NEW YORK — A man unloading groceries on Fort Greene’s DeKalb Avenue. A beer truck on Grand Street in Williamsburg. Police gates along a curb on Second Avenue. Oblivious pedestrians near the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
These seemingly benign signs of city life have one thing in common: They all got in my way.
This Patch reporter encountered more than two dozen vehicles blocking bike traffic and had several close calls with drivers on a roughly 10-mile trek through six of New York City’s cycling corridors.
The obstructions showed up on five of the six thoroughfares I traversed with a cellphone camera mounted to my creaky, sky-blue single-speed bike. I cruised unimpeded down a two-mile stretch of Queens Boulevard — once known as the “Boulevard of Death” — but other so-called protected bike lanes in Brooklyn and Manhattan were not immune to the vagaries of traffic.
My experience was “absolutely typical” for the thousands of bikers who pedal the city’s streets every day, according to Jon Orcutt, a spokesperson for the cycling nonprofit Bike New York.
“It’s a problem in New York that people will park on anything that’s flat if the space is there,” Orcutt said. “And if it weren’t a bike lane it would be regular old double parking.”
A recent spike in cyclist deaths has pushed city officials to talk about cracking down on cars and trucks that park in bike lanes and force bikers to merge with car traffic, which has proven fatal for some.
But our ride, which took place on Aug. 1, showed no shortage of offenders.
There’s nothing physically stopping drivers from pulling into conventional bike lanes such as those on Classon and DeKalb avenues in Brooklyn, or 34th Avenue in Queens. Protected bike lanes, however, have barriers meant to separate cyclists from cars – but some corridors have more success achieving that than others.
The worst blocked bike lane on my ride was on Grand Street in Williamsburg, which features a protected bike lane. There were 18 cars and trucks — including five in a single block — getting in the way of bike traffic on the 1.4-mile stretch. Some of them were on the unprotected portion east of Bushwick Avenue.
The Grand Street lane is lined with plastic delineator poles, but they’re placed far enough apart for even large trucks to slip through.
And the protected lanes on Second and Eighth avenues in Manhattan have abrupt gaps near 42nd Street that forced me to weave between impatient rush-hour traffic.
Protected bike lanes are a linchpin of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Green Wave” plan to bolster street safety for cyclists. The Department of Transportation has pledged to install 30 miles of protected lanes each year and implement new street design treatments such as “bike boulevards” that limit cars on certain roads.
“As highlighted in the Green Wave Report and announced earlier last month, an increased enforcement commitment from NYPD as well as DOT’s commitment to building more protected bike lanes will help prevent cars and other vehicles from blocking bike lanes,” DOT spokesperson Alana Morales told Patch in an email.
Implementing new bike lane designs will be “critical” to the plan’s success, Orcutt said, as the city’s approaches have so far been “very halfhearted.”
“We’re really looking for the city to step up its game and come up with some new ways to separate the bike lanes,” he said.
Here’s a closer look at what I encountered on my tour of New York City’s bike corridors.
Grand Street, Williamsburg
Where I rode: From Union Avenue east to Metropolitan Avenue (1.4 miles)
What I Saw: 15 vehicles fully blocking bike traffic and three partially blocking bike traffic
What It Was Like: I had read about the Grand Street bike lane’s problems with blockages, but experiencing them first-hand was jarring.
When I turned off Union Avenue, I immediately found four trucks and a car in the protected lane. On the next block, I had to steer around a black SUV and squeeze between the curb and a large Manhattan Beer Distributors truck. The delineators might as well have been missing.
“It’s almost like you’re asking for cars and trucks and buses to violate it,” Orcutt said. “Those things are, what, like four to five car lengths apart. It’s terrible. It’s absolutely not working.”
The DOT is working to improve Grand Street’s lane over the next several weeks, Morales said.
The protected bike lane ends east of Bushwick Avenue. The city’s official bike map says a conventional bike lane picks up there, but the lines on the street look like they could be marking parking spaces or something else. Drivers seemed to treat them as such — I had to veer around seven vehicles in industrial East Williamsburg.
