Walking and biking: trends that ignite fights in the Big Apple

Author: Philip Langdon

One of every 11 employed persons in New York City walks to work — a higher percentage than in any other major US city, according to Vin Cipolla of the Municipal Art Society. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration has created miles of bike routes while also trying to make the streets and squares more enticing for pedestrians.

But at the Society’s third annual Jane Jacobs Forum Wednesday evening in the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, tensions emerged. A panel discussion on “The Walkable (& Rollable) City” revealed resentments and disappointments that undercut New York’s recent pursuit of nonmotorized mobility.

John Hockenberry, quick-witted host of public radio’s The Takeaway, prodded five panelists into laying bare the conflicts among bicyclists, pedestrians, disabled people, and minorities.

Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, a group often referred to as “the bike people,” sat lean and fit-looking on the stage of Proshanky Auditorium — on his ankles were gleaming metal pants clips announcing his preferred mode of transportation. He lamented that although streets and sidewalks make up 80 percent of New York’s public space, “Pedestrians and cyclists are often fighting over the scraps.”

Any visitor to New York can see that the city’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, has labored mightily to make the streets safer and more convenient for cyclists. Many streets have been reconfigured to give cyclists a protected route —between the curb and cars that park in the middle of the street. Since 2006, roughly 200 miles of on-street bicycle network have been created.

Budnick trumpeted the benefits from two of the city’s bike paths in Manhattan — on Ninth Avenue and on Grand Street. Since the bike path was installed on Ninth Avenue, a broad thoroughfare previously dominated by motor vehicle traffic, injuries have been reduced by 29 percent for pedestrians and by 57 percent for cyclists. Sidewalk riding, a chief danger to pedestrians, has fallen 84 percent. The Grand Street bike path has reduced reportable crashes by 25 percent and injuries to pedestrians by 21 percent. This path, too, has cut sidewalk biking by 84 percent.

Dr. Karen Lee, head of the Built Environment program in the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said the rise in obesity and Type II diabetes over the past two decades has caused the city to adopt Active Design Guidelines.

“Play streets” — streets that are closed part of the time, so that children and adults can use them for recreation —have been established in Harlem and the South Bronx. There just aren’t enough of them, Budnick asserted.

Nationally, pedestrians and cyclists are getting more attention from government than they used to. Hockenberry joked with Dr. Gabe Rousseau, managing of the Federal Highway Administration’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Program, that Rousseau undoubtedly has a very small office within the large US Department of Transportation. Rousseau acknowledged that the Bicycle ad Pedestrian Program is minuscule: “Four people plus myself work on walking and biking in DOT.”

Nonetheless, “it’s definitely happening at the federal level,” Rousseau emphasized. “There’s been a renaissance of interest in walking and biking. Walking is the second most-used form of transportation. Eleven percent of all trips are made on foot or rolling.” More people, he said, walk than use public transit.

Rousseau described Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as “a champion” of biking and walking, and pointed out that the federal budget for walking and biking facilities totaled $1.2 billion in fiscal year 2009 and about $1 billion in fiscal 2010. Prior to that, he said, “It had been about $550 million.”

Young people are less interested in driving than were earlier generations. According to Nicholas Turner of the Rockefeller Foundation, which is putting money into transportation reform, the proportion of 16-year-olds getting drivers’ licenses the first year they’re eligible has dropped by 20 percent in two decades. “We’re really onto something here,” said Turner. “The shift is quite palpable.”

Francis Morrone, a teacher and writer who has led nearly 1,800 walking tours in New York, said that it’s “only very recently in human history that we’ve been transported by other means than walking.” Though horses, wagons, carts, and other animal-drawn conveyances have existed for centuries, historically the vast majority of people walked to get from one place to another.

The purposes of walking have evolved to some extent, according to Morrone. For the most part, “people didn’t walk for delight until the 18th century.” Since then, there’s been considerable appreciation of the pleasures of walking.

