Monday, December 13, 2010

City Bike Lane Hearings Make Mockery of Cyclists

By Barry Benepe and Jen Benepe
It wasn't just the hearings on bikes lanes in New York held Dec. 9 that made a mockery of cyclists. It was also the public officials elected to insure a fair process, and the "schmeadership" in Brooklyn that brought to mind the old fashioned thuggery of New York before the days of political reform.

It was as if the Old Tammany Hall had come back to life just like the nightmare of Scrooge's Christmas past in the form of borough president Marty Markowitz who thundered his way through the proceedings in opposition to bike lanes in Brooklyn. He sounded as if he were the sole voice of the borough, reported Barry Benepe. "He talks like a mob boss, and he wasn't interested in what anyone else thought."

Markowitz's disgraceful performance was followed up by an equally prejudiced portrayal against the only salvation for bicycle transportation in the city in an almost hour-long diatribe spouting unsupported "facts" by Norman Stiesel who calls himself an "eco" consultant and goes around tooting his title as "First Deputy Mayor", a title that has not been his for many, many years.

"The entire process appeared to be staged for the benefits of the loudmouths" Markowitz and Stiesel, said Benepe referring to the City Council's hearing on bicycle infrastructure in the city.

The pols' testimony and questioning of Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, including statements from city council members, took over two hours and after they were finished Chair Vacca gave only 2 minutes each to cyclists and other pedestrians to speak, who had come at 9 AM in the morning and waited until 2 PM to give their testimony. "Hurry up, you only have 2 more seconds," he barked to the hoi poloi, some who had waited for 7 hours for their chance to educate the city council members.

But those city council members who were elected by New Yorkers to listen to what we have to say started leaving soon after the pols had finished, leaving an empty dais for New Yorkers to talk to.

"The city council turned the process of a public hearing on its head by using it as a forum for their opinions to be heard rather than the opinions of the public, and the chair (Transportation Committee Chair and Councilman Vacca) was the worst of all by putting forth his opinions in the form of questions, what a lot of politicians do when they want to dominate the argument," said Benepe.

Transportation Committee Chair Vacca said that bicycle lanes create a "trade-off," crowding out motorists and parking spaces, a notion that has not been supported by fact, since no study has been done on the matter, at least to the knowledge of this reporter.

"Most of the [other] council members tried to pretend the issue was important, but didn't even seem to understand what bike lanes were, and they sounded equivocal about the whole thing," said Benepe.

Seventy-one people had signed up to speak, but only 45 people actually had the opportunity, with 42 of them in favor of bike lanes. 
Pic: Ken Coughlin speaking a couple of years ago in Central Park

Besides Markowitz and Steisel, only three other people came to speak against bike lanes in the city, but many of our elected leaders only heard the negatives because they were gone when the positives started to roll in. It was unclear if a video camera in front of the speaker's spot was actually catching the testimonies, or worse, if any of the lawmakers who left would take the time to watch the video later.

The New Yorkers who spoke in favor of bike lanes "were so good it was pathetic how the city council abandoned the hearings," continued Benepe. "It was really discourteous and rude, and they were hostile [in their questions] to the Department of Transportation [Janette Sadik-Khan] as well."

Among the council members who were an exception were Gale Brewer (D- Dist. 6), Van Bramer (D-Dist. 26),  Daniel Garodnick (D-Dist. 4), Brad Lander (D-Dist.39),  and Letitia James (D-Dist. 35) . Council woman James stayed the longest and Vacca stayed to the end, probably because as chair, he had to.

"Letitia James was the only forthright supporter of bike lanes, clearly and without conditions," said Benepe. "She was a voice of sanity and she was considered in her comments."

Showing just how out of touch our leaders are from our needs, among the New Yorkers who did speak in favor of bike lanes was Nancy Gruskin whose husband was hit and killed by a cyclist.  She wanted more care exercised by cyclists, and more order on the road. Then there was also a man who was hit by a truck when he was on his bicycle, a 13-year-old who spoke eloquently about the need for bike lanes, and a man who showed with photographs how he had lost 35 pounds by riding his bicycle to work.

Also among the pro bike lane speakers was Ken Coughlin who has long spearheaded the effort to reduce car use in Central Park on behalf of Transportation Alternatives.

Coughlin said that as a member of Community Board 7 in Manhattan he and his fellow board colleagues had asked the DOT to come up with a suitable bike lane along Columbus Avenue for their neighborhood on the upper west side.  

More than 100 people from his hood voted in favor of the bike lanes, said Couglin, showing that it was "hardly a case of an imperial administration foisting bike lanes on a district with no community input," a comment directed at the oft-repeated notion that New Yorker's don't want bike lanes.

That mythology has been perpetrated by an handful of negative voices that by all appearances, do not represent the majority.

