Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
Justice Bert Bunyan of Brooklyn has dismissed a lawsuit against a Brooklyn bike lane that has become a flash point in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's efforts to re-organize street space to promote biking, walking and more sustainable modes of transportation. (Full ruling here.)
This is the first time a court has ruled on whether the city has legal authority to install bike lanes at a rapid clip.
The suit, which had prominent backers include former city transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall, and her husband, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, who live along Prospect Park West, alleged the city manipulated data and hadn't properly consulted the community in building the lane.
The lawsuit, filed at the end of March after a particularly brutal and unhappy winter for New Yorkers -- including piles of snow, endless blizzards, and seemingly interminable transit delays -- seemed to crystallize emotions of some New Yorkers, that bike lanes were being imposed on communities.
Though bike lanes, including the Prospect Park West one, were built at the behest of the local community board, the rap on them -- , feeds into a vulnerability of the Mayor's -- that he does things by fiat.
His seemingly-unrelated and ultimately disastrous appointment of former Schools Chancellor Cathie Black in the fall poured gasoline on that perception, as did his initial dismissiveness about the impact of the blizzard of 2010, when he recommended stranded New Yorkers go see a Broadway show while they were waiting for their roads to be plowed.
All of this created a political atmosphere where going after Mayor Bloomberg on bike lanes seemed an easy target. When the lawsuit was filed, it was noticed.
But the snows of winter eventually did melt, and the bike lane has proven popular in the community, with polls showing around two thirds of Brooklynites wanting to keep it, or keep it with modifications.
In an emailed statement, the city transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, said she considered the matter settled.
"This decision results in a hands-down victory for communities across the city. The plaintiffs have been dead wrong in their unsupported claims about the bike path and DOT’s practices,” said DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan in a statement emailed by the city.
But at the end of the day, the judge did not rule on the merits of the bike lane. Plaintiffs didn't get to make the argument that the lane had adverse affects. Instead, lawyers for the plaintiffs found themselves arguing mostly on a technical point --whether the bike lane was a "trial." The point was crucial, because plaintiffs would have to have filed their lawsuit much earlier if the bike was intended to be permanent.
At the end of the day, and the judge ruled resoundingly the project wasn't experimental. (Plaintiffs had gone so far as to make the abbreviation EBL -- "experimental bike lane" -- in legal filings.) The opponents “presented no evidence that D.O.T. viewed the bikeway as a pilot or temporary project," the Judge said in his ruling. That meant they'd missed their deadline.
The judge did say the city had failed to properly answer a freedom of information request filed by the lawsuit's opponents; it ordered the city to do so. He did not rule on whether the city manipulated data, because the complaint was dismissed on timeliness issues.
The attorney for the plaintiffs, Jim Walden said in a statement, "Although we respectfully disagree with the Court's determination on the statute of limitations, we will need time to review his comprehensive analysis before deciding on our options."