In early September, New York City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg hopped on a Citi Bike and pedaled up Manhattan’s newest protected bike lane. She was headed to a press conference where Bicycling Magazine would announce that the country’s biggest city was also its most bike-friendly. In just one year, New York had jumped from seventh place to first—topping the likes of Portland, Minneapolis, and Boulder.
Trottenberg touted New York’s bike culture, but acknowledged that the city’s top billing was not necessarily her doing. After all, she had only been commissioner for nine months. The credit, she explained, went to her predecessor, Janette Sadik-Khan, the firebrand commissioner who fundamentally transformed New York City’s streets under Mayor Bloomberg. At the announcement, Trottenberg promised that the new administration would build on that impressive legacy.
During Bloomberg’s tenure, over 350 miles of bike lanes were created (about 30 of which were protected), 16,000 bike racks were installed, and Citi Bike was launched. According to a new Department of Transportation (DOT) report, these investments paid huge dividends: As significantly more cyclists appeared on city streets from 2001 to 2013 the risk of them getting seriously injured dropped 74 percent.
During these years, the politics of bike lanes shifted dramatically as well. There is perhaps nobody who personifies that change more than Bill de Blasio. The politician who once called Sadik-Khan a “radical” and labeled himself an “incrementalist” on bike lanes, is now trying to double the amount New Yorkers bike by 2020. De Blasio likely knows that if he is serious about hitting that ambitious goal, he will not be able to do things incrementally.
While the mayor and his DOT have not offered many specifics about where and when bike lanes will be installed, de Blasio has pledged to add more bike lanes and expand Citi Bike into the outer boroughs. But before the popular, yet financially strained, bikeshare program can be completed it has to be bailed-out. Now, after months of negotiations, it is widely expected that Related Companies will do just that. If a deal is finalized, more blue bikes should appear on the road next year.
Despite the mayor’s promise to make the city better for cyclists, he has been met with skepticism, and often criticism, from some bike advocates. They say the NYPD is too aggressively ticketing cyclists, too often parking in bike lanes, and that bike safety is not featured prominently enough in Vision Zero—the administration’s initiative to reduce, or eliminate, pedestrian fatalities.
Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, disagrees. He said that the administration’s focus on street safety will improve conditions for everyone, including cyclists. “In establishing Vision Zero as the new framework for New York City transportation policy, the administration set the stage for a significant gain with the bike network,” he said. Looking forward, Steely White hopes the administration will make a strong push for bike lanes, especially on major arterial roads, but in the meantime, he explained, lowering the city’s default speed limit makes a big difference for anybody crisscrossing the city by bike.
As the final bike lanes planned under Mayor Bloomberg appear on city streets, there is reason for cyclists to be optimistic about what’s next for New York’s bike infrastructure. If Citi Bikes start appearing in more neighborhoods, there will likely be enough public, and political pressure, to ensure that bike lanes start forming around them. In Manhattan, the Trottenberg-led DOT could continue the island’s impressive transformation into a bike-friendly hub by approving plans for a pair of bike lanes that cut through the heart of Midtown—one going up 6th Avenue and the other down 5th Avenue. A decade ago, that type of proposal would have been unthinkable, but things have changed dramatically since then. And soon enough cyclists will know if Mayor de Blasio really has too.