Sunday, June 20, 2010

Wow! The city puts bikes ahead of cars (again)

Air pollution and traffic safety are the two big threats to the wellbeing (i.e. life) of the urban cyclist, and the main deterrent to people who'd otherwise to take to the streets.  Thus, I'm excited to report that the city is making impressive headway on at least one of these fronts with its aggressive campaign to build protected bicycle greeways, the latest of which is under construction along Prospect Park West, a heavily trafficked thoroughfare in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood.

A couple of weeks ago the city began building the greenway along the avenue, which has always been a magnet for drivers who get a kick out of drag racing from one stoplight to the next. Anyone who lives in the neighborhood, and saw the movie "Speed", probably has had nightmares of those drivers flattening one of the thousands of baby strollers that prowl local sidewalks. The furious traffic made the road a hazard for any rider trying to make his or her way south from Grand Army Plaza.

The city has now downsized Prospect Park West into a two lane driving road, with the third lane re-purposed in three parts: the relatively wide greenway that runs along the curb, a barrier zone and a “floating” parking lane that creates a wall of parked cars to separate traffic and bicyclists. There’s a feeling of great, self-righteous satisfaction that comes from the knowledge that cars are now lending their own metallic hides to protect the fleshy ones of cyclists. The whole project is, in essence, one big thumbs up to bike commuters and a big middle finger to motorized traffic and the city’s drivers.

Prospect Park West bike greenway under construction, June 2010. 
The bike lane will also be lined for two way traffic (car traffic is only one-way), which means that cyclists who previously had to rely on 7th or 8th Avenues to go northbound on their morning commutes toward the bridges (or towards the pool in Crown Heights were I swim a couple of mornings each week) can now completely bypass those harrowing routes via the greenway.

Big credit is due to Mayor Bloomberg, who’s lent an open ear to transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, an advocate of bikes as serious transportation, and to Transportation Alternatives, NYC’s pedestrian lobby that’s put in tons of effort to make the city noticeably less hostile to cyclists. (A city source close to the project revealed to NYBC that certain drivers loudly bitched and moaned when they heard about the city's plans. The city moved ahead anyway.)  Previously, the city made my jaw drop with surprise when it created similar protected bike lanes along 8th and 9th Avenues in Manhattan, complete with their own traffic lights. NYC seems to be returning to it's roots as New Amsterdam.

8th Avenue bike lane, Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Lin.

Most “bike lanes”, however, remain nothing more than painted street paths that drivers encroach upon at will. And, of course, bicycling will never truly be healthy in this city until air pollution comes way down. I was reminded of this fact when I rode into the City a couple of weeks ago on a very windy day. Crap from the street whipped into the air and landed in my eyes and lungs, which felt like they were full of gravel by the time I got home. True, most days aren’t this bad, but I wonder what might be the cumulative effect on the lungs of so much aerial muck.

Looking up, if the city continues to make life easier for pedestrians and cyclist, I might at some point begin to consider New York a nice place to live. Not just exciting and frenetic, but a place where a person might achieve a bit of spiritual peace by being able to enjoy a leisurely ride through the city without fearing so much for his/her life. Lots of work remains as safety is still a big problem. But credit the city, it's made solid progress and deserves a big THANKS!

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