Bad Asphalt: Streets Need to be Smoother and Safer

Trenches, divots, bumps and dips of multiple size and shapes meet or barely miss my wheel as I bike down Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, the Brooklyn neighborhood's main drag.

Any one of these hazards could pitch me over my handlebars and under a passing bus. These are real and present dangers. Their presence here, on a principal street, is typical of roads around the city and the region.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, have made the city more hospitable to biking, as well as walking, strolling and sitting. Their achievements include hundreds of miles of new bike lanes, an imminent bike-sharing program and major public-safety and outreach campaigns.

They also have set their sights on better street quality. In 2007 as part of PlaNYC, Mayor Bloomberg pledged to resurface 1,000 miles of streets a year. It achieved this last year for the first time, resurfacing 1,003 miles, according to Seth Solomonow, spokesman for the city's department of transportation. Also, the city filled an astonishing 400,000 potholes in fiscal 2011, some of which were repaired with recycled asphalt. The city also maintains a website — the Daily Pothole — to keep residents informed about repairs.

The city's street design manual, released in 2009, is a welcome attempt to tackle the streets comprehensively as a vital public space. It addresses one of the most important issues affecting street quality and the elimination of potholes: the work of private utility companies.

Utility companies such as Verizon, Con Edison, National Grid and cable companies such as Time Warner Cable bear a lot of the responsibility for the many patches and cuts on city streets, as well as the heavy metal plates straddling intersections. In October of last year, the city released a companion to the design manual called the Street Works Manual. The aim is for it to be a one-stop reference, according to Solomonow, "to improve coordination among utility companies, contractors and agencies to minimize the number of times streets are dug up, reducing congestion and extending the life of resurfacing projects."

The Bloomberg administration also is continuing its efforts to be transparent and to involve residents. A particularly useful tool is an online map that allows anyone to see the conditions on any street in the city, including when it was last resurfaced. Blocks of streets are given one of three grades, "Poor" "Fair" or "Good."

Given all these efforts, it is sobering to observe how poor so many of the streets are, and how much remain to be done if the city is to be a place where an average person can safely and easily bike to work or a grocery store.

It is revealing to use the city's own diagnostic tool and check out that stretch of Seventh Avenue in Park Slope that I often cycle. Of the 20 blocks that parallel Prospect Park, about three-quarters are labeled "good" and only about a quarter labeled "fair." None are labeled poor. Personally, I would have labeled most of the blocks poor or fair, and none "good." It is also telling that the city has no designation for an "excellent" street. There should be.

Ultimately, repairing and resurfacing streets is a bit like bailing water out of a canoe. The city and its private partners need to be improving streets more rapidly than they deteriorate, or else things will get worse, not better. But if streets are improved, then everyone's bicycle journeys can be safer and more pleasant.