Streams

Bike Lanes: A Ride Down Grand Street

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mayor Bloomberg has been redefining New York’s streets as places to walk and ride bicycles, not just drive. He’s turned Times Square into a pedestrian zone, introduced traffic calming measures and added 200 miles of bike lanes in the past three years. Some New Yorkers have balked at these changes. They have even figured into the mayoral campaign. WNYC reporter Matthew Schuerman and producer Richard Yeh visited one bike lane to see what the fuss is about.

REPORTER: The new bike lane on Grand Street in Lower Manhattan covers less than three-quarters of a mile in a city with more than 18,000 miles of streets. But it’s a particularly contested stretch shared by cars, delivery trucks, tour buses, push carts, hand trucks, pedestrians, shopping carts, and bicycles. A year ago, those bikes were supposed to stay tucked inside a standard sort of bike lane, about four feet wide, painted onto the street next to a line of parked cars. Josh Benson of the city Department of Transportation says it was a “failed street.”

BENSON: It was chaotic. People were driving in the bike lane, parking in the bike lane. Cyclists were weaving around. Motorists were weaving around.

REPORTER: Last November, the DOT moved the bike lane behind the line of parked cars. Now, cars park about six feet from the curb. Bicyclists ride between those cars and the sidewalk. Benson says the street was transformed

BENSON: Cars were not able to block the bike lane. Traffic had to stay in one single line.

REPORTER: The DOT considers the bike lane a success: ridership has increased by 60 percent over the past 18 months. To bicyclist, and artist, Camille Billops, the protected lane is an answer to her prayers.

BILLOPS: I ride these lanes and I'm happy to be away from the cars. It’s a wonderful thing and God bless the mayor.

REPORTER: But businesses along the route define “success” differently. In Chinatown, Alisa Gan has run a noodle cart with her cousin for 15 years.

GAN: Way shuh muh chu shee…

TRANSLATOR: Why did so many incidents happen? It's so narrow here. The cars used to park all the way by the curb, now they park in the middle of the street....

REPORTER: She says she sees an accident almost every day. Gan also says emergency vehicles can’t maneuver past traffic jams like they used to.

GAN: How shiang, uh…

TRANSLATOR: Like ambulances, if there's an emergency, they cannot get through. It used to be that with a red traffic light down the block, an ambulance can still get through, but not anymore.

REPORTER: Gan isn’t alone. Merchants from a high-end rug shop owner in SoHo to café owner in Little Italy echoed her complaints. But the city DOT says the bike lane has made Grand Street safer. The number of injuries to cyclists, pedestrians and motorists has dropped from about three a month to about two. Overall accidents, including fender benders, declined 16 percent.

The DOT added zebra lines at some intersections earlier this year to help trucks and buses to make the tight turns. But that’s caused another problem for Ernesto Rossi, who owns a souvenir store in Little Italy.

ROSSI: So the way I look at it, probably about half the parking space has been taken away from Grand Street.

REPORTER: Rossi says he’s lost 40 to 50 percent of his business in the past year and attributes half of it to the bike lane. He went to a community board meeting last year to oppose it.

ROSSI: And they said you know they wanted the city to look like Copenhagen. They want it to look like and this is Manhattan. It’s Manhattan. It’s not Copenhagen.

REPORTER: In September, Bill Thompson, the Democratic candidate for mayor, toured Chinatown. For him the bike lane was another example of the Bloomberg administration’s arrogance. He said he’d take out the Grand Street bike lane because there wasn’t enough community input.

Ben Fried’s been following the controversy for Streetsblog, a blog for bicyclists and transportation advocates.

FRIED: It’s tough to see how that squares with how this project has gone forward.

REPORTER: The DOT says there was outreach. The agency passed out flyers to merchants before the community board meeting. A few of them, including Ernesto Rossi, showed up to object. But the transportation committee endorsed the bike lane anyway. A few weeks later, the full community board did too, by a vote of 33-to-1, with 1 abstention.

REPORTER: The political bickering has reached some of the bicyclists who ride down Grand Street every day, like Nick Miscione.

MISCIONE: I had high hopes for Bill Thompson. And this is a real disappointment.

REPORTER: If the bike lane has become a symbol to some of the Mayor’s heavy-handedness, for bicyclists it’s a sign of their new-found legitimacy.

MISCIONE: It’s not so much the lane itself as it is the message that it conveys.

REPORTER: A spokeswoman for Bill Thompson says the Democratic candidate supports bike lanes in general but not on Grand Street. Some merchants say that’s swaying their vote towards Thompson. But others say they’re still undecided. The election is next Tuesday.

REPORTER: For WNYC, I’m Matthew Schuerman.

WNYC’s Richard Yeh contributed reporting and translated from the Mandarin for this report.

For a slide show about Grand Street visit our news blog.

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