One of the most infuriating aspects of having moved from Greenpoint-Long Island City to East Williamsburg–Bushwick, other than the difficulty of transporting household paper products in bulk, is that the area is decidedly hostile to bicycling.
Technically Williamsburg, Culturally Maspeth
The area is very industrial so there are a lot of trucks and commercial vehicles. Those vehicles are commonly double parked in the “bicycling margin” part of the roadways, forcing a cyclist into the middle of the road where motor vehicles travel. From my own observations, commercial vehicles also seem more likely to speed and engage in dangerous driving behavior for two reasons: First, commercial drivers are in a hurry to do their jobs and make their delivery schedules. Second, they also appear less cautious than other drivers often because they are driving someone else’s vehicle. And, as we know, because trucks and similar commercial vehicles are so heavy, they pose a greater danger to cyclists, pedestrians and even cars than a passenger vehicle in otherwise similar collision.
But it’s not just the trucks and commercial vehicles that make cycling so harrowing. Even private passenger vehicles engage in this kind of behavior, possibly because they are mimicking the behavior of their commercial counterparts. These drivers speed on side streets; they roll through stop signs, even when there are pedestrians present and are crossing the intersection; they make unsafe turns, failing to yield to traffic with the right-of-way; and on two-way streets, they will often cross the double-yellow line and speed against the direction of traffic in order to pass one of those double-parked vehicles that I mentioned earlier.
It’s not much better on the one-way streets. These streets, such as Scholes St and Montrose Avenue, are very wide. Cars will frequently drive side-by-side as if it were a two-lane road, except that it’s not a two-lane road. Those roads are designed to carry only one lane of traffic.
Every traffic engineer knows that road width determines driving behavior, especially speeding, and these wide roads encourage some very dangerous driving behavior. Cars constantly race each other, as one tries to pass a slower vehicle to get ahead of it before the road narrows back to only accommodate one lane of cars. Every single time I bike along this corridor, I hear a car zooming past me with the sound of an engine in full throttle. When the car does overtake me and the other slower vehicle, it will pass me with as little as a foot of clearance. What’s even more infuriating is to see that almost every time a car does this, it will reach a red light and have to stop anyway. I usually arrive at that same red light a few seconds later. Congratulations, asshole. All that dangerous behavior resulted in no decrease in travel time.
And if all this wasn’t bad enough, the road conditions in this area are atrocious for cars and bicycles alike. Potholes, debris, and even deteriorated railroad tracks plague users of these roadways.
Cyclists especially feel all of these pain points on the east-west streets that funnel traffic between the Williamsburg Bridge and East Williamsburg–Bushwick, specifically the corridor along Scholes and Meserole Streets.
Bike Lanes and Road Diet
Earlier this year, the NYC Department of Transportation planned a redesign of this corridor in anticipation of the looming L train shutdown in 2019. The DOT reasons that based on prior subway shutdowns, such as those after Hurricane Sandy and during the 2005 Transit Strike, the number of commuters crossing the East River by bicycle exploded as much as three-fold after Sandy and four-fold during the transit strike.1 The DOT is anticipating an increase in the number of cyclists in light of the L train shutdown and the the needs of commuters in neighborhoods between Bedford Ave and Myrtle-Wycoff stations on the L train route, specifically Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Ridgewood.
On Wednesday night, I began to see the new bicycle lanes on the aforementioned corridor along Scholes and Meserole Streets take shape. I am thrilled to see that this is coming to my neighborhood!
I can already imagine the reaction of area drivers who will claim that the narrower roadways will increase travel times. But this is simply not true. These lanes were only designed to carry one lane of traffic in each direction, and drivers will finally have to use them as they were designed. Just because some drivers once used the roadway to pass another vehicle—and now they can’t—didn’t help anyway. As I mentioned earlier, cars would race and pass each other only to arrive at the same red light within seconds of each other.
However, the efficacy of a bicycle lane and putting a roadway on a diet is only as good as the police enforcement. Although the new bicycle lane is not yet official, over the last two days, I already saw the most common problem plaguing bicycle lanes: cars using a bike lane as an automobile parking lane.
The DOT went through all this trouble to add a bicycle lane to improve traffic flow and increase safety, and all it takes is a few drivers to clog it up and force cyclists into the vehicle travel lanes, which then angers drivers who now must slow down for the bicycles that have to go around the parked cars.
This is why we can’t have nice things.
- Anecdotally, the lower increase in bicycle commuters after Sandy compared to the increase during the transit strike is because a lot of people had the week off work as many businesses in Manhattan couldn’t open. ↩