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One-way protected bike lane leading downtown to pedestrianized Times Square. While NYC has some terrific bicycle facilities, it also has its fair share of bike salmon and bike ninjas.

View more photos from John’s Manhattan bike ride here.

Last week I wrote, “[Chicago is] now the national leader in providing enhanced on-street bikeways.” It’s probably true that we have the highest total number of miles of protected and buffered bike lanes, 12.5 and 14.5 miles, respectively, for a total of 27 miles. (The Chicago Department of Transportation recently started counting both types as “protected,” but I’m sticking with the standard definition of protected lanes as ones with a physical barrier, such as parked cars, between cyclists and motorized traffic.)

But on a visit to New York City a few days later, I found out we still haven’t beat the Big Apple in terms of physically separated protected lanes; there are currently about twenty miles of them in the five boros, according to Streetsblog editor-in-chief Ben Fried. (I’m still trying to track down the number of buffered lane miles.) New York has been building protected lanes since 2007 but Chicago, which only started last year, is currently installing the lanes at a much faster rate, so it’s very possible we’ll overtake them in the near future.

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Protected bike lane with planters for barriers on 17th Street by Union Square, NYC.

I was also impressed by the quality of NYC’s protected lanes. The ones I saw in Manhattan often involved concrete barriers, planters or closely spaced flexible posts, which discourage motorists from driving or parking in the lanes. Even in locations where the protected lanes are only delineated with paint, I saw very few cars in the bike lane. On the other hand, demand for parking is so high on the island that the “floating” parking lanes next to the bike lanes were almost always at capacity, providing good protection for cyclists. Pavement was generally smooth and green paint was often present to draw attention to the presence of the lanes.

I hadn’t been to New York since 2008 when I checked out their Summer Streets ciclovia. Since then Manhattan has gone through an amazing transformation under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and transportation commissioner Janette Sadik Khan. Besides implementing the bike lanes, they pulled off the ultimate road diet on Broadway, removing car lanes and shutting down sections of the island’s main diagonal thoroughfare to calm traffic and make space for some amazing new car-free spaces. And I didn’t even have time to check out other first-rate bike facilities in Queens and Brooklyn, or the new segments of the Highline, the sleek, 1.5-mile elevated linear park which paved the way for Chicago’s Bloomingdale.

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New section of the Highline. Photo by David Carlson.

Ben Fried kindly created an itinerary of new sustainable transportation facilities for me to check out and loaned me his Dutch bike to go explore the Island. Below is a map of the roughly twelve-mile route I took, clockwise from the Streetsblog offices at Lafayette and Canal. Before I hit the streets, Ben gave me some background on what I’d be seeing.


View NYC transportation facilities bike tour in a larger map

Eighth Avenue protected bike lane

“You’re going to see the first segment of this bike lane, which was built in 2008, I believe,” Ben says. “They built out the protected bike lanes in segments of usually a mile or less. The first segment was in this residential and, more-and-more, high-tech office district in the West Village and Chelsea. Google headquarters is nearby.

“You’ll see the classic New York-style protected bike lane with parking serving as the barrier between bike traffic and vehicle traffic and you’ve got, at most intersections, pedestrian islands in the crosswalks. That’s like a nice little place for people on foot to rest. It lowers the crossing distance for them. The typical Manhattan avenue without this treatment is very highway-like, very wide, one-way, with lots of lanes. This kind of treatment has really reduced injuries on high-traffic corridors in Manhattan, typically in the 35-50 percent range. And the biggest beneficiaries in terms of safety are usually pedestrians and vehicle occupants.”

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Eighth Avenue protected lane with pedestrian refuge islands at the intersections. It would be great to see Chicago incorporate more ped refuge islands into our protected lane designs. Note that the mail trucks are parked in the “floating” parking lane instead of blocking the bike lanes, as is often the case in Chicago.

“The first part of the bike lane you’ll ride has bike traffic signals with dedicated phases for bikes. As you progress you’ll hit the newer part of the bike lane in Midtown. It was a crucial project that they just finished this year to extend the Eighth Avenue [northbound] and Ninth Avenue [southbound] protected bike lanes from 35th Street to 59th Street. That really lets you bike to the center of the Midtown jobs nexus. You’ve also got major commuter hubs there, like Penn Station and the Port Authority. So once we get bike share up and running all these commuters from outside the city are going to have the option of using these protected bike lanes to ride their public bikes from the bus terminal or Penn Station to their jobs.”

