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Q&A with Caroline Samponaro: An Advocate's Response to the Media's Bike Lane Coverage
Bike lane on Broadway Avenue. Photo by J.

Bike lane on Broadway Avenue. Photo by J.

This interview is part of a bi-weekly series with sustainable transportation advocates, planners, engineers, journalists, sociologists, and other experts working to shed light on best practices and solutions from across the globe. We welcome your suggestions for future Q&As.

Transportation Alternatives (T.A) is a non-profit organization dedicated to developing safer and smarter transportation, more livable streets and a healthier city. Says the organization’s website, “Transportation Alternatives is involved in every aspect of traveling around New York City. From bike routes and bus lanes to pedestrian crossings and car parking, we’re fighting for safer, smarter transportation and a healthier city. When Transportation Alternatives was founded in 1973, New York City’s cycling population was a fifth of what it is now and the number of pedestrians killed each year by cars was more than twice as high.”

Caroline Samponaro answered a few of our questions related to an article we just wrote on the controversy and media attention around New York City’s installment of more bike lanes. She works as the director of bicycle advocacy at T.A.

Do you think the backlash/tension between bike lane supporters and non-supporters is overstated in the New York Times article like Streetsblog suggests? How so?

Absolutely. The media seems to have latched onto the idea of conflict as their way to report on the recent growth in bicycling and the expansion of the bike lane network. Do some NYC cyclists ride like jerks? Sure. But not any more so than some NYC drivers drive like jerks or NYC pedestrians walk without considering those around them. The City and groups like T.A. take bike behavior seriously and are working hard to address it through outreach and calls for more targeted enforcement.

The reality of this issue is not one of conflict though, despite the sensationalized reporting. Bicycling is booming in NYC and is the fastest growing mode of transportation in NYC — New Yorkers are voting with their feet. The addition of 250 miles of bike lanes and the complementary growth in bicycling over the past 3.5 years has ushered in the safest streets in NYC history. Literally, 2009 was the safest year for city traffic since the City began keeping records 100 years ago, even with double-digit percentage increases in cycling for each of the preceding three years. New York City Department of Transportation’s (NYCDOT) research shows that streets with bike lanes see 40 percent fewer crashes resulting in death or serious injury for all user groups than streets without bike lanