The Latest Skirmish in the Bike Lane Battles

Street space is one of the most valuable commodities in New York City, and the volume knob has been turned up since City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan started adding hundreds of miles of bike lanes to city streets.

The latest firefight is over space on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, with cyclists, the DOT, and the community board lined up on one side, and motorists and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz on the other.

Markowitz has long been leery of moving fast in re-organizing city streets, opposing, for example, banning all car traffic in Prospect Park, and bridge tolls on the East River Bridges.

To learn more about his philosophy of transportation, WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein sat down for a wide-ranging interview with the third-term borough president, Brooklyn’s chief cheerleader. You’ll find out why he thinks Commissioner Sadik-Khan is a zealot, how he feels about turning over parking spots to pedestrians, why he’s for a gas tax -- and why he welcomes the hipster-yuppie class to his borough.

Listen to the WNYC segment here:

Listen to the full interview here, or read it below:

Andrea Bernstein: The things that you’ve said over the years, and the positions that you’ve taken, show an identification with “Joe Brooklyn Driver.” A sense that if you are living in Brooklyn and you are a working person and you have a car, life can be tough. Do you think that is fair?

Marty Markowitz: Well, I’m not going to say it’s unfair. The world of Brooklyn is not dominated by those that deem it, that everyone has to be on bicycles and those that own cars should be isolated. And there is a segment of those who are avid bicyclists that believe that car owners are evil, and therefore the philosophy of the city of New York should do and be whatever one can do to help minimize car owners, cars and to try to rid the world of automobiles and to ensure that everyone is on a bicycle. There are people that really want to do that.

My job as borough president is to balance the needs of this entire borough. The majority of Brooklyn lives on the southern side of Prospect Park, not the northern side. And very often, many people in Brooklyn need their vehicle either for their livelihood or their personal pleasure. And I for one want to continue to do my part to make Brooklyn, and New York, a resident-friendly place as much as possible. So it’s a balance that you have to find. And that’s why I have supported bicycle lanes, throughout the borough. The Greenway is a good example -– that I’m one of the leading advocates for. And will continue to press for that. The bicycle lane on Ninth Street that’s around the corner from where I lived, I fully supported, not one peep from me, because it made sense, because it leads into Prospect Park. But where I feel bicycle lanes would have an adverse affect my job is to speak up for it.

Those that wanted to close Prospect Park inside to traffic twenty four hours a day -– I represent the whole borough, and not just one community. And that would be a hardship for many owners of cars that need the pathway, need to drive to get to and from work. There has to be a balance, and that’s the balance that I seek to find.

AB: The first time I heard you talking about these issues was in fact at a press conference in Grand Army Plaza. I’m trying to figure out when it was –- it all blends together -– but I think it was sometime in the earlier part of the last decade, when there was a decision to restrict the car use in the park. And you were quite clear at that press conference that you didn’t want there to be an adverse impact on Ditmas Park and those neighborhoods on the east side of the park. And I’m wondering what you’ve heard from people since then. Has restricting the use of cars in fact made life tougher for those people?



MM: In fact, it’s made life tougher for the residents of Windsor Terrace, on Prospect Park Southwest when the car restrictions of Prospect Park kick in during the warmer months and the traffic is backed up all the way from Bartel-Pritchard square and beyond all the way down to Parkside Avenue and believe me, the people that live on Prospect Park Southwest and the immediate area in that Windsor Terrace area suffer, as well as the motorists that have to -– where their commute home takes much longer because the park drives are closed. Like I said, there has to be a balance. There has to be a balance.

And that’s why I don’t oppose -– and by the way, I use Prospect Park myself all the time. I love the fact during the year on weekends that the park is closed to traffic. I support that. But during the week, where it would be a hardship for the residents in the surrounding areas as well as motorists, I have opposed it. When they attempted to take away driving during the entire 24-hour period. I think it’s a balance we have to try to find. I’ve always been fortunate to represent the east side and the west side. Most of my years of service I’ve represented the east side of the park. It wasn’t until my last senate district that I represented both sides, both east and west and I understand both sides very, very well.

I must tell you a phenomenon. A lot of people that advocate reducing the carbon footprint own a car or two themselves. Even our commissioner of DOT, who you very well know is probably the biggest advocate of doing everything possible to eliminate automobiles. Even she, when she goes to meetings, she’s not on a bicycle. She’s in a chauffeur-driven car. Interesting, isn’t it? All I’m trying to say –

AB: How do you get to meetings?

MM: I don’t’ make any bones about it. I go to meetings by automobile. And many of the people that advocate to stop traffic, close traffic, own cars as well. Own cars as well. But you see they’re not being inconvenienced because a lot of them don’t need to use Prospect Park for the automobile because they live on the west side of the park. And there’s no reason to use it, whereas people that live on the east side very often have occasion to use it.

