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Not Quite Copenhagen

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It’s a wonderful feeling, this freedom. But freedom in New York does not belong just to the cyclist. Driving in midtown may be less than exhilarating, but we nonetheless want the freedom to drive there. Tellingly, the death knell for the old Koch lanes was tests showing that a 29-block stretch of northbound car traffic had been slowed by between five and ten minutes—actually a sign that the bike lane was doing its job, since one benefit of bike lanes is a calmer street, but a damning finding in this always-in-a-hurry city. Ditto for Prospect Park West: Traffic speeds are down, which has pleased pedestrians and cyclists and infuriated drivers.

Drivers, of course, are used to operating within given constraints and might eventually come around to coexisting with bike lanes. Pedestrians—who have had the most visceral reactions to bike lanes—are another matter entirely. In New York, aggressive walking is a point of pride. We walk with lights and against lights, but mostly we walk fast; the sidewalks, which lack the amenity of passing lanes, play host to their own version of tailgaters and reckless mergers. When, in February, The Wall Street Journal ran an article on the phenomenon of “sidewalk rage,” it was akin to releasing scientific proof that our buildings are tall.

The New York pedestrian gets good at judging his or her foot speed against the velocity of onrushing vehicles. But the addition of bike lanes, and the bikers they carry, has made jaywalking a more fraught proposition. “You know about the cars. You know about that potential danger when you’re crossing the street. You know you might end up a bag of blood and guts and bones. But that is a finite realm of danger,” says Jack Brown, who used to own a bike shop in the East Village. “When it comes to cyclists, that danger is infinite. Cyclists can be anywhere, at any time: on the sidewalk, riding the wrong way down the street. And you have no peace … The anarchy that has been allowed to prevail is astonishing. According to butterfly theory, according to chaos theory, I am sure that the level of emotional and psychological damage wrought by the bicycle far exceeds the damage done by cars.” And then Brown goes there: “It is homegrown terrorism. The cumulative effect is equivalent to what happened on 9/11.”

This is being jammed down our throats. — Former Deputy Mayor Norman Steisel

Four years ago, bike lanes seemed like an elegant solution to New York’s ticking population time bomb. By 2030, the population of the city is expected to reach 9.1 million. There is absolutely no way all of those bodies are going to fit into the overcrowded, drastically underfunded subways and buses; if more opt to drive, the gridlock could be nightmarish. Why not give people the option to climb on their bikes? Why not offer them protected lanes and slower streets and flashing lights and reflective signs?

And yet, as we are all becoming increasingly aware, in crowded New York, space, and convenience, is finite. Any alteration is an exercise in redistribution—to give to Column A, you have to take away from Column B. Because the streets and sidewalks represent 80 percent of the public space in this dense city, they are far from mere utilitarian corridors. They are our shared front yard, turf to be guarded against any use that comes at our expense. In certain cases, such as in Park Slope, the street is not just a street but “a grand boulevard,” and its aesthetics are so perfect that any change can be seen as intolerable.

The hyperbolic excesses of partisans like Brown—and, to a lesser extent, Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes—are absurd, of course. But they do serve to highlight the inherent problem with bike lanes: Every time we add a bike lane, an adjustment has to take place, the “butterfly theory” of Brown’s tirade. The DOT can put in bike lanes by the thousands, but the more important transformation will be internal: We are going to have to learn to accept a decrease, however minuscule, in our individual freedoms. For bike lanes to really work, New Yorkers are going to have to learn to share.

Sharing, however, will first require a commitment by all New Yorkers—and especially bikers—to abide by the rules of the road. “If you’re going to put more cyclists on the street, you have to make sure there’s more enforcement,” says Nancy Gruskin, a music teacher and activist based in New Jersey. And until recently, that hadn’t happened. “It feels very haphazard: You throw something out there and expect that the structure is going to build itself, and what happens is that you have civil war.”


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