Street for Cyclists May Be Solution as NYC Faces Subway Shutdown

  • Commuters would traverse a 14th Street limited to bikes, buses
  • The decision comes as pedal-powered transportation has surged

As 300,000 passengers face the temporary closing of one of New York’s busiest subways, Mayor Bill de Blasio is considering easing movement by barring a major Manhattan street to all traffic except buses and bicycles.

The 2019 refurbishment of the L train, which carries passengers under the East River from Brooklyn, may test the mayor’s resolve to make the most populous U.S. city also the most bike friendly. De Blasio, who has courted riders since his City Council days a decade ago, last month set a goal of doubling the number of frequent bikers to about 3 million by 2020. The 18-month subway hiatus will place the issue before the public as he campaigns for re-election next year.

Citi Bike users in New York.

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates buses and subways, and city officials, who control the streets, must keep people moving during the shutdown. The L train runs beneath 14th Street, one of Manhattan’s busiest thoroughfares, from the East Village west to Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. The MTA has agreed to conduct a traffic study to determine the feasibility of closing it to cars and channeling riders above ground, spokeswoman Beth DeFalco said. 

“It’s a golden opportunity for the city to take control,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for bikers, walkers and mass transit. “The transit system is crumbling and overcrowded. And as the city continues to grow, this gives us a way to forge a new model to better manage our streets.”

Chain Gang

People-powered transportation is part of de Blasio’s vision of an integrated transit network that also includes ferries and a streetcar along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts. It would help achieve the goal of cutting carbon-gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, according to a Sept. 27 report by the mayor’s office.

Citi Bike, a three-year-old sharing program, began in 2013. With 110,000 regular members and another 500,000 day-trippers a year, it’s expanding into new areas of Brooklyn, Queens and upper Manhattan, and will total 12,000 bikes at 700 stations by the end of next year, almost double what it had when it started.

The city counts in all 778,000 frequent cyclists, a 49 percent increase since 2009, a period in which it has expanded its bike-lane network to about 1,000 miles.

“It’s a great feeling to arrive at work after getting some exercise and being part of this city’s street life, but there’s a lot that could be done,” said Matt Burtless, 31, who pedals from Brooklyn each day. Two months ago, he wound up on the hood of a taxi. Last year, he had to ditch his bike under a bus that hooked a right turn in front of him. Each time he wasn’t injured.

Others weren’t so lucky. Transportation Alternatives says it’s counted 20 deaths this year, compared with last year’s 15. However, the rapid growth in bikers means risks are lower than ever, said Ryan Russo, a Department of Transportation deputy commissioner. In 2007, when the city had far fewer bikers, there were 24 fatal accidents, he said.

Protest Peloton

On Sept. 15, a Transportation Alternatives protest saw about 2,000 bikers pedal four miles of Fifth Avenue to demand the city accelerate its build-out of protected lanes -- a program that White said would cost just $50 million out of the city’s yearly $82 billion budget. Partitioned bikeways reduce the risk of serious accidents 75 percent, according to the DOT’s own data.  

Despite some high-profile neighborhood opposition, motorists have generally accepted narrower streets and fewer parking spaces, said Robert Sinclair, New York spokesman for AAA, the car-owners’ group. He said a club survey last year found members supported bike lanes throughout the city 41 percent to 34 percent, with 25 percent holding no opinion.

New York is building 18 miles of protected lanes this year, yet officials don’t want to promise more than 10 per year because street changes can have unanticipated consequences, Russo said. 

The most radical alteration would be to close 14th Street to create more mobility for the hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise be traveling beneath it. The idea of such a transitway reserved for buses, cyclists and pedestrians was first proposed by the Regional Plan Association, an influential policy study group that in 1929 advocated a northern Manhattan site for the Hudson River span now known as the George Washington Bridge. The proposal would open the street overnight to allow truck deliveries. 

Much of the infrastructure to support it has already been installed. The East River bridges into Lower Manhattan now handle an average of more than 15,000 bikers a day in warm-weather months, up from about 6,600 a decade ago, according to the DOT. The de Blasio administration intends to build protected lanes from the Williamsburg Bridge, the most heavily bike-traveled, to Delancey Street on the Lower East Side, which could connect via a north-south avenue to 14th Street.

“Fourteenth Street can serve as a model of a street transformed to move more people more efficiently, in ways that are safer, saner and healthier,” Transportation Alternatives said in a policy statement on its website. “If we do nothing, the impacts will be severe, and cascade to streets and lines well beyond 14th Street.”