Opinion

Felix Salmon

How the NYT sees bikes on Broadway

By Felix Salmon
September 6, 2010

If you wanted proof that New Yorkers think of bicyclists more as pedestrians than as vehicles, all you need to do is look at this graphic in the NYT, which shows how Broadway is used between 59th Street and 17th Street. The lanes are labeled with only two colors: orange and green. Orange is vehicles: dotted means parked cars, while solid means they’re moving. Green is, well, pedestrians, or that conceptual combination of pedestrians-and-bicyclists: dotted means on foot, while solid means they’re moving, ie they’re on a bicycle.

The story itself — not to mention the headline on the graphic — is very car-centric, as Aaron Naparstek has been pointing out on his Twitter feed this morning. “For the first time in New York’s modern era,” writes Michael Grynbaum, “Broadway no longer offers a continuous path from the Bronx to the Battery.” That isn’t true, of course, just as it isn’t true that Broadway is any narrower now than it was in the past. Those things are only true if you’re looking at the road from the point of view of the minority of people who navigate it by car, as opposed to the majority of people who navigate it by bike or on foot.

It’s hard to convey the overall tone of the piece with a few choice quotes; you really have to read the whole thing, with its absence of any quotes from bicyclists or pedestrians, and its framing of traffic reduction on Broadway as a war between drivers and faceless “transportation officials”. You can get a feel, though, just from the first word of the second paragraph:

It is Manhattan’s most famous thoroughfare, known around the world for its theater marquees and giant Macy’s. It has come to symbolize the outsize aspirations and swagger of New York.

But…

In Grynbaum’s world, it seems, a road with “outsize aspirations and swagger” must be full of as many cars as possible; if it’s humming with pedestrian life, that somehow diminishes it.

And it’s weird to talk about how “moving traffic is down to a trickle” on Broadway below 34th Street without pointing out that the street begins anew there: of course there’s only a trickle of traffic, because at that point it’s a local street which you can only get to by first going west on 33rd Street and then doing a very sharp left turn, almost back on yourself, onto Broadway. There’s no point in having more traffic capacity on Broadway than there is on 33rd Street, because there’s nowhere else that traffic can come from.

The graphic does a good job, though, in showing the difference between successful and unsuccessful bike lanes on Broadway. Here’s a relatively sensible style, as seen around 22nd Street:

22.tiff

The pedestrian zone is an extension of the sidewalk, while cyclists get their own lane alongside other vehicles.

Here, by contrast, is the unsuccessful style, as seen around 40th Street:

40.tiff

Here, the pedestrian zone is particularly wide and pleasant, but it’s separated from the sidewalk by a bike lane. It’s only natural for pedestrians to want to cross naturally in and out of the pedestrian zone, and they’re obviously not going to do so across the road. Instead, they’ll wander across and along the bike lane, most likely without checking for oncoming bikes first. In fact, given half a chance, they’ll even move chairs into the middle of the bike lane, and sit on them. Given that traffic on this part of Broadway is pretty light, bicyclists find it easier, and much safer, to ride in the roadway rather than in the bike lane provided for them.

It’s a shame that Grynbaum seems not to have spoken to any pedestrians or cyclists when reporting his story. He might have got a very different perspective on the successes and failures of the pedestrianization scheme, and might have at least mentioned the way in which the Broadway bike lane dumps cyclists out into very hard-to-navigate Union Square traffic the minute it hits 17th Street. Instead, we get this:

Many drivers remain hostile to what some say has amounted to a tacit decommissioning of Broadway as a major thoroughfare. The street is increasingly shunned by drivers. Compared with a year ago, the number of vehicles using Broadway between Columbus Circle and Times Square has gone down about 25 percent, the city says. And in the morning rush, traffic on Broadway passing 23rd Street has fallen 30 percent since 2008.

