Bicycle Visionary

SOMETHING lovely and all too rare happened to Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City's frequently demonized transportation commissioner, as she and I rode our bikes down Park Avenue South one morning last month: Sadik-Khan got unsolicited, unfettered praise.

It came from a young cyclist who happened to pull up beside us, glanced over at her and suddenly beamed.

"Oh, it's you!" he stammered, then mentioned that he owned a bicycle shop and had recently placed a newspaper ad publicly thanking her for her cycling advocacy. "You're going to leave a legacy, you know."

He's right. Sadik-Khan and Mayor Bloomberg both. And it's past time that more than just a passer-by trumpeted it.

Since the mayor appointed her in 2007 and she began to bring her agency's work more closely in line with his vision of a greener New York, the city has roughly doubled its miles of bike lanes, to about 500. If you did any biking at all in Manhattan or Brooklyn this summer, you may well have noticed the improvements, including protected bike lanes (ones that separate cyclists entirely from street traffic) on such major arteries as Columbus and First Avenues in Manhattan.

I know I did, and when I rode through the Upper West Side and the Lower East Side, Williamsburg and Boerum Hill, I felt something I hadn't before, a kind of full permission and robust encouragement, even if motorists continued to behave obtusely.

The city has also plotted a far-reaching and potentially game-changing public bike share program, whose details and timetable are expected to be announced this month. In a swift manner all the more impressive given government sclerosis these days, New York is truly transforming itself. 

And for that it has received, from some of its citizens, an unwarranted degree of ill-considered grief. Biking, it seems, is an uphill ride, due largely to mathematics and a sort of Catch-22: with only a small percentage of Americans using bicycles as their primary method of transportation, there's no huge public outcry for - or immediate political benefit to - remaking city streets so that they're a little less friendly to cars and a lot more hospitable to bikes.

But without that hospitality, primarily in the form of better bike lanes and more bike racks, biking isn't convenient and attractive enough to win all that many converts and thus a political constituency.

So if a city believes that biking is part of a better future, it must sometimes muscle through a reluctant, rocky present. That's precisely what Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan have done, in a fine example of the way the mayor's frequent imperiousness and imperviousness to criticism can work to the city's long-term advantage. If anything, the two of them should move even faster and more boldly, but that's pure fantasy, given the opposition, bordering on hysteria, they've met so far.

"There are not only 8.4 million New Yorkers but at times 8.4 million traffic engineers," Sadik-Khan said in an interview a few weeks after our bike ride. "And we're, you know, very opinionated."

I'LL say. Her critics have brutalized her, even making inane schoolyard fun of her surname by calling her Chaka Khan, after the hefty black R&B singer. (Sadik-Khan is white and almost bony, and never belted a tune during any of our meetings.) Before Anthony Weiner's loins sundered his ambitions, he reportedly taunted Bloomberg with the promise that he would succeed him as mayor and promptly erase all the bike lanes. Additionally, a group of Brooklyn citizens with close ties to Iris Weinshall, the former transportation commissioner and wife of Chuck Schumer, filed a lawsuit against the city - dismissed by a judge last month - for its installation of a protected bike lane along Prospect Park West. And The New York Post was even more truculent, waging a constant, nasty war against Sadik-Khan, who was excoriated in one typical editorial for "turning over vast swaths of city streets to delivery boys on bikes and the occasional cool dude pedaling along in his Day-Glo tights."

Vast swaths? Day-Glo tights? Those of us on two wheels still get only a sliver of the roads, and my biking shorts are baggy and olive green, with an elastic waist.

By many credible accounts Sadik-Khan has brought some of this misery on herself, with a style that can be impatient, intolerant, moralizing. I've gotten to know her a bit, and she has a certainty that borders on righteousness and an intensity in the vicinity of mania. But that's to her credit - and our benefit. New York needs visionaries who won't simply let things be.

