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Not Quite Copenhagen

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When Sadik-Khan was tapped as DOT commissioner, in 2007, cycling activists finally gained a long-awaited ally. ­Unlike Koch, who backed off the bike-lane push when the fire got too hot, or her predecessor, Iris Weinshall, Sadik-Khan ­relentlessly pursued a pro-bike agenda. She spoke regularly of the importance of the “complete street”—a street, in other words, that belonged to more than just cars. “I’m pro all modes of transportation, not one mode elevated above all others, which I think has been the case in the past,” Sadik-Khan has said. “We’re really just trying to rebalance our system, bring some acupuncture to what has been a sick body.”

Under Sadik-Khan’s supervision, the DOT has laid down an unprecedented 255 miles of bike lanes all over the city, with more in the pipeline for this year. Judged purely on the goal of creating more bike riders, the lanes have been a success. The DOT estimates that twice as many New Yorkers rode their bikes to work in 2010 than in 2006, while the number of New Yorkers who ride their bike daily has increased by 13 percent in the past year.

But that still adds up to just 216,000 cyclists on the street on any given day, according to Transportation Alternatives, and they remain vastly outnumbered by cars. To make significant room for bikes must thus be seen as a prescriptive move: an attempt to wean us off our dependence on two-ton hulks of pollution-spewing metal. An invitation to envisage a different, cleaner, healthier New York. Which of course also makes it a political act, and it’s the politics that seem to have caught Sadik-Khan unawares.

Bike lanes are relatively easy to install. The Prospect Park West path, with all its safety paraphernalia, was built in about a month; unprotected lanes can be created in a matter of days. Bike lanes are also inexpensive. The Bloomberg administration estimates that over the past four years, the city has spent $11 million installing bike lanes, with two thirds of that cash provided by the federal government. Over the same period, the city spent $1.5 billion on street repair alone. And since streets with protected bike lanes see 40 percent fewer accidents, according to City Hall, and traffic crashes set the city back over $4 billion a year, bike lanes can actually save New York money. They also cut pollution, which is good for everyone. Bike lanes, when framed this way, are just common sense.

“Cyclists can be anywhere, at any time. You have no peace. It is homegrown terrorism.” — Former Bike-Store Owner Jack Brown

But from the beginning, Sadik-Khan has had a tendency to communicate her vision for a bike-friendly New York in much grander terms, which has only made her vision easier to attack. In a profile in this magazine in 2009, she said she often looked abroad for inspiration—“I basically go around the world borrowing ideas from other places”—feeding charges that she was out of touch with the average New Yorker. “Most people in New York,” says Jimmy Vacca, a Democratic council member from the Bronx, “will never ride a bike to work. They will never ride a bike to a show. Not going to happen. Period.”

Sadik-Khan took office in May 2007, not long after the city unveiled a sweeping sustainability initiative called PlaNYC. By June, the DOT had installed a handful of new lanes, including two in Manhattan; by 2008, the agency was reporting that cycling was up 35 percent citywide. But by then, the Post had already fired its first shot: “Wheelie Angry Over Bike Lane; Chelsea Peddlers Take on Pedalers,” ran the headline. In 2009, mayoral hopeful Bill Thompson made bike-lane review a component of his electoral platform. Critical lawmakers, with further assists from the Post and indefatigable CBS2 reporter Marcia Kramer, continued to lash out at the DOT for its perceived tone-deafness throughout the next year.

Bike-lane opponents are now hoping that the Prospect Park West bike lane could be the place where (Cassidy, again) the “unstoppable force” of Sadik-Khan meets an “immovable object.” The immovable object in this case is Iris Weinshall. The knock on the former transportation commissioner among cycling advocates was that her support for their cause always seemed halfhearted. Her backers would say she was just heeding the popular will. “Clearly, if the lawsuit was to succeed, [Weinshall] could say, ‘See, I was reasonable after all,’ ” says Andrew Vesselinovitch, who served as the New York City “bike czar” under Weinshall before leaving the DOT in protest in 2006. To Weinshall’s critics, she is waging a personal vendetta. “It’s not just a bike lane. It’s a repudiation of her tenure as DOT commissioner. And it’s in her face every day,” says Naparstek.

When I approached Weinshall at a ­community-board meeting in January, she said only that she thought the DOT had gone about the Prospect Park West lane the wrong way; later, I spoke with her at length over the phone, but she ultimately declined to go on record. Finally, I received a call from Dov Hikind, a New York State assemblyman who represents the 48th District, in Brooklyn, saying he was contacting me on Weinshall’s behalf. “I can get to God faster than I can get to her,” he said of Sadik-Khan. “Listen, the commissioner enjoys having the freedom she has. At night she dreams of these things, and the next day she does them,” Hikind said. He wanted me to know that he was particularly vexed about a set of pedestrian islands on Fort Hamilton Parkway, in Borough Park. He said he’s exploring a lawsuit against the DOT if the pedestrian islands are not removed.


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