Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Review of Manhattan's Reconfigured First Avenue

The reconfigured First Avenue, with bus in the dedicated bus lane, and bike lane in foreground.

Last Wednesday, I wrote about the dismissal of the Prospect Park West bike lane lawsuit. I stressed that while it was a victory for that particular bike lane, it is important to understand their opponents’ arguments. If there is to be successful proliferation of bike lanes, we need to understand what about them is working and not working. While there will always be some people whose minds will never change, truly good urban planning ideas ultimately achieve broad community support (for the record: I do not own a bicycle, but I support bike lanes as components of complete streets).

With this in mind, I set out to review another controversial bike lane: along First Avenue in Manhattan, between 34th and 59th Streets. This area is being reinvented as a complete street; in addition to a bike lane, it has a dedicated bus lane for the M15 Select Bus Service. As I photographed it, I took the opportunity to chat with some passersby about what they think the recent changes to the street.

One woman told me that taxis will not even stop on 1st Avenue anymore, because there is no place for them to pull over without entering either the bus or the bike lane. She also pointed out that intersections have become more confusing and dangerous, both for cyclists and drivers.

In the above photo you can see a bus waiting to turn left onto 37th Street. To the bus’s left (the right from our perspective) is the bike lane. There is no left turn arrow at this intersection; given that both streets are one-way, it was probably deemed unnecessary to install one. The bike lane complicates this: when the light turns green, drivers in the left-most vehicle lane will be turning left, but cyclists are often going straight ahead on 1st Avenue. Without a left-turn signal, both can legally happen simultaneously. Drivers are not accustomed to looking to the left for straight-ahead traffic when making left turns, which creates a dangerous situation.

Several people mentioned cyclist behavior as a major problem. The chief complaints were that they don’t always ride in the right direction (1st Avenue is a one-way street whose traffic moves in the northbound direction) and that they frequently do not obey red lights. I think any reasonable person would agree that these both create dangerous conditions for pedestrians and thus are legitimate complaints. How we address them is really the issue. I believe that enforcement of traffic rules is the right way, rather than ripping up the bike lanes. This is how we address the problem of scofflaw drivers; we don’t remove roads. Drunk driving, for example, used to be more of a problem. We significantly reduced the problem through aggressive enforcement of driving laws (which was much more successful than our attempt to eradicate undesirable behavior by banning alcohol).

I can’t really address the other complaints I heard, which were about traffic. One person was furious about the bike lane because of the traffic lane reduction (of course, the traffic lane reduction is not solely the result of the bike lane, but also the dedicated bus lane), and another claimed that the lane has created traffic jams were there were none previously. I did not observe 1st Avenue before its reconfiguration, so I can’t speak to this concern. At the time that I was there to photograph (late afternoon on a Friday), traffic appeared to be moving just fine, but that proves nothing, really. I can, however, point to an increasing body of data that suggests that narrowing or even disappearing roads do not lead to the predicted traffic apocalypse.

My overall take on the reconfiguration of First Avenue is that it is a worthy work in progress. There are some kinks to be worked out, such as the confusing intersections that are downright dangerous. I really don’t know whether the traffic and taxi problems are as bad as some of the people I talked to said they are. If they are, then these need to be addressed as well. Furthermore, if the select bus service and its dedicated bus lane represent an improvement over the previous M15 bus service, then I’d hate to have seen it before. As it was, it took almost 20 minutes to get from 14th Street to 34th Street on the bus (the buses do not have the ability to change traffic signals, as some buses in European cities do). Buses and bikes are both efficient alternatives to private automobiles, and it is encouraging to see that the city is attempting to accommodate them. I hope they keep striving to get it right; if not, then the opponents of the changes will have legitimate reasons for turning back efforts for more complete streets.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Victory, and a Victory with a Caveat for Complete Streets

Yesterday brought news of two victories for complete streets in New York. The first victory was Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s signing of complete streets legislation (press release here and to learn more about complete streets go here). The new legislation will require major transportation projects in the state to consider all street users - i.e., pedestrians, transit riders and cyclists - and not just automobile drivers. This is certainly a positive step, as many streets in the region are downright hostile to non-motorists. Building streets that essentially force people to drive even relatively short distances is one way that we have designed physical activity out of our daily lives, and contributes to the shockingly short distance that the average American walks each day. The new legislation only affects large transportation projects (ones funded on the state level), so it will still be up to municipalities to decide how to build and/or retrofit their local roads.

The second victory is for the bike lane along Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, which has been at the center of a contentious debate and become one of the most-scrutinized projects of transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn’s tenure. It is this victory that comes with a major caveat: the case was dismissed because Judge Bert A. Bunyan found that the bike lane opponents’ lawsuit was filed after the statute of limitations had expired. While this means that this specific bike lane now has a better chance of staying in place, it does not represent a precedent in favor of bike lanes in general.

This is important to keep in mind, because there will continue to be tension over bike lanes, as has been the case in Toronto. Those of us who are supporters of complete street measures need to engage in discussions with opponents. Rather than dismissing them as cranks, NIMBYs, or even just fearful of change, let's find out what the concerns are. Chances are there are some concerns worth hearing, and it does nobody any good to stay ensconced in echo chambers where opponents are simply anti-progress.

How can we more effectively demonstrate the benefits of complete streets? What are the concerns that need to be addressed? Readers, please share your thoughts - pro or con - on bike lanes, traffic calming, and other aspects of complete streets. The more we can learn about the arguments on both sides, the better we can move forward with efforts to make streets that truly deliver on the promise to consider all users.