Schwartz explains that Mayor Koch was first exposed to bike lanes on a trip to Beijing:
Mayor Ed Koch ... buoyed by a visit to Beijing, where he saw bike lanes used by tens of thousands, envisioned a network of physically separated bikeways up and down Manhattan.The bike lanes were physically separated from car traffic using raised islands. New Yorkers had trouble adjusting to the bike lanes, and complaints poured in.
In the summer of 1980, the mayor directed the department to install bikeways. From Washington Square Park to Central Park, the curb lanes of Fifth Avenue, Broadway and Seventh Avenue were separated from traffic by asphalt islands, giving bikers a lane of car-free roadway all their own.
The department’s investigation found that pedestrians considered the bike lanes to be extensions of the sidewalk; they stood in the lanes waiting for the lights to change, where bikers often yelled at them. Mr. Koch made his own observations and found many bike riders traveling outside the lanes. He had us install traffic signs along the bike lanes in typical Koch-ese — “Use it or Lose it.” But even though the lanes were largely successful — and car traffic didn’t slow nearly as much as people thought — criticism mounted.Faced with criticism, the mayor directed that the barriers separating bike and car traffic be removed, and that the bike lanes be marked only by painted lines. In hindsight, Schwartz thinks this was the wrong decision.
I think we made a mistake. We succumbed to the emotions of the moment. Had we kept the bigger picture in mind, we could have produced a network of separate bike lanes, a widespread public education program and tough enforcement that would have combined to promote good transportation policy and safety.Now that New York has had 26 years of experience with bike lanes and bike policy, Schwartz has some thoughtful suggestions for the future. Among them:
- we need to establish a clear hierarchy for the use of city streets. Pedestrians come first; we started out as a walking city and it will be our greatest strength going forward. This means bikers must yield to pedestrians — even errant ones. Biking is a superb form of transport we should encourage. Drivers must yield to bike riders — even errant ones.
- let’s advance the network of bike lanes citywide. I’d even re-introduce physically separate bike lanes. This program needs to be communicated in a mass campaign explaining rules of the road and each group’s responsibility. For example, drivers need to know they are forbidden to enter a bike lane to turn; bikers need to know that they must not block crosswalks; pedestrians must learn they can’t use bike lanes as sidewalks.
Full op-ed: Rolling Thunder.