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Bicycle Visionary


Janette Sadik-Khan is the Com­mis­sioner of Trans­porta­tion in America’s largest city. She hap­pens to be very easy on the eyes. But she’s also a pro-bicyclist  rad­i­cal and her crazy agenda is prob­a­bly going to incite a vicious civil war in NYC between the “elit­ists” (who like her) and the “lit­tle peo­ple” (who don’t).

New York Times By
Pub­lished: Sep­tem­ber 10, 2011

SOMETHING lovely and all too rare hap­pened to Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City’s fre­quently demo­nized trans­porta­tion com­mis­sioner, as she and I rode our bikes down Park Avenue South one morn­ing last month: Sadik-Khan got unso­licited, unfet­tered praise.

Who Com­mutes By Bicycle

It came from a young cyclist who hap­pened to pull up beside us, glanced over at her and sud­denly beamed.

Oh, it’s you!” he stam­mered, then men­tioned that he owned a bicy­cle shop and had recently placed a news­pa­per ad pub­licly thank­ing her for her cycling advo­cacy. “You’re going to leave a legacy, you know.”

He’s right. Sadik-Khan and Mayor Bloomberg both. And it’s past time that more than just a passer-by trum­peted it.

Since the mayor appointed her in 2007 and she began to bring her agency’s work more closely in line with his vision of a greener New York, the city has roughly dou­bled its miles of bike lanes, to about 500. If you did any bik­ing at all in Man­hat­tan or Brook­lyn this sum­mer, you may well have noticed the improve­ments, includ­ing pro­tected bike lanes (ones that sep­a­rate cyclists entirely from street traf­fic) on such major arter­ies as Colum­bus and First Avenues in Manhattan.

I know I did, and when I rode through the Upper West Side and the Lower East Side, Williams­burg and Boerum Hill, I felt some­thing I hadn’t before, a kind of full per­mis­sion and robust encour­age­ment, even if motorists con­tin­ued to behave obtusely.

The city has also plot­ted a far-reaching and poten­tially game-changing pub­lic bike share pro­gram, whose details and timetable are expected to be announced this month. In a swift man­ner all the more impres­sive given gov­ern­ment scle­ro­sis these days, New York is truly trans­form­ing itself.

And for that it has received, from some of its cit­i­zens, an unwar­ranted degree of ill-considered grief. Bik­ing, it seems, is an uphill ride, due largely to math­e­mat­ics and a sort of Catch-22: with only a small per­cent­age of Amer­i­cans using bicy­cles as their pri­mary method of trans­porta­tion, there’s no huge pub­lic out­cry for — or imme­di­ate polit­i­cal ben­e­fit to — remak­ing city streets so that they’re a lit­tle less friendly to cars and a lot more hos­pitable to bikes.

But with­out that hos­pi­tal­ity, pri­mar­ily in the form of bet­ter bike lanes and more bike racks, bik­ing isn’t con­ve­nient and attrac­tive enough to win all that many con­verts and thus a polit­i­cal constituency.

So if a city believes that bik­ing is part of a bet­ter future, it must some­times mus­cle through a reluc­tant, rocky present. That’s pre­cisely what Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan have done, in a fine exam­ple of the way the mayor’s fre­quent impe­ri­ous­ness and imper­vi­ous­ness to crit­i­cism can work to the city’s long-term advan­tage. If any­thing, the two of them should move even faster and more boldly, but that’s pure fan­tasy, given the oppo­si­tion, bor­der­ing on hys­te­ria, they’ve met so far.

There are not only 8.4 mil­lion New York­ers but at times 8.4 mil­lion traf­fic engi­neers,” Sadik-Khan said in an inter­view a few weeks after our bike ride. “And we’re, you know, very opinionated.”

I’LL say. Her crit­ics have bru­tal­ized her, even mak­ing inane school­yard fun of her sur­name by call­ing her Chaka Khan, after the hefty black R&B singer. (Sadik-Khan is white and almost bony, and never belted a tune dur­ing any of our meet­ings.) Before Anthony Weiner’s loins sun­dered his ambi­tions, he report­edly taunted Bloomberg with the promise that he would suc­ceed him as mayor and promptly erase all the bike lanes. Addi­tion­ally, a group of Brook­lyn cit­i­zens with close ties to Iris Wein­shall, the for­mer trans­porta­tion com­mis­sioner and wife of Chuck Schumer, filed a law­suit against the city — dis­missed by a judge last month — for its instal­la­tion of a pro­tected bike lane along Prospect Park West. And The New York Post was even more tru­cu­lent, wag­ing a con­stant, nasty war against Sadik-Khan, who was exco­ri­ated in one typ­i­cal edi­to­r­ial for “turn­ing over vast swaths of city streets to deliv­ery boys on bikes and the occa­sional cool dude ped­al­ing along in his Day-Glo tights.”

Vast swaths? Day-Glo tights? Those of us on two wheels still get only a sliver of the roads, and my bik­ing shorts are baggy and olive green, with an elas­tic waist.

By many cred­i­ble accounts Sadik-Khan has brought some of this mis­ery on her­self, with a style that can be impa­tient, intol­er­ant, mor­al­iz­ing. I’ve got­ten to know her a bit, and she has a cer­tainty that bor­ders on right­eous­ness and an inten­sity in the vicin­ity of mania. But that’s to her credit — and our ben­e­fit. New York needs vision­ar­ies who won’t sim­ply let things be.

