained the emails through a freedom of information request to the City University of New York, where Weinshall works as vice chancellor.

Mastro confirmed in a telephone interview that his former colleague had approached him.  He said she knew of his subsequent legal work, particularly his role in opposing a West Side stadium in Manhattan, when he worked for Cablevision, the owner of Madison Square Garden. That was one of Bloomberg’s most resounding defeats on a decision on how to organize public space.

“I agreed to take a matter pro bono on an issue that warranted litigation,” – the bike lane lawsuit -- Mastro told me.  He’d taken on this kind of case pro-bono before – for example, on whether the Brooklyn House of Detention could expand without an environmental review.

That summer of 2010, he referred the bike lane matter to a colleague, Jim Walden.

Throughout that fall, the battle over the bike lane continued at fever pitch.  The New York City Council held hearings, and both opponents and supporters of the lanes staged noisy demonstrations, opened Facebook pages, and took sometimes nasty potshots at each other through a number of media outlets and blogs.

In late December, Weinshall co-signed a letter to the New York Times about the bike lane. The signatories also included two of Weinshall’s neighbors: Normal Steisel, a deputy mayor under David Dinkins (and Ed Koch), and Louise Hainline, then a dean at Brooklyn College, disputing DOT data saying the lane had made streets safer.  “The D.O.T. data produce more puzzlement than enlightenment,” the trio wrote.

“When new bike lanes force the same volume of cars and trucks into fewer and narrower traffic lanes, the potential for accidents between cars, trucks and pedestrians goes up rather than down. At Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, for instance, where a two-way bike lane was put in last summer, our eyewitness reports show collisions of one sort or another to be on pace to be triple the former annual rates.”

This was the first time Weinshall had come forward publicly as a bike lane opponent.

Weinshall and Steisel hewed to an argument common to transportation departments – that cutting lanes for automobiles would pour more cars into less space, slowing traffic, and, they argued, causing more collisions.   But there’s a serious line of thinking among urban planners that reducing automobile lanes cuts traffic volumes, because drivers choose different routes, or forgo cars altogether.

About a week later, Walden, their pro-bono attorney, wrote a private letter to Commissioner Sadik-Khan demanding more data and a moratorium on any further decision-making on this bike lane.  On letterhead noting his firm’s offices in locations including Dubai, Palo Alto, Century City, and Munich, Walden closed by saying “your written assurances on this point will obviate the need for us to pursue legal remedies at this time.”

When I obtained a copy of the letter, I reached out to Louise Hainline, who expressed deep frustration about the city’s reluctance to turn over data. One of the questions I asked:  how was Randy Mastro involved in the case? Hainline didn’t give me an answer, but Jim Walden did, telling me Mastro had asked him to take on the lawsuit.

On the evening of February 4, both and published stories breaking news of the impending lawsuit.  Here was my lede:

“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 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.”

On Sunday, February 6, the New York Post’s David Seifman ran a story that Senator Schumer had been quietly lobbying to have the lane removed.  According to the report, “sources said Schumer -- who has yet to take a public position on the 19-block bike corridor -- shared his feelings privately with some members of the City Council. ‘He's asked legislators what they're going to do about [this and other] bike lanes," said one source.’

The morning the story appeared, Weinshall emailed Steisel and Hainline, urging them to “check out the post!”

Apparently unaware that I’d already confirmed (and publicly reported) Mastro’s role, Hainline wrote Weinshall back:  “I think Randy Mastro is next. Andrea Bernstein of NPR was acting like a middle school newspaper reporter trying to get details about Mastro’s involvement with the effort the other day.”

Which provoked the response:  “We should never say how we got Randy!”

In my phone call with Mastro after the emails were made public, he expressed bafflement at that email, emphasizing that he and Weinshall had been colleagues in the Giuliani administration and it didn’t surprise him at all that she would reach out to him. No evidence has emerged to suggest that Senator Schumer was in any way personally involved in the effort to recruit Mastro, other than by being married to Weinshall.  Neither Senator Schumer’s office nor Iris Weinshall would comment for this story.

However, the fact remains that this particular group of city residents upset with a Bloomberg administration decision – and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of such groups all around the city at any one moment – was able to mobilize a high-powered law firm on its behalf.

