New York Plans a Bike Lane Solution to Crosstown Traffic

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NEW YORK - JULY 08:  Drivers wait in traffic during the afternoon commute July 8, 2009 in New York City. High gas prices and a struggling economy have helped to slightly ease rush hour commuting with the first two-year decline in nationwide traffic congestion since the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University began studying the issue in 1982. The average motorist spent 1.3 fewer hours in traffic in 2007 than in 2005, according to the institute.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Photo: Mario Tama/2009 Getty Images

Quick: You’re standing at Columbus Circle and a disoriented tourist asks you the fastest way to get to the East Side. What do you say? The answer, of course, is on foot. Crosstown buses barely slouch, subways stick to 42nd Street, and cabs idling in traffic keep reminding us of the old one-liner: Shall we walk, or do we have time to take a taxi? Soon there could be another solution: grab a bike and ride.

Cycling through midtown was always an option — if you didn’t mind joining the slow-mo stampede of vehicles whose drivers resented your presence, when they noticed you at all. But sometime this summer, around the launch of the city’s bike-share program, the Department of Transportation will start making the east-west ride more pleasant and less suicidal. Four new pairs of one-way bike routes between Eighth and First Avenues — on 39th and 40th, 43rd and 44th, 48th and 51st, and 54th and 55th Streets — could accomplish what even Robert Moses failed to provide: a safe and efficient way to cut across Manhattan. (The plan still has to wend its way through the approvals process.)

These new miles of bike routes won’t be perfect. They alternate from block to block between shared and separated lanes, and if experience is any guide, white paint on asphalt won’t keep delivery trucks or double-parked cars from blocking the way. But even such tiny, cheap, and flawed alterations can have a huge effect, by alleviating an age-old glitch in the city’s mobility. Call it the Crosstown Syndrome: The subway system evolved haphazardly as a set of north-south parallel lines, while highways and tunnels draw a belt of traffic across Manhattan’s waistline, creating paralytic congestion. The bike-share program that is set to launch in July should help alleviate the misery, but only an extensive and well-maintained web of lanes can make Citi Bike more than just a picturesque tourist amenity.

Even as the MTA puts immense amounts of time and money into the Second Avenue Subway project, the city is also discovering the cheap power of painted lines. Done right, the combination of shareable bikes and navigable lanes could even shift migratory patterns. Manhattan’s center of gravity is inching westward, with new office and residential towers going up in areas that are a hefty hike from the nearest subway stop. Eventually, the DOT hopes to extend the planned midtown routes all the way to the river so that a Hoboken resident could, for instance, hop a ferry to Manhattan, pick up a two-wheeler at the West 39th Street terminal, and pedal over to the office at, say, Lexington Avenue and 53rd. The same thing can happen in other parts of the city, too: A rapidly rising number of Long Island City and Greenpoint/Williamsburg residents are using the embryonic ferry service, and many more people surely would if they could count on finding both a bike and a bike lane on the other side.

The midtown routes would also help ease the switch between different kinds of vehicles, which in turn opens up new fantasies of seamless transportation. Perhaps one day, New Yorkers will be able to swipe a single fare card for bike, boat, bus, bridge, and subways. That multi-modal future begins with a painted line.