Commentary, cycling, Paris

Shuddering to imagine

Photo: Paul Metivier / Flickr

If you haven’t been following the unfolding story of the Prospect Park West bike lane, here’s a quick summary by Eric McClure of Park Slope Neighbors:

A diverse group of residents and neighborhood advocates first raised the need to calm traffic on Prospect Park West, which was plagued by speeding, at a Park Slope Civic Council forum in March 2006. The local Community Board, Brooklyn Community Board Six, wrote to then-new Transportation Commissioner Sadik-Khan in June of 2007, requesting that NYCDOT take steps to calm traffic on Prospect Park West, and even suggested exactly what was eventually implemented: the replacement of one of three travel lanes with a protected bicycle path. In the spring of 2009, Park Slope Neighbors presented NYCDOT with 1,300 signatures on a petition asking for a similar treatment. NYCDOT presented the Community Board Six Transportation Committee with an initial proposal in April 2009, which the committee endorsed, and the full board voted to approve the project by an 18-9 vote in May 2009. The project’s implementation, originally scheduled for September 2009, was then delayed nine months, reportedly due to pressure from the Borough President.

In June of this year, the DOT finally went ahead with the plan, but the opponents have continued their campaign. On October 21, residents held dueling rallies along the avenue, with the pro-lane event attracting 200-300 people and the anti group attracting well under 100.

The fight over this lane is really a clash of the titans (or perhaps it may be the Olympians overthrowing the Titans), with the pro-lane faction including Streetsblog founding editor Aaron Naparstek, the progressive group Park Slope Neighbors, and many current and former staff members and advisors of Transportation Alternatives, and the anti-lane faction including Borough President Marty Markowitz and former Deputy Mayor Norman Steisel. Although they have been downplaying their participation, it is widely known that the previous Transportation Commissioner, Iris Weinshall, is an active member of the anti-lane group, and her husband, Chuck Schumer, the senior Senator from New York, is rumored to be exerting his influence against the lane, despite his often-touted fondness for recreational cycling. Civic hatchetman Richard Lipsky recently weighed in, prompting speculation as to whether he had been hired by the anti-lane group.

Shortly before the rallies last week, the anti-lane group drafted a long, heavily footnoted letter to Sadik-Khan’s boss, Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, asking him to intervene. Park Slope Neighbors President Eric McClure obtained a copy of the letter, which he annotated with his own corrections and responses, and Streetsblog published it on Thursday.

Eric does a good job of demolishing most of the anti-bike lane arguments, but there’s one particular point where I felt I could lend my expertise:

A final issue also merits consideration: the altogether unhappy aesthetic effect of the garishly painted, plastic-pyloned bike lanes on the serene beauty of what is one of the most gracious boulevards in the city, the stately boundary between graceful Prospect Park and one of Brooklyn’s finest historic districts. And the parking lane in the middle of the street destroys the previously unfettered vista culminating in the magnificent Grand Army Plaza memorial at the pivot of Prospect Park West, Prospect Park, and Eastern Parkway. (One shudders to imagine how a Parisian might view the encrustation of the view down the Champs Elysées through the Arc de Triomphe.)

Image: bitchcakes / Flickr
Image: bitchcakes / Flickr

The last parenthetical remark struck me. It seems that our Titans have not been to Paris recently, or they would know that the city has become much friendlier to pedestrians, transit users and especially cyclists under the Socialist/Green coalition government that has ruled it for the past nine years than it was under Jacques Chirac. So I did a little googling, and what do you know, they are planning to put bike lanes right up the Champs-Elysées. I have translated the article for the benefit of those who do not read French.

The most bizarre thing about that sentence was the idea that “a Parisian” never rides a bicycle, which has never been close to the truth. The letter was also full of complaints about process, which was telling considering that the process of implementing street configuration changes under Weinshall was less inclusive and more open to domination by big players like Schumer and Markowitz. In his blog post, Lipsky appealed to City Council Transportation Chair Jimmy Vacca, who has in the past complained about Sadik-Khan’s outreach process.

In Paris, however, there do not seem to be any problems with the process: the bicycle plan was passed unanimously by the 163-member City Council. To be sure, this includes Green Party leaders like Jacques Boutault, who is Mayor of the Second District that contains the Rue de Rivoli – District Mayor is a post that combines the best features held by a Borough President, District Manager and Community Board Chair here in New York. But it also includes François Lebel, Mayor of the Eighth District that contains the Champs-Elysées, who represents the center-right UMP party. If anyone were to think of bike lanes on the Champs-Elysées as an “encrustation” worth shuddering over, it would probably be someone associated with the UMP, and at least one of the 51 UMP council members would probably have voted against it. Either there’s some serious dealmaking and tight party discipline in that council, or else bike lanes on the Champs-Elysées are widely supported.

grvsmth (Author)

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