NYC DOT's Joshua Benson, presenting the city's plans for bike lanes in East Harlem (photo by Kate Hinds)
In a long and often contentious public hearing Tuesday night, Manhattan's Community Board 11 revisited arguments for and against a pair of proposed bike lanes on First and Second Avenues.
CB11 had voted overwhelmingly to support the lanes, which would run from 96th Street to 125th Street, earlier this fall. And the city had said they'd begin construction in the spring of 2012. But that schedule was thrown into doubt last month when the board voted to rescind their support of the lanes after local business owners protested.
So on Tuesday night, the New York City Department of Transportation made their sixth visit to CB11 to made the case for the lanes once again. They showed a PowerPoint of the street redesign, talked about its benefits, and pledged to work closely with business owners and other community members to address concerns.
And concerns were plentiful. Business owners, like Frank Brija, who owns Patsy's Pizzeria and is also a member of CB11, said he was a bike rider himself and liked bike lanes in general--just not on his street. "I'm here to say, why can't we just compromise," he said. "First Avenue we know is like a next highway to the FDR Drive. When there's traffic there, it becomes so congested." He suggested that the bike lanes be relocated to Pleasant Avenue or Paladino Avenue.
Erik Mayor, another CB11 member and the owner of Milk Burger, agreed with Brija."The people who drive up First Avenue don't live here," he said. "And it's not realistic to think that people are going to ride their bike to work, when most people live in the Bronx." He said the lanes would increase traffic and pollution, and that the DOT's rationale for installing protected bike lanes in the neighborhood was flawed. "What works in Denmark, or Colombia, or Bogota, that's not El Barrio. That's not East Harlem. That's not Spanish Harlem."
But they were in the minority. During the public comment session, person after person got up to speak in favor of the lanes. Members of Community Board 7 on Manhattan's Upper West Side -- which recently unveiled data on its own year-old bike lane -- were on hand to assuage fears. "We had a debate on our board which was very similar to what you're currently experiencing," said CB7's Ken Coughlin.
"I'm here to tell you that now we have more than a year of experience, all these concerns are basically groundless." He told the group that Columbus Avenue had seen reductions in injuries, speeding cars and double parking since that lane's installation. "Change can be difficult, but what we got for our change was a safer street, a more livable street, a more functional street for everyone, and, I think, a more beautiful street."
One by one, public health officials, doctors, local activists, mothers with small children, and even school students stood up to speak in favor of the lanes. One of the supporters, Raphael Benavides, said: "The new proposed configuration is a win/win for everyone involved. It is safer--just look at the numbers. It is healthier, it is good for the environment...and it is good for business." He said the lanes would bring more people to East Harlem. "Cyclists are explorers. They will come to our community. And I am a business owner, so I do have a vested interest in this endeavor."
At several points people spoke over each other and at times the discussion got heated enough that a board member intervened to smooth over hurt feelings. One CB11 member, Yma Rodriguez, said she was insulted by the implication that bike lane supporters had been brainwashed by the city. "That the DOT would get us all together to conspire...could you not believe that we have minds of our owns, that we also have opinions, that we also have concerns that are legitimate?"
Brija and Mayor left before the meeting was over. At the end of the evening, one of the last members of the public to speak, local resident Diego Quiñones, surveyed the room and summed up the events of the evening: "Wow, change is scary, huh?"
Matthew Washington, the chair of CB11, said afterward that the board would formally revisit the lanes at the committee level in January. "We have to mold this proposal, as it's been molded already, to get to that ultimate point where all people feel that issues have been addressed," he said.