In the end the resis­tance that she and the city have encoun­tered has to do mostly with parochial­ism and self­ish­ness. Some New York­ers seem offended by the notion that we should be more like such bik­ing havens as Copen­hagen, Paris, or for that mat­ter, Port­land, Ore.: life here is too urgent and blunt and bru­tal for such crunchy-granola niceties. Besides which, no one wants to give an inch, lit­er­ally: not the Prospect Park West gripers who lost park­ing spaces to the bike lane, not the dri­vers of deliv­ery trucks whose jobs are some­times com­pli­cated by such lanes, not the Man­hat­tan tra­di­tion­al­ists who feel that shar­ing just a few of Cen­tral Park’s trans­verse paths with cyclists — as the city decided in July they must do — requires too much in the way of vig­i­lance from peo­ple ambling among the trees. The com­plaints were loud and passionate.

And mis­lead­ing. Sev­eral polls have shown that a major­ity of New York­ers favor the cre­ation of bike lanes, at least in the abstract. The prob­lem is that it’s a rel­a­tively soft, quiet sup­port, reflect­ing the lim­ited use of those lanes. Accord­ing to Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion fig­ures, about 15,500 cyclists daily entered Manhattan’s cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict between Bat­tery Park and 59th Street in 2009, the most recent year for which sta­tis­tics are avail­able. That’s in con­trast to 762,000 cars.

But rid­er­ship is def­i­nitely grow­ing. A decade ear­lier, only 4,700 cyclists entered that part of Man­hat­tan. And over the last 20 or so years, the per­cent­age of New York­ers who use cycling to com­mute has dou­bled, to 0.6 per­cent in 2009 from 0.3 per­cent in 1990, accord­ing to an analy­sis of cen­sus fig­ures by John Pucher, a Rut­gers Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor who stud­ies bicy­cle trends world­wide. That still leaves New York behind Chicago, with 1.2 per­cent of com­muters on bikes; Wash­ing­ton, D.C., with 2.2 per­cent; San Fran­cisco, with 3 per­cent; and Port­land, with 5.8 percent.

WHAT’S keep­ing more cyclists in New York from doing so? “The indif­fer­ence of the New York City Police Depart­ment is the biggest obsta­cle,” said Charles Komanoff, a math­e­mat­i­cal econ­o­mist and past pres­i­dent of Trans­porta­tion Alter­na­tives. He and other cycling advo­cates said that police offi­cers too sel­dom ticket dri­vers who ignore cyclists’ rights, par­tic­u­larly by treat­ing bik­ing lanes as tem­po­rary park­ing spots and thus forc­ing bike rid­ers to swerve into and out of traf­fic. As preva­lent as such lane-obstruction is, I’ve noticed more news reports on cyclists blow­ing through red lights, and I’ve found myself envy­ing, of all places, the Lithuan­ian cap­i­tal of Vil­nius. Its mayor recently deployed a tank to crush a Mercedes-Benz ille­gally parked in a bike lane.

With­out going quite that far, our city’s police offi­cers must do more. And the trans­porta­tion depart­ment must expand markedly the num­ber of bike racks city­wide — the offi­cial city count is about 12,800 — so that rid­ers can rest assured that they’ll find a safe place to stow their bicy­cles. Pucher is the co-author of “City Cycling,” a forth­com­ing book, which notes that Paris has about 1,490 bike park­ing spaces — slots in racks, for exam­ple — per 100,000 peo­ple, Lon­don about 1,670 and Tokyo about 6,400. And New York? About 152. “It’s lousy, lousy, lousy,” Pucher said.

TWO sum­mers ago, a com­pan­ion and I hunted so fruit­lessly for a rack out­side a movie the­ater that we locked our bikes — ille­gally — to a park­ing sign. The sign’s moor­ing in the con­crete must have been loose, because we came out of “The Hurt Locker” to find it lying on the side­walk across the street, where it had appar­ently been deposited by a thief or thieves who’d pried it from the ground so they could lib­er­ate our bikes. This hap­pened in full view of a busy gro­cery store and within feet of a Mis­ter Sof­tee truck. New York really is brutal.

The bike share pro­gram will help enor­mously, because for every bike, there will be a locked place at the sta­tions where you will be able to pick it up and drop it off. In the trans­porta­tion department’s request for bids from pri­vate com­pa­nies, it out­lined a net­work of about 600 sta­tions with at least 10,000 bikes, to be at least partly oper­a­tional next year. Usage fees might be just a few dol­lars for short rides, mak­ing bikes a sen­si­ble alter­na­tive to, say, sub­ways, which have suf­fered from ser­vice cut­backs and increased crowding.

The Chicago trans­porta­tion com­mis­sioner, Gabe Klein, noted that bik­ing pushed back against a range of mod­ern ills. “There’s the con­ges­tion prob­lem,” he said. “The pol­lu­tion prob­lem. The obe­sity prob­lem. The gas problem.”

On top of all that, it makes an impor­tant state­ment about our pri­or­i­ties — about our will­ing­ness to amend the reck­less, impa­tient, glut­to­nous ways that have cre­ated not only smog and clog in our cities but also a stag­ger­ing fed­eral debt.

Bikes are def­i­nitely a sym­bol of what your city stands for,” said Klein.