The law firm aggressively pursued the suit, penning hundreds of pages of legal motions, arguments and briefs, appearing repeatedly in court, subpoenaing a boatload of officials and community leaders, and FOILing thousands of emails from project proponents.

Even so, that big law firm lost its case.  On August 16, Justice Bert Bunyan ruled the lawyers had missed the statute of limitations by not filing within months of the installation of the bike lane in June 2010. He dismissed the plaintiffs arguments that the deadline for filing had been extended because the lane was “experimental,” saying the plaintiffs had been unable to furnish proof for that.   He did agree that the city hadn't properly responded to the group's Freedom of Information request, and ordered it to do so.

The group is not giving up. On September 26, it filed a request with the court to appeal.  Its resources continue, undiminished.



Comments [8]

Steven F

Thank you for an interesting and reasoned response.
I had forgotten that car parking along Ocean Ave is terminated during peak rush hours. So reduced parking is directly traded for increased street capacity.

I grew up in Crown Heights, and even 55 years ago, traffic at the intersection of Flatbush and Empire was a mess. The only change over the years was the paving over of the trolley tracks. As Community Member points out above, only recently have the pedestrian crossings been improved by extending sidewalks in place of painted pedestrian areas. None of this crossing safety has either improved nor made the traffic worse, it was bad, it's still bad.

I think our major point of disagreement is how to move people and goods around Brooklyn in the future. It's whether we can successfully build our way out of traffic congestion or not. You believe that if we spend enough money and build enough roads and parking, we can all be driving our cars freely and parking them quickly. This assumes we can build more roads, garages and parking spaces, but then expect no more cars will come to fill them up - the opposite of the "Field of Dreams." More likely, if we build them, they WILL come - and we will still be in the same gridlocked mess - only with even more cars to deal with.

I believe that we have long ago maxed out our street capacity (somewhere around the start of WW II) so that we are futilely trying to squeeze too many motor vehicles into too small a space.

One does have to include car parking, and not just the roads into the total space needed for motor traffic. A lot of the Park Slope car traffic turns out to be cars circling looking for parking.

I wish there were an easy fix - cars can be fun to drive and convenient - until they stop being fun and convenient. An example of how cars and bikes wind up having the same travel speed: I taught a course at the Marine Park Nature Center, and tried driving and cycling to get there. The trip was about 45 minutes and took about the same time by bike or by car. Traveling diagonally all the way across Brooklyn, I moved as fast on my bike as in my car, and this was using almost no special bike facilities. Similarly, during 4 years of commuting to Brooklyn College from Crown Heights, the subway, bike and bus were my 3 best modes, while driving, including parking, was a distant 4th choice.

We will probably continue to disagree about whether moving ever larger volumes of car traffic in Brooklyn can be accomplished any more efficiently - or efficiently at all.

We will probably also disagree as to whether bicycles can and already do provide viable transportation for people and goods, and not just a limited recreation ride. Even without using available cargo bikes, cyclists are traveling to work, shopping and visits. There are over 75 bicycle parking spaces near the Park Slope Food Coop on Union Street, and often they are filled. What happens if only some of those shoppers came by car instead of by bike, where would we find space to park those cars? It's the total package, moving the vehicle and then parking it at both ends, that counts, and bikes take up less roadway space and a hell of a lot less parking space.

You are right if you say that bikes don't take up zero space on the street, but on PPW they did manage to create a full two way bike path out of just one car parking lane. And those cyclists are not taking a full car parking space when they get where they are going. And when that happens, maybe both of us will have less congested streets and find parking when we really do need to use our cars. Is that such a bad trade-off?

Oct. 21 2011 11:04 PM
Community Member


Two points:

1. If motorists need more curbside space for picks-ups and drop-offs and if pedestrians do not have enough visibility crossing the bike lane then the there's a pretty simple solution: Re-program some of the parking space on PPW. Create more "day-lighting" areas around the crosswalks and create more short-term drop-off zones next to the park. If PPW residents are willing to give up a few of their free, long-term, curbside parking spaces for the greater good, this should be no problem. PPW is five lanes wide. Surely we don't need to dedicate two full lanes of the street for free, overnight motor vehicle storage. Do we? Is that really the best use of our precious, limited public space?

