Complete Streets: It’s About More Than Bike Lanes
Over the last four years, New York City has seen a transportation renaissance on its streets, striking a better balance by providing more space for walking, biking, and transit.
As with any departure from the status quo, it can take a while for everyone to grow accustomed to the changes. So Streetfilms decided to look at three of NYC’s most recent re-designs — Columbus Avenue, First and Second Avenues, and Prospect Park West — and show how pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers benefit from safer, calmer streets. We talked to transportation engineers with decades of experience, elected leaders, community board members, people on the street, and business owners to get their take on the new configurations.
The truth is, no matter how hard some media outlets try to spin it otherwise, these new street safety projects have broad community support. And while the story of these changes often gets simplified in the press, the fact is that the benefits of the redesigns go far beyond cycling. A street with a protected bike lane also has less speeding, shorter pedestrian crossings, less lane-shifting and more predictable movements for drivers, and the opportunity to add more trees and plantings. Injuries to pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, and car passengers drop wherever the new designs go in. And on the East Side, these improvements have been paired with dedicated bus-only lanes with camera enforcement, making service more convenient and attractive for thousands of bus riders.
At 11 minutes, this is one of our longest Streetfilms. We cover a lot of ground here, and we hope it’s illuminating no matter what side of the issue you fall on.
Gary Toth: [00.14] So here we are standing in Times Square where you see a lot of activity, you hear a band playing behind me, you can see people sitting out, having a coffee, chatting, catching up with friends, and it sort of seems natural, even on a cold blustery winter day here where it’s 40 degrees in New York City. All of these are the kind of type of things that wouldn’t have happened a couple of years ago because there wasn’t enough room on the sidewalks in this great attraction that people come from all around the world to see. It was pretty much dedicated towards cars.
Brad Lander: [00:41] It’s important to remember that as much as some people drive that fewer than half of all New Yorkers own cars so we need to make the city that works for commuters, for drivers, for cyclists, for pedestrians, and for folks of every age, for young, for old, for in-between.
“Gridlock Sam” Schwartz: [00:54] When we look at people that are going into city planning and people that are working as city managers, they’re beginning to think differently about how cities function, and they’re not thinking that the highway is terribly important for central business districts.
Gary Toth: [01:10] It’s okay to keep a couple of high speed roads like the Brooklyn Queens Expressway to keep us moving around from one part of the city to the other. But it’s not okay to tune every one of our streets for that purpose. And so the work that New York City is doing in spots like this is helping bring back more life to the streets, and the rest of the neighbourhoods around city and around the country that are moving towards this approach are also going to benefit.
Mel Wymore: [01:45] The first thing to note is that this is not just a bike lane, it’s what we call complete street design. We had a very wide avenue with five lanes in it already, and they were 12 feet wide lanes. So rather than take out a lane, we actually just kept the same number of lanes but made them a little narrower, which has the side benefit of slowing down the traffic.
Julie Kowitz Margolies: [02:07] Columbus Avenue before the bike lane was in used to be the width of a highway. It’s often even sometimes still like a grand prix out there, but the bike lane and the traffic islands make it so much easier to cross the street, they’re like a little oasis.
Mel Wymore: [02:23] So you can see that people will come right through. He’s a left car coming through and he’s got to wait because if he’s going through the islands and wait for the pedestrians to pass. So really it’s helpful for people with baby carriages and strollers, older people with walkers and wheelchairs, you can observe them on a street stopping on these islands and taking a breath before moving on.
Clara Longstreth: [02:46] When I saw that there was going to be a whole lane of parked cars between me and my bike and the traffic I was really quite ecstatic. Before the lanes I would have avoided Columbus Avenue because there are too many huge trucks and now it’s a completely different story, I could ride happily on Columbus.
Joy Stevens: [03:03] At least two-thirds of our staff commute by bike everyday into the store and so it’s only helped them get to and from work, having that bike lane there.
Christine: [03:12] Our business is like a lot of deliveries. It’s good for business or good for city, protect for [unintelligible 03:18], the delivery guy, and they get used to that. It’s wonderful. Yeah, they love it.
Amanda Kale: [03:23] I think especially the bikers and what I heard from the community board meeting that they need a safe placer to ride and we’ve been, like I said, all for it and we think it’s great. All of our vendors have been able to get here and they never really have a huge problem with parking.
Joy Stevens: [03:35] It hasn’t affected our shipments. We have a bus stop in front of our store anyway, so we’ve always had to be cautious about how our shipments are coming in and out of the store.
Mel Wymore: [03:43] Eventually, hopefully very soon, we’ll be planting trees and flowers in these tree pits and it’s a way for the community to become involved in the planting, it’s another amenity and unexpected outcome from the bike lane.
Brian Kavanagh: [04:02] What we have here on First and Second Avenue on the eastside of Manhattan is an attempt to really change the street. We’ve got a dedicated bus lane. We’ve got a dedicated bike lane. We have some, these lanes are somewhat protected. The goal here is basically to create a street that is more friendly for pedestrians, that is more friendly for bicyclists, and that is more friendly for traditional car users as well as commuters who commute by bus.
“Gridlock Sam” Schwartz: [04:25] I think complete streets are really an important reshaping of the streets so that they reflect the number of people that are being moved by each mode. Buses move a great number of people, so providing and dedicating a lane for buses makes a lot of sense.
