Sharon Roerty from The National Center for Biking and Walking joins our Gary Toth to Weigh in on the Prospect Park West Bike Lane Controversy

A bike lane in Prospect Park West. Photo via Flickr by Steven Vance.

By Gary Toth

As someone who spent 34 years as an engineer at the New Jersey Department of Transportation conducting analyses and setting the scope for public investments, I can affirm that the NYCDOT approach to evaluating the Prospect Park West project was totally consistent with industry practice. Whether or not one would agree with the PPW street conversion, most practicing engineers would tell you that there is no merit whatsoever to the lawsuit’s allegations.

It is clear that this is a well-orchestrated smear campaign by the project opponents. By inserting false conclusions about professional transportation practice into a lawsuit, they create the illusion of professional validity, and set up the tabloids to post the conclusions as fact. Since, from my early read of the legal filing, it appears that the plaintiffs have no chance of getting anyone to agree that they are right about the NYCDOT process, I can only conclude that the real intent of this suit was to set up a trial via the press.

Equally unfortunate has been the attempt to turn this into a bicycle-versus-car argument. The current NYCDOT is about improving the quality of life for the people of NYC. It is unfortunate that the tabloids want to lower this discussion to acrimony and pit folks against each other, but of course this is not surprising. Sensationalism, creating the illusion of controversy, and pitting everyday citizens against each other is how they sell newspapers.

This story is bigger than one street. The transportation profession can no longer garner political support from the American people to pay for business-as-usual projects that move traffic at the expense of other outcomes. A 2007 report to the National Surface Transportation and Revenue Study Commission concluded, among other things, that to recapture the imagination of the American people and therefore support for funding our needed infrastructure, 21st century transportation has to be about people and communities, not any specific mode of travel or type of infrastructure — not cars, not bridges, not bikes.

The Prospect Park West re-design is a 21st century transportation project, one designed to meet needs as expressed by local residents, and it enjoys broad support within the community. These types of projects — slimming down the number of traffic lanes, adding amenities for pedestrians and cyclists, and yes, moving parking away from the curb — are becoming increasingly common in American communities.

But whether you like the PPW project or not, all who follow this story need to be concerned about the attempt of the plaintiffs and the tabloids to distract people into thinking the process of implementing and evaluating the redesign has somehow been faulty. We need to remain focused on the idea that 21st century public investment should be about people, not traffic. It needs to improve our lives, and projects like PPW need to be evaluated on that basis.

Please avoid falling into the trap that the project opponents have set — it is classic divide and conquer.

For more on buffered bike lanes, check out “Safer, More Livable Streets through Bike Lanes.”

This piece originally appeared in Streetsblog on March 16, 2011 as “A Transportation Engineer Weighs in on the Prospect Park West Lawsuit.”

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New York, New York: Separated Bicycle Facilities, Home-runs, and Balks

by Sharon Z. Roerty, AICP/PP, Executive Director of The National Center for Biking and Walking

Last week, New York City’s commissioner of transportation Janette Sadik-Khan received a hero’s welcome at the National Bike Summit. It was richly deserved: in three year’s time the City has created hundreds of miles of bike lanes; it has innovated new separated bicycle facilities and reclaimed the streets for people; and, best of all, the city’s traffic deaths are at a 100 year low, yes a 100 year low. Injuries to all road users are down 40 to 60 percent on streets that have bike lanes and traffic calming. What could possibly be wrong with that?

A recent dust-up over separated bike lanes along Prospect Park West in Brooklyn has spawned a lawsuit (thanks to Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes; don’t join, they are opposing the project), and has turned the spotlight back onto Commissioner Sadik-Kahn, instead of focusing on the health, safety, environmental, and economic benefits all New Yorkers reap from the new network. This is unfortunate because as Commissioner Sadik-Khan and the NYCDOT have pushed New York City forward, it has had the effect of pulling the rest of the country along with it. (You wouldn’t think that pictures of the 9th Avenue’s protected bike lanes would get people in Mobile, Alabama excited, but you’d be wrong.)

For the last 10 years, any time someone said to me that they wished their city could be more bicycling-friendly, but…our weather is too cold, we get too much snow, our streets are too narrow, etc., all I had to do was whip out the Chicago Bike Lane Guide book: 50 pages of pure gold! New York City is proving to be an effective foil to those who say: “we want those linear parks and urban connectors, but we don’t have the space and we don’t know that people will use them.” Gotham is proving that if you build it, it will be used. And (perhaps) most importantly, the City has proved: that which benefits the pedestrian and the cyclist, also benefits the other road users by improving safety and mobility. If Senator Schumer or a writer from the New Yorker has a harder time parking, it appears to be a small price to pay for all of the above. The new and improved street is lovely and now accommodates more people in the same amount of space – public space.

This tempest underscores the old adage that we have to keep our friends close (very close) and our detractors even closer. People are not comfortable with change. A loss of one or two parking spaces in a neighborhood can attract more attention than a murder. Yet that same street with that same bike lane, multi-use path or walkway in another neighborhood could be the reason we move to that street or neighborhood. This fracas also demonstrates that public involvement is a necessary and continuous process. Whether you are a bike/ped advocate, transportation planner, city official or county commissioner — you may be on third base but you have to check the runner on first; and be prepared for the occasional balk. Collect before and after use data; safety data; customer satisfaction data; be ready to show return on investment; and get the local businesses on your side. How many ice cream cones did you sell before the path went in? How many do you sell now? And importantly be open to public input; let the ideas be owned by others.

More coverage of the Prospect Park West saga:

This piece originally appeared on March 16, 2011 in Centerlines, the bi-weekly e-newsletter of the Center on Biking and Walking.

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