2. The recent redesign of Ocean/Flatbush/Empire did not choke traffic and created bottlenecks. It was horrible to drive a car anywhere near that intersection prior to DOT's redesign. And it is still horrible to drive a car down there. The difference now is that pedestrians, cyclists and motorists are less likely to be murdered and maimed in the process of traveling through this intersection.

If you want to solve the traffic congestion problem on the south side of Prospect Park then you need to figure out ways to make there be fewer people driving cars in the congested place. Getting rid of ped and bike safety measures isn't going to solve your problem.

Oct. 21 2011 04:38 PM

Dear Steven F,
My statements and opinions are not lies and your opinions are not truths. Traffic counts and analysis done by Mayor Bloombergs DOT affirm his point of view. As for One lane of traffic on Ocean Avenue, there are in fact 2 lanes for traffic north in the morning and 2 lanes south in the afternoon created by the no standing regulations. As for PPSW, traffic gets extremely backed up at the Coney Island Ave. circle in the afternoons but nothing can be done about that, its a fact of life. It would be ridiculous to try to expand PPSW.

The traffic lights on PPW were never well staggered when it was 3 lanes. Just like 8th Ave is purposely un-staggered in the mornings it inhibit traffic. Now that PPW is 2 lanes they have better staggered the lights and with light traffic it possible to travel the avenue well. However there is often lots of traffic on PPW and its often a slalom because of the residential nature of that neighborhood. People stop to unload their cars. Car service cars discharge passengers and 2 lanes is insufficient IN MY OPINION which is no better or worse than yours.

I agree that bicycle riding should be encouraged. I think that there should be more bicycle lanes. I don't think the redesign of PPW is working out. Maybe the planners thought it would work well but IN MY OPINION it has not.

As for my disability, I believe it entitles me to nothing. I enjoy the accommodation of my special vehicle parking permit and thank the city making that available so I can move around more easily. As for driving above the limit, I don't. I don't drive aggressively. I have a CDL, drove professionally and ran a para-transit business.

My point is that while I am in favor of enhancing pedestrian and bicycle traffic, it can be done without inhibiting motor vehicle traffic. Look at the bottlenecks that have been created at the intersection of Flatbush Av.-Ocean Av.-Empire Blvd. It's a mess all day long. I believe we can build bike lanes without choking motor vehicle traffic and I think the mayor and his DOT commissioner have made a conscious effort to make owning and driving a car in the city more expensive and difficult. Let's be smart. Keeping traffic moving creates less pollution and that's a good thing. The redesign of PPW has choked car traffic and provided a lightly used bike lane. A better design is necessary.

Oct. 21 2011 03:33 PM
Steven F

Marcus, you are not simply mistaken, you are repeating lies.
Two years ago we could excuse you for not knowing the facts, but by now, the truth has been posted so many times that you must know you are stating falsehoods.

The Prospect Parks Drive is not a viable alternative to the PPW bike lane. To repeat the facts once again:

The drive has only 3 bicycle legal entrances: GAP, 3rd St and Pritchard Square. Cyclists with origins or destinations on any of the local streets along PPW cannot safely or legally access any of the cross streets without riding in the car traffic of PPW - southbound only.

The drive is not "just a few yards away". The drive is on the line of 10th Avenue - about 250 yards east of PPW. Even on a bike, this is a notable distance back and forth. Again, there are only 3 places to enter and leave the drive.

The drive still has auto traffic part of the day in two lanes. While that's only some 11 cars passing per green light phase, there are cars on the drive, so those two lanes are not useable by cyclists. The drive is one way southbound - the same direction as PPW. So just how are cyclists supposed to use the drive to travel north? Riding northbound in the "recreation lane" is problematic - a conflict with other users, even if possibly legal.

The sidewalk along PPW is wide - some 25 to 30 feet from fence to curb. So yes, it's possible that it could work as a shared use bike path. But the way the trees and benches are located, there is less space than the 25 feet. More importantly, through several years of Communty Board meetings, the community made clear that pedestrians were not comfortable with large volumes of cyclists on the sidewalks. Your suggestion of an Ocean Parkway fenced path would not be impossible, but would still be very uncomfortable to implement on the PPW sidewalk.

