Atlantic Cities

Are Guerrilla Bike Lanes a Good Idea?

Are Guerrilla Bike Lanes a Good Idea?
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According to the New York City Department of Transportation, Manhattan's Sixth Avenue is one of the busiest bike streets in the city. But north of 42nd Street, its bike lane comes to an abrupt end.

Back in 2011, the local Community Board's transportation committee considered whether to install a dedicated bike lane up to 59th Street, where the street terminates. After some debate, the committee wound up with a tie vote, an outcome that counts as a "no."

"I don’t see the benefit of trying to implement a bike lane in this corridor. It just doesn’t make sense," Michael Keane, transportation committee chair, said at the meeting.


New York City's Sixth Avenue. (alexpro9500 /Shutterstock.com)

The other night, a group of cycling advocates calling itself Right of Way took matters into their own hands, spray-painting heavy white lanes and icons of people on bikes similar to the official DOT version (although some had wings). Their action came after a cabbie jumped the corner at 48th and Sixth, hitting a young British tourist and severing her leg. The driver later claimed he accelerated and lost control because of an argument he was having with a bike messenger.

Liz Patek, a Right of Way member, told the New York Times the crash might not have happened if there had been a bike lane in place. Another member of the group, Keegan Stephan, told Gothamist that their focus was on safety. "It's been proven time and time again that if you install a bike lane, it lowers the number of crashes," he said.

One of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, at the epicenter of the Midtown business district and close to several major tourist attractions, Sixth Avenue is regularly jammed with traffic of all types. It is heavily used by Citi Bike riders, pedicabs, bike messengers, food delivery riders, and tourists riding rental bikes, all of whom jockey for space with buses, cabs, limos, trucks, and private motor vehicles. The sidewalks teem with pedestrians. Between 2002 and 2011, five pedestrians died in crashes in the stretch north of Bryant Park, and dozens more were injured.

Last year, the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives started a campaign to get protected bike lanes installed on Fifth and Sixth Avenues. "We saw this as an urgent moment," says Caroline Samponaro, the organization’s senior director of campaigns and organizing. "The heart of Manhattan, which has the most to gain, has been essentially overlooked." A TA petition calling for a bike-friendly redesign of Fifth and Sixth Avenues has gathered nearly 10,000 signatures, and Samponaro says her group is working to build support among people who work in the area, business owners, and real estate interests.

A New York DOT spokesman told the Times that when it comes to Sixth Avenue bike lanes, "the agency would consider any proposal for additional lanes supported by the local community board."

On its Facebook page, Right of Way calls attention to another guerrilla bike lane action that happened in Seattle earlier this year, as reported on Seattle Bike Blog. The "Reasonably Polite Seattleites" group installed $350 worth of reflective pylons along a painted bike lane on that city’s Cherry Street, to demonstrate to the Seattle Department of Transportation "how an incredibly modest investment and a few minutes of SDOT’s time is capable of transforming a marginal, under-utilized and dangerous bike facility into one dramatically safer for cars, pedestrians and bicyclists."

The Dongho Chang, a traffic engineer from the exceedingly polite SDOT, responded with a remarkable email:

Hello reasonably polite Seattleites,

Thank you for pointing out some easy ways to calm traffic and provide more secure feeling bicycle lane on our streets.  Your sentiment of unease and insecurity riding on painted bicycle lanes next to high speed and high volume traffic is exactly what I am hearing from the our residents as we update our bicycle master plan. This strong message to me and my staff that we have be more thoughtful on facility design and implementation is being heard loud and clear. You are absolutely correct that there are low cost and simple ways to slow traffic, increase the sense of protection, and provide bicycle facilities that are more pleasant and accommodating for larger portion of people who ride bicycles.... The posts that you installed on Cherry Street will be removed and I am sorry about that. The posts are 36 inches high and is higher than most road bicycle handle bars.  A rider can hit the post with their handle bar, which is a safety concern. ... Please let me know if you would like the posts back and I will have the crew leave the post in a safe area for you to pick up. Thank you, again, for your thoughtful demonstration.

This summer, Chang wrote the group again, proving that the SDOT isn’t just well-mannered, it’s responsive:

I have good news to share.  SDOT worked with [Washington State Department of Transportation] to reinstall your thoughtful protector treatment on Cherry Street.  SDOT and WSDOT agreed to monitor the installation to determine if additional changes need to be made.

The department also installed bike boxes and more buffered bike lanes in the area.

The success of guerrilla bike lanes and similar tactics depends a lot on local culture. In some places it will get you arrested. In others, it will get you pylons and crosswalks. As for New York? Right of Way organizers weren’t hauled in to jail for their actions. But just four days after they marked the lane on Sixth, the icons of riders had disappeared from the asphalt. The mash-up of traffic on the thoroughfare was grinding along as usual. With the bike-friendly Bloomberg administration on its way out the door, it will be interesting to see what happens next.

Top image: Steve Pepple /Shutterstock.com

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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