I also think that in terms of the park itself, during the winter months, having traffic going through there I think in many ways helps in offering additional eyes out there, in terms of being able to report any potential trouble they see as they drive through. So I think we have found the right balance in terms of Prospect Park, but your real interest is Prospect Park West, which is why I think you’re here today.

AB: Well, it’s definitely what piqued my interest in this subject, let me ask you one more thing, before I asked you about that. I think the last time we discussed these issues, I was hosting The Brian Lehrer show, and you were on, and Tom Suozzi was on and Kate Slevin was on and Rosie Perez called in. Do you remember that? And it was about the bridge tolls, and whether there should be bridge tolls. And you thought as borough president of Brooklyn that you were really representing your constituency by opposing that. And I’m wondering, given now how very severely Brooklynites are going to be affected by this new round of MTA cuts, whether you feel like that was the right thing.

MM: Not only was it the right thing then, it’s the right thing now. It’s an onerous tax that would be placed on the backs of Brooklynites that need to use the East River bridges for their livelihood and for many other reasons. It is a discriminatory tax if they ever impose tolls on our bridges and I think it’s a baloney argument because when times were even better they wanted to impose tolls and now they’re using the economic situation.

So I’ll continue to oppose it as will the borough presidents of Queens, and Staten Island, perhaps the Bronx -– Manhattan, I know it doesn’t mean anything to Scott Stringer, it means nothing to him, but for the rest of us, we understand our constituents, and we understand this will be an additional burden and an additional cost. We have come up, Andrea, I’m responsible, I have come up with suggestions or recommendations that I believe would meet the needs, of the funding needs of the MTA.

Scott Stringer’s idea, you’re a policy wonk, and I respect him enormously. He went on Channel 5 last week, and he had a great idea, they put him on Channel 5 and what was his idea? Let’s restore the commuter tax. Well thank you! Thank you to everyone who believes that, so do I. But the truth of the matters is that the state legislature for years has not moved on it, and it doesn’t appear likely that they will, unfortunately. So therefore we have to come up with other ways of funding mass transit and there are ways. And we’ve recommended them and I think those are more serious ways and rational ways.

I for one, as a motorist, as well, ask for an increase in the automobile tax on the gasoline tax. A dedicated percentage of that money only for mass transit, in the total counties of the MTA service district. And I think that way –- that way it’s fair and balanced for those of us that use automobiles I believe that we have a responsibility to make sure that our mass transit system is working effectively and for everyone. Because -– God forbid -– we all know the mass transit system is the lifeblood of the economy of New York City.

AB: Why is a gas tax preferable to you than a bridge toll?

MM: Because it’s shared. Whereas the toll bridges is directed to Brooklyn. Those of those crossings are Brooklyn. So therefore we get it more than anybody else. But if you have a modest gasoline tax increase dedicated only to mass transit we share that burden in all of the counties that make up the MTA district. That to me is a regional approach, and a proper approach. Also, we’ve asked for a car surcharge, that only New York City pays now, to extend that to all the counties of the MTA.

We supported Comptroller Billy Thompson’s idea about weight, in other words, skewing the license fees, heavier vehicles, bigger vehicles, you pay more than energy efficient hybrids, as an example. I think that’s fair, and that’s a no-brainer to me. The idea you heard recently about cracking down on fare-beaters is a good one.

The city has come up with an idea now, they’re going to have this mass transit bus system, on certain streets in New York, and they’re going to leave it as an honor system. Honor system. They’re going to let everybody board the bus, honor system. I don’t understand what -– you know what, I know that 99 percent of the people are honest, but there is a group of people that will beat the system even more then we’re getting beat today. So anyway, those are some of our ideas.

AB: That’s the Bus Rapid Transit system. Brooklyn’s going to get one. Do you support that one that Brooklyn’s getting?

MM: The commissioner has a right to try. I told her that I thought another street would be appropriate. I think she chose Nostrand Avenue. I think Nostrand Avenue is one of the most congested streets that we have and I thought that she should think about Rogers Avenue, which is one block away, where there’s less congestion, and I think it would have worked better and that’s what they decided to use on a trial basis. I’m not fighting it, I’m open to it, but I am just concerned that the system is set up in a way that it is easy for those that want to use the bus not to pay a thing and we lose even more money for the MTA.

AB: So let’s talk about Prospect Park West. This is something that the community board was in favor of --

MM: I think they made a mistake in their vote.

AB: -- And DOT. They have these statistics that seventy percent of people are speeding at some point. Fifteen percent of people are going over forty miles per hour. It’s a pretty fast road if you look at the through roads through Park Slope so they came up with this plan. Why do you think it’s such a bad idea?

MM: Unlike a lot of them, I lived there. Eight and half years. I don’t live there now, but I did. I know the traffic trends there. I heard the traffic, I saw the traffic. I looked out my window, I lived there. And for those that want to use bicycles, there is the use of the park for bicycles. If you want to go from Grand Army Plaza to Bartel-Pritchard Square, all you have to do is go into the park and use the drive.

