Found myself in New York City the other day with a couple hours to spare, so thought I’d explore some of Manhattan’s recent urban planning projects. Two hours turned out to be just enough time to check out the (sort of) newly pedestrianized Times Square, trace the 9th Ave bike lane from 33rd to 20th, walk the length of phase 1 of the High Line, and head back to Port Authority alongside the 8th avenue bike lane.
It’s been a long time since I was last in Times Square, but I don’t remember it being anything like it is now. Replacing cars with tables and chairs gives the square a more mellow, relaxed vibe. The surroundings still offer ample visual stimulation, and now tourists can wander blithely across oddly painted swaths of blue and white swirls instead of in front of traffic. The new bike racks mentioned in David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries are also prominent, though I don’t think their design is particularly utilitarian.
I’ve read a number of articles about the 9th ave bike lane, some extolling its virtues and others calling for its removal. What I saw seems to me an enormous step forward, though still a work in progress. The bike lane occupies the left lane of the avenue, is ostensibly one-way, is (mostly) physically separated from auto lanes by, variously, concrete medians, plastic bollards, a striped DMZ sort of lane, and a parking lane. The route feels (mostly) protected and inviting. I did, however, notice that a number of cyclists traveled against the one-way arrows, and far more completely ignored the handsome bicycle-only traffic signals at intersections.
A woman in perhaps her late fifties or early sixties was walking her bike—an unpretentious old-school cruiser with collapsible metal panniers—around a section of the route closed for construction when I stopped her and asked her thoughts on the route, and on cycling in NYC in general. She owns a car, which she sometimes drives, and she also rides her bike as a means of transport year round, has been for thirty years. She said the bike route is hell of a lot better than no bike route. It is plenty safer than meshing bikes and cars, and has made the experience of riding a bike in Manhattan much more enjoyable. She specifically cited the complete physical separation from cars as its greatest attribute.
Pedestrians are still a problem, though, she told me, as they don’t pay attention to anything, bike, car, lights or otherwise. Cars still frequently fail to watch out for bikes, and cyclists don’t do themselves any favors by ignoring the bicycle traffic signals and blowing through intersections in spite of turning motor vehicles. As if to prove her point a half-dozen bikes zipped past, oblivious to or in defiance of the little outline of a bicycle glowing red in full view in front of them. A traffic cop overheard our conversation and added her two cents, pointing out that the biggest safety risk has nothing to do with design and everything to do with behavior. If nobody follows the rules and obeys traffic signals, somebody’s gonna get hurt. The woman on the bicycle agreed. Overall, though, she considers the lane a boon to cycling. As a motorist, however, she isn’t such a fan.
Driving and parking have both been made more confusing, and she claimed that the reduction in motor vehicle lanes makes traffic even worse. My guess is that as similar bike lanes extract more and more lanes from the dominion of cars traffic snarls will indeed get worse. Retail business in affected areas might drop for a time. But gradually the stick and the carrot will conspire to do their thing and behavior will change. If riding a bike becomes safe, convenient, and enjoyable, and driving a car becomes the slower, more confusing, more stressful option, why wouldn’t you switch?
At 20th Street I crossed over to Tenth Ave and climbed the stairs to the High Line, the much ballyhooed linear park that will eventually stretch for a mile and a half atop an old elevated railway. About ten blocks have been completed, and the damn thing really is as cool as advertised. The design aesthetic is both modern and quirky, and the numerous sections of the park maintain are different enough to offer multiple experiences yet consistent enough to feel cohesive. A stiff breeze ripped along certain sections, making the stifling heat of the day bearable (though I wonder how that wind feels in February), and varied seating options range from full sun to full shade. The plantings seem hardy, not the sort of flora one typically sees in urban parks. All in all, a stroll up and down the currently completed phase 1 of the High Line is a pretty wonderful way to engage the city and rise above it all at once.