It was July 1980, and Ed Koch was talking big about overhauling the city’s streets. Single-occupancy cars would be banned from the East River bridges; Madison Avenue would get bus-only lanes; and physically separated bike paths would line Broadway and Sixth Avenue. A mere four months later, Koch declared the bike lanes a failure and ordered them torn up. But a much more modest legacy of that era would remain intact. Transportation Department personnel had jury-rigged two traffic lights on Sixth Avenue at 33rd and 34th Streets to project bike-design stencils. From then on, cyclists sailing uptown through the thicket of Herald Square would have a place in the transitscape.
It wasn’t until the current administration’s campaign to remake the city’s traffic patterns that these simple, elegant illuminations, known to transportation wonks as “bicycle signal heads,” became widespread. Now they dot Eighth Avenue between Jane and 23rd, Ninth between 26th and 16th, the Hudson River Greenway in midtown, and Allen Street on the Lower East Side. They’re a civilizing force: Left-turning cars are forced to wait as cyclists and pedestrians, accustomed to cabbies and delivery trucks careering obliviously, luxuriate in 25 to 30 seconds of unimpeded crossing. Then the left-turn signal flips to green, both the walk sign and bicycle light go red, and the cars regain dominion. The whole sequence causes barely a ripple in the city’s traffic flow, but the lights have finally tamed our intersections.