Why a Single Community Board Vote Just Decided Bushwick’s Bike Lane Future

Bushwick Bicycle Shop on Irving Avenue. Photo from the Bushwick Daily Archives.

This week, Bushwick’s Community Board 4 voted on a controversial Department of Transportation proposal to bring new bike lanes to the neighborhood. Despite significant planning leading up to the proposal and the vote, the plan passed by a single vote: among the 25 assembled board members, 13 voted for the bike lanes, 10 voted against it, and two abstained (which CB4 counted as a votes against the proposal). Here’s why this plan was so divisive.

Parking and other car related concerns are prioritized by board members in many New York City community board districts where a contingent of residents, senior citizens among them, own cars and rely on them as an alternative to public transit options that may or may not serve their needs ( for example, note that few of Bushwick’s elevated train stations feature a reliable elevator option).

CB4 is among these; other recent hotly debated subjects brought before the board include the introduction of 2-hour metered parking along Bushwick’s Broadway border and a DOT proposal to turn the section of Wyckoff Ave between Gates Ave and Palmetto St into a pedestrian plaza on Bushwick’s Ridgewood border.

As such, bike related issues brought before the board are received with a high degree of concern about the risks posed by additional traffic on Bushwick streets. One occasion on which this perspective made an appearance in local news is when CB4 members voiced vehement opposition to a proposal for a bike corral at Wyckoff Ave and Starr St in the fall of 2012.

Department of Transportation officials who worked on Bushwick’s bike lane proposal took on the project knowing it would be a hard sell, and as such, the planning process in Bushwick intentionally included an unusually high degree of community feedback built into the planning model, which took more than a year.

The feedback model is very comprehensive. Bike lane workshops were held for a wide range of community members; surveys taken by both cyclists and non-cyclists were given both on Bushwick streets and online, and hundreds of responses to the surveys were taken into consideration (more details about the planning process are available on the DOT page for the project).

The resulting proposal, which includes just four bike lanes, was drawn up based largely on which streets many cyclists already ride regularly where there’s a demonstrated need for en established route to protect not just cyclists, but also motorists and pedestrians.

That may seem like a lot of work—and, to be clear, it is. At Community Board 4’s monthly meeting this week, Ted Wright, the director of the DOT’s Bicycle and Greenway program, assured board members that there was “Over ten times the [usual] amount of outreach on this project,” emphasizing that doing the additional legwork takes up a lot of department resources.

Public support for the proposed bike lanes notwithstanding, many objections to the bike lanes remained publicly voiced right up until the vote. Community Board members took issue with many elements of the plan: at this week’s public community council meeting at the 83rd precinct, Robert Camacho, the chair of Community Board 4’s Parks and Recreation Committee, expressed concern that the proposal included plans to put bike lanes along the commercial corridor on Bushwick’s Knickerbocker Ave, which he suggested was too congested to sustain the lanes.

Rendering courtesy of the DOT.

Among the other reasons that board members didn’t like the plan was the opinion that cyclists are under-regulated in New York City. It was suggested to the DOT at last month’s community board meeting that the resources allocated to the Bushwick bike lane project would have been better allocated had they been put towards a mandatory cyclist registration system to make cyclists more accountable to traffic laws—and liable for damages, should they become responsible for traffic accidents. The DOT responded by explaining that the department works closely with the NYPD on traffic law education initiatives, but that the department itself does not otherwise have a hand in cyclist regulation.

Right before the vote at CB4, a representative from the office of New York State Assemblywoman Maritza Davila read a letter addressed to Community Board 4’s members that expressed the Assemblywoman’s strong dissatisfaction with the bike lane proposal.

Her argument against it also hinged on the inclusion of the Knickerbocker Ave commercial corridor: she argued that the lanes would make it difficult for merchants along the route to receive deliveries, as the lanes would make it more difficult for delivery vehicles to park and unload along the avenue. However the letter also stated that the Assemblywoman believed that the DOT had not contacted enough elected officials about the bike lane proposal. The letter concluded with a personal request from the Assemblywoman to the community board urging them to reject the bike lane proposal.

After the Assemblywoman’s letter was read publicly to the assembled community board, DOT’s City Planner for Bicycle Promotions and Outreach Inbar Kishoni told the community board that the plan would not affect delivery truck parking. Kishoni also assured Bushwick Daily that DOT would be sure to conduct additional outreach with Knickerbocker Ave merchants in the coming weeks.

Support for the proposal that may have saved it from being voted down came from a perhaps surprising source: the NYPD. “We have to really share the road,” said the 83rd Precicnt’s Deputy Inspector Maximo Tolentino to the crowd in response to questions about the bike lanes at this month’s community council meeting. And right before the community board vote, the 83rd precinct’s community affairs detective Damarys Franco succinctly presented the precinct’s position on the issue: “I don’t think it matters where the bike lanes go—the [lanes] are important. It’s already a problem for us to do that enforcement.”

“The fact is, there are bicycles in your neighborhood,” said Mr. Wright of the DOT.

And one suspenseful round of voting later, it’s finally been established that Bushwick is getting more bike lanes starting this coming summer.

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