In the end the resistance that she and the city have encountered has to do mostly with parochialism and selfishness. Some New Yorkers seem offended by the notion that we should be more like such biking havens as Copenhagen, Paris, or for that matter, Portland, Ore.: life here is too urgent and blunt and brutal for such crunchy-granola niceties. Besides which, no one wants to give an inch, literally: not the Prospect Park West gripers who lost parking spaces to the bike lane, not the drivers of delivery trucks whose jobs are sometimes complicated by such lanes, not the Manhattan traditionalists who feel that sharing just a few of Central Park's transverse paths with cyclists - as the city decided in July they must do - requires too much in the way of vigilance from people ambling among the trees. The complaints were loud and passionate.

And misleading. Several polls have shown that a majority of New Yorkers favor the creation of bike lanes, at least in the abstract. The problem is that it's a relatively soft, quiet support, reflecting the limited use of those lanes. According to Department of Transportation figures, about 15,500 cyclists daily entered Manhattan's central business district between Battery Park and 59th Street in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That's in contrast to 762,000 cars.

But ridership is definitely growing. A decade earlier, only 4,700 cyclists entered that part of Manhattan. And over the last 20 or so years, the percentage of New Yorkers who use cycling to commute has doubled, to 0.6 percent in 2009 from 0.3 percent in 1990, according to an analysis of census figures by John Pucher, a Rutgers University professor who studies bicycle trends worldwide. That still leaves New York behind Chicago, with 1.2 percent of commuters on bikes; Washington, D.C., with 2.2 percent; San Francisco, with 3 percent; and Portland, with 5.8 percent.

WHAT'S keeping more cyclists in New York from doing so? "The indifference of the New York City Police Department is the biggest obstacle," said Charles Komanoff, a mathematical economist and past president of Transportation Alternatives. He and other cycling advocates said that police officers too seldom ticket drivers who ignore cyclists' rights, particularly by treating biking lanes as temporary parking spots and thus forcing bike riders to swerve into and out of traffic. As prevalent as such lane-obstruction is, I've noticed more news reports on cyclists blowing through red lights, and I've found myself envying, of all places, the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Its mayor recently deployed a tank to crush a Mercedes-Benz illegally parked in a bike lane.

Without going quite that far, our city's police officers must do more. And the transportation department must expand markedly the number of bike racks citywide - the official city count is about 12,800 - so that riders can rest assured that they'll find a safe place to stow their bicycles. Pucher is the co-author of "City Cycling," a forthcoming book, which notes that Paris has about 1,490 bike parking spaces - slots in racks, for example - per 100,000 people, London about 1,670 and Tokyo about 6,400. And New York? About 152. "It's lousy, lousy, lousy," Pucher said.

TWO summers ago, a companion and I hunted so fruitlessly for a rack outside a movie theater that we locked our bikes - illegally - to a parking sign. The sign's mooring in the concrete must have been loose, because we came out of "The Hurt Locker" to find it lying on the sidewalk across the street, where it had apparently been deposited by a thief or thieves who'd pried it from the ground so they could liberate our bikes. This happened in full view of a busy grocery store and within feet of a Mister Softee truck. New York really is brutal.

The bike share program will help enormously, because for every bike, there will be a locked place at the stations where you will be able to pick it up and drop it off. In the transportation department's request for bids from private companies, it outlined a network of about 600 stations with at least 10,000 bikes, to be at least partly operational next year. Usage fees might be just a few dollars for short rides, making bikes a sensible alternative to, say, subways, which have suffered from service cutbacks and increased crowding.

The Chicago transportation commissioner, Gabe Klein, noted that biking pushed back against a range of modern ills. "There's the congestion problem," he said. "The pollution problem. The obesity problem. The gas problem."

On top of all that, it makes an important statement about our priorities - about our willingness to amend the reckless, impatient, gluttonous ways that have created not only smog and clog in our cities but also a staggering federal debt.

"Bikes are definitely a symbol of what your city stands for," said Klein

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