AB: What if you want to go the other way?

MM: If you want to go the other way, I must tell you, the sidewalks are enormous. They are. Enormous. There is almost zero usage of pedestrians on Flatbush Avenue. Zero. There’s hardly any pedestrians that walk up and down Flatbush Avenue on the park, there’s no question about it. The sidewalks are wide enough for bicycle use and they pose no threat to the few people that walk up the street and I just believe we have the condition for those that want to use bicycles to be able to enjoy the park. When I walk around as I see many bicyclists use the park in the morning.

Let me just say, my opposition to Prospect Park West, I’m not the only one who’s voice is out there. None other than Iris Weinshall, who was the former DOT commissioner, right before Ms. Sadik-Khan, vehemently opposes the two-way bicycle lanes on Prospect Park West. And you should speak to her. It would be an interesting interview for you, because she believes as I believe, that it will cause a great inconvenience for the residents of Prospect Park West, the traffic jam-ups, will be in my opinion, horrendous, especially in the warmer months, starting in mid April and through September, mid to late September.

It will be acutely challenging on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays during those warmer months and I must tell you I don’t live there any more. For me personally, it will not impact my life one bit. But I am concerned with the people that live in Park Slope. I am concerned for the people that live on Prospect Park West. I support efforts at traffic mitigation. I have fought hard to get traffic lights installed at various intersections on Prospect Park West to help slow the traffic down.

There have been very few accidents on Prospect Park West, you can call up the city of New York, the police department, very few.

AB: Fifty-seven, the DOT said.

MM: You know what I don’t know what is that one year or ten years, I don’t know what it is.

AB: 2005-2007

MM: Okay so that’s a two-year period of time, I’d have to look at those numbers myself, but considering the thousands of people that use that, and what type of accidents they’re talking about, and if you compare that to other areas of Brooklyn, where traffic numbers are similar, I don’t think you would find this to be inordinately high, at all.

I understand those that want to use bicycles, you know, and when Ninth Street bicycle lanes went on, I supported them, no problem, because I think it was the right place to put it and I support bicycle lanes, where appropriate, where it makes sense for the residents of the community and works for those that chose to be on their bicycles.

AB: On those summer events, there are that people who drive, but, there is huge pedestrian traffic, there is huge bicycle traffic. Is there an issue of the greater good here, who would benefit the most and looking from ten thousand feet up?

MM: I would challenge your assertion that there is huge bicycle use. I would challenge you on it. As someone who lived across the street from it I would challenge you. There is modest bicycle use. Modest. At best. But that’s not the point. There has to be a balance. And that’s why I supported Ninth Street. I think the two-way bicycle lanes will cause a great inconvenience to the residents of Prospect Park West and I don’t want to be blamed, because they’re going to move ahead with this as you know, I don’t want to be blamed, and that’s why I took this interview with you. I don’t want to be blamed. On the other hand, I hope that the commissioner and the department is right. If they’re right, and in fact it causes no bottlenecks, no inconvenience, and if it works, I’ll be the first to say I was wrong. I would.

AB: You don’t seem to much care for Janette Sadik-Khan. You’ve called her a zealot, why?

MM: She is a zealot. I can tell you this much -- I respect her professionalism. She personally is a very nice woman. I think she’s a professional -- I know she’s a professional. We just disagree in certain instances where I’m acutely aware that 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.
Bernstein: Why, why would she want to do that?

MM: Well, I think because she would like to see more people stop car usage and get on their bicycles. Or walk.

AB: Is that an unworthy goal?

MM: Within reason it is a worthy goal. If I personally walk more than I currently walk and use the bicycle more than I currently use it just for pleasure I probably would be in much better shape, for sure. However, I represent everyone. Not just a segment of the population. And I have to balance out those that feel that everyone should be on bicycles and those that feel that they need their automobile and that they shouldn’t be stigmatized. So it has to be a balance and as long as I’m Borough President – I can’t speak for the next one, but as long as I’m Borough President I’ll continue to advocate those things that I believe make it work for Brooklyn.

AB: You got a letter from a constituent – a note. It said: “All this bike-lane nonsense is really just a symptom of the real problem. The city’s becoming increasingly more and more tailored to these transplanted leisure class hipster-yuppie flakes in Park Slope and Williamsburg who don’t work real jobs, drive up the rents with their parents’ suburb-remittance money, and spend their days lolling around the city on bicycles and on foot without a care in the world. They demand the city be changed to conform to their leisure-class lifestyles. Meanwhile, for those of us who actually work real jobs and have to commute to pay our bills, often by car, these hare-brained bike lane ideas turn out to be nothing but hassles.” Does that represent a Brooklyn that you recognize?