“I know they’re trying to beautify the city, but it’s killing the drivers,” said Gus Salcedo, 40, a daily car commuter from Queens who was parked on Broadway at 33rd Street the other day. “It’s frustrating. They don’t want you to drive into the city.”

Memo to the NYT: there’s more than one way that a road can be “a major thoroughfare”. And the current way is much more successful than the status quo ante. Even for Mr Salcedo, who truth be told probably finds it easier to find his parking spot now than he did when car traffic on Broadway ran painfully across Sixth Avenue, and the corner of Broadway and 33rd Street was a nightmare not only for bikes and pedestrians, but for car drivers too.

Comments
7 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

There’s some tomfoolery coming to the north side of Union Square. Cones, DOT hieroglyphics, the lot. I think bikes may be involved.

Posted by gringcorp | Report as abusive
 

Felix, sounds like you need a group like Bicycle Victoria, here in Melbourne Australia. From their website http://www.bv.com.au/
“Bicycle Victoria is an independent, not-for-profit organisation. We work with our supporters to get More People Cycling More Often and measurably grow the bike riding world. ”
(No affiliation)
Here in Melbourne we’re trialling Copenhagen Bike Lanes,http://www.bv.com.au/change-the-wo rld/40562/
just as NY is http://www.re-nest.com/re-nest/look/look -new-york-grand-street-bike-lane-071329

Maybe this is the way fwd
D

Posted by w6R4U7cH | Report as abusive
 

Some “cyclists” are different from you, Felix, and more like those touristy-looking folks in the first photograph on the right. They sure look to me a lot more like pedestrians than motor vehicles. Those touristy folks in that picture may not fit into your view of what a cyclist is, but there they are, a whole family of them, kids and all. I am sure that there are more where they came from. I wouldn’t want those kids just one lane from full-bore NYC traffic.

Meanwhile, I think of the manliness of bike couriers in DC (and they were all men) when I was working downtown. To heck with bike lanes. They had to eat their Wheaties and become a car.

Posted by DanHess | Report as abusive
 

That said said, I am with you. Fewer people in cars and more using other modes of transport is an almost total plus in an area that as dense as this part of NY.

I prefer to get around towns and cities on foot, and one think I like about New York is that I don’t feel alone as a pedestrian. Here in the DC ‘burbs, being a pedestrian doesn’t feel the same. Apparently New Yorkers are a lot healthier than most others too.

Posted by DanHess | Report as abusive
 

Excellent post.

Posted by dsucher | Report as abusive
 

Well put, Felix. For those who travel NYC by every conceivable means (foot/bike/car/bus/subway) depending on the time and destination, the reimagining of Broadway as a multi-modal transportation corridor is a welcome change, and a great test tube for ideas to be implemented elsewhere in the city. It is still far from perfect, but at least shows some willingness to try something different.

I would also be interested to know if the NY Times reporter has NYP plates on his car, and the excessive access to parking all over town those provide. Might help explain the car-centric bias of the piece. (And, relatedly, helps explain the car-centric bias of the NYPD, whose employees have effectively city-wide cost free parking privileges). Maybe if they all had to walk, bike or take public transit to work (or at least pay for parking if they drive) they would see the world a little differently.

Posted by nyclawyerguy | Report as abusive
 

I certainly welcome the changes along Broadway. It is about time that the city starts refocusing its efforts towards the majority in NYC – as in pedestrians who walk and rely on mass transit. I am a daily biker in this city, but on days I can not bike, I walk and take the train. Seeing that I utilize both the roads and pedestrian areas, depending on the day, I have noticed a drastic change in congestion and improved traffic flow on all fronts.

I am excited to see the work they are doing on Broadway between 23rd and 17th (which is odd to see nearly abandoned by cars) and Union Square North completed. However, Union Square still needs a lot of work around the whole park as that area is another death-trap for pedestrians and bikers. I feel like I see ambulances there on a daily basis!

Posted by TheGuardrail | Report as abusive
 

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