Brooklyn is in the midst of a bike-riding explosion — but like many explosions, this one is coming with too much collateral damage.
A 75-percent increase in bicycle commuting over the last eight years has led to cyclists, drivers and pedestrians increasingly finding themselves in a bitter struggle for control of the streets — and last week’s collision deaths of 8-year-old cyclist Alexander Toulouse in Boerum Hill and 50-year-old Jonathan Millstein in Park Slope once again brought that battle into stark relief.
“There is a real clash over who has a right to what,” said Teresa Toro, chair of the transportation committee of Community Board 1, the Williamsburg-Greenpoint group that has seen both a call for more bike lanes — and a backlash against them.
“In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be this dispute between bikes and cars because everyone would understand and accept that all street users are equal, but there are still so many people who view bikes as some sort of recreation — not an important way to get around the city, especially considering fuel prices and the cost of mass transit,” she said.
Since the invention of the horseless carriage, paved streets in New York City have been the sole provence of the automobile. Urban planners have often sought a balance, but the pendulum of street control swung in favor of the need to get drivers around town quickly.
Mayor Bloomberg — and high gas prices — has helped swing the pendulum is the other direction. During the last two years, the Department of Transportation has sought a car-bike compromise by laying 48 miles of cycling lanes in Brooklyn alone, extending car-free hours in Prospect Park, distributing 12,000 helmets and 200,000 bike maps, and installing over 1,000 bicycle racks this year to cater to New York’s 131,000 daily riders.
Additionall y, the city plans to double the number of bike lane miles by 2009.
Yet, for all those bike-friendly efforts, cycling advocates say that the battle for the streets is worse than ever.
“We still find ourselves wrestling with the notion that streets are all for cars, are the time,” said Transportation Alternatives spokesman Wiley Norvell.
The conflicts don’t just show up at community board hearings. Increasingly, busy streets in Downtown and quieter residential lanes have begun to resemble video games. The flashpoints are many:
• At Jay and Tillary street in Downtown Brooklyn, bikers heading for the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges sometimes outnumber cars — and frequently ignore the stop light at the dangerous intersection. Near-misses occur regularly as bikers run the light and drivers make illegal U-turns due to a recent change the traffic pattern to reduce congestion near the bridge entrance paths.
• Smith Street, which is popular for bikers because it is wider than other nearby, city-approved bike routes like Clinton Street, has become a major through-route for bikers because several key east-west bike routes converge there. But the width of the street encourages drivers to sometimes travel two abreast, squeezing cyclists out.
• The timing of lights on Park Slope’s Eighth Avenue allows cars to go faster than the speed limit, endangering bikers — but the bikers ignore city efforts to discourage them from using such a busy street, which does not have a painted bike lane.
• Narrow commercial strips that have bike lanes — such as Myrtle Avenue in Fort Greene, Fifth Avenue in Park Slope and Bedford Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant — become a game of chicken whenever trucks are making deliveries (which is pretty much all day). Drivers double-park in the bike lane, forcing cyclists to swerve, sometimes into oncoming traffic. That very scenario was the cause of the 2005 death of 28-year-old biker Elizabeth Padilla, whose “ghost bike” still sits as a memorial at the corner of Warren Street and Fifth Avenue.
It’s no wonder that “the bike issue” keeps coming up at neighborhood meetings. Two years ago, residents of Community Board 2 rallied against some of the bike lanes that the Department of Transportation proposed in Fort Greene, claiming that there were too many bikers using the neighborhood as a cut-through to the Manhattan Bridge.
And last week — around the time that Millstein was hit by a school bus on Eighth Avenue — South Williamsburg resident Simon Weisser rallied support among the neighborhood’s Satmar Jewish community against the proposed Kent Avenue Greenway, which would connect waterfront neighborhoods from Sunset Park to Greenpoint with a continuous bike lane segregated from car traffic.
“That would put three bike lanes on three parallel streets, and the lanes on Bedford Avenue and Wythe Avenue are already putting a strain on the cars coming through,” said Weisser. “These lanes have made it a misery to get from one end of the community to the other and they make the streets one lane wide, so whenever a car stops it blocks traffic.”
And in the crowded streets of South Williamsburg, Weisser says he has witnessed bikers collide with pedestrians, though most crashes go unreported.
That’s why Robert Sinclair of the New York chapter of the American Automobile Association believes that cyclists need to be held accountable for their actions — which claimed the lives of 11 walkers between 1996 and 2005, according to the Department of Transportation.
“Certain motorists aren’t obeying the laws and that creates problems, but a heck of a lot of cyclists aren’t obeying the laws either and they have to realize that they are subject to the same laws as motor vehicles,” he said.
For cycling advocates, it will take a combination of improved bike lanes, protected cycling routes, motorist education, and slower traffic to resolve the war between bikes and cars.
“Painted bike lanes are a step, but if we can picture streets that are designed for cars to go 15 or 20 miles per hour, we are going to have much fewer accidents,” said Ethan Kent, vice president of the Project for Public Spaces. “When streets are slower, they are more comfortable for bikers and walkers — that means that retail improves and you get a really great street that becomes a destination instead of a thoroughfare.”
But Craig Hammerman, district manager of Community Board 6, which has welcomed one of the most elaborate webs of bike lanes anywhere in the city, says that bikes lanes do the exact opposite to businesses along Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue.
“It has become harder and harder for merchants to get deliveries because there is no place for the delivery trucks to load and unload,” Hammerman said. “We are not saying we need to pull out the bike lanes, but we just haven’t been able to find a solution that works for everyone.”
Hammerman has worked with the Department of Transportation to try to find a solution that would accommodate the cyclists, motorists and pedestrians, but so far nothing has worked.
“They say that good fences make good neighbors, but there just isn’t enough room to stake out different spaces for bikes, different spaces for cars, and different spaces for pedestrians,” he said.
— with Evan Gardner and Gersh Kuntzman