Pedestrian plazas along Broadway

“So if you turn around by at Columbus Circle at 59th Street [at the southwest corner of Central Park] and head downtown onto Broadway, that’s going to take you to all the really high-profile pedestrian plazas in Midtown that have been implemented the past few years. The first one you’ll hit is Times Square, which starts at 47th, and that was really the boldest stroke and the most iconic reclamation of roadway space for pedestrians that Janette Sadik Khan has done. They first pedestrianized it in 2009.”

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Protected lane on Broadway headed towards Times Square. The roadway previously had twice as much space for cars, but now that the street is broken up by pedestrian plazas and non-contiguous, motorized traffic volume has dropped dramatically. Ben says that, ironically, the main argument the city used for shutting down parts of this major diagonal road is that this makes car traffic flow more efficiently on east-west and north-south streets by eliminating a number of six-way intersections.

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Car-free Times Square.

“On a bike it kinds of breaks down as a piece of transportation infrastructure because there’s no bike lane through the pedestrian space. But you can dismount and walk and soak it all in. It’s pretty cool. They’re going to upgrade it as a capital project with a nicely designed surface and benches and lighting. For now it’s kind of just the temporary materials and tables and chairs. It still works great.”

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Herald Square with public seating area.

“So continuing down the next one you’ll hit is 34th Street, Herald Square, and that’s outside Macy’s. That happened at the same time as Times Square. It was really the big business improvement districts that represent those areas of Midtown, the Times Square Alliance and the 34th Street Partnership [that promoted the idea of pedestrianizing Broadway here]. They welcomed this stuff and knew it was going to be good for business.”

“And keeping going you will reach another kind of pedestrianized chunk of space at 23rd Street, Madison Square. They didn’t really have to convert any lanes to pedestrian space. At least the through traffic hasn’t been affected at all. They just made better use of all this extra asphalt and have given that to pedestrians and it makes a huge difference. They did that in 2008, I think, before Herald Square and Times Square.”

Complete street on First Avenue

“Once you reach the East Side, First Avenue northbound, this was a real complete streets overhaul they did, not just the protected bike lane and the pedestrian refuges but also Manhattan’s first enhanced north-south bus treatment, which they call Select bus service in New York City. They did that in 2010 and they’ve been implementing the bike lane in segments since then. So the stretch that was redesigned goes all the way from Houston Street to 125th Street in Harlem.”

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Select bus service on First Avenue, similar to Chicago’s Jeffery Jump but with prepaid boarding and photo enforcement of the bus lane. The protected bike lane is located on the left side of the street.

“The busway is a red-painted lane on the right side of the street. It’s exclusively for buses and that’s enforced with cameras. And they have their pre-paid fare mechanism so if you want to use the bus you have to get this proof of payment slip, which you do by using the kiosk at the bus stop. You get your slip with you on the bus and then you can board without having to wait for everyone to have their Metro card read by a reader.

Greenways along the perimeter of Manhattan

“The West Side Greenway, also called the Hudson River Greenway, is the most heavily biked commuter route in the city. Its origins go back to the Nineties. Actually you can go back even further. It kind of goes back to this famous story of an old highway accidentally falling apart on the west side of New York [in 1973]. There was a long fight over whether to basically rebuild it as a tunnel. The transit advocacy or urbanist advocacy effort basically won saying, no let’s just do this as a surface street and one of the things that came out of that was the creation of the Hudson River Park, and some of the right-of-way on the road was given to this greenway.”

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The East Side Greenway, looking north.

“It took them a while to get the West Side Greenway to be continuous along the West Side of Manhattan. I believe now there are no gaps in it. And so it’s kind of like a trunk line for the bike network in the city now. Anyone who wants to come from as far up as the northern tip of Manhattan can basically can use this greenway to get to the job centers and get downtown.”

“The East Side is in much worse shape. It’s pretty nice [south of] 37th Street, although there’s some pinch points, but then there’s just a gap. There’s just nothing between 38th Street and 63rd Street. Above there on the Upper East Side it hasn’t really been designed for transportation biking. I think there are some stairs in the way, and the surface is not as smooth as the asphalt on the West Side. But the big issue is filling that gap between 38th Street and 63rd. That’s in the early stages of resolving itself. There’s a whole complicated land swap with the United Nations going on.”

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The Hudson River Greenway. Photo by Jag9889.

“So those are really good beginner routes for people who aren’t comfortable at all being in city traffic. But you still have to get to the greenway, so another area where there’s room for improvement is getting better access points to the greenway. But I think the Hudson River Greenway in particular has been a really big catalyst for biking in the city.”

