Safe Streets Advocates Almost Ready to Celebrate Crosstown Bike Lanes

L to R: Melodie Bryant, Carol Porteous and Tom Freudenheim set out on a crosstown ride on 29th St.— on the 29th of the month — to encourage the installation of protected bike lanes. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

BY SAM BLEIBERG | There are two magic numbers for Chelsea cyclists this summer: 26 and 29.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) will implement crosstown protected bike lanes on 26th and 29th St. through Chelsea, and transportation activists are recognizing the victory for safe streets with organized rides on the 26th and 29th of every month.

The first series of rides, during the last week of May, aimed to celebrate the decision — but also to encourage expeditious installation of the lanes. After rumors of delaying installation until this fall, the DOT’s latest timeline reports installation beginning in May without a precise date for completion. The DOT’s plan calls for the protected bike lanes to extend from 12th Ave. to First Ave. on 26th St., and First Ave. to 11th Ave. on 29th St.

Manhattan organizers with transportation advocacy nonprofit Transportation Alternatives (TransAlt) scheduled the series of rides with the goal to speed up the implementation timeline to paint the lanes before the height of the summer months.

Currently, 29th St. has a non-protected bike lane, which double-parked cars frequently obstruct. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

Chelsea Now joined the ride on May 29 to interview riders and witness firsthand the current state of affairs on 26th and 29th Sts.

“These lanes don’t just protect cyclists. They protect pedestrians, too,” said Chelsea resident Melodie Bryant, who participated in the ride on the 29th. “In the last two weeks, there have been two instances of car crashes where a vehicle plowed into a building. When bike lanes are protected by parked cars, the consequence of out of control vehicles is greatly lessened.”

Three bicyclists were killed by vehicles on the West Side in June 2017, spurring action on safe street infrastructure. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

A tragic urgency undergirds the call for protected bike lanes on 26th and 29th. Last June, vehicles killed three cyclists in Chelsea. Two of the fatal crashes occurred on 26th street and 29th St. within a week of each other. Activists hope for the implementation of the lanes before the year anniversary of these deaths. Volunteers helped to install “ghost bikes” (bikes painted all white), to memorialize the riders.

Steve Scofield, a volunteer with the Ghost Bike Project, explained that the memorials help bring awareness of the work to be done to make streets safer. “Ghost Bikes are critical,” he said, “to remind everyone who sees them — cyclists, pedestrians, and especially drivers — that we are still losing far too many cyclists to traffic violence, despite all the progress we’ve made in redesigning streets for safer cycling and walking over the past few years.”

Riders set out from First Ave. and W. 29th St. last Tuesday evening, mimicking a typical sunset commute (this time, with the added benefit of witnessing Manhattanhenge). One participant made the trip on a Citi Bike, while the rest rode their own bicycles. All are impatient for the installation of the new lanes.

Kate Birmingham lives in Stuyvesant Town and says she struggles to find a safe path across Manhattan. “The Midtown area is so congested that I don’t feel safe crossing town on my bike in that area. I will be making an exception for the demo rides,” she said. “I am thrilled about cross town bike lanes on 26th and 29th Streets, because this will be the first time there is a consideration that cyclists need to get across town safely, not just Uptown and Downtown.”

Protected crosstown bike lanes have been the goal of a sustained campaign by Manhattan organizers and the Chelsea community. Activists have attended several community board committee meetings over the past year to advocate for the project’s approval. Chelsea Now covered the January 2018 decision by Community Board 4 (CB4) to approve the lanes. CB4 was the first Community Board to vote in favor of the project, followed by CB6 and CB5.

Christine Berthet, co-founder of Clinton Hell’s Kitchen Coalition for Pedestrian Safety (CHEKPEDS), and a member of CB4’s Business Licenses & Permits Committee, described the lanes as an essential step for safe and accessible bike infrastructure.

“If we are to achieve a usable safe network for all bicyclists, we need all north south protected bike lanes to be connected to east west protected bike lanes,” she said. “Some of us will bike only in protected bike lanes, so without crosstown options, bicycling is not an option.”

Protected bike lanes feature physical separation such as a barrier or parked cars between cyclists and vehicular traffic, versus a bike lane composed solely of paint. The shortcomings of an unprotected bike lane became clear from the ride’s start. Heavy congestion persisted throughout the route, and cyclists were frequently forced into traffic to avoid vehicles double-parked in the bike lane.

“I have had several close calls with side-swiping by side-mirrors of trucks in painted bike lanes in Chelsea,” Bryant said. “I find painted bike lanes are a step in the right direction, but give cyclists a false sense of security and are often ignored by motorists.”

A car sits double-parked next to heavy traffic in the bike lane on 29th St. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

The riders kept to a leisurely pace, and passed many vehicles stuck in traffic or driving slowly to look for parking. The trip across Manhattan took around 20 minutes. Birmingham maintains that even at modest speeds, cycling can be the quickest mode of transportation. “Riding a bike is an ideal way to get around Manhattan. Although I do not ride fast, it is generally faster than other forms of transportation,” she said. “More than anything else I feel like protected bike lanes make New York City livable for everyone.”

Berthet considers the lanes an important step in establishing cycling culture in Manhattan. “Considering that most Citi Bike users cross town, and the vehicular congestion brings most cross streets to a standstill, crosstown bike lanes will yield a very large benefit in efficient and safe mobility. Bicycling may become the mode of choice to cross the city.”

The eastbound half of the crosstown loop proved more challenging. One rider dropped out due to construction on Ninth Ave. and several blocks of 26th St. An impatient taxi by Madison Square Park left the entourage cut off, and the object of many car horns. The group concluded the ride eager to return in a month to a safer pathway across town.

TransAlt Manhattan Organizer Chelsea Yamada explained that campaigns like the series of rides gives community members the opportunity to take agency over the use of public space. “Engaging with community members, where they live or work, gives the public, especially those who aren’t regularly engaging with local politics, an invigorating outlet to communicate our needs for top-notch protected bike lanes,” she said.

Scofield similarly hopes his work with the Ghost Bike Project will spur action among others. “The hope is that the sight of a ghost bike might nudge someone beyond just saying, ‘what a shame,’ into safe streets advocacy,” he said. While cycling may just be a means of transportation for some, Bryant experienced her advocacy for safe streets as an entrance to deeper civic engagement. “Cycling is what drove me into advocacy,” Bryant said. “Now I attend transportation and community board meetings all over the city, something that was unthinkable just a few years ago. Once you begin standing up for bike infrastructure, it leads to standing up for everyone.”

Construction began in May on 26th St. Advocates hope to have the lanes installed before the peak summer months. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

Local businesses rely on bike delivery riders. Protected bike lanes ensure the riders can circulate safely and efficiently. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

New Yorkers of all ages rely on bicycles for crosstown transportation. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

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