A side(walk) note: 30 years ago, I dropped my 2 year old son at day care each morning by bike. I rode from mid-Slope to GAP, up 5th St, and then along the sidewalk of PPW. There was no other safe street route. There was no way I could have accessed or safely used the Park Drive, and 8th Ave north of Carroll St is deadly. Today, if I had to take my grandson to day care, I would use exactly the same route, only today I could legally and safely use the PPW bike path. If the PPW lane were closed, I would simply resume riding on the sidewalk, as the only safe way to travel.

As to car traffic, no, here I have to disagree, it has not become slower or more erratic. I drive here, and I drive aggressively (Ft Knox Armor School armored cavalry training.) When PPW was 3 lanes wide, I found myself driving at well above the 30 MPH speed limit south from GAP. Today, the speeds are below 30 MPH, yet I still travel down PPW in about the same elapsed time, simply because there is less rushing to just wait at the next red light. (Zero-Fifty-Zero MPH can equal 30 MPH steadily.) Occasionally, there are problems from double parked cars. The worst I have seen was a NYC Police Department bus double parked just south of 9th St that really did back up traffic. But, as many of my neighbors keep noting, this double parking is illegal behavior by motorists, delaying other motorists. Non-motorists are supposed to give up street space because some motorists can't be bothered to find safe places to stop their cars and buses? Why?

You state that PPW is a major thoroughfare around the park and needs three lanes. Yet PPW SouthWest is only one lane each way - 2 lanes, and Ocean Ave is only one lane each way - 2 lanes total. The NYC DOT traffic counts show that that PPW only needed 2 lanes to move all the traffic that arrived from GAP, and current traffic time and speed counts show that this was true. PPW traffic is not being backed up by its road diet to two lanes.

There have to be some trade off-offs in the allocation of public spaces - our streets, roads, sidewalks, parks and yes, our bike lanes. You state you are handicapped. So am I - a disabled Vietnam vet, so I have some feeling for your needs. The rest of us have allocated some of our public space to give handicapped drivers extra privileges, like free and/or priority parking spaces. OK, you get some extra credit, but does being handicapped entitle you to driving above the speed limit - as was common on PPW? Does it entitle you to endangering the life and safety of pedestrians and cyclists using and crossing PPW? That includes endangering the life of this disabled vet, his son and grandson, when we ride bicycles through Brooklyn. I don't think so.

We all have to share the spaces in the public realm, and for PPW, that boils down to having just two lanes for moving cars, a two way dedicated bike lane, and a sidewalk free from cyclists.

This has all been discussed and reviewed in public, and not in redacted emails, for over two years. It's time that PPW is discussed based on facts and truth.

Oct. 21 2011 12:40 PM

I live on the south side of the park and I do not like the bike lane on PPW. I am a driver because of a physical disability and the bike lane has made PPW more dangerous for drivers and pedestrians. PPW is a major thoroughfare around the park and because of the bike lane has become a bottleneck in order to permit very little bike traffic. Traffic flow has also become dangerous and erratic because taxis and cars discharging as well as cars stopping to park has made PPW into a slalom, forcing cars to change lanes too often. 2 lanes is too few for a major avenue! In fact this bike lane duplicates a bike lane that runs the same route just a few yards away in the park. BTW: the sidewalk on the park side is wide enough to put the bike lane there just like they did on Ocean Parkway.
The PPW bike lane is dangerous for pedestrians because they are hard to see between the parked cars pushed closer to the center of the street. I think this redesign is a disaster waiting to happen.
There are not just power brokers against the bike lane. There are plenty of power brokers (The Mayor and friends) making a war on drivers. Between ticket blitzes, congestion pricing, eliminating street parking, tolls on east river bridges, and street redesigns that bottle neck and restrict traffic flow. Getting around the city in a car is getting really tough! The anti-car power brokers might be very surprised by the unintended consequences of delaying first responders and increased prices by tradesmen who can't carry their tools and equipment on a bicycle.

Oct. 21 2011 10:37 AM
Iris Windshield

Who moved my cheese???

Oct. 20 2011 10:00 PM

PPW still looks like a big parking lot to me. Are they at least charging for all that space?

Oct. 20 2011 09:58 PM
A Biker

That's the best bike lane in the city. There should be more like it.

Oct. 20 2011 05:11 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.