As Americans seek out less costly, nonpolluting and healthier ways of getting around, nothing looks more promising than bicycling. Its popularity continues to grow, and so does government investment in bike trails, lanes, stands and programs that support cycling. At the same time, all those moving bicycles have to go somewhere, and in cities, that means the streets. As a result, the relationship between bicyclists, drivers and pedestrians has grown testy and, in some locations, rather hostile.
There are more than 50 million Americans who ride bicycles, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Of those, a small but growing number cycle to and from work on a regular basis. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of commuting cyclists increased fourfold in Chicago, and tripled in Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore. Federal funding for bicycling has also grown over the same period, increasing from $23 million in 1992 to more than $1 billion in 2009-2010.
Eighth in Bicycling.com’s ranking of the country’s most bike-friendly cities, New York City has come to represent just about everything there is to like and not like about biking in a city. Its vehicle and pedestrian congestion is known the world over, making any bike ride a risky venture. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan believe New Yorkers will embrace bike lanes. Since 2007, the city has added 255 miles of lanes, with more to come.
But adding bike lanes in a dense city like New York means something has to be taken away, like a car lane, parking spaces or both. That’s what happened in March when the city built a bike lane in the tony Brooklyn neighborhood known as Prospect Park West. Three lanes of traffic became two, and six parking slots disappeared, unleashing a wave of controversy in the city.
Opponents have filed a lawsuit against the city demanding the lane’s removal, and set up surveillance cameras to count the number of bikers who actually use the lane. The New York Post has opposed it in print, and Prospect Park West resident Iris Weinshall, Sadik-Khan’s predecessor at the DOT and the wife of U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, has spoken out against it.
In other cities, similar bike lane controversies have erupted, exposing the sometimes tricky problem of adding another form of transportation infrastructure to a city. For now, the Bloomberg administration has signaled that it will continue to add bike lanes. But opponents say the battle has just begun.