NYC's East Harlem Bike Lanes Hit A Speed Bump

A protected bike lane along the West Side's Columbus Avenue (photo by Kate Hinds)

Another bike lane battle is brewing in New York City. This time it comes in East Harlem. After voting in favor of a pair of protected bike lanes along First and Second Avenues, from 96th Street to 125th Street, Community Board 11 voted last week to rescind that support.

Matthew Washington, CB11's chair, sounded exasperated when asked about the turn of events. Washington supports the lanes, and he said the board voted overwhelmingly in favor of the lanes just two months ago.

"For members to vote one way in September, and then vote...to pull that vote away two months later," he said, "to me says the members weren't paying attention to what they were doing."

He said the official position of the community board is now "neutral" -- at least for now.

City Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has rallied at City Hall in support of expanding the city's bike lane network, represents the neighborhood. She called the recent CB11 vote "a temporary setback" and that she wasn't concerned.

"What I believe occurred," she said, "was that there were two people with self-interest that completely misled and created a lot of confusion at the prior board meeting. This issue had been voted on...and at this last board meeting, the issue was brought back up on open business at 9:30 at night, people were tired, it had been a long meeting, a lot of information that was misrepresented was thrown out there, I think it created some level of confusion among some board members.”

The two people in question, Frank Brija and Erik Mayor, are two local business owners who also sit on the community board. They said that the DOT had not done enough outreach to local businesses and produced a petition against the lanes. Brija, who owns Patsy's Pizzeria (on First Avenue and 117th Street) was quoted in DNA Info as saying: "All we do is complain about traffic, all we do is complain about asthma. Now the DOT is going to create more traffic."

Washington disputes that characterization. "I just don't even understand how people are constructing these ideas," Washington said in a phone interview with Transportation Nation. "They're saying traffic on First Avenue is not moving and going to get worse -- but traffic can't really get worse than not moving."

Another concern for local businesses is parking. The website for Patsy's Pizzeria states: "Plenty of on street parking is available around the neighborhood, so drive on in!" Brija did not return a call seeking comment.

Melissa Mark-Viverito said she wants businesses and residents to understand that the lanes can expand, not narrow, the appeal of the neighborhood. "Somehow [they hold] the idea that the only people who go to businesses are people that drive," she said. "Having protected bike lanes, and creating a safe space for bikers to come, we actually may be encouraging people from outside our community to come and venture and go to the businesses, go to the restaurants, to avail themselves of the services that are key here, so we have to see bikers, and creating a level of protection for them – not only for the residents that live in my community – but potentially for people who want to come and visit our neighborhood."

The DOT had initially planned to install the Second Avenue lane in the spring of 2012. Viverito said that schedule was still doable -- provided it re-passes the community board. And she's optimistic: “I feel very confident that this will pass overwhelmingly,” she said.  Washington agreed. "There's still opportunity for the board to work out some of the kinks, some of the issues that people feel are relevant and move forward."

The DOT said in a statement that the agency "will return to the board soon to review the presentation and explain how we plan to address merchant concerns."  And Washington said that representatives from the DOT will be at the next transportation committee meeting, scheduled to take place at the CB11 office on December 6.

"But I think we're going to have to relocate it," he said, "because I anticipate we will have large attendance at this meeting."