East Harlem resident Diego Gerena-Quinones stood before a packed community meeting in the Red Theater at Harlem Prep Charter School on 123rd Street one evening earlier this month.
Gerena-Quinones was giving personal testimony in favor of a controversial proposal to extend protected bike lanes on First and Second Avenues, from 96th to 125th streets.
“We’ve been hearing a lot of facts and statistics, which is great, they tell a story,” he said. “I’m going to do something a little bit different. I’m going to tell a personal story.”
On Gerena-Quinones’ mind was the injury summary for First Avenue just presented by New York City Department of Transportation’s Joshua Benson. From 2006 and 2010, 579 people were injured in traffic-related accidents along the stretch of road between 96th and 125th streets alone.
“I was one of those 580-something people that was struck by a vehicle,” said Gerena-Quinones.“I think it would be great to have these protected bike lanes. I know that I personally would have benefited from it.”
His message was a powerful one. After his accident this year, in which a car struck his bike on First Avenue and sent him flying over the hood, he spent six hours in the hospital in a neck brace. Months later, he is still undergoing physical therapy for the spinal injury he suffered.
But as dramatic as his story is, it does not persuade everyone in East Harlem — particularly those who own businesses on First and Second avenues. In their view, the city Transportation Department’s bike lane plan would serve only a handful of cyclists, while increasing traffic congestion, diminishing air quality and — most important for the area’s restaurants, bodegas and other retailers — hindering deliveries to local businesses.
“We’re not prepared to sacrifice our lives for the sake of a few,” said Erik Mayor, owner of the Milkburger restaurant on Second Avenue at 106th Street. Mayor told the community meeting that converting one of the current car lanes on Second Avenue to a bike lane would drastically reduce available parking, on a street already congested with double parkers.
Community Board 11 asked the city’s Transportation Department to build protective bike lanes in East Harlem two years ago. The board, together with department, held a series of public meetings to inform local residents and businesses of their plans. But not everybody got the message.
A slew of local residents and business people have come forward claiming they were not informed of the bike lane proposals, and have accused the Transportation Department of a lack of transparency. Their disquiet led to the community board’s withdrawing support for the bike lanes at its meeting in November.
Board officials subsequently decided to bring transportation officials and locals together for an extraordinary meeting at Harlem Prep Charter School in early December.
New York City has built bike lanes on city streets at rapid rate since 1997. Fifteen years ago, the city had just 119 miles of bike lanes, marked with paint on city roads. As of July 2009, this had grown to a 561-mile network of off-street paths, traffic-protected lanes, on-street lanes with buffer zones and shared lanes marked by chevrons.
By 2030, that network could more than triple in size, if Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan gets her way.
While early development of the bike lane network met little opposition, new expansions in East Harlem and elsewhere are encountering more resistance.
A 2010 report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Transportation,“ Cycling in New York,” states that the number of New Yorkers traveling to work by bike has more than doubled since 1990. And, in gentrifying neighborhoods such as Brooklyn, it has quadrupled. The report says this is largely a result of the city transportation department’s effort to expand and improve cycling facilities.
But while numbers of cyclists have increased, the same report says that the number biking to work is still minuscule. It put the citywide figure around 0.6 percent for 2008 — just under 25,000 cyclists. Erik Mayor contends the only cyclists he sees when he looks out the window from his Second Avenue restaurant are couriers.
At the East Harlem community meeting 13-year-long resident Pablo Guzman questioned the prioritization of bike lanes given the community’s dire need for education and health funds. Gasps rippled across the school hall when the cost of the project was revealed at $300,000 per mile — around $840,000 for the 2.8-mile East Harlem project. As 80 percent of this is federally funded, the city would foot a bill of around $168,000.
Joseph Ferris, a spokesman for the bicycle advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, said that taking the federal grant into account, the real city investment in bike lanes since 2006 has been about $1.6 million, “virtual drops in the bucket” compared to spending on other transportation infrastructure.
“Traffic crashes cost New York City $4.29 billion in 2009, according to the NYC DOT’s Pedestrian Safety Study and Action Plan,” said Ferris in an email. “Bike lanes have proven to drastically reduce the number of crashes.”
Downtown from East Harlem, city figures for First Avenue between Houston and 34th Streets show a 37 percent drop in traffic accidents following the introduction of protected bike lanes. And, for the same distance on Second Avenue, a decrease of 11 percent was recorded.
According to the Transportation Department’s Pedestrian Safety Study and Action Plan, released in August 2010, traffic accidents resulting in pedestrian fatalities is one of the primary causes of death among children between 5 and 14, and among adults over 45.
Local Mount Sinai pediatrician Dr. Kevin Chatham-Stephens told the community meeting at Harlem Prep that he supported bike lanes for that very reason. In a sobering statement, the young physician said that on top of these bleak statistics, black children are 50 percent more likely to die in traffic than white children.
City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito sees the pedestrian islands built alongside bike lanes as integral part of her office’s “Aging Improvement District” plan. On wide avenues the islands provide additional rest stops for elderly citizens.
Proponents at the community meeting offered a laundry list of reasons why the bike lanes should be built, ranging from helping reduce obesity, to the possible reduction of smog and other pollution, which can contribute to asthma and other respiratory diseases.
Community Board Chairman Matthew Washington supports the bike lanes, but is growing weary of the debate. Speaking on the eve of the community meeting, he said opponents weren’t paying attention before.
“I’m just really looking forward to us as a community board getting beyond this issue so we can focus on more important issues,” he said, “like the 16 percent unemployment rate in our community or the 43,000 people on public assistance.”