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January 13, 2009
by Bill Millard

Event: NYC Department of City Planning’s Bike Parking Zoning Amendment
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.09.09
Speakers: Howard Slatkin — Deputy Director, Strategic Planning, NYC Department of City Planning (DCP); Stephen Johnson — Project Manager, NYC DCP
Introductions: Ernest Hutton, FAICP, Assoc. AIA — Principal, Hutton Associates; James Wright, AIA — Associate Principal, Lee Harris Pomeroy Architects
Organizers: AIANY Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; AIANY Planning and Urban Design Committee; AIANY Housing Committee

Bike racks outside of the Center for Architecture.

Courtesy AIANY

“The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man,” novelist Iris Murdoch wrote in The Red and the Green (1965). “Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.” Because some of our fellow citizens are not so pure in heart, however, we New Yorkers need safe places to store our bikes. The shortage of reliable bike parking, according to a series of studies by the NYC Department of City Planning (DCP), is a major reason why cycling, despite its obvious benefits environmentally and otherwise, hasn’t broadly displaced other transportation modes for routine commuting and errands as well as occasional recreation. Consequently, DCP is proposing a zoning text amendment that would require bike storage in new residential, commercial, and community facilities. In a recent presentation, DCP’s Howard Slatkin and Stephen Johnson outlined the proposal.

The amendment balances two policy goals: mainstreaming urban cycling by reducing the theft risk for riders, and easing compliance for property owners. While requiring Class 1 (indoor, secure, and accessible) space for half the units in multi-family residences over 10 units, one bike space per 7,500 square feet of floor area for offices, one per 10,000 square feet for most commercial uses, and one per 10 vehicle spaces in public garages, it offers developers an incentive by exempting the bike space from floor-area calculations.

Smaller buildings can waive the requirement, as can buildings with infrastructure conditions not conducive to bike storage. Buildings zoned for manufacturing and certain other uses have no requirements, but can take advantage of the floor-area exemption if they provide bike space. Universities get the exemption for one space per 5,000 square feet, and half of these can be outdoor (Class 2) spaces. The proposal leaves storage plans open, specifying 15 square feet of space for each bike stored horizontally but also accepting 6 square feet for vertical hanging designs. To keep bike parking (or ostensible “bike parking” masking other uses) from becoming a loophole for FAR calculations, it sets maximums for the floor-area exclusions; to allow owners to offset the costs of building racks, hangers, or other facilities, it is silent on the topic of fees, neither prohibiting nor specifying charges to users.

DCP referred the amendment to community boards, borough boards, and borough presidents last November 17 for review and comment. Developer support is widespread, according to the New York Post — perhaps in part because the requirement applies only to new construction, enlargements of 50% or more, and conversions to residential use. Access and parking in existing buildings remain obstacles and are not addressed in the amendment. City Council is expected to consider it this spring after a City Planning Commission hearing.

Promoting biking (particularly bike commuting) strikes green-urbanism proponents as a healthy, low-cost no-brainer: the reduction in motor-vehicle use cuts carbon emissions, personal expenses, obesity, congestion, and bloodshed in the streets. Biking advocates view DCP’s proposal as a glass half full: Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, commented that it “is an investment in the future. We need to match it with bicycle access to the office buildings of today, which still account for 85% of buildings in 2030.” The city still needs many more measures — beginning with the 200 miles of new bike lane construction targeted for 2009 under PlaNYC, as well as addressing safety questions involving law enforcement and driver behavior — before it can claim a bike-friendly environment resembling places like Portland, Boulder, Copenhagen, and Bogotá.

NYC’s cyclist population is expanding, and DCP statistics cite a 35% rise in bike commuting in the past year alone, but the urban-cycling demographic skews toward younger people and those with a taste for risk. As former Bogotá Parks Commissioner Guillermo Peñalosa stressed in a keynote address to last summer’s “Toward Carfree Cities” conference in Portland, the practical metric for a city’s bike-friendliness is whether 80-year-old grandmothers and eight-year-old kids feel safe riding there. By this standard, NYC has quite a way to go, but city agencies appear committed to pedaling forward.

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