Which Bike Lane Is Best

Longtime Park Slope resident Charles Sibirsky remembers that when his kids were growing up in the 1980s, he would tell them to ride their bikes “up on 10th” Street and “down on 8th” Street. They were to avoid 9th Street, the busy, traffic-filled artery clogged with trucks either passing through or making deliveries.

As a resident of the neighborhood, I see a lot of children on bikes these days, usually on the back of parents’ bikes but sometimes on their own, heading up and down 9th Street, as trucks and cars swarm around them. I suspect this is because 9th Street now has a bike lane, and so to parents it seems better to use it before a street without one.

Is this is a good idea, though?

Brooklyn’s 9th Street bike lane highlights the challenges densely populated cities face when deciding where and how to install dedicated corridors for cyclists. Space, safety and travel demand all play a role, yet sometimes one of those elements winds up getting lower priority.

In the last decade, New York under the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has put in hundreds of miles of new bike lanes, which are an essential component of their campaign to integrate biking into the city’s transportation system. The bike lanes have been a boon to creating not only a more bike-friendly city, but a calmer, more pedestrian-oriented one.

But there is still the question of where to put bike lanes, and what type. In recent years, options for bike-lane design have expanded and they continue to do so.

There are lanes consisting of simple lines marking off a route between parked cars and moving cars, such as on 9th Street. There are completely separate ones that put bikes between curb and a row of parked cars, such as the ones on Second Avenue or Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. There are two-way bike lanes along one side of a major street, such as the one along Prospect Park West or Kent Avenue in Brooklyn. There are minimalist ones, such as on parts of 5th Avenue in Brooklyn, that are simply a picture of a bicyclist painted on the pavement, indicating that bicycles are mixing with regular traffic. There are bike boxes, which allow bicyclists to get in front of traffic at a light. The Netherlands, as usual, has done some excellent work in this area, particularly in experimenting how bikes and cars can make turns without risking collisions.

In New York, bike lanes often are placed on busier, wider central avenues and streets. This means cyclists have more room, but also mix with denser, heavier vehicular traffic.
One idea is that the city could keep the bike lanes as now configured on 9th Street, a central thoroughfare, but designate smaller streets like 8th and 10th as bike streets. This would not necessarily mean formal lanes, but simply signs that alert people to these as options. Or the city could redesign the lanes on 9th Street to segregate the cyclists more from the moving cars. These are many options.

One complicating factor is that the city has fewer through streets than it did 50 or 75 years ago. This is because during the middle of the 20th century, big builder Robert Moses and others plopped housing and other projects into the middle of street grids, creating a blockage in the transportation blood flow. Because of this, often the bigger avenues are the only long through streets, which narrows the options of where to put bike lanes.

Could the city open up some of these smaller streets again?

Whatever the path taken, it’s clear that the process of integrating bikes and bikers into the heavy rush of New York City traffic is an iterative one, which will require persistence and experimenting over many years. What’s important is that the city and the public stay committed to the process. A healthier and more livable city will be the result.

The city is scheduled to launch bike sharing in May, and this will provide more chances to experiment with that essential medium, the bike lane.