National News

After Cyclists Died, Safer Crosstown Bike Lanes Are Planned for Midtown Manhattan

Posted January 17, 2018 4:18 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Even as New York City has seen a soaring number of bicyclists seeking alternatives to increasing gridlock on the streets and a chronically unreliable subway system below ground, there is one amenity riders do not have: a way to pedal across Midtown Manhattan without coming dangerously close to traffic.

Now after a spate of fatal cycling crashes in the past year, city transportation officials are moving to install protected crosstown bike lanes that would be flanked by a sidewalk curb on one side, and a row of parked cars on the other. They would be the first protected bike lanes in Manhattan that stretch almost all the way from the East River to the Hudson River. Now, most protected bike lanes in Manhattan run north to south.

On Wednesday, transportation officials unveiled plans for the first two protected bike lanes: one going east on 26th Street, where there is no bike lane, and the other going west on 29th Street, replacing an existing bike lane delineated only by paint. The new lanes would each run about 1.8 miles, and are expected to be completed this year, city officials said.

In addition, two more bike lanes are planned about 20 blocks north of there, in the 50s just south of Central Park. City officials are looking at an eastbound lane on 52nd Street, and a westbound lane on 55th Street, though they are also considering other options.

The push to build protected bike lanes in Midtown Manhattan comes after five cyclists were killed in crashes last year between 14th and 59th Streets, including a 36-year-old investment banker who was riding a Citi Bike to work on West 26th Street in the first fatality involving the bike share program, according to city officials.

“We clearly feel an urgency on the safety, but we’ve been working on this for several years,” said Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner. “We’ve long known this is a key part of the cycling network we need to build out in Manhattan.”

Citywide, the number of bicyclists killed in crashes rose to 23 in 2017, from 18 the year before, even as pedestrian deaths fell sharply to 101 from 148 during the same period. Overall, traffic fatalities declined to 214 last year, the lowest level since the city began keeping records more than a century ago.

Cycling has become a crucial part of the city’s transportation infrastructure and officials have committed to building 50 miles of new bike lanes every year, of which at least 10 miles would be protected bike lanes. Last year alone, they built a record 25 miles of protected bike lanes. In all, the city has 1,180 miles of bike lanes, of which 451 miles are protected.

But even as cycling has taken off, there has also been growing criticism from residents and some elected officials who say that cyclists speed and run red lights, go the wrong direction on one-way streets and pose a danger to themselves and pedestrians. In recent years, proposals to add bike lanes in Manhattan and Queens have stirred opposition. Though the city’s Transportation Department has the authority to build bike lanes, Trottenberg said that her department works closely with community boards and local groups to address their concerns. “We try very hard to get their approval,” she said, adding that they sometimes proceed over objections when there are safety concerns.

She said that 26th and 29th Streets were selected for the new crosstown routes largely because they are wide enough to accommodate protected bike lanes and run continuously across without being cut off by parks or plazas.

Trottenberg estimated that the cost of each new protected bike lane would be less than $500,000, and would mainly entail redesigning the streets and replacing signs. Both 26th and 29th Streets have one lane of traffic, and the new bike lanes would take over space that is currently occupied by double-parked vehicles, including trucks making deliveries and taxis picking up and dropping off passengers. Trottenberg said that more designated loading and unloading areas would be added to those streets.

Last month, the city also announced plans for new crosstown protected bike lanes running in both directions on a 1.5-mile stretch of 13th Street. It will be part of the city’s efforts to provide alternatives to commuters during the planned shutdown of the L train tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan in 2019 to repair damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. New protected bike lanes are also planned for several blocks in the East 20s to connect to a new ferry service on the East River, though they would not run all the way across Manhattan.

Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group, said that protected bike lanes can save lives and the city’s plan “reclaims space that drivers have abused, and turns it into dedicated space for more vulnerable street users.”

Christine Berthet, 66, who lives in Midtown, said that she prefers to do all her riding in protected bike lanes on city streets. “Having a protected bike lane is very comfortable,” she said. “From a safety standpoint, you feel like you don’t have to deal with cars or watch your back.”

In contrast, painted bike lanes without a physical barrier separating cyclists from cars do not offer as much protection, and have been blocked at times by double-parked vehicles, she said. For that reason, she does not take them to go across Midtown.

Berthet, who is co-chairwoman of the transportation committee for Manhattan Community Board 4, said that board members have previously called for protected crosstown bike lanes in Midtown, mostly recently over the summer after the fatal Citi Bike crash.

“We have a lot of people crossing town and we need to give them safe options,” she said. “The options we have today are limited.”