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New Yorkers Debate Over Increasing Number of Bike Lanes

Friday, December 31, 2010 - 11:17 AM

(Photo by Gnarly, via Wikimedia Commons)

Bikes are environmentally friendly -- given they're powered by your own energy -- but it's tough for traditionally auto-based cities to transition into a more bike-based one. Andrea Bernstein reports on the current bike lane debate going on in New York City.

You can listen to the story, and read the full script, after the jump (or here.)

Andrea Bernstein: It's hard to overstate how quickly New York's streets have changed since 2007. The transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, touts the makeover every chance she gets.

Janette Sadik-Khan: We've put down 250 miles of on-street bike lanes in the last three years. We've put down thousands of new bike racks to make it friendlier for people to get around by bike.

And the city just announced it's preparing to install a bike share program with 10,000 bicycles.

In some communities, the commissioner is revered. Carol Coletta, president of CEOs for Cities, calls her a goddess.

Carol Coletta: She has made these transformations in New York with speed that would be breathtaking for a small start-up, to say nothing of a bureaucracy like a city of this size.

But for some, the changes feel like a punch in the gut. One of those people is Marty Markowitz, the borough president of Brooklyn. Markowitz thinks a two-way bike lane along Prospect Park goes too far, because it takes space away from cars and gives it to bikes. Here's how he describes the commissioner.

Marty Markowitz: She is a zealot. She wants to make it hard for those that choose to own their automobiles. She wants to make it difficult, their life difficult. I really believe that.

For Markowitz, it's about defending mom-and-pop shops, and middle-class workers who use their cars to get to work.

But supporters have shouted back. And, it turns out, one survey shows three-quarters of Brooklynites support that bike lane. But the controversy has gotten caught up with how New Yorkers feel about their mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who's known for his sweeping changes. At a recent city council hearing, councilman Lew Fidler peppered the commissioner with questions.

Lew Fidler: You gotta go back to communities and ask them again!

Sadik-Khan: That's what we do!

Fidler: Before you spend the money.

Sadik-Khan: That's what we do!

Fidler concluded with a reference the musical "Oklahoma."

Fidler: This is not a war, all right? This is not like it's not you gotta be for the cars or you gotta be for the bikes or you got to be for the buses, it's really not.

Sadik-Khan: Exactly.

Fidler: The cowman and the farmers can be friends.

Maybe. Ernest Rossi runs a souvenir shop along one of the new Manhattan bike lanes.

Ernest Rossi: So the way I look at it, probably almost half the parking spaces have been taken away from Grand Street.

Rossi says his business depends on tourists driving in. He doesn't get why the city wants to bring European-style bike lanes to New York.

Rossi: And they said they wanted the city to look like Copenhagen. And this is Manhattan. It's Manhattan. It's not Copenhagen.

But for some New York businessmen, being able to attract international companies is key. Janno Lieber is president of World Trade Center Properties. He's overseeing the construction of 10 million square feet of office space to replace the Twin Towers. He says being able to bike to work is important to his tenants.

Janno Lieber: It also makes us more familiar and attractive to some of the European and international companies because otherwise people are going to go to lower cost locations.

Lieber says in New York, bike lanes have cache with the creative class.

Lieber: Well, because, the kind of employees who bike, those are the kinds of workers that companies really want to have, and they want to hold on to.

And Lieber says, that's who will build New York's economy.

In New York, I'm Andrea Bernstein for Marketplace.

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