Bike war datapoint of the day, rack-placement edition

By Felix Salmon
September 14, 2011
Matt Chaban manages to get a quote today which perfectly encapsulates the self-defeating nature of anti-bike activists.

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Matt Chaban manages to get a quote today which perfectly encapsulates the self-defeating nature of anti-bike activists. He lays out the basics of New York’s bike-share scheme — 600 stations, 10,000 bikes — and then quotes one friend and one foe. The friend is Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign. Here’s the foe:

“DOT and Janette Sadik-Khan’s problem is they say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing, take it or leave it,’” said Sean Sweeney of the Soho Alliance, a frequent DOT critic. “Instead, it should be, ‘Here’s 20 racks, where would you like them?’” He expressed concern about whether the stations would be located on too-narrow sidewalks or in valuable parking spaces or other inopportune locations.

Still, he said it would be nice if done right. “I walk a lot, I’ll walk from 59th Street downtown,” Mr. Sweeney said. “Let’s say I don’t want to walk or take the subway, then a bike sounds nice. But it’s still a matter of giving over public space to a private company, so we have to be careful.” He added that no stations should be place in Soho.

I love the way that Sweeney starts by implying that he would be happy to place 20 racks around Soho, underscores that by saying that the scheme “sounds nice” — and then, at the end, drops the bomb that he’s already decided that the optimal number of racks in Soho is precisely zero. He can’t even pretend to be open to the idea for more than a couple of sentences.

Soho, for those of you who don’t know it, is a perennial traffic nightmare, for two reasons. One reason is Broome Street, a key approach to the Holland Tunnel — and it’s hard to do much about that. But the other reason is the curse of on-street parking. Soho is Exhibit A for anybody trying to demonstrate the high cost of free or underpriced on-street parking: there’s way too much space devoted to cars, both in terms of parking and in terms of open pavement, and a huge proportion of the cars driving in Soho are going around in circles looking for a parking spot.

The drivers of those cars are unhappy, and they make life miserable for pedestrians and cyclists, too. It’s a horrible state of affairs, especially given the numbers: according to a 2006 study, 54% of people on Prince Street came to the area by subway or bus, and an additional 35% by walking or bicycle. Only 9% drove to the area in a private car, while an additional 9% arrived by taxi or livery. (The numbers add up to a bit more than 100% because some people use two or more modes of transport.)

If Soho can’t have bike racks, there’s really no point in having a bike-sharing scheme at all. Soho is precisely where people want to go: it’s full of shops and restaurants and other destinations. But somehow the Soho Alliance has already decided that a bike rack is never as important as a “valuable parking space”.

Sweeney, then, is the embodiment of precisely the reason why the DOT can’t outsource rack placement decisions to community organizations: those organizations tend to be dominated by people who are going to be aggressively unhelpful on that front. There’s not a parking space in all of Soho which is so valuable that its street space wouldn’t be better off as a bike rack. If Sweeney can’t recognize that, he’s never going to be a useful person to consult on placement decisions.

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