Having moved to New York shortly before Rob Ford’s election, following Toronto politics from abroad has gone from the tragic to the downright bizarre, especially when it comes to the future of bike infrastructure. But good things never come easily, in Toronto or elsewhere.
In New York, a city quickly making a name for itself as North America’s future bike Mecca, opposition is mounting towards those bright green lanes, often fully separated from traffic on some of the city’s most congested, hallowed thoroughfares. Dubbed the “bike wars” by the local media, drivers and alternative transportation advocates are squaring off in what’s becoming an increasingly heated political battle.
Ring a bell?
It’s worth pointing out that the contexts are strikingly different between Toronto and New York City. After all, we’re not talking about the odd painted line or loss of a single car lane on Jarvis Street. Installing 250 miles of lanes in five years, as has been done in New York City, should cause a stir. With million-dollar-a-block treatments radically redesigning streets to make them more friendly for pedestrians and cyclists often at the expense of car lanes and parking, there’s a good argument that such drastic changes should go through greater public consultation processes.
Local community boards meetings — New York’s hyper-local arm of municipal government established as a way for communities to proactively participate in city issues — are fast becoming the forums for startled residents and local businesses to vent about the changes. And politicians are noticing.
Last November, Staten Island city councillors successfully fought for the removal of a 2.35 mile bike lane on a main street in their borough. Street protests have broken out over a single bike lane along Prospect Park West — a street bordering Brooklyn’s version of Central Park now surrounded by gentrified brownstones. Fights between bike-riding hipsters and Hasidic Jews over bike lanes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn are all too real. Just last week, the idea of licensing cyclists was raised by a Republican councillor in Queens.
Indeed, Republican city councillors are showing their increasing sophistication by arguing that bike lanes should have to go through a lengthy environmental review process that other traffic changes must endure. Such a move would essentially kill the currently expedited process allowing for lanes to be built all over the city at such a furious pace.
Luckily for New York City, anti-bike activists are still playing catch-up. For years now, the City’s Transportation Commissioner Janet Sadik-Kahn has openly questioned the place of the car on the city’s streets with the full backing of Mayor Bloomberg. Combine this with a strong mayoral system and Transportation Alternatives, the city’s sustainable transportation advocacy group that organizes large pro-bike rallies, fills community board meetings with vocal supporters and overwhelms unfriendly politicians’ office inboxes with floods of e-faxes seemingly at will, and those Staten Island politicians still have a long way to go.
These huge successes aside, I’d still prefer riding my bike in Toronto any day. Green painted lanes buffered from traffic with their own signal lights are nice and all, but they’re still relatively lonely places — ignoring the jaywalkers — that lack crucial connections through particularly hairy parts of the city like midtown Manhattan. Riding in mixed traffic is great if you’re looking for the occasional thrill of cars and cabs giving you absolutely no room or respect, but not if you’re looking for a safe and stress-free commute home. Sidewalk parking is virtually non-existent, bikes are prohibited on buses and a huge challenge to take on the subway, and a kryptonite lock means nothing if you decide to leave your bike outside at night.
That is to say, Toronto isn’t alone in its struggle to become more multi-modal. Too often, bike success stories from abroad only make it to our fair city once the battle has already been won. Left out of the picture are the all too similar struggles it took each city to get there.
Sure New York City has come a long way, but that’s partly because of how far it has to go. But if they continue to expand its bike infrastructure at this pace, I have every confidence New York City will surpass Toronto in terms of bikeability.
But until then, I’d rather ride on College Street.
photo by Jake Schabas