Darting through heavy traffic alongside cars, trucks and buses while keeping an eye out for opening car doors and pedestrians is nothing new for East Harlem cyclists. Automobiles and bicyclists must mesh together and negotiate space on busy avenues, due to a lack of bike lanes.
“On First, Second or Third Avenue, I ride on the side of the street, but you gotta be aware of buses, people and a lot of cars get too close to you,” says Jose Barzan, resident and longtime cyclist in East Harlem.
Cycling in New York City has been on a constant rise over the last decade. The streets of New York see an average of 200,000 cyclists a day.
According to the 2010 Census, Manhattan has had a 92 percent increase in cycling since 1990. At the City Council hearing on bicycling in New York City, on Dec. 9, Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said, “The Department of Transportation bicycle commuter counts show a 109 percent increase from 2006 to 2010. That is by design.”
While there has been a strong surge in cycling, upper Manhattan has some of the patchiest bike lanes in the city.
In October, East Harlem resident, Marcus Ewing was killed after being hit by a car door that was being opened. Ewing was riding in the bike lane on East 120 Street near the intersection of Third Avenue.
“When you talk about bike lanes in East Harlem, you’re talking about making safety improvements for cyclists,” says Ben Fried, editor of Streetsblog, a network of blogs on sustainable transport in New York City.
In East Harlem, many are using cycling as a means to get to work. “East Harlem has some of the highest rates of bike commuting in the city,” says Caroline Samponaro, director of bicycle advocacy for the group Transportation Alternatives.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 2 percent of workers commute by bicycle in East Harlem, which is the second-highest rate after lower Manhattan. “It’s progressing, a lot of people in the community are riding bikes now,” Hector Serrano, longtime resident and bicyclist in East Harlem. “I see people go all the way down to Battery Park on their bikes for work.”
Cyclists in the neighborhood have to deal with speeding cars, delivery trucks and express buses, all the while riding side by side in the street. “They need bike lanes, because it’s too crowded,” Serrano says, while waiting for his bike to get repaired at the Heavy Metal Bike Shop on Third Avenue in East Harlem. “It’s hard to get through traffic on your bike.”
There are three different types of bike lanes, according to the Department of Transportation: Class 1, Class 2 and Class 3. A Class 1 bike lane is physically separated from parked cars. The width ranges from eight feet on commercial cross streets, to 14 feet on wider commercial avenues. The major drawback for installing Class 1 bike lanes is the loss of five parking spaces for every two city blocks.
Class 2 and Class 3 bike lanes are a portion of the roadway that is designated, with striping, signs and pavement marking, for use by bicyclists. The Department of Transportation looks to install these lanes on residential streets where there is excess road capacity. Class 2 and Class 3 bike lanes range from five to eight feet in width. They have the disadvantage of allowing vehicles to penetrate into the bike lane.
The design of the majority of East Harlem bike lanes requires the cyclist to ride very close to the parked cars, increasing the chances of being hit by opening car doors.
“The reason we’ve been calling on the city to finish lanes on First and Second Avenues is because they are designed to be physically separated from parked cars,” Samponaro says.
Plans were made in January by the Department of Transportation to redesign the corridor from Houston Street to 125th Street, with protective bike lanes.
But in June, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a redesign that would call for protected bike lanes only between Houston and 34th streets. “Honestly, I don’t feel safe,” says Jesse Parra of Eduardo’s Bike Shop on Second Avenue in East Harlem. “Going up Second Avenue, it’s a little risky.”
The plan to extend bike lanes in East Harlem was scaled back because only so much construction could be done in a year and it would be impossible to complete the full redesign of the corridor, city officials say. Sometime this year is the target date for completion, but there are no guarantees. “There has been no official response from the Department of Transportation as to what they are or aren’t going to do,” Fried says.
The acting bicycle program coordinator for the Department of Transportation, Lord Hayes, says the original plan was overly optimistic. “We were ambitious in our proposal at first, but we will continue to monitor it,” Hayes says. “We have to feel comfortable to move forward and make this bike network possible.”
The original proposal to connect a bike lane network from Houston Street up to 125th Street on the East Side remains intact, but incomplete. ”The city never changed the plan, they just announced it was extending only from Houston to 34th Street,” Samparano says.
On Nov. 10, advocates demonstrated against the city’s delayed plan to construct the separated bike lanes extending to 125th Street. Led by Transportation Alternatives, residents gathered on the front steps of City Hall, calling for the bike lanes to be extended into their neighborhood. “We are continuing to demonstrate, so the city will stick to its plan,” Samparano says.
Support for bike lanes on the East Side has been very strong and organic. “Every community board from the Financial District to Harlem supports the city’s plan to install protected bike lanes from under the Manhattan Bridge to 125th Street,” says Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. “As City Hall slowed the pace, groups and city environmental organizations wrote to Mayor Bloomberg asking for improvements in their neighborhood.”
One of the major arguments against adding bike lanes has been street congestion. Streets in New York are already full of traffic, and adding bike lanes, especially ones with buffer zones to separate them from parked cars, could make an already gridlocked street even more problematic. Congestion, however, may be a result of motorists taking up too much space.
“Streets might feel congested because motorists get used to using all the space,” Hayes says. “When we do a bike lane with a buffer zone, traffic flows better. It could help with congestion.”
The city has to find ways to battle the current problem of congestion. Biking is not the only solution, as not everyone wants to brave the elements of the city, and ride. “Are you going to offer different options to get around besides driving?” says Fried, who argues that besides bike lanes, increasing the convenience of public transportation with separated bus lanes can go a long way in battling the problem of packed streets.
Besides a bike network connecting East Harlem and lower Manhattan, traveling crosstown in upper Manhattan is difficult. Currently, the only routes that have partial bike lanes to get across Manhattan are on East 119th and 120th streets. There have been proposals to build a lane on West 181st Street, but no substantial progress has been made.
In Inwood, to get from the Hudson River to the Harlem River, Dyckman Street offers the best option, however, cyclists don’t have designated lanes to ride in.
Proposals and petitions have been made in the past to expand the bike lane network in Washington Heights and Inwood, but community support has been lukewarm. “It’s really up to the community board. We need their support. Once we get it, we can start the implementation of a plan,” says Lord, who was present at Community Board 12’s meeting on Dec. 6, speaking to members about newly installed bike lanes and future projects and proposals.
The decision power a community board holds is crucial in getting bike lanes installed. “Every single protected bike lane that exists in New York City today was supported by the appropriate community board or boards,” Sadik-Khan says.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer echoes the importance of community involvement when discussing new bike lane proposals, but has called on the Department of Transportation to improve its efforts. “As New York’s bike lane network continues to expand, so too should its community outreach,” Stringer said at the city council hearing on bicycling in New York City. “The New York City Department of Transportation must do a better job of engaging community voices.”
Any future projects in Washington Heights and Inwood would take some time to get started, Lord says, adding, “Those proposals involve the Department of Parks and Recreation and Port Authority, so it will require additional time.”
For now the expansion of uptown’s bike network has a long way to go. While the city has delayed construction in connecting the network on the East Side and has not issued a firm response as to when it will complete its plan, the West Side is only in the beginning phase. “Washington Heights and Inwood bike lane proposals are just in the planning stages,” Lord says.