On a cool, sunny morning in Brooklyn, rush hour on Prospect Park West can look like the apple of a traffic engineer’s eye. Streams of cars ease off Grand Army Plaza, stop at a light at Carroll Street, and move smoothly on, mostly undeterred by even the occasional double-parked school bus. Pedestrians leaving luxury apartment buildings head north to the nearest subway stop. And, along the street’s eastern edge, there is its most controversial feature: the two-way bike lane installed almost a year ago.
Riding there, on one such morning, were women with messenger bags, men in business clothes, children with school backpacks. A small boy rode by on training wheels. A father on one bike had a daughter sitting behind him and another riding a scooter alongside. The lane was, at first glance, an unlikely source of controversy at all. Successful by all reported statistical measures, it is the result of a years-long governmental outreach process, popular with the local community board and in its neighborhood, Park Slope, as a whole.
The lane’s short history has been troubled, though, in large part because of a few of its high-profile neighbors. They include Borough President Marty Markowitz, Dinkins-era deputy mayor Norman Steisel, and Louise Hainline, a Brooklyn College dean who lives in a Prospect Park West penthouse and monitors the lane from a spy camera. No lane opponents have raised more eyebrows in city political circles, though, than Iris Weinshall – a Prospect Park West resident, a former city transportation commissioner, and the wife of Charles Schumer, one of the most powerful politicians in the country.
Weinshall, who is now a vice chancellor at the City University of New York, responsible for facilities planning and construction, has kept a low profile on the bike lane issue lately. She did not respond to a call or an emailed list of questions for this article, and the nuances of her current thinking are hard to know. But her close association with a group that is suing the city over the lane, and her few public statements on the project, all of which were negative, have given the lane opposition one of its most important allies.
In December, City Council member Brad Lander told The New York Times that Weinshall and Steisel had met with him to advocate tearing the Prospect Park West lane out. And along with Steisel and Hainline, Weinshall signed a letter to the paper that month that cast doubt on the DOT’s statistics that showed the lane was working. The letter accused the department of a “lack of credibility,” and, although Weinshall and the other two authors said they support bike riding in principle, they also suggested that it should require a special license.
A note accompanying the letter identified the authors as members of Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes – the group that, along with an organization calling itself Seniors for Safety, is behind a lawsuit seeking the lane’s removal. The suit’s first hearing in court is scheduled for June.
In recent months, the lawyer representing the bike lane opponents has said Weinshall is not a party to the suit. And Hainline, one of the letter’s other two authors, said in a short recent phone conversation that questions about Weinshall are misdirected. “The bike lane issue on Prospect Park West is about anything else except Iris Weinshall,” she said. “She’s not the people who are centrally involved in this. It’s a gossip story.”
Weinshall’s advocacy, though, goes back further. The Daily News reported last July that she had attended a strategy session against the lane, and the Post said in February that Schumer himself had lobbied against it in private conversations with City Council members. In October 2009, in a letter obtained by the transportation advocacy site Streetsblog, Markowitz wrote the DOT a letter opposing the lane, noting pointedly that he was “joined in this request by former DOT commissioner Iris Weinshall, who absolutely agrees that the installation of a two-way, barricaded bike lane would cause incredible congestion.”
(That congestion never materialized, and opponents now focus on what they say is the lane’s danger to pedestrians, and on the process that led to its creation, which they say should have been more inclusive.)
In Weinshall’s public comments, she has said that she is not against bike lanes in general – that, in fact, she oversaw the construction of many of them. Even her critics concede this point, though they argue she could have done more. Her advocacy against the lane just outside her front door, though, raises the opportunity for a closer look at her record.
A steady manager
When Weinshall took over as Department of Transportation Commissioner in September 2000, appointed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, it was the first job in her long administrative career that dealt with transportation. She had graduated from Brooklyn College and later earned a master’s degree in public administration from NYU. She worked in high-level deputy jobs at the New York State Urban Development Corporation, the city Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.
At the DOT, she took over a department with a range of responsibilities, including repair of hundreds of large and small bridges around the city, maintenance of all of the city’s streets, and the operation of the Staten Island ferry.
Sam Schwartz, a deputy commissioner at DOT in the 1980s and the founder of Sam Schwartz Engineering, says Weinshall was known as an effective manager. In the time before she came into office, he adds, “there were some really turbulent years in the department and it wasn’t functioning that well. I think she did give good stabilization to the department.”
Regarding Weinshall’s resume, he notes, “I think her experience was not in transportation when she became commissioner, but she was a fast learner, and she picked up a lot.”
Her tenure, Schwartz noted, also was marked by a decline in traffic fatalities. According to Mayor’s Management Reports, 423 people were killed in traffic accidents in the city in the 1998 fiscal year, 407 in 1999. The number dropped steadily through most of Weinshall’s time in office, falling to 300 in 2005 before rising slightly to 310 in fiscal year 2007, her last in office.
