Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Battle of the bike lanes - in NYC and now Ottawa-Gatineau?

Hat tip to Atif who brought this story to my attention this past November.  Over the last three years the Bloomberg administration has created over 200 miles of bike lanes and passed several bicycle friendly laws. This has been to the detriment of infrastructure supporting car use. To me, this is great news but to others that have a special attachment to their cars, or fear delivery trucks won’t be able to make their morning deliveries, this is terrible news. A similar story is starting to unfold in Ottawa; a ‘not-in-my-backyard’ mentality.

There is a war raging now in New York City – over bike lanes

In NYC, vocal opposition by drivers and elected officials has led to the removal of newly established bike lanes in Brooklyn and on Staten Island – lanes that communities originally wanted after extensive public consultation.  It seems that in the US, if you don’t agree with the government and don’t get your way, then you sue (if you have the means that is). That’s precisely what’s happening in New York City. A bike lane along Prospect Park West, a road forming the boundary between the Prospect Park and the well-to-do neighbourhood of Park Slope, is at the centre of a lawsuit brought on by wealthy, well-connected Brooklyn residents. According to the Times, almost three quarters of Park Slope residents are in favour of the bike lane; however this drops to 50% of residents who live along Prospect Park West, prime real-estate that overlooks the park.

A nice butt shot of me on one of NYC's off-road bike lanes

Opponents have cited many faults by the DOT - erroneous, misleading statistics, lack of transparency and public consultation, sub-par design, reduced room for cars, reduced safety, to name a few.  As reported by the Times, room for the legal complaint to be made stems from a state statute that allows challenges to government actions considered to be arbitrary or unfair. Nowhere do I see these two requirements being met by bike lane opponents. It just seems like a complaint against changing the status quo and making life slightly less convenient.

From an overall perspective, DOT statistics show that bicyclist fatalities and crashes in NYC have decreased almost 19% from 2006 to 2010, with the number of cyclists doubling from 2006-2010, and increasing 13% from 2009-2010. However, I did not come across stats on percentage of mode share (although this is likely premature as I discuss below). For Prospect Park specifically, DOT reports that crashes involving injuries are down 63%, speeding by cars is down from 75% to 20%, and cycling on the sidewalk is down 80%. Area residents and users of the lane also report feeling safer. Opponents, however, feel that the numbers have been deliberately 'fudged'. As reported by TransportationNation, the lawyer of the group filing the lawsuit stated:

“Everyone should be concerned about DOT’s misuse of the data. Everyone. This case is about a government agency wrongfully putting its thumb on the scale by fudging the data and colluding with lobbyists. That is not what ‘public integrity’ means. Some people on both sides of the issue are affluent and have political connections. So, the continuous, one-sided name-calling is hardly appropriate. But, more importantly, it keeps people from focusing on the real issue in the case, which I suspect is the true aim.”

Clearly an independent third party needs to evaluate use and safety of biking infrastructure if these statistics are to be believed. At the same time, new biking infrastructure will take some getting used to (by users and non-users alike) and time to increase awareness in the general NYC community (to increase the number of users), so an in-depth evaluation right away, in my mind, is premature. Additionally, it’s pretty hard to argue with people who think that a bike lane is a terrorist plot. I am truly amazed and saddened by this on-going saga. I mean they are bike lanes after all – meant to reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, and increase safety for all…  

Some debris left in a NYC bike lane; Creative Commons Image  

Foreshadowing for Ottawa-Gatineau?

Certainly, the biking infrastructure in the Ottawa-Gatineau area is not quite as extensive and the proposed plan to create a segregated bike lane on Laurier Street has not generated nearly the level of disaccord; however, it’s there. Interestingly more lanes are planned; the National Capital Commission has quietly announced plans to implement a segregated bike lane on Wellington Street.

The idea of implementing biking infrastructure is to make cycling more enjoyable, safe, and convenient, and driving less convenient – ultimately, to change the commuting mode share.  

Complaints in NYC and in Ottawa have some commonalities

Why do all this for only a select few people? Only the hardiest of hardy cycle all the time and that’s not a lot, especially given our winters. Cycling will never catch on:

Well the point is to encourage MORE people to take their bikes instead of their cars. This will take time for people to switch and for infrastructure to keep up with demand. Biking in winter (as well as in the other three seasons) is possible if it becomes the norm – with dedicated bike lanes that are well-connected and maintained throughout all seasons (a colleague of mine has discussed Finland’s meticulously ploughed bike lanes in winter). 

Bike lanes take away parking spots for paying customers:

This is debatable. Cyclists take up much less space than cars and have easier access to stores and shops (along with public transit users). Thus, bike lanes with bike parking have the capacity to bring in more paying customers; previous estimates in Germany and the UK show that pedestrianised areas can increase the number of shoppers by 20-40%.  And an Australian study determined that each square metre of space allocated to cars contributed just $6/h in shopping expenditures, while each square metre of space allocated to bicycles brought in five times as much ($31/h).

A recent Globe & Mail article also highlighted the problem of traffic congestion and excessive commute times potentially affecting the economic performance of urban centres in Canada. The Toronto Board of Trade’s international city rankings on Prosperity, which measures cities on a number of economic, social and structural indicators, put only two Canadian cities in the top 10 overall (Calgary and Toronto); none cracked the top 12 for transportation. Clearly driving, which has the highest mode share in Canada, is not all that efficient.     

If you want more economic convincing, a writer at the Economist makes a good case for bike lanes (in NYC) ‘from an economic perspective;’ which is definitely worth a read.

Some final thoughts

I think that many people are aware that the design of our residential spaces (at least in North America) is not sustainable. By comparison, we are much more slowly piecing together how our commuting/convenience lifestyle may be at least partially to blame for our growing waistlines and associated chronic diseases. Many people say they would like to do something to change but when it comes down to it, they can’t sacrifice the convenience.  I think we all must be willing to try new things and accept some level of inconvenience if we are to put a halt to both environmental degradation and obesity.  At the same time, we need to measure the impacts of these changes to determine how we can do better, and that public money is spent wisely.  Cyclists need to do their part as well: respect pedestrians, the rules of the road, and not assume that pedestrians or motorists will behave in the right/legal/expected way. Finally, bike lanes are not a be all and end all of sustainable transit – the trick will be balancing the needs of all types of active (e.g. biking, walking, & rollerblading) and public (e.g. rail, tram, bus, etc.) transit modes while making driving less desirable.
WHITEHEAD, T., SIMMONDS, D., & PRESTON, J. (2006). The effect of urban quality improvements on economic activity Journal of Environmental Management, 80 (1), 1-12 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2005.01.029

Lee, A., & March, A. (2010). Recognising the economic role of bikes: sharing parking in Lygon Street, Carlton Australian Planner, 47 (2), 85-93 DOI: 10.1080/07293681003767785

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