On a New York City map, the seven-mile roadway that cuts through Queens is designated as Queens Boulevard. But to many New Yorkers, the notoriously dangerous street is known by another name: the Boulevard of Death. According to the city, 185 people (most of them pedestrians) have been killed on the boulevard since 1990; over that time, scores more have been seriously injured. For Mayor de Blasio—who wants to eliminate traffic deaths through a street safety campaign called Vision Zero—overhauling the Boulevard of Death was an obvious place to focus his attention.
In March, the Department of Transportation presented a $100 million plan to transform an especially hazardous 1.3-mile section of the street where 42 people were killed or seriously injured between 2009 and 2013. The plan would fundamentally change the geometry of the street by widening sidewalks, shortening crosswalks, reorganizing slip lanes, and creating pedestrian plazas and protected bike lanes.
“Work has begun to turn Queens Boulevard into a Boulevard of Life—literally remaking this street, rewriting its future, making it safe for all,” said the mayor at a press conference along the street as construction kicked off in July.
Transit advocates and numerous elected officials from Queens and around New York heralded the redesign of Queens Boulevard—especially its inclusion of protected bike lanes—as a “safe streets” homerun. But to these same stakeholders, the laudable transformation of Queens Boulevard is an exception in the DOT’s track record of creating safe streets for cyclists. In the Vision Zero era—after Michael Bloomberg waged, and largely won, the battle to make New York more bike-friendly—the so-called “bicycle lobby” and its allies are questioning the DOT’s commitment to protecting people pedaling around town.
As work was just beginning on Queens Boulevard, the DOT presented a $60 million plan to remake part of another notoriously dangerous roadway in New York: Atlantic Avenue. The redesign included traffic calming measures to protect pedestrians, but like many recent road diets proposed and implemented by the department, it lacked any bicycle infrastructure. To the added chagrin of cyclists, as these plans have been rolled out, existing bike lanes across the city have been worn into oblivion while others have failed to reappear following street resurfacings.
In July, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James wrote a public letter to DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg inquiring about these issues. After lauding the department’s commitment to Vision Zero, she asked why certain road diets were missing bicycle infrastructure and urged the department to make bike lanes the “default option when a street is up for a redesign.”
Paul Steely-White, executive director of the non-profit Transportation Alternatives, said the DOT must be bolder about implementing bicycle infrastructure if it is serious about eliminating traffic fatalities by 2024. With the rate of bicycling increasing, neighborhoods clamoring for bike lanes, Citi Bike now doubling in size, and the mandate of Vision Zero, he believes the department has all the political capital it needs to do so. “It’s no longer a political issue, it’s simply a DOT performance issue,” he said. “There is a residual shyness from a lot of DOT professionals who are perhaps gun shy from the bike lanes battles of the Bloomberg years,” he said. “But politically, socially, we’ve evolved beyond that and it’s time for the agency to catch up.”
DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo said the criticisms levied at the department are not reflective of the reality on the ground. “People should be impatient, they should want things to come quickly, but there has been a process,” he said.
Russo explained that while certain road diets may exclude bike lanes, they can be the first step in convincing skeptical communities that precarious streets can become complete streets. “We have to get people from A to C,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean every single street has to have a bike lane initially or when you do a project.” In the Vision Zero era, he continued, redesigning a dangerous intersection might initially get priority over a bike lane. The idea is that once a street is made safer for all users (cyclists included), the DOT can go back to a community board with a more substantial focus on cyclist safety.
To Ben Fried, the editor-in-chief of StreetsBlog, a popular pro-transit publication, this strategy amounts to unnecessary “self-censorship” on the part of the DOT. Since road diets often meet community resistance whether they include bike lanes or not, the DOT “might as well propose the bike lane anyway,” he said. To many advocates, the best way to create support for bike lanes is to implement bike lanes.
As for the condition of the existing bike network, Russo, who bikes to work from Brooklyn, understands cyclists’ frustration about faded markings and vanished paint. He said the winter was especially harsh on existing lanes, but that “under Vision Zero we have money we never had dedicated to upgrading our markings, and we’ve been growing that operation.”
Overall, the DOT is bullish on its bike lane record—especially outside of Manhattan. The department highlighted bike networks it has proposed or implemented in Long Island City, Ridgewood, Queens, Brownsville and East New York, and around the Harlem River. Each of these plans includes a mix of bike infrastructure from shared lanes to protected lanes to bike pathways. In August, Commissioner Trottenberg also announced that the DOT would be presenting plans for a bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue, a project cyclists and local officials have been requesting for years.
The DOT plans to install 50 miles of bike lanes per year, at least five of which will be protected.