Felix Salmon

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. 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.

9 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Oh, how I admire you for writing this so perfectly.

I think Soho would be the perfect place to try this utterly cockamamie idea:

* Take all the side streets – from Houston to Canal, Lafayette to Avenue of the Americas – and turn them into no-parking zones. Permanently eliminate all free untimed & metered on-street parking. Some or all of the space can be designated commercial delivery zones with a time-limit.

* Build 2-4 modest-sized parking garages, preferably of the automated variety, on the fringes of the neighborhood (along major streets & near subways) to replace every eliminated space. Make all spaces metered parking and price everything so that it pays its own cost in 15-20 years. Include private secure sheltered bicycle parking and bike-share sites within as well.

This program would have virtually zero popularity to start, but I can’t imagine another place where such a bold move would have such an overwhelmingly positive (and quickly popular) effect. This in a neighborhood where over 30% of the weekend traffic is people looking for parking. (and yes, that coincides with the statistic you cite of 9% of the arrivals being from private vehicles. People drive around for a VERY long time looking for parking in that neighborhood right now.) You’d think that, with all the misery that drivers put up with, they’d be among the most enthusiastic people for progressive solutions to traffic issues…

Posted by BrianVan | Report as abusive

Forgive me for my ignorance of New York, but here’s a question. Does one car driver spend more than the 20 people who could park bikes in that single car parking space? Are bike riders not consumers too? Would pedestrianisation work? ie NO cars at all? It seems 92% of the visitors to the area arrive by non car means anyway. Do people use it as a place to park cars before moving to take their business in other areas, or are they just employees of Soho businesses? Sounds like the place might need a European type solution…

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

• Given that the DOT is soliciting locations for these racks, I’m having some trouble understanding Sweeney’s argument that they should instead be saying, “Here’s 20 racks, where would you like them?”

Posted by JymDyer | Report as abusive

I see you’ve discovered the wonderfulness that is Sean Sweeney. It seems like every initiative the City proposes to alleviate the chronic traffic and car crowding in the neighborhood, he opposes it on the grounds that it would harm the residents who drive cars. Sigh…

Posted by P.Swift | Report as abusive

I see you’ve discovered the wonderfulness that is Sean Sweeney. It seems like every initiative the City proposes to alleviate the chronic traffic and car crowding in the neighborhood, he opposes it on the grounds that it would harm the residents who drive cars. Sigh…

Posted by P.Swift | Report as abusive

FWIW, a parking space accommodates about 10-12 bicycles, not 20.

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2589/3662 546097_12a44f06d1_o.jpg

Posted by rllayman | Report as abusive

What makes columns like this so dangerous is how loosely they play with the truth.

Although Felix claims that “35% [of people on Prince Street arrived] by walking or bicycle,” in fact, the cited survey shows that 29% of those people arrived on foot, and only 5% by bicycle. The same deceptive logic can conclude that “38% [of people on Prince Street arrived] by walking or private car”(!)

In addition, the survey finds that 45% of respondents would visit Soho *less* often if there were more vendors taking up sidewalk space, which is *exactly* what this program contemplates. Only 10% would visit *more* often.

BTW, it would have also been journalistically appropriate for Felix to acknowledge that the linked survey was prepared for and paid for by the cycling lobby.

Pedestrians have increasingly limited patience for the bullying of cycling advocates like Mr. Salmon who are wholly indifferent to pedestrian safety. We do intend to continue to correct the record.

Posted by NYPedSafety | Report as abusive

I don’t understand what your argument is. Salmon presented information in a different way from how you would have presented it. What does this have to do with Pedestrian safety? Even if Salmon presented the numbers as you would have, the main point would have been the same: 9 out of 10 visitors to SoHo do not arrive by private car or taxi, yet that one-tenth of visitors who do are precisely the ones who make the neighborhood so horrendously congested. That one-tenth is also almost entirely to blame for any safety concerns in SoHo, including to bicyclists and, yes, pedestrians! Why, then, are we devoting so much free or cheap street space to accomodate that misery-inducing one-tenth? Would we not be far better off replacing some of that free/cheap street space (yes, I said STREET space, not sidewalk space) with bike share stations in order to discourage driving while providing a far more convenient and city-friendly alternative?

While we’re at it, we should eliminate all possibility of motorist injury to pedestrians on Prince street by turning it into a pedestrian mall! The holy grail for pedestrian safety advocates! Oh wait: Sean Sweeney, that advocate for a livable and pedestrian-friendly SoHo, was instrumental in shooting down that idea back in 2008

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

“In addition, the survey finds that 45% of respondents would visit Soho *less* often if there were more vendors taking up sidewalk space, which is *exactly* what this program contemplates. Only 10% would visit *more* often.”

Who is playing fast and loose with the facts here?

The reason people said they’d visit less often is because closing the streets of Soho to automobiles was not presented as an option in that survey.

If you keep car access the same — both for on-street parking and throughput — but allow vendors to take up more sidewalk space, of course pedestrians will feel squeezed and not want to spend time in the neighborhood. That’s explains the survey results.

But if you reduce car access in SoHo and eliminate it on some streets altogether, you could get the vendors onto the roadway and give back tons of sidewalk space to the overwhelming majority of people who visit the neighborhood on foot.

Ask pedestrians if they’d like to see the sidewalks cleared and the vendors moved into one of the lanes currently available for the storage of private automobiles, and you’d likely see a huge amount of support.

NYPedSafety is an anti-bike organization masquerading as a pro-pedestrian advocacy group. They are notoriously silent on the subject of the pernicious effects of automobiles.

Posted by Walking | Report as abusive

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