Gurmail Singh stopped his taxi at Sixth Avenue next to a bike lane. When his passenger opened the back door to get out, a bicyclist crashed into the open door and destroyed it. The cyclist was never seen again and Singh had to pay for the damages. Singh is just one of many New Yorkers to complain about the proliferation of bike lanes in the city over the last decade.
The nation’s largest bike share system, Citi Bike is slated to launch on May 27 and bike advocates, such as Transportation Alternatives, continue to tout the advantages of increased biking in the city, including less pollution and slimmer waistlines, but reactions from drivers like Singh, street vendors, and even bicyclists show that the reality behind their verdant colored glasses is more complicated than bike advocates think.
-Joshua Diaz, bicycle messenger
Citibike, featuring 6,000 bikes in Manhattan and Brooklyn that riders can pick up and return to any of the 330 stations is just the latest in a string of bike friendly policies enacted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg during his 11 years in office.
In 2004, Bloomberg started the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway project, which aimed to add bicycle lanes along the coasts of Manhattan. A few years later, in 2007, he started the ambitious PlaNYC project, to make the city more environmentally sustainable, renovate aging infrastructure, and improve the overall quality of life in the city by 2030.
Under PlaNYC, the Department of Transportation has added about 314 miles of bike lanes to the city since 2006, the equivalent of New York City to Richmond, Virginia. The new lanes brought the city’s total to about 700 miles.
The mayor has seen bicycling as an economic and healthy boon for the city, but opponents say they have cluttered New York’s streets and have made the city less safe for bicyclists and drivers.
“Whether through increasing and improving bicycle lanes or building bike shelters near transit hubs,” said Bloomberg, according to a 2008 press release, “by making New York more bike friendly, we’re taking steps to prepare for the future.”
Many city drivers say the bike lanes have not made it any easier for them to share the road with cyclists. “When they didn’t have bike lanes they were dangerous,” said Singh, “Now you give them bike lanes and it’s the same. They don’t follow the rules.”
Singh has been ticketed three times for pulling over in a bike lane to drop off passengers. Other cab drivers echoed a similar sentiment, saying that bike lanes take up valuable road space and that they, too, had gotten tickets for dropping off passengers in bike lanes.
Even bikers have voiced concerns that bike lanes decrease attentiveness from both drivers and bikers. “They just swing right into the bike lanes,” Joshua Diaz, a city bicycle messenger, says about taxi drivers.
“The whole time I’m just thinking that I have a whole bike lane to myself, but that’s not true,” says Diaz. Opening taxi doors are a constant danger for him, he says.
Politicians have also derided adding bike lanes to New York’s car-dominated streets.
“I hate them,” mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis said according to The Brooklyn Paper. “I don’t think they serve a lot of purpose…Unless someone convinces me otherwise, I would reduce them or get rid of them completely.”
The other candidates have also expressed contempt for the bike lanes, though usually their contempt is more tepid than Castimatidis’s. They have all said that they would at least change some of the bike lanes, if not rip them out completely. Often, they say that added bike lanes have choked traffic along key streets.
With the installation of Citi Bike’s docking bays across lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, residents, community groups and street vendors have also joined the anti-bike fray. Residents in Fort Greene have protested the docking bays. Some even defaced the still-empty bays with signs that read “Citibank, residential landmark blocks are not for advertising or commercial activity.” Still other residents complained that the bike bays take up sidewalk space or valuable parking spaces on the street.
On the sidewalk across from Zuccotti Park, docking bays have replaced Doris Yao’s food truck, where she has been selling dumplings for the past three years. Last month a protest against Citi Bike at Zuccotti Park attracted dozens of street vendors, Yao was one of them.
Video: Guinea Pigs of the Streets
“It’s all over in our spot, we don’t know where to put the carts,” said Yao, “We’re so frustrated, I’m losing business because I don’t have my spot.” Yao says that her new location is more concealed and cramped, and she is losing hundreds of dollars a day because of it.
But these complaints have not deterred Mayor Bloomberg and biking advocates from insisting that biking helps the city.
“Patterns of economic growth is linked to bike lanes,” Josselin Philippe, a doctoral student of urban policy at the New School, said. “People biking or walking are more inclined to spend money.”
Philippe, who has worked with Transportation Alternative’s data, also said that biking has become safer in the city as bike lanes have proliferated. Since 2008, the number of riders has risen 58 percent while the rate of accidents has stayed constant since 2002, when Bloomberg was elected. These numbers paint a portrait of safer New York City streets for bikers.
Despite this good news, opponents remain adamant that bike lanes are detrimental to the city. Taxi driver Atique Rahman says bike lanes are a trial that has failed. “We are on the street all the time, we know what’s going on. We are the guinea pigs of the street,” he says.