The city also did install bike lanes under Weinshall – though for a long stretch, the number of miles of lanes decreased every year, from 32.2 in 2003 to 23.1 in 2004, 11.8 in 2005 and 3.5 in 2006. After that steady year-to-year decline, Weinshall’s department put in 41.8 miles of lanes in her last year, fiscal year 2007. According to the management report, it was the largest number of lanes installed in one year since fiscal year 2000 – the year before Weinshall took charge.
Criticism on bike policy
By the time she left office, however, many bike advocates were criticizing her legacy. Andrew Vesselinovitch, the director of the department’s bicycle program since 2001, quit in protest in 2006, charging that the department had missed the opportunity to build even more lanes, at minimal cost. His small staff, he said, could have overseen the addition of 50 miles of lanes a year. The lanes that did get built, Vesselinovitch said in a recent interview, were a struggle – including a path over the Williamsburg Bridge, opened in 2002, where pronounced and dangerous bumps in the road went unrepaired, over cyclists’ and bike staffers’ objections, for three years.
Vesselinovitch, who now lives in Chicago, said he first became a bike planner out of a belief that when people walk or cycle, they interact more, strengthening social bonds. In cars, he said, people are less connected. These beliefs, he added, clashed with those of several longtime transportation department engineers whose priority was moving traffic. Weinshall, he alleged, became aligned most closely with those engineers.
“At no point did she say, ‘I hate bicyclists’ or ‘This isn’t important to me,’ but my sense is that she felt out of her depth in that department because this isn’t her area of expertise,” Vesselinovitch, said. “When you’re not an expert in the field, which she wasn’t, and you rely on experts, which she did, many of whom are only concerned about one thing, which is moving as many cars as possible, that’s when you get these problems.”
One controversy in the last months of Weinshall’s term came close to her home in Park Slope. There, in the early months of 2007, the transportation department proposed turning Sixth and Seventh Avenues – a quiet residential street and a busy commercial corridor – into one-way streets like Eighth Avenue and Prospect Park West. Residents, who had already been complaining about speeding cars on the latter two avenues, erupted.
“I’ve never seen Park Slope unified in anything like they were in opposition to the idea of one-way Sixth and Seventh Avenues,” says Eric McClure, a founder of the group Park Slope Neighbors. “That was not a community process where they were responding to community requests or input. That was really dropped on the neighborhood. Other than it just being a bad idea, I think that’s why there was so much community pushback.”
The uproar culminated in a community board meeting, packed to overflow, at New York Methodist Hospital’s auditorium. A stream of residents and elected officials criticized the plan, asking for fewer one-way streets, not more. Weinshall, who had announced her resignation from the department two months earlier, did not attend. But Michael Primeggia, a transportation engineer who was the department’s deputy commissioner for traffic operations and an important advisor of the commissioner’s, was defiant: Not only would one-way avenues “enhance mobility,” he said, they would be safer.
Nevertheless, he added, Weinshall had already promised to abide by the neighborhood’s wishes. Days later, a department spokeswoman announced the plan was dead.
Lane improves safety
Supporters of the Prospect Park West bike lane argue that the neighborhood’s wishes should count just as much now as they did then. A poll released in April by state Assemblyman Jim Brennan’s office found that 44 percent of area residents favored keeping the lane just as it is, another 25 percent favored keeping it with some adjustments for safety, and 28 percent favored removing it. The numbers were very close to the results of an earlier poll, conducted by Council Member Lander’s office in December: More than two-thirds wanted to keep the lane in some form, and most of those supporters liked it exactly the way it was.
Moreover, according to a Department of Transportation report released in January, installing the lane and reducing car traffic lanes from three to two has led weekday cycling on the street to triple and has dramatically reduced the number of speeding cars without reducing travel time or the amount of cars that can fit down the street. Moreover, the number of crashes had decreased, and the number of pedestrian injuries had not increased (in the study period, the second half of 2010, none were reported).
The lane’s opponents say they did not believe the numbers. But Craig Hammerman, district manager of Community Board 6, which represents the area, says the results were just what the lane was supposed to produce.
“It represents a shift in perspective in how we think about these spaces, these streets and sidewalks that we’ve used, traditionally, drone-like, year after year,” he says. “This isn’t new thinking, but it’s newly implemented thinking. Because of that, this is some really cutting-edge stuff that we’re talking about. “
The process, he says, had been unfolding for years: The board first asked Weinshall’s successor, Jeanette Sadik-Khan, for a Prospect Park West bike lane in June 2007, two months after Weinshall left office. The board later voted for the project in May 2009. This April, the board again voted in support of the lane, this time unanimously, while supporting the DOT’s proposed safety adjustments, such as raised pedestrian islands and rumble strips.
The lawsuit, the lane opponents’ lawyer says, will proceed undeterred.
