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New York Transportation Chief Defends Bike Lanes

 

The New York Times: New York Transportation Chief Defends Bike Lanes

By MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM
Published: March 9, 2011

WASHINGTON — Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City’s transportation commissioner, looked out at several hundred bicyclists gathered here on Wednesday morning and allowed herself a smile.

About two dozen people held a rally at City Hall on Wednesday in support of the bicycle and pedestrian projects in New York.
“It is wonderful to be here,” she said, “with so many friends.”

The past few days have not been easy for Ms. Sadik-Khan. A lawsuit filed on Monday accused her agency of misleading the public about a bicycle lane on Prospect Park West; last week, she withdrew a proposal to install a pedestrian plaza on 34th Street in Manhattan that had been attacked by neighborhood activists (and tabloid columnists).

But on Wednesday, in an appearance scheduled months in advance, Ms. Sadik-Khan spoke in front of a more supportive crowd: the National Bike Summit, an annual gathering put on by the League of American Bicyclists, an advocacy group. The buzz around the hotel ballroom was that Ms. Sadik-Khan — described by attendees as innovative, inspirational and a role model — was not a speaker to miss.

The commissioner, in an upbeat and commanding voice, spoke proudly of the improvements brought by her signature project in New York: bicycle lanes that, she said, slowed down cars, encouraged more cycling and reduced injuries to pedestrians.

“When you put these bike lanes down, you are improving the safety of everyone who uses that street,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said. (She spoke specifically of lanes separated from vehicular traffic by a buffer.) “The safety gains that you get are really unmatched with any other type of treatment.”

But in a sidelong reference to recent travails, Ms. Sadik-Khan conceded that redesigning streets could be “painstaking work.”

“I have a little bit of a feeling what that pain is all about,” she said, drawing laughter from the audience. “There are setbacks, and there are disappointments, and there are unexpected events.”

Ms. Sadik-Khan also gave a spirited, sardonic defense of the Prospect Park West bicycle lane, installed last summer in a wealthy neighborhood in Brooklyn and now the subject of an unusual court challenge brought by residents who say the Transportation Department ignored community concerns and misrepresented data on traffic safety.

“You may have heard about it,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said of the lane. “It has done extraordinarily, I guess, controversial things, like dramatically reduced speeding.” She went on to list a number of other changes, like an increase in cyclists along the route.

Representative Earl Blumenauer, the bicycle-riding Oregon Democrat who introduced Ms. Sadik-Khan, called her a change agent who had “become a little bit of a symbol of late.”

“That’s in part because she’s doing what all of us need to be doing,” Mr. Blumenauer added. “And that is to be pushing to the limit about what we can do with our assignment to change the world one bike at a time.”

Critics in New York say Ms. Sadik-Khan has been too imperious in her methods, re-engineering roads without enough consultation with residents. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said recently that his administration’s outreach on bicycle lanes could use improvement.

But the gathering’s attendees, who each received bright-blue messenger bags with bicycle-themed pins and bumper stickers, said they felt inspired by Ms. Sadik-Khan’s ability to swiftly execute unorthodox projects that, in other cities, had often suffered a quick political death.

“A lot of the changes she’s done are temporary, to be shifted to permanent later, and I think it’s a great model,” said Robin Stallings, executive director of BikeTexas in Austin. “Cities like New York are doing this in three years. That gives the rest of us hope, who have a long way to go.”

And many said they were not surprised to see Ms. Sadik-Khan facing down a fierce political backlash. Maggie Thompson, advocacy director of a bicyclist group in Denver, said the commissioner’s experience reminded her of a famous Gandhi quote.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” Ms. Thompson, 31, said. “Some of the people in New York are now fighting her, and she is going to win.”

“We are in that critical moment,” Ms. Thompson added, “where the pushing has turned to, ‘Oh man! These bike people really are going to get their way!’ ”

In Manhattan on Wednesday, about two dozen people, mostly from regional transit groups, gathered at City Hall to present a petition of support for Ms. Sadik-Khan and the Bloomberg administration’s transportation policies. No politicians appeared at the event, which, organizers said, had been scheduled weeks before and was not intended as a direct response to recent criticism of Ms. Sadik-Khan.

Colin Moynihan contributed reporting.