Supporters of Weinshall have insisted that the Prospect Park West suit is not an effort by Weinshall to take the shine off the accomplishments of her successor. They also deny that Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes is using her political connections in its bid to get the lanes removed. But that’s done little to quell the pro-bike forces, who have taken to pointing out that Gibson Dunn lawyer Jim Walden made the maximum contribution to Weinshall’s husband, Chuck Schumer, in 2010. “Only the radical bike-lane folks are using their political juice here,” Walden says. “They have had DOT in their hip pocket from day one, and the louder they crow about one of my many political contributions, the more you know they are desperate to drown out the voices now calling for an investigation into their misconduct with DOT.”
As the bike-lane fight (and the stakes) escalates, Mayor Bloomberg continues to support Sadik-Khan, at least publicly. “Janette is doing exactly what the mayor expects of all his commissioners: pioneering innovative new ways of serving the public, no matter what the politics,” says Frank Barry, the director of public affairs at City Hall. “There will always be some who resist change, but in the case of bike lanes, the community boards have strongly supported them—and the safety numbers show they’re saving lives.” In 2008, the city says, 26 people died in bike-related accidents in New York. Last year, the number was eighteen. The number of pedestrian injuries citywide is shrinking. In several categories, New York ranks as one of the safest cities in the country. Plus the Bloomberg administration is not one to allow itself to be bullied. “If you let the threat of a single lawsuit paralyze you, you’d never get anything done,” says Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson.
“Very little has changed on our streets in 50 years,” Sadik-Khan tells me. “They need to be updated to reflect who uses them and how they’re used. We must balance the needs of drivers, bus riders, pedestrians, and cyclists so all of them get around safely and efficiently.” Friends say that Sadik-Khan has managed to keep her bearings largely because she remains convinced of the long-term necessity of a citywide cycling infrastructure. “I know it’s difficult to take the kind of opposition that she’s facing right now,” says Steve Hindy, the co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery and a Transportation Alternatives board member. “But Janette is a really tough lady.”
“You can talk about the reduction in crashes, the reduction in car speeds—but that is so disconnected from people’s panic over change.” — Caroline Samponaro, Transportation Alternatives
Oddo, the Staten Island councilman, says that in recent weeks, the commissioner has made an effort to meet with disgruntled council members. But he also believes the lack of outreach in the early going badly hurt the bike-lane push. “I’m telling you, you could hand out apple pie for free all day long,” he says, “but if you hand it out with an imperial attitude, no one is going to take it.”
In late January, I spent an hour biking around Manhattan with Caroline Samponaro, the 32-year-old director of bicycle advocacy at Transportation Alternatives. I had asked her if she would show me a DOT project that she viewed as a success, and she’d suggested the Ninth Avenue bike lane. The project was met with fierce opposition when it was first implemented in 2007, but at some point, Samponaro remembers, tempers died down and the conversation became less of a “yes-or-no thing and more about modifications to the lane, tailoring the path so it was better for everyone.” She says she expects something similar to happen citywide. “You can talk about the reduction in crashes, the reduction in car speeds—but that is so disconnected from people’s panic over change,” she says. “This is the teething period.”
The Ninth Avenue lane is protected and wide. It has one set of lights for cars and another for bikes, which radically decreases the chance that a car can cut left across the bike lane and into a cyclist. But even these amenities offer no perfect dam. At the next light, Samponaro and I watched as a cab barreled over the median and fishtailed back into the flow of traffic. “Well, that just happened,” Samponaro deadpanned, using a black Kombi mitt to brush a curl of hair out of her eye.
Still, the Ninth Avenue lane is an ideal place to experience the unfettered freedom that can come with riding a bike in New York. As any urban rider (and I am one of them) can attest, there is something infinitely joyful in putting foot to pedal, something intoxicating in not being bound by the whims of a bus driver or subway conductor or thick tangles of crosstown traffic. Whipping down the street, completely protected from the cars zooming by just a few feet away, may be the closest any New Yorker comes to flying.