As much as those in favor talked about health benefits, Markowitz and Stiesel--and some members of the City Council--showed their antediluvian thinking by being against them. "I think it was very instructive that the two people who spoke against bike lanes were overweight," concluded Benepe.

Jessica Lappin (D-Dist. 5), representative of the upper east side said that she had heard "countless stories of people being hit and killed," by bicycles.

But none of the relatives of those dead pedestrians came to talk against bike lanes, possibly because there has only been 11 such reported deaths in New York City over a nine year period, and at least one of them not the direct result of the crash, such as the man who died of a heart attack after a bicycle delivery man crashed into him.

Conversely, an average of 250 to 300 people are killed in crashes every year in New York City, said Transportation Alternatives spokesperson Kim Martineau. Over a 9-year period that would amount to about 2,200 people killed by cars over the same time period while 11 pedestrians died as a result of crashes with cyclists.

In the four year period between 2005 and 2009, New York City experienced 1,467 traffic fatalities. During that time, annual fatalities went down by 20% from 321 in 2005 to 256 in 2009. But pedestrians accounted for half of traffic fatalities (52%), followed by motor vehicle occupants (29%), motorcyclists (11%), and bicyclists (7%), according to a study by the NYC Department of Health which was published this November. "While bicycle-on-pedestrian crashes are a concern, they are overall a small part of the problem; cars are mostly what kill pedestrians in NYC," concluded Martineau.

And it wasn't just our elected officials who made a mockery of the democratic process: the New York Daily News editorial staff --whose reporters left along with most media before the positive testimonies were heard, harped on the fact that a couple of questions from Vacca had stumped DOT commissioner Janette Sadik Khan, mainly the precise number of people who cycle on city streets every day.

"They wouldn't be able to count that anyway, it's too expensive" said Benepe. "The important part is not the number of people, it is the safety of people. Even if the number of cyclists is only one, you don't want them to be killed. You don't eliminate sidewalks because there is only one pedestrian on the block," he noted.

Still the backwards thinking of the Daily News editorial staff didn't sway other NYDN journalists who reported one day earlier that most Brooklynites are in favor of the new Prospect Park bike lanes according to a survey initiated by Councilmembers Brad Lander (D-Park Slope) and Steve Levin (D-Gowanus).

"Despite vocal complaints since the city installed the two-way bike lane in March, the survey found a solid majority want to keep the lane - with 54% opting to keep it as it is and 24% to keep it with some changes. Only 22% wanted to scrap it," reported Daily News writer Erin Durkin.

About Barry Benepe:
Mr. Benepe is most well known for starting New York City's Greenmarkets, bringing fresh farm produce directly to consumers.
But he was also one of the founding members of Transportation Alternatives and had a direct hand in helping close Central Park to motor vehicles.
In 1966, one day after a defeat of the measure to close the park drives to cars on Sundays,  Benepe and his colleagues at Transportation Alternatives laid down their bicycles in front of motorists to prevent them from entering.
Soon after the measure to ban cars one day a week--on Sundays-- was passed. That soon was increased to Saturdays, and then decades later, with the help of many new faces to TA, like Ken Coughlin and a city administration under Mayor Mike Bloomberg more receptive to alternative transit ideas, increased to most daylight hours during the week.
Benepe also took part in mass bike rides through the city every day that drew 5,000 cyclists at a time.
Among his fellow upstarts were Charles Komanoff, Charlie McCorkell, Steve Faust, Ken Coughlin and countless others who now form the backbone of the cycling movement in New York City.
Benepe is an AIA/ AIP in architecture and city planning and has spent a good deal of his life working on alternative transportation, traffic calming design, and other initiatives to improve life in towns and cities in the northeast U.S.


Andy B from Jersey said...

Said to hear NYC falling into darkness on this issue with doublespeak and all out lies presented as fact.

Hmmm... Would Barry happen be your dad? You do look like him.


Jenny B and Ana Banana said...

Yes, Andy, it is my dad. He's my original inspiration for becoming a bicycle advocate, other than feeling threatened by drivers once I did start cycling.
Jen B

Anonymous said...

"cyclists and other pedestrians"?

Mellow Yellow said...

Let us not be afraid to speak the name of Critical Mass. Just as Barry committed civil disobedience to get cars out of the park, thousands of cyclists riding in Critical Mass in NYC got us where we are today, no matter how much credit JSK or Bloomberg wish to take.

NYPD has robbed us of our power by crushing CM. It is one VERY good way we can fight the current political and media backlash which seeks to undo these humble beginings toward a truly bike-able NYC.

Ride Critical Mass 1st Friday of every Month, 7pm, Union Sq North.

Ken Coughlin said...

Jen, I appreciate the mentions, but my name doesn't belong among those of the legendary "upstarts" Charlie Komanoff, Charlie McCorkell, Steve Faust, and Barry (among others). I moved to the city in 1981 and didn't join the cause until about a decade later.