Much criticism has been leveled at the new Plaza Street Bike Lane, and at those who supported and authorized it. Some criticism is justified, and I share in it; some is not. Below, some thoughts in (qualified) defense.
Many have complained that the new design invites the same problems as the old design. To a great extent, they are correct. There is not much “new” here:
- Paint: The new lane is a wider, highly visible, clearly marked space for cyclists, with painted directional arrows to the “radiating spokes” of the bike network around Grand Army Plaza: Vanderbilt, Lincoln, Berkeley, Eastern Parkway, and Prospect Park West. Paint doesn’t stop cars, but no driver or pedestrian should be ‘surprised’ to find a cyclist here.
- Counter-flow: This element is technically new, but it legitimizes behavior which not only already occurs (1 in 4 cyclists!), but is very rational and efficient: cyclists choose to go two blocks “the wrong way” rather than eight blocks “the right way”. As a risk/reward calculation, I can’t fault them: the savings in time and effort is worth the risk of accident or ticket. And I can’t fault DOT for enabling and controlling, rather than fighting, this rational move.
- Configuration: The bike lane remains adjacent to traffic, not between the curb and parking. Proponents of ‘separated’ bike lanes argue that this configuration continues to expose bikes to moving or stationary cars – and they are right: the risk to cyclists riding IN the new unseparated lane may be lower than in the old lane, but it still remains higher than I would like it. However, the separated lane “hides” cyclists behind those parked cars, and the risk to cyclists riding TO or FROM the lane – across Plaza Street to one of those “radiating spokes” – is too high. In the unseparated lane, even though cyclists travel alongside cars, they are also more visible when crossing to connect to the spokes. DOT, after analyzing these trade-offs, determined the unseparated configuration was actually safer and more usable.
Do I think this is the perfect solution? Of course not: the design does not absolutely prevent double parking or driving in the lane. A moving car in a bike lane is a fatality waiting to happen; a double parked car only slightly less dangerous. However, given the trade-offs discussed above, I think this design works for all users: it is the safer option for cyclists; the narrower travel lane slows drivers (a user group that does not need any enhanced accommodations in this city); and pedestrians will either find no change at all, or an improvement.
I think this is a good design because I believe that streets should be shared spaces; balkanizing them with rigid barriers between user groups only undercuts that notion, and reinforces misbehaviors like speeding and running lights, which causes more harm in the end. When user groups interact (as in a cyclist crossing Plaza Street to go down Lincoln, across the path of on-coming traffic) that interaction should be expected, predictable, and safe for everyone. I know this is aspirational, but I make no apologies.
I do think enhanced enforcement is critical. Without enforcement, the best designed street in the world is prey to any jackass who thinks his priorities take precedence over everyone else’s. Without enforcement, traffic deaths and accidents will continue to take a terrible toll on this city: I am all too familiar with the dozens of lives that have been lost to traffic violence within CB8 alone. I personally would never endorse a project which I felt would ratchet up the risk to pedestrians and cyclists, the most vulnerable street users.
I understand that NYPD would rather spend its resources elsewhere. But traffic infractions probably bear more directly on the daily lives of everyone in this city than any other lawbreaking: no other crime is so routine, and so routinely unpunished, as traffic infractions. I find this deplorable. We have nowhere to go but up.
So, do I think our work on this lane is finished? No! Despite my flippant comment about doing nothing, I will ensure that CB8, CB6, and DOT monitor the new lane, measure its impact, and, if necessary, recommend alterations, and I will continue to press for better street design AND more traffic enforcement for drivers. This is an incremental process: we've only taken one step with this new lane, and I invite everyone to work with us to plan next steps. The CB8 Transportation committee’s meeting schedule can be found here.