‘With vaccine distribution ramping up…and the state preparing to help employers bring workers back into the office, it’s safe to say biking will be the habit of even more New Yorkers when they commute. We need the infrastructure to match the demand.’
The streets of New York City could not look more different than before COVID-19 hit: Fewer cars are sitting in traffic, more cyclists are on the road than ever, and restaurants are seating patrons on the sidewalk. As a result, our air quality is cleaner than it’s been in years; “Open Streets” have allowed pedestrians to safely socially distance as they walk through the city, and restaurants have been able to stay open by using curbside seating. The pandemic has rocked our city, but it’s also shown us that the change transit advocates have spent years fighting for is actually possible: We can give our streets back to pedestrians and cyclists as we all become far less reliant on cars and lean into a new economy.
However, one constant remains true: the streets are unsafe for cyclists. The mayor recently celebrated adding the largest number of protected bike lanes in one year as a feat for Vision Zero, while nearly as many cyclists died in 2020 as had the year before. The Mayor also announced last week a plan to convert the South Outer Roadway for pedestrian-use on the Queensboro Bridge, scoring a major victory for transit advocates. I fought alongside activists for five years to secure that change, which will reserve the North Outer Roadway for cyclist-use on the bridge. Despite these milestones, there is still so much work to be done to make New York safe for cyclists.
It’s become cliché, but the disruption caused by COVID has given us the opportunity to make big, systemic changes across the board, and that’s exactly what we need for our city’s infrastructure. But we need to do it fast, before more lives are senselessly lost to crashes that could have been easily prevented by protected bike routes. What we need is a network of protected bike lanes throughout Queens, as well as the rest of New York City—and we need to make sure those bike lanes are truly protected and don’t merely serve as more car and truck storage.
The fact of the matter is New Yorkers are biking more than ever. According to the city Department of Transportation, more than 25,000 cyclists crossed the city’s four East River bridges on an average weekday from July through October of 2020. That’s up 21 percent for the same period the year prior. We should do everything we can to build on this to take the pressure off our most crowded subway and bus lines, so that when commuters return to the office, we have the infrastructure in place to keep cyclists safe and alleviate dangerous overcrowding for public transit users.
Now, with vaccine distribution ramping up under a new federal government and the state preparing to help employers bring workers back into the office, it’s safe to say biking will be the habit of even more New Yorkers when they commute. We need the infrastructure to match the demand. The city must expedite its existing plans to create protected bike lanes through every borough and across major bridges. The routes should be implemented holistically citywide. Public safety should never be up for a vote, but community input should be solicited to make these routes as safe and equitable as possible. The routes should connect major streets with schools, bridges, cultural institutions and waterfronts across the whole city, just like the plan I put forth with advocates for Long Island City.
The city must also roll out a concurrent plan for bike parking: For 1.6 million riders, there are just 56,000 parking spots. The Mayor announced he will be adding another 20,000 spots, but that’s not enough—the city has to address this and make sure that users of our transportation hubs, cultural institutions and schools all have a secure place to park their bike.
We also know that the distribution of protected bike lanes has been unequal to date, with Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx all trailing Manhattan and Brooklyn in infrastructure. In a city that’s spent the last year grappling with its own historic inequities, more than half of the 26 cyclists killed last year died in neighborhoods where the median income was lower than the citywide average, and some of them were essential workers, as Streetsblog reported.* The Department of Transportation has the obligation to use an equity lens when mapping out protected bike lanes, to correct historic disinvestment and ensure all New Yorkers have safe streets in their communities. Bike lanes have proven to make everyone on the road safer, including pedestrians, drivers and passengers.
COVID has laid bare the inequities that existed every day for New Yorkers across the city. As we come out of the pandemic, we cannot just pick up where we left off and continue with the status quo. We can make our streets safer and more equitable for all New Yorkers. We can create a safety valve for what will once again be overcrowded buses and trains by making the alternatives safer. We must create a citywide bike lane network that connects our neighborhoods, culture and parks in a way they haven’t been before. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make historic investments in safety and permanently give streets back to pedestrians and cyclists, and we cannot afford to waste it.
City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer represents District 26 in Western Queens and is running for Queens Borough President.
*Editor’s Note: A previous version of this oped incorrectly stated the number of cyclists killed on city streets in 2020, and how many of those deaths included low-income essential workers. According to the reporting by Streetsblog referenced in the piece, there were 243 total traffic deaths last year, 26 of whom were cyclists; More than half of those cyclists were killed in neighborhoods where income levels are below the citywide average. The story has been updated to correct this.