New York Post
July 18, 2010
Driving through the narrow, pedestrian-heavy intersection of Spring and Crosby streets, Larry Rispanti had his first encounter with the “two married warrior cyclists” who were about to cut short his evening commute back to Jackson Heights.
He had just tapped his horn to nudge some tourists away from the box, when the cyclists surrounded his Jeep Commander and rode alongside it. Screaming expletives, the male cyclist rapped at the driver-side window and pulled at the door handle. With the female cyclist tapping on the passenger side, Rispanti’s girlfriend got “really scared.” He put his vehicle in park and stepped out. Fists flew, shirts were torn and tourists snapped pictures with smart phones as the two men traded a few blows and the women traded vicious insults.
A week later, the 34-year-old Elmhurst-born Rispanti, who owns a hair salon in the West Village, was asked about Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to make the city a European-style bike paradise. “Bikes are great for the environment, but New York isn’t Holland or Poland. It can’t handle more bikes.”
Like it or not, that’s what the city wants. Two hundred miles of bike lanes have been added since 2008, part of an ambitious plan, modeled on Copenhagen, to build 1,800 miles of lanes before 2030. In 2008 alone, the city spent $8 million on them. Starting this month, so-called “protected” lanes — which run between the curb and parked cars — have hit the East Village, with more slated for Union Square, Columbus Avenue and Prospect Park.
This would seem a lot of effort for the only 50,000 daily cyclists in New York the US census records.
To advocates like Ben Fried, editor of Streetsblog.com, the new lanes are an exciting addition to “a real network taking shape across the city.” Last week, he blogged that the new First Avenue lane enabled him to bike from his “apartment in Prospect Heights to the East Village, and back again, without really leaving a marked bicycle path.”
But along the way, he’ll nonetheless tangle with cars and pedestrians at intersections, throwing a volatile element into New York’s congested mix. Like so many New Yorkers, bicyclists do a lot of crossing against the light. But cars have a better chance of seeing slower-moving walkers than bikes that dart into traffic, while pedestrians can’t see a bike as well as the cab they have to step into the street to hail.
Bikes are too slow for roads, too fast for sidewalks, and deadly for both.
It may be politically incorrect to say so, but AAA’s NY spokesman Robert Sinclair notes that the needs of cyclists shouldn’t trump those of the nearly 1 million commuters who drive into Manhattan every day, frequently over roads that have fallen into disrepair.
“Its only common sense,” says Sinclair, who lives in southeast Queens, which boasts the highest concentration of commuter drivers in the city. New bike lanes, he argues, can’t help but increase congestion and traffic time. Citing a recent MTA report on traffic flow, he notes an increased travel time on many bus routes adjacent to bike lanes and pedestrian malls.
Then there’s the impact on business. Despite requests, the Department of Transportation has not revealed how many parking spots will be lost by the “protected lanes,” but anecdotally at least the figure seems high. Standing behind the counter at Little Pakistan Deli, on Second Avenue, owner Khalid Butt says the “protected lane” that runs in front of his store has cut him off from his main business — taxis — leaving only three legal spots on the block. Asked if cyclists make up some of the business, as advocates claim, Butt shakes his head no, adding: “I only see about 12 of them go by during my 12-hour shift.”
The rise of bikes is almost always framed by the pollution impact of cars. But New York already has an environmentally friendly commuter system: the subway. The city is a great place to walk, made less so by bicycles that threaten to take you out every time you step outside.
While such vocal concerns might easily be dismissed as evidence of a generational divide, 20- and 30-somethings are just as likely to have problems with the lanes. Only a week after the First and Second avenue lanes had been up, Laura Goggla has already had a couple of close calls with bikes that she couldn’t see; because her line of vision was blocked by the “floating” parking lanes. “I really think the lane arrangement is unsafe for everyone, including bikes, pedestrians and cars,” she says. One longtime biker agrees, calling protected lanes “deathtraps,” which inevitably lead to bikers getting “doored.”
Kate Sullivan, a 28-year-old book editor who lives in the East Village, used to bike through Brooklyn all the time. Repeating a variation on an all too familiar story, she explains that one night, “passing too closely to a car,” the driver accidentally opened his door on her. A broken collarbone and “many months of physical therapy” resulted.
“New York won’t ever be a great bike city like Amsterdam or Portland,” she says. “It’s going to be a dangerous city to bike in no matter how many bike lanes we put in.”
Matt Harvey is a Manhattan-based writer.