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.

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