How to make NYC safe from cars

Bicyclist in New York City.
Bicyclist in New York City.
goofyfoottaka/Shutterstock

How to make NYC safe from cars

New York should take a page from cities like London.
July 17, 2019

New York City is in the midst of a battle for its roads. There are over 6,000 miles of roads and highways in the city, and pedestrians, cyclists, drivers and bus riders all want enough space to travel quickly and safely on them. The problem is that road space is finite and it cannot be divided in a way that will make everyone happy. This summer, the conflict between cyclists and drivers has taken an unfortunate turn as a spike in cyclist deaths has reminded us that this fight for space is deadly and urgent. The issue will remain unresolved and the deaths will continue until the city rebuilds its streets around pedestrians, cyclists and mass transit users – rather than drivers.

By some metrics, New York City has made meaningful strides toward finding a greater balance between bicycles and automobiles over the past decade. There are now 1,200 miles of bike lanes crisscrossing the five boroughs, and nearly 500 of those miles are physically separated from general traffic. Physical separation is critical to keeping cars at bay as pedestrians, cyclists, and bus passengers take advantage of these small pockets of space that enable them to move safely around the city. Unfortunately, painted lanes are woefully inadequate when it comes to keeping cars at bay.

Despite year-over-year growth in cycling, just over 1% of all commuters rely on bicycles to get to work, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. All of this could lead one to conclude that enough space has already been given over to bicycles based on the current number of daily commuters, but that misses the point. As New York has deployed bicycle infrastructure, it has seen outsized gains in ridership. From 2012 to 2017, the overall number of people commuting to work in New York City grew 8.6% while the number of bicycle commuters increased 41.7%. Bicycle infrastructure begets more bicycle commuters.

This is exactly what cities across Europe have concluded. Cities in the Netherlands have seen dramatic shifts from automobiles to bicycles, transit and walking by following a formula of reducing the amount of road space given to cars and increasing investments in infrastructure for nonmotorized travel. By building the Dafne Schippers Bicycle Bridge in Utrecht and the Nigtevecht Bicycle Bridge outside of Amsterdam, the Dutch have committed to rebuilding their cities around alternatives to the automobile – something that no American city has been bold enough to try. Even in New York City, where we brag about our subways and laud Citi Bike’s record-breaking ridership feats, the city’s transportation priorities are refracted through the windshield of an automobile rather than through the eyes of pedestrians.

Building new infrastructure and shifting the logic of our transportation planning will make it safer for those already walking and cycling and will attract more New Yorkers to opt out of driving. As New York challenges the dominance of automobiles, it also has to examine policies like minimum parking requirements and land use regulations that encourage driving, such as mandating that the majority of new developments provide off-street parking and thereby interrupt sidewalks with driveways. Likewise, the mandatory separation of different land uses in low-density residential districts, like Todt Hill on Staten Island or Jamaica Estates in Queens, make the automobile a must for residents to access work, school, shopping and other opportunities.

Invariably, this policy reorientation will mean less space for automobiles. As such, a good place to start looking for money to build new infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists and mass transit users can be found in the $14 billion earmarked for bridge and roadway improvements over the next 10 years. These ongoing expenditures on infrastructure for automobiles further entrench persistent asymmetries between automobiles and other commuters by making driving more attractive.

New York should take a page from peer cities that are developing five-year bicycle plans with projects identified and funding allocated. In London, 2.3 billion pounds, nearly $3 billion, has been apportioned over the next five years to transform London into the best big city in the world to ride a bicycle. London is rolling out incongruous-sounding Cycle Superhighways, which take space away from automobiles and provide protected space for cyclists, buses and pedestrians to travel down main streets.

By identifying the specific infrastructure to be used in the future – be it bicycle parking facilities next to Penn Station, a new East River crossing solely for pedestrians and bicycles, or hundreds of miles of new protected bike lanes – elected officials and city agencies can begin coordinating projects and earmarking capital budget dollars now.

When looking through the city Department of Transportation’s budget documents, it’s hard not to blanch at the idea that $1.5 billion will be spent on rehabilitating the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, $429.6 million will be spent reconstructing the Harlem River Drive Ramp in Manhattan and $1.7 billion will go toward repaving highways throughout the city. There is money in the budget for the construction of nonautomobile infrastructure, too, but there’s more spent on highways in Queens alone than on sidewalks in the whole city. If driving becomes more attractive, more cars will clog up the streets, inching cyclists off the road while making buses less reliable.

The need for long-term thinking has reached a new level of urgency in 2019, as 15 cyclists and 56 pedestrians, as of July 15, have been killed in crashes with automobiles. New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has begun to put his political capital behind a more inclusive transportation vision that calls for the construction of 50 miles of protected bike lanes every year and would require the city Department of Transportation to produce a master plan for streets, sidewalks and pedestrian spaces that would prioritize the safety of nondrivers and promote the usage of mass transit.

While this legislation is working its way through the City Council, it is critical for elected officials to start advocating for specific projects so that the transportation department can begin to design and plan new infrastructure that will transform New York from a 20th century city built around the automobile to a 21st century city where anyone can hop on a bicycle or cross a street without the fear of being killed by a car or truck.

Eric Goldwyn
is a research scholar at New York University’s Marron Institute.
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