Classon and DeKalb avenues, Crown Heights/Clinton Hill/Fort Greene
Where I rode: North on Classon Avenue from Dean Street to DeKalb Avenue, then west on DeKalb to Ashland Place (1.8 miles)
What I saw: Six vehicles blocking bike lanes and an unpaved section of road
What it was like: I’m familiar with these quiet sections of Brooklyn as a Fort Greene resident. Classon was pretty smooth sailing after I navigated the hairy intersection at Atlantic Avenue — only one car blocked the conventional bike lane there.
But DeKalb was a different story. First there was the delivery truck near the NYPD’s 88th Precinct, then a National Grid truck near an apparent repair site. I steered around a man who appeared to be unloading groceries from his trunk near Fort Greene Park before hitting a rough section of ripped-up road a few blocks from Ashland Place.
The bike lane wasn’t marked there, but I had to go around a medical vehicle and a van. The icing on the cake: I found an NYPD tow truck with an unlucky car in the Navy Street bike lane after turning off my camera and heading north past NYCHA’s Ingersoll Houses.
Queens Boulevard, Sunnyside/Elmhurst
Where I Rode: From 50th Street east to Grand Avenue (2.1 miles)
What I Saw: Green pavement and freedom
What It Was Like: Queens Boulevard is a model for a bike highway in New York City. The delineator-lined bike lane sits to the left of traffic on a thoroughfare that serves stores, restaurants and even a cemetery. While some stoplights had long waits, I flew up and down the gentle slopes with no hunks of metal in my way.
The road was known not long ago as the “Boulevard of Death” for its abundance of pedestrian fatalities. But as of March 2018, no pedestrians or cyclists had died on the stretch between Roosevelt Avenue and 73rd Street since Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration implemented safety improvements, according to a Department of Transportation presentation.
34th Avenue, Jackson Heights/Woodside
Where I Rode: From 93rd Street west to Broadway (1.7 miles)
What I saw: Two vehicles fully blocking the bike lane, and two others partially blocking it
What It Was Like: This section of 34th Avenue runs through a quiet residential area. That seemed like part of the reason I didn’t encounter many obstructions — there weren’t many trucks making deliveries and traffic was fairly light.
I did have to steer around two cars that sat directly in the bike lane, while another car and a UPS truck jutted out into my path. Drivers were accommodating when I had to merge into traffic.
Second Avenue, Midtown East/Murray Hill/Kips Bay
Where I Rode: From 59th Street south to 29th Street (1.5 miles)
What I Saw: Two close calls with vehicles and police gates blocking bike traffic
What It Was Like: Climbing the hill heading downtown on Second Avenue was smooth if a little arduous on the next-to-last leg of my ride. But things got scary after the dedicated bike lane suddenly ended around 43rd Street.
First there were the metal police gates arranged in a rectangle around an empty patch of the street for no clear reason. Then there was a jam of yellow cabs and other cars at 42nd Street. Then I had to squeeze between two lanes of trudging traffic before a Lincoln limousine jutted out in front of me near a sign for the Queens Midtown Tunnel.
The DOT recently closed a similar gap in the Second Avenue bike lane between 68th and 59th streets where 363 people were hurt from 2012 to 2016. The department plans to close the avenue’s final gap next year, Morales said.
Eighth Avenue, Chelsea/Midtown
Where I Rode: From 29th Street north to Columbus Circle (1.5 miles)
What I Saw: Three close calls with vehicles, construction blocking the bike lane and overflowing pedestrian traffic
What It Was Like: Eighth Avenue at rush hour is a tough place to bike, drive or walk. The streets and sidewalks were packed in this bustling corridor past Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Three cars turning left onto crosstown streets came a little too close for comfort even when I had green lights. Further uptown, I had to shout at pedestrians who had taken refuge in the protected bike lane from stuffed sidewalks.
The most treacherous section was between 39th and 42nd streets, where the bike lane largely gives way to a taxi stand outside Port Authority. I sidled up cabs, a box truck and a bus that towered above me to get past the hulking bus station.
The gap is an example of a thoroughfare where “the design sort of collapses,” Orcutt said.
The DOT is planning a redesign of Eight Avenue from 38th Street to 45th Street that would fill in the bike lane and replace the taxi stand on one block with a painted sidewalk. Some 220 people were injured on the stretch from 2012 to 2017, and a cyclist was killed at 45th Street this year, according to a DOT presentation.
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