Robin Leaman: [04:40] I take the Select bus over there, oh that is great. It gets me uptown in much quicker time. When they said they were going to get a limited… that it would come up and down these avenues quicker, I said, ha ha ha, yeah, yeah, yeah. But the lanes have made a big difference, so they’re fast and you get on fast.
Brian Kavanagh: [04:58] People on the eastside of Manhattan are three times more likely to commute by walking to and from work than anywhere else in the city. The intersection just north of here is one of the most dangerous intersections in this entire corridor. And some of these improvements are intended directly to make the intersection safer for pedestrians.
Robin Leaman: [05:18] I love the island, the traffic’s coming out from here and they can’t just zoom around, they have to wait for you and it gives you more time to cross. And there’s not a lot of time on this light here. So it’s a help.
Brad Lander: [05:36] I support the Prospect Park West redesign and I think it’s a great example of a community driven project. The community board asked for it both to reduce speeding and calm traffic on Prospect Park West and create a safer place to bike and to make Prospect Park West safer for all its users.
Bill Blum: [05:51] Back in the late ‘90’s/early 2000’s we had a big push for traffic calming, at the same time the Bloomberg administration was moving toward adding bike lanes. When it came to Prospect Park West it seemed a perfect opportunity to combine the two, to both narrow what was a three lane, you know a race track essentially, while providing a very important link in the bicycle path system around the city. So the Community Board [unintelligible 06:18] Transportation Committee you know jumped on that and felt that it was a worthwhile project.
Brad Lander: [06:25] A lot of people who live on Prospect Park West have reported to me that before it felt to them like living on a speedway. I drive and I remember, you know, you could zoom in and out of those three lanes and there was something fun about it but it was dangerous. And I think folks who drove it knew it and folks who lived there felt it.
Gary Toth: [06:43] A road like this, by slowing down the motorists’ speeds from about just under 35 miles an hour to just above 25 miles an hour, that begins to make a dramatic increase in pedestrian safety for lots of reasons. Cars are more likely to yield to them. Cars, the stopping distance is shorter once they spot a pedestrian on the roadway, and even in the unfortunate incident of there being an impact, the likelihood of severe injury is less at the lower speeds.
Brad Lander: [07:08] Before the project went into effect more than three-quarters of the cars were speeding, and now it’s only about one in five.
Joe Brennan: [07:14] Since they put the new traffic system in it’s been fantastic. I’m not a bicycle rider, but even without the bicycle path I like the traffic calming.
Joanna Oltman Smith: [07:27] We love the new bike path. I’m out here a lot with my boys. We live in the north slope. We take it all the way down to Bartel-Pritchard Square, then we cut into the Park and we hit the soccer fields. And the best thing about it is I can get home now, I never used to be able to get home. And now we have a two-way bike lane, so it’s safe both directions.
Tammi Williams: [07:45] It’s just very calm and it’s very civilised. I didn’t have to ride on the sidewalk like I used to. I actually felt safe. I didn’t feel like anything was going to hit me. And other bicyclists were obeying the traffic signals and stopping when they were supposed to stop.
Josh: [08:03] I’ll tell you that I was a cyclist and as just someone who was walking his dog all the time, I like the new design, it slows down the neighbourhood and a beautiful park, it’s a beautifully designed street, it’s fantastic.
Brian Kavanagh: [08:31] It’s extraordinarily important that we find ways to make our communities more accessible to all the people who want to use them, and allow for kinds of transportation in a more sustainable in the long run.
Joy Steven: [08:43] It’s increased our foot traffic. I mean that was something we anticipated with having the bike lane in would draw more people into the stores just because it’s more accessible.
Dan Burden: [08:51] As New York is changing its streets where people drive in a more civil fashion, it just brings out even more people who walk, more people who bike, more people who don’t get in a car.
Tammi Williams: [09:03] Cars are not bad. I mean they’re very useful but I think the changes are better for the city. I think it promotes people to be healthier. We need people to be healthier.
Mel Wymore: [09:12] The protected bike lanes are part of a broad vision of a city that is friendly to more than just automobile. And it will take time for people to become accustomed to sharing the streets in this new way.
Gary Toth: [09:25] We’re also beginning to restore the streets as places that we once saw in our great neighbourhoods from 50/60/70/100 years ago. And this is important because it helps make the local economies more vibrant, it makes the neighbourhoods more enriched, but also it returns people to the ability walk and bike around.
Joe Brennan: [09:42] People have countered, they’ve said there’s problems for people who live in the area who have cars. There maybe inconvenience but I think you have to sometimes trade off inconvenience for safety, and safety is paramount.
“Gridlock Sam” Schwartz: [09:56] For the most part what [unintelligible 09:57] looks for is a story and a story that things are going well just doesn’t make it to the headlines. But if people are complaining, and people complain about almost anything, it will get itself into the newspapers. But I can tell you from my point of view, and I’m the Dear Abby of traffic, if a driver has a complaint, they will write to Gridlock Sam. I haven’t been getting complaints. No complaints about First and Second Avenues, no complaints about the 9th Avenue or 8th Avenue bike lanes. So the drivers seem to be adjusting to it. I think we’re moving almost as many people in cars as we moved before.
[10:39] You can see the bikes coming. Watch them. Watch
them. Oh it is much more visible. You can see the bikes,
you can see the cars. The only thing you have to do is not to
just step out because you see an aisle here and when the light’s against
you, that’s very important, people have to learn that.