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Not Quite Copenhagen

Is New York too New York for bike lanes?

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The biker careers against traffic; the driver veers into the forbidden lane; the jaywalker marches, oblivious. But only the sucker yields.
Photo-illustration by Peter Rad  

On a blustery day this winter, ­Louise Hainline, a dean at Brooklyn College, stood on the roof deck of her Park Slope building, ­ankle-deep in fresh snow, squinting intently into the sun. Below, a lone cyclist coasted southwest along the iced edge of Prospect Park. Hainline shook her head. “And they say this bike lane gets a lot of traffic,” she scoffed.

Hainline, who is in her early sixties, has chin-length blonde hair, rounded features, and cheeks like burnished McIntosh apples. She and her husband, CUNY physics professor Micha Tomkiewicz, purchased their penthouse unit on Prospect Park West in 1997, “when real estate here was a little cheaper,” she says. There have been a lot of other changes to the landscape of Park Slope since they moved in. But in fourteen years, Louise Hainline has never seen anything as “monstrous”—nothing as “truly offensive”—as the Prospect Park West bike lane.

To create the path, the Department of Transportation significantly rejiggered the swooping boulevard. Instead of three lanes of car traffic, Prospect Park West now has just two; the third has been converted into a bright-green two-way bike lane, installed this past June, that connects Grand Army Plaza with Bartel-Pritchard Square on the park’s southwest side. A barrier of parked cars protects bikes from passing drivers—who now have six fewer spots to fight over—while an array of flashing lights and reflective signage helps modulate the new traffic patterns.

For New York cyclists, the Prospect Park West lane is the best of all possible worlds. For Hainline, it is an eyesore and an affront, and in recent months she has been agitating to have the lane removed. Her work is done under the auspices of Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes, an organization whose members include some of the most powerful residents of Park Slope, including Norman Steisel, a former deputy mayor and sanitation chief who feels the change was “jammed down our throats.” Among the group’s supporters is Iris Weinshall, Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s first transportation commissioner and the wife of Senator Chuck Schumer.

But it is to Hainline, a career academic—her specialty is psychology—that much of the lobbying effort has fallen. Inside her apartment, Hainline maintains her de facto war room, a sun-soused office piled high with accident reports and petitions bearing the signatures of hundreds of like-minded Brooklynites. In October, she purchased an expensive spy camera; after attempts to film the lane from her own apartment ran into technical difficulties, she moved the rig to the house of a neighbor. A shiny MacBook Pro plays footage from the lane, and Hainline often sits in her office listening to her Pandora stations and counting the number of cyclists passing by with a handheld clicker.

Her central contention is that the Prospect Park West lane hasn’t delivered nearly the advantages the Department of Transportation claims and cycling supporters too readily accept. “I do know, being a psychologist, that there’s this very strong phenomenon called confirmation bias,” she says. “When we hear story evidence, anecdotes, or even data, what we tend to remember—and this is an unfortunate human trait—is the stuff we already believe anyway.”

We walked next door to see the camera rig, Hainline now bundled up in a boxy barn coat. “I’m not saying bikers are ignorant,” she said. “They’re just holy. They really think they’re doing work for the environment if, instead of taking the car a block, they take the bike to go to the food co-op. That’s touching, and it’s in the right direction. But it’s silly.”

We arrived at a house belonging to Lois Carswell, another member of Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes and the founder of an allied group, Seniors for Safety. Carswell, an owlish, spunky woman in her seventies, met us at the door; her elderly schnauzer circled us warily. We walked up two flights of stairs and stopped in a carpeted bedroom facing the street. For a long quiet moment, the four of us—me, Hainline, Carswell, the dog—stood ogling the setup: the camera mounted on a tripod, a nest of wires piping the feed from the street to a hard drive from which Hainline retrieves video to review. It looked a little like the sort of apparatus once employed by the Stasi.

Together, the two have amassed what Hainline says is hundreds of hours of footage. That tape allegedly proves that the Department of Transportation has vastly overstated the benefits of the Prospect Park West bike lane by inflating its figures on how many people are using it. (The city says rider counts have nearly tripled to a thousand per weekday.) Furthermore, Hainline argues, the department had been “fudging” data that appeared to show a 16 percent decrease in accidents.


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