In 2009, Gruskin’s husband, Stuart, was struck and killed by a bicycle deliveryman riding the wrong way down 43rd Street. Gruskin later settled with Call Cuisine Caterers, the company that employed the deliveryman; a year later, she started a foundation dedicated to “developing safety awareness for pedestrians in urban areas.”Her newest initiative, called Pedal Pledge, asks business owners to insist that their deliverymen follow a basic set of traffic laws. So far, more than 40 have signed up, Gruskin says.
The city, for its part, has of late taken steps toward keeping order on the streets. In February, Bloomberg signed into law a bill that mandates the collection of data on bicycle-on-pedestrian collisions. And City Hall spokesperson Frank Barry says the NYPD is “doing more to ticket those who don’t follow the rules of the road.” Barry adds that “at the same time, we’re expanding our public-education efforts so cyclists’ expectations change about what’s appropriate. Just as it’s become socially unacceptable to light up a cigarette in a restaurant, we’re working to make it socially unacceptable to bike against traffic or blow through red lights.” He pointed specifically to the “Don’t Be a Jerk” ad campaign, which will target unruly cyclists; where the PSAs don’t work, the city is betting that the $200 fines cops are now issuing en masse will.
Some advocates see true acceptance of bike lanes as arriving with “bike share”—a system, like ones already in use in Europe, where riders can rent bicycles from automated stations citywide. Transportation Alternatives is pushing for such a program in NYC; the DOT has solicited proposals from independent contractors. “Once [bike share] is in play, and the bikes are everywhere, I think that’s when people really get involved,” Samponaro says. Mark Gorton, an investment-firm executive who founded the controversial and now shuttered file-sharing service LimeWire and has been a big donor to transportation-reform groups, agrees that bike share would help—but says that a more comprehensive network of lanes is even more crucial. “I hear a lot about how all these bike lanes are empty,” Gorton says. “And on some level, it’s true: The lanes are empty because people like us ride on them, but for other people, it’s too disconnected of an experience. It’s dangerous and hard to get from one lane to the next.”
“If you let the threat of a single lawsuit paralyze you, you’d never get anything done.” — Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson
Even opponents such as Norman Steisel concede that the further bike-ification of New York is probably inevitable. But smoothing that process will require some fundamental shifts on all sides. “Mayoral agencies could do a better job with speaking with community boards, earlier and at more depth,” says Community Board 2’s Robert Perris. “Community boards could be more open-minded and less prone to nimby responses. And bike riders need to understand that as the New York transportation paradigm gets changed, they need to find a graciousness about this, if only for their own self-interest.”
For now, the Park Slope lawsuit promises to keep all parties in a fighting stance. In early March, a few hundred residents of that neighborhood crowded into the auditorium of John Jay High School, a hulking structure on Seventh Avenue. The meeting had originally been convened by Community Board 6 to discuss minor alterations to the fabric of the Prospect Park West lane, but news of the lawsuit had broken earlier that week, and it quickly became clear that everyone in the auditorium, including the members of the community board, intended to use the occasion to air their personal views on the very existence of the path. One reporter accurately described the revised agenda as a “lane-themed open-mike night.”
In January, at another of these community meetings, I had watched a throng of women, red-faced and nearly apoplectic, bend forward at the waist and shake their fingers at a hapless DOT engineer, like a chorus of distaff Joe Wilsons. “You lie!” one of the women hooted. On this night the mood in the sweltering auditorium quickly grew similarly restive. In the hallway, a small army of sweaty reporters wrestled for a chance to get face time with the most obstreperous of the partisans; a pair of cops waited nearby. At one point, Lois Carswell, of Seniors for Safety, was cornered by an enraged mother, who shouted at Carswell until she turned an angry shade of lavender. Jim Walden, in clear view of the cameras, clamped his hands solicitously on Carswell’s shoulders and asked, “Lois! Lois, are you all right?” (She was.)
The first speaker of the night was a child. She appeared to be wearing pajamas. Her name was June, and she was 7 years old. June thanked the Department of Transportation for the bike lanes and then went home to go to bed. Another child was produced and ushered to the front of the stage; he was equally adorable. Finally the baton was passed to Louise Hainline, who mumbled something about having a hard act to follow.