By Chris Lesser
NEW YORK, NY—If you picked up a tabloid on a New York City street corner earlier this year you stood a good chance of reading something about bikes—and chances are it wasn’t good news.
Between cops issuing speeding ticketing to cyclists for riding faster than 15mph in Central Park, up-in-arms denizens of Brooklyn’s tony Prospect Park West suing the city over new bike lanes along that street, or the New York Post’s weeklong sting operation that staked out a busy Manhattan intersection and found that at least 24 percent of the more than 7,000 bike riders openly flaunted traffic laws—it seemed cyclists were square in the media’s crosshairs.
Streetsblogs.org, a non-profit organization that tracks New York City’s fast-moving transportation beat, dubbed the perceived backlash against bicycling’s growth in the city “The Bikelash.”
“I think it’s become exaggerated in the press,” said Streetsblog editor Ben Fried. “We have pretty solid public opinion data that shows that in general New Yorkers support the expansion of the bike network.”
The Quinnipiac poll Fried cites puts registered New York City voter support at 56 percent in favor of bike lanes and 39 percent against.
“If you look at that in the context of any other public policy, that’s doing pretty well,” Fried said. “And if you look at the Prospect Park West bike lane case, that is by any definition a popular project. There have been public opinion polls done on that specific project, even ones that over-sampled car owners in the area (Park Slope is a majority car-free neighborhood)...and by a three-to-two margin more people thought the bike lane should stay.”
Indeed, public opinion polls are backed up by New York’s myriad local community boards, which have overwhelmingly approved new bike installations in all five boroughs.
So why all the bad press? With Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s voter-approval ratings scraping bottom at just 39 percent, the aggressive bike buildout quarterbacked by Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, has become a political football.
Between fiscal years 2006 and 2009 alone the city added 200 miles of bike lanes, and in addition to parks and greenways New York City cyclists now have some 700 miles of dedicated bike paths at their disposal. Bloomberg’s PlaNYC initiative promises to keep building at a 50-miles-a-year clip until the city’s Bicycle Master Plan goal of 1,800 miles of bike lanes is realized.
The pro bike lanes policy has encouraged a surge in ridership. An estimated half-million New Yorkers ride a bike more than a couple of times a month, and those commuting to work by bike have increased by double-digit percentages since 2006.
“One of the indicators I always use is the number of flats we fix—which to me is an indication of people actually using their bikes—that just goes up drastically every year,” said Charlie McCorkell, owner of Bicycle Habitat with two stores in the city. “There are pockets of intense cycling activity in the city that rival Portland or any place else.”
There’s no way to add thousands of new cyclists to New York’s chaotic transportation infrastructure without causing some friction, and one way that is manifested is with a spike in traffic citations issued to cyclists. According to the Village Voice, the New York Police Department had issued 13,843 tickets to bike riders through the spring of this year, up from 9,345 over the same period in the previous year, and just 3,708 in 2009.
McCorkell said he sees these spikes in the ticketing of cyclists come and go every few years. “Back in 2005 or so, the police gave out 23,000 tickets to people for not having bells on their bikes,” he said. “This is a periodic thing, and we’ve already seen it abating.”
While some of the traffic citations are clearly questionable, many are wholly legitimate.
“It’s not really a news-flash—if you run a red light and you get caught, you’re going to get a ticket,” said Caroline Samponaro, bicycle advocacy coordinator for the non-profit group Transportation Alternatives. “We’re moving from bicycling as a fringe sub-culture, to bicycling being a transportation choice for any New Yorker. And along with that comes a serious investment in making it safe, but also an importance for people to consider their role in making the streets safer through their own behavior.”
Meanwhile, Samponaro dismisses the “Bikelash” as a mere bump in the road. “I like to use the growing pains metaphor, because it implies that we’re growing up,” she said. “Change in a city is hard, and while there are certainly people who respond negatively to change, I think what we’re seeing overall is New York City coming into its own as a world class bike city.”