Friday, December 10, 2010

A bicycle lane built for few

To those who thought it wasn't possible to lose a bicycle lane once it had been installed by a city govenment, here's a recent story from the New York Times:

December 9, 2010, 9:24 am

A Bicycle Lane Built for Few?

An empty bike laneAndrew Burton for The New York Times An empty bike lane at the intersection of West 82nd Street and Columbus Avenue. The bike lanes stretching from 77th Street to 96th Street on the east side of Columbus Avenue have not been used as much as the city had hoped.

What if you build it and they don’t necessarily come?

Two months ago, New York City marked out lime green bike lanes along the east-side curb of Columbus Avenue from 96th Street to 77th Street. The lanes, part of a 400-mile network the city has so far demarcated, narrowed the space for cars to drive down the southbound avenue and removed at least 50 parking spots in a neighborhood where parking is a challenge.

The theory was that the inconvenience to drivers and merchants would be more than offset by the boom in bike riders who would get to their jobs safely, help reduce fossil fuel emissions in the air and exercise their bodies to boot.

But so far, few bike commuters and other cyclists seem to be using the Columbus Avenue lanes. A reporter standing Monday morning between 82nd and 83rd Streets counted just six bicycles using the lane in the half-hour period between 9:23 and 9:53, and three of those were local deliverymen.

In the same period, six cyclists preferred to use the normal traffic lanes, along with scores of cars, taxis and trucks.

Monday morning was windy and cold — 33 degrees — but the same reporter standing on the same block on a balmy day in mid-November when the temperature was in the 50s saw only a handful of bikes as well. And merchants report the same.

“I never see any bikes,” said Andrew Fisher, 48, the owner of Royal Opticians on Columbus near 82nd. “Maybe one an hour, and if you do see it, it’s a restaurant take-out delivery guy going the wrong way.”

Yasia Frangiadakis, who manages Quality Florist at Columbus Avenue near 82nd, said most bikers seemed to prefer driving on the avenue.

“How long have you been here?” she said to a reporter. “Have you seen a bike?”

Cyclists speculated that for commuting to or from home, the nearby bike paths in Central and Riverside Parks would be preferable to the one on Columbus.

One cyclist in the lane, Jean Rosenfeld, 48, an educator at the American Museum of Natural History, said she used it every day to get to work from her home in East Harlem.

“There’s no one beeping at you,” she said. “There are no cars.”

But she guesses that her fellow cyclists avoid the bike lane because they are afraid of pedestrians who step into the lane as they are about to cross the street, forcing cyclists to swerve suddenly.

“Maybe it hasn’t caught on,” she said. “There are people that wanted these as lanes, and I’m shocked they are aren’t used more.”

One online study found broad support for a new parking-protected bicycle lane along Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, where the addition of lanes has been a contentious issue. The bike lanes are set to be the focus of a City Council hearing on Thursday.

Seth Solomonow, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Transportation, said in an e-mail that “ridership tends to increase as people become familiar with the growing network and as connections to other parts of the bike network are established.”

Agency officials counted about 700 daily riders along Columbus before the lane was installed, he said, with greater numbers seen during rush hours and in warmer weather.

Kim Martineau, a spokesman for Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit group that advocates bicycling, walking and the use of buses and subways, said that whenever a bike lane is installed, “there’s a learning curve and it takes time for cyclists to realize it’s there.”

She also said that as a network is connected, cyclists absorb these lanes into their routines.

“Over time, these bike lanes will get used,” she said, pointing to use on a lane along Ninth Avenue between 31st and 16th Streets. “It’s a matter of education.”

Meanwhile, merchants complain that they have lost spaces where their customers used to park or where wholesalers’ trucks once idled to make deliveries.

Ms. Frangiadakis said she found it difficult to get deliveries of flowers, because the entire block’s parking zone has been converted into a bike lane, except for a short area that accommodates one long truck and is nearly always full. Her own trucks or those belonging to wholesalers often cruise the street for an hour or more to find a parking space and out of desperation double-park illegally on the other side of Columbus — blocking traffic and forcing her to run across the avenue to haul in her flowers, she said.

“I lose lots of time because I can’t find parking,” she said while arranging purple and yellow flowers for a customer.

Customers who used to drive by and stop, often on a whim, to buy flowers for their spouses or lovers, no longer can.

“Who’s going to stop here to buy flowers?” she said, pointing to the street without parking. “Business is slow over all, and this is not helping.”

Before the bike lanes were installed in October and signs went up warning “No Stopping,” the block had ample parking governed by Muni-Meters. Ms. Frangiadakis said she had received four or five tickets in a month, each costing $120.

Ricardo Zingone, an owner of Zingone Brothers grocery on Columbus Avenue near 83rd Street, said he had lost one source of business entirely: taxi drivers.

“We’ve definitely lost the morning coffee,” he said.

The driver who delivers his Entenmann’s baked goods has not shown up for three weeks, afraid of getting a ticket.

“He couldn’t find a good spot,” Mr. Zingone said.

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