View more photos from John’s Manhattan bike ride here.

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  • Edgewater Roadie

    I rented a bike from Bike and Roll in NYC in the fall of 2011 and rode 200 miles around all 5 boroughs over 3 days. There are great trails along the coastal areas, and the bike lanes in Manhattan are fantastic. There is so much diversity. It was like exploring an urban national park.

  • Adam Herstein

    I will be visiting NYC in March and am looking forward to seeing all these ped/bike friendly enhancements!

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Here’s a few things Ben recommended to check out in Queens and Brooklyn:
      Queensboro / Ed Koch Bridge bike path
      Kent Avenue 2-way protected bike lane
      Manhattan Bridge bike path

      • Jennifer

        The bike ride across the Brooklyn Bridge is just beautiful and worth going out of your way if riding in New York. We took the bridge for the first time this summer during Summer Streets. We took the bridge and then rode all the way up to Central Park. It was empty in the early morning and the river was incredibly gorgeous. Crowded later on the way back but still well worth it.
        I’m glad that John got a chance to get out and around in New York. We have found it a total pleasure to ride the new lanes there with our kids.

    • Doug G.

      I’d also recommend the Kent Avenue bike lane. Arguably the best bike lane in Brooklyn. Certainly among the most heavily trafficked.

  • prof.gfr

    To be fair, I imagine that two reasons why NY dirvers don’t park in the bike lane as much as Chicagoans is a) they have had floating parking islands longer than Chicago (ours are less than a year old!) and b) they have a much larger pedestrian police presence than Chicago and hence more ticket writing. You can hardly walk without bumping into a ped-cop in midtown Manhattan. If the City of Chicago realized how much revenue they could generate from ticketing people parking in the bike lanes (at least until drivers are more used to them) then the lanes might get cleared faster. ;-)

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      You’re definitely right that NYC has had time for drivers to get used to parking in the floating lanes. The fact that all the protected lanes I saw were on busy roads that must get heavy bike traffic during the warm months probably helps as well – some of our lanes are located on streets that don’t have much bike traffic yet, so drivers don’t recognize them as bike lanes, or figure nobody’s biking in the lanes and see no reason not to park there.

  • Max

    Interesting. I moved back to NYC after 3 years in Chicago (where I learned to love urban cycling) and I find biking to be a total mess in NY, to the point where I don’t ride nearly as much as I used to.

    The infrastructure does indeed look nice, but in practice, a combination of design problems and also a much more bike-hostile culture makes cycling in NYC far from pleasant.

    Especially in Midtown, the sidewalks are too narrow for the number of people and pedestrians spill by the dozens into the bike lane, often walking the wrong way or simply not looking at all, and the ones that do look either look shocked that you’re biking in the bike lane or downright angry that you are. Left-turning cars NEVER look to see and you get cut off all the time. Cops park in the bike lanes constantly and delivery trucks often park in them as well. Then the food cart guys use them to wheel their carts. Bike messengers and other cyclists are constantly going the wrong way down them.

    The cops are aggressive towards cyclists and set up “stings” in Central Park to catch “speeding” cyclists, which is ridiculous, and Critical Mass is seen as a hostile uprising by the NYPD. Many bridges and even the river trails have awful combined ped/cycling paths that are dangerous and frustrating to use.

    I’d say biking in Chicago is extremely civil and peaceful, not to mention speedy, compared to here.

    Hopefully it will change in time as people get used to it.

    IMO the biggest problem in NYC is that there is virtually no (official) bike parking anywhere on the street, especially downtown. So once you get where you’re going, you’re pretty much stuck finding scaffolding or a street sign (not very secure) to attach to. No bueno.

    • Adam Herstein

      That sounds a lot like the new Dearborn bike lane…

  • ChicagoStreetcarRenaissance

    Nice work, John.
    I’m struck by how generous everything looks. It’s like instead of trying to minimize the impact of the changes, they’re admitting that the status quo is sub-optimal, giving the planning experts the authority to fix it, and trying to maximize the impact of the changes.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Thanks John. I agree. Chicago has done some nice infrastructure lately, but inconveniencing drivers is generally still considered taboo.

  • Dennis Hindman

    The Green Lane Project has a inventory of all known barrier protected bike lanes installed throughout the country up until 12/7/12:

    http://greenlaneproject.org/inventory-of-protected-green-lanes

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