Questions about process
If the Prospect Park West bike lane opponents’ main objection is over the process the DOT used for locating the lane, there are residents in other neighborhoods who will concur.
In Williamsburg and Greenpoint, for example, Community Board 1 was distinctly less receptive to new bike lanes than Park Slope had been. The implementation of a lane on Kent Avenue drew criticism from many neighbors and business owners, the result of what even supporters, like Lacey Tauber of the community group Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, call “obvious mistakes” – public-relations stumbles like blocking businesses’ loading zones, or ticketing Hasidic residents on the Sabbath.
Still, she adds, “Once [the city] realized that they had made those mistakes, they really listened to the community and they listened to what was happening there and they made changes.”
That assessment of the city’s openness to public input is shared, though only partly, by Karen Nieves, the head of the community board’s transportation committee. Regarding another lane, on Greenpoint Avenue, that some board members believe is inappropriate, Nieves says, “I think [city officials] are trying to do their due diligence, as far as outreach and community input. But the bottom line is they’re going to do what they’re going to do, and that’s their attitude, unfortunately.”
The politics of the issue, Nieves says, can be complex. On one hand, bike lanes are safer – and, as the industrial business zone manager at the East Williamsburg Valley Industrial Development Corporation, she knows that more and more people, in jobs of all kinds, use bicycles to get to work. The neighborhood’s overcrowded subways, she said, have made bikes even more popular.
On the other hand, she says, even in areas where lanes make sense, the department should have done more to talk with the neighbors before installing them.
“And now,” she says, “they’re trying.”
Safety – at least measured in raw numbers of traffic fatalities – is an area where Sadik-Khan’s tenure surpasses even Weinshall’s. Within her first three years in office, the number of deaths dropped lower than Weinshall had been able to get it – from 300 in fiscal year 2008, matching Weinshall’s best year, to 259 in 2010.
“I think what Jeanette Sadik-Khan has done is tamed a lot of streets, where cars aren’t necessarily traveling very fast,” Sam Schwartz says. “Roads have been put on diets.”
When roads are narrower – as Prospect Park West now is – they are easier and safer to cross, he said. The bike lane’s opponents argue the opposite: that forcing the same amount of cars into fewer lanes makes the road more dangerous. But Schwartz says, “I don’t think that’s borne out by either the design or any of the statistics that I’ve seen so far. People’s perception and reality are often two different things.”
Debate tires some
Near Prospect Park West, meanwhile, many of those involved in the lane controversy say fatigue over the issue has set in, even as the lawsuit’s court date approaches.
“I look at this and I see that the public process, the political process and the redesign of Prospect Park West is done,” Eric McClure of Park Slope Neighbors, a lane supporter, says. “It’s been approved, it’s been supported by the community board, and there’s not really anywhere to go now.”
Anecdotally, many residents who have used the lane report satisfaction. Joanna Oltman Smith, who lives a block and a half from the lane on President Street, says she and her two young sons can now ride to their baseball and soccer games along Prospect Park West, and that car traffic is less scary.
Still, at least one prominent neighborhood cyclist has steadily refused to comment publicly on the lane: Senator Charles Schumer. Schumer’s love of cycling has been the focus of several newspaper feature stories over the years, and neighbors say he still bikes in the neighborhood. Smith, in fact, said she had shouted a greeting and an admonition to him days earlier, when she saw him riding the wrong way up one-way President Street. (Schumer’s office did not comment.)
His recent reticence, bike lane supporters say, is disappointing. Schumer’s position is unclear, in fact, even compared with the rest of his family. As of last week, one of his and Weinshall’s daughters, Alison Schumer, was a member of a Facebook group called No Bike Lane on Prospect Park West Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes. The other, Jessica, was a one of a handful of recipients of anti-lane strategy emails sent by Hainline and her husband and later obtained by Streetsblog.
Then there is Weinshall. If her stance has changed since her letter to the Times, she has not said so publicly.
The legacy question
Though few people currently involved in government are willing to speak about Weinshall or Schumer’s handling of the issue on the record, several said that a former commissioner lobbying against her successor, particularly when both served under the same mayor, is unusual.
Some observers suggest the opposition from Prospect Park West residents boils down to aesthetics. Others say it stems from the increased difficulty of double-parking in front of the street’s houses and apartment buildings. Some say it stems from small-town Park Slope politics, and resistance among an old guard to a new generation of activists. Others, including former Community Board 6 member Aaron Naparstek, a transportation activist and critic of Weinshall’s time as commissioner, wonder if it is about legacy. Sadik-Khan, he says, has reached safety milestones that were beyond Weinshall’s grasp, and is hailed as a visionary in transportation circles in a way that Weinshall never was. Maybe the bike lane, he said, is a reminder of those contrasts.
Speculation aside, the level of vitriol aimed at the lane in the city’s media, considering its relative popularity among its neighbors, is striking.