by Bill Millard
Event: Bicycles as Transport: From Alternative to Mainstream
Location: Center for Architecture, 08.12.10
Speakers: Jack Schmidt — Director, Transportation Division, NYC Department of City Planning (DCP); Jon Orcutt — Director of Policy, NYC Department of Transportation (DOT); Caroline Samponaro — Director of Bicycle Advocacy, Transportation Alternatives
Moderator/Introduction: Robert Eisenstat, AIA, LEED AP — Assistant Chief Architect, Design Division, Engineering Department, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
Organizers: AIANY Transportation and Infrastructure Committee as part of the exhibition “Our Cities Ourselves”
Few changes in NYC’s built environment in recent years have catalyzed as much optimism, or provoked as much opposition, as the steps taken by the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) to reclaim space for bicycles. For a low infrastructural investment (paint, concrete, and signage, plus planners’ labors), the city is restoring balance among all forms of transportation. Cycling’s mode share is rising sharply, thanks in large part to the new lanes, racks, and parking rules (see “DCP’s New Balancing Act on Bike Parking,” by Bill Millard, e-Oculus, 01.13.09), but it still remains around 1% — not yet high enough that most citizens view biking as a norm.
Cycling promotion is no fad, Jack Schmidt of the NYC Department of City Planning (DCP) pointed out: it’s the fruit of a planning process that began with the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991 (an audience member also linked it to the 1979 bike-lane experiment under Mayor Ed Koch). Schmidt and colleagues generate the quantitative studies that inform policy and infrastructural choices, finding how many subway stations in each borough lack bike parking, or how many citizens perform daily “peripheral travel,” going somewhere other than the central business district. City government is moving forward on innovations like NYCyclistNet, a route-planning tool that incorporates feedback options so that cyclists can comment on the system’s output and improve it.
DOT’s Jon Orcutt presented data linking absolute decreases in injury counts with rises in the number of cyclists. Urban biking gets safer the more people do it, and the spread of protected lanes increases the number of potential riders. With more than 200 miles of new lanes in three years, plus public bike-sharing in the works, the city is approaching a point where residents can dispense with driving for short trips in most neighborhoods, though large areas (particularly in eastern Queens) remain underserved.
In NYC, as Transportation Alternatives’ Caroline Samponaro pointed out, the pedestrian is king, rightfully and numerically. Advocacy groups have driven measurable progress in five areas affecting mode choice: protected space, bike sharing, parking, bike culture, and popular opinion. The critical channel is that last one: convincing more cyclists to follow laws and habits that promote pedestrian safety (as in the “Biking Rules” campaign), and convincing more pedestrians that cyclists are allies, not antagonists. Perceptions in this area rarely follow statistics or reality. That 1% mode share will approach 10% only when cyclists and cyclophobes communicate more and better; events like this panel offer exactly such an opportunity for constructive conversation.
Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in OCULUS, Icon, Content, The Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications. He is also a member of Transportation Alternatives.