Lee, from Health and Mental Hygiene,  summed up research over the past 10 years into factors that encourage walking. The biggest contributors, she said, include having sidewalks; pleasant and safe surroundings; destinations to walk to; connectivity in the street network; and a mix of land uses. People like to walk where there are other people and where there are elements of interest.

The idea that people should walk more for their health and that bike routes should be a priority rankles some New Yorkers. Elizabeth Yeampierre — a Puerto Rican civil right attorney who was born and reared in New York and who leads UPROSE, Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization — expressed disquiet over the insistence on walking for exercise and on the campaign to install bike paths, at least in minority neighborhoods.

Yeampierre told of a conversation she heard in a Brooklyn salon where she goes to have her nails done. Two white women were talking about how great it was that the city had installed a bike path in the neighborhood. Their kids would now have an opportunity to ride bicycles, they exulted. To their remarks, a black woman replied: “Who said we wanted a bike path?”

The issue, as Yeampierre sees it, concerns the fact that municipal initiatives on the cycling front are not necessarily the result of consultation with residents of the neighborhoods in which the facilities are being installed. A minority neighborhood wants to be listened to, rather than presented with public improvements that are not on the neighborhood’s own agenda, she suggested. “If this continues to happen in the city of New York,” Yeampierre warned, “we are going to have a lot of tension.”

She also responded to an increasingly widespread argument — that people need to walk more for health — by arguing, ”People with two or three jobs often don’t have the luxury to walk two to three miles a day.” As for the epidemic of obesity, Yeampierre — describing herself as “horizontally gifted” (i.e., some distance from skinny) — cited a series of factors that cause “low-income and communities of color” to put on weight: poverty, pollution, lack of access to adequate health care, and lack of access to healthy food.

That part of the discussion demonstrated the social tensions, and in some instances class antagonisms, that divide the urban populace and complicate efforts aimed at promoting daily physical activity. Pressed about the tension between “bikeway folks” and “community folk,” Budnick replied: “We know the benefits of bike paths and walking.” As for the city government installing bike routes in neighborhoods that have not clamored for them, he observed that the city “likes to put something in that’s visible,” to show that it’s making progress.

This, in turn, led to a discussion of bicyclist misbehavior — of “Lycra louts,” male cyclists who regard biking as a hypermasculine activity, to the discomfort or injury of pedestrians who get in their way. “The bike industry created bikes for macho guys,” Rousseau said. “There’s an opportunity to recivilize it.” In that regard, the main article in the Fall 2010 issue of Reclaim, the magazine of Transportation Alternatives, is on “Women and the Future of Cycling,” .

From the audience, Nancy Gruskin, whose husband Stuart was a pedestrian fatally injured last year by a reckless bike rider, spoke up, declaring, “It is evident we have a problem with wrong-way bicycle riders” and other cyclist violations of traffic laws. “We hope to unveil a campaign in the next few months,” she announced..

Hockenberry, as moderator, asked Rousseau whether the federal government would do something “with real teeth to produce enforcement of bike regulations.” Rousseau skirted the question, replying that “probably every city has ordinances,” though there is “a lack of enforcement across the board.” He observed that “compliance is better in Europe.”

In the US, Rousseau said, cyclists have been like individualists in the Wild West, sometimes devoted to the idea that they should “make their own space,” even on the sidewalks. He indicated that as more “infrastructure” for cycling, such as bike routes and bike paths, comes into being, the problem may diminish.

Another audience member — a blind man — said the city has been making “all sorts of improvements, but without attention to specific needs,” such as accessible pedestrian signals for the disabled. A woman representing Pedestrians for Accessible and Safe Streets asked the city to pay more attention to the dangers for those with physical impairments. For example, tactile patterns could be installed so that visually impaired pedestrians can discern the environment better and avoid injury.

Such challenges notwithstanding, the current direction in both New York and the nation is clearly toward making the environment more walkable and bikeable. Europe provides examples of how such progress may continue. Rousseau pointed to social marketing campaigns that have encouraged people to walk, bike, or use transit for short trips instead of driving. In Sweden, he noted, there is a program with an especially cogent message: “No ridiculous car trips.”

Posted by Philip Langdon on 11 Nov 2010