MM: She’s entitled to her opinion. I don’t believe that at all. Because I consider myself, I mean I’m a little older, but I say thank god for those younger people that have made Brooklyn their home, they’ve re-energized our borough, they’ve started new industries here, the creative industry, arts, all of which defines Brooklyn today and I hope for all the years to come. I think they’ve added enormously to the quality of life in our borough, so I don’t agree with that.

She’s entitled--You should see -– if you think that’s bad maybe some future time I should show you the emails I got over Atlantic Yards. How you think that is -– I’ll show you ones that will have your ears red. I gotta tell you something, email is great, but it’s unbelievable what it brings out. She’s entitled to her opinion. I listen to opinions across the board from so many people in our borough. Maybe when I’m completed in this position I’ll write a book. I don’t know if anyone will buy it but even if I read it myself I’ll enjoy it.

What can I say? It doesn’t represent the Brooklyn that I know. The folks that she’s referring to are hard-working people and thank God they’ve made Brooklyn their home, that’s all I can say.

AB: Your press secretary has written he hates all bike lanes. That doesn’t represent your view?

MM: Who? What? Who?

AB: Mark Zustovich.

MM. He hates all bike, bicycles? Well, if he wrote that, he’s not speaking for this borough president. He has a right on his own to say or do anything he wishes, but I am sure he would not have said that speaking for me. Because I happen to believe bicycle lanes are a good thing, I have used bicycle lanes like I have said when I have those few days of leisure when I can get on a bicycle and I do own a bicycle I feel there are a good thing to have, where appropriate.

AB: Do you think there’s a culture clash going on here between old Brooklyn and new Brooklyn?

MM: I don’t know if there’s a culture clash. It’s not a culture clash. I mean, you’re looking at me, here’s a culture clash. Is it a culture clash to try and find a balance? Must I be either all for or all against? All I’m trying to do is find a balance. And I think most people feel the way I do. There are people that would like to see all of Brooklyn’s roads turned into bicycle roads and there are those that would like to ban bicycle lanes everywhere and I come down that we can co-exist. And I will continue my best to make sure that co-existence exists, because I’m in favor of that, but where I think it’s inappropriate my job is to speak out.

Now, I can’t stop this plan. They’re moving ahead with it, they’re moving ahead. And I’m only hoping that I’m wrong. But just in case I’m right, I want the folks on Prospect Park West and immediate area to know that this was not something I supported.

AB: Do you think it’s ever a good idea to give up a parking spot for a bicyclist or a pedestrian area?

MM: I’d have to look at the area that we’re talking about, but I don’t think we should be involved in taking away parking spaces. You know the amazing thing is that the neighborhoods that are toughest to park in, happen to be areas like Park Slope. In Brooklyn. Some of the toughest neighborhoods to park in, so here we’re talking about a beautiful community that I was pleased to live in for about ten, eleven years, and I would say finding parking is an excruciating experience. Which means, someone owns those cars. I got a hunch it’s the folks living in Park Slope. I know that everybody wants their cake and eat it too. I understand that. That’s why I think you get a lot of bad reaction if you attempt to take away parking from residents of Park Slope. I don’t want to see that happen. They enjoy their cars and guess what, they should. They should. We should be making New York as resident-friendly as we can. Because a lot of those people in Park Slope could live anywhere in America, and at a certain point, when their life becomes too inconvenienced, the way they vote is with their feet, and I don’t want them to leave, ever.

AB: Thank you, Marty. Anything else you want to add? Thanks a lot.

Update: Markowitz sends in this clarification of his position about bike riding and sidewalks.

Like our DOT Commissioner, whose professionalism I respect, I too support cycling in this city and have not only supported bike lanes like the ones on 9th Street in Park Slope and Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, but have also been a major proponent of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, a 14-mile on-and-off street bike lane that connects Greenpoint to Sunset Park. Without my office’s support and advocacy the Greenway would not be happening. What I am opposed to is bike lanes on Prospect Park West, which will both take away needed parking for residents and park-goers and interrupt access of pedestrians to the park during peak usage in summer and on weekends. There are better options to explore that would meet everyone’s needs—such as adding traffic lights to calm traffic, and adding another bike lane to the park itself. By the way, as borough president I advocate for bikers, and also for those who do not live near public transportation, those who cannot bike for various reasons, and yes, those families and residents who chose to own a car in this borough.

Also, to clear up an apparently ambiguous statement from my original WNYC interview, I in no way advocate for cyclists to break the law and ride illegally on the city's sidewalks. My comment about utilizing excess sidewalk space on Prospect Park West and Flatbush Avenue off Prospect Park stems from the fact that, given low usage and wide widths, these sidewalks can potentially safely accommodate the creation of new off street bike lanes. I think that such a proposal should be explored since it would avoid removing a lane from Prospect Park West."

— Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz