NYC Council Hosts "Heated Discussion" on Bikes

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Bicyclists outside the City Council hearing rooms at 250 Broadway (by Kate Hinds)

(Kate Hinds, Transportation Nation) New York City Council’s Transportation Committee held a meeting today on the impact of bicycles and bike lanes in the city. Committee chair James Vacca told the packed room that when it came to bikes, he knew passions were high. “Believe it or not,” he said, “few issues today prompt more heated discussion than bike policy in New York City.”

And it showed: there was a long wait in line to clear security, and the City Council hearing room’s overflow room had to be used. More than 70 speakers signed up to voice their opinions about bikes and bike lanes, but the hot seat belonged to City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who was grilled by council members for almost two hours. (Click the audio player to hear her statement, as well as the extensive—nearly two hour—question and answer session, below. The transcript -- all 296 pages -- can be found here.)

Sadik-Khan said that her department's goal is to create an interconnected bike lane network citywide.  “Half of the trips in New York City are under two miles, we think cycling has a strong role to play in the transportation network,” she said. In other words, if you build it, they will ride. “The addition of 200 miles of new bike lanes between 2006 and 2009 coincided with four straight years of double-digit percentage increases in our commuter cycling counts,” she said, adding that the increase in cycling, and the concurrent pedestrian improvements made to streets, made 2009 “the lowest overall traffic fatality rate in New York City’s history.”

But some council members felt that their districts had been left out of the planning process, and Brooklyn’s Lewis Fidler said that the DOT needed to do a better job of getting public input.  “You gotta go back to communities and ask them again,” he said emphatically.

"That's what we do! That's what we do, that’s what we do, council member!” the commissioner interjected. “I'm asking that it be institutionalized,” said Fidler.  Sadik-Khan said during her statement that her agency “remain(s) committed to problem-solving for and with the people of the City on a nearly 24/7 basis.”

She also said that the lanes have proven to be a good investment, because bicycle commuting in New York City has increased by 109 percent since 2006. It's a bargain according to her figures: the federal government bears 80 percent of the total cost, leaving New York City to pay just 20 percent of the bill for bike lanes.

But the topic of enforcement—of bicyclists who run afoul of the rules of the road, of buses and cars who block lanes—came up continually, with many council members wondering how best to ensure that cyclists obey the rules of the road.

Sadik-Khan said that the DOT is planning a major media campaign in the spring that will feature celebrities “bluntly tell(ing) cyclists to stop riding like jerks.” There will also be a bike ambassador program to help people obey the rules of the road.

Some council members felt that didn’t go far enough. “There is a little bit of a disconnect within the bicycling community,” said Brooklyn councilman Stephen Levin. He regularly sees bicyclists run red lights and wants it stopped. “That’s more endemic than can be addressed in a public education campaign. I think those are effective and worthwhile efforts, but I don’t think they will solve the problem. We share the road. We all have to follow the rules of the road.”  He asked the commissioner what the plans were for upping enforcement.  “[Police] Commissioner Kelly would be in the best position to respond to that,” Sadik-Khan replied, although she said they were already working with the NYPD and wanted to seek more grants to help fund additional enforcement efforts.

“It’s not just cyclists,” Sadik-Khan said. “It’s drivers obeying the rules of the road, it’s pedestrians not stepping out with headphones, it’s a collective dance on the streets of New York and we really have to work together to ensure that we have safe streets for everyone.”

While the meeting lasted several hours and was often heated, it did have its moments of levity. Councilwoman Gale Brewer, a supporter of the newly installed Columbus Avenue bicycle lane, told Vacca that she would buy him a bicycle out of her own money. Janette Sadik-Khan often said that she and the committee were “in violent agreement.”  And Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who was there to restate his opposition to the Prospect Park West bike lane, concluded his statement by singing—to the tune of “My Favorite Things”—an ode he called “My Favorite Lanes.” Yes, actually singing.

This presented a procedural challenge for James Vacca. “I don’t know if I can allow singing at a hearing,” he said. “Well, I’ll read it,” said Markowitz—who couldn’t resist breaking out into song anyway. “Strollers and schleppers and skaters and joggers, holiday lanes just for all the eggnoggers, let’s not forget cars, it’s getting insane, welcome to Brooklyn—the borough of lanes.”

“Keep your day job,” counseled Vacca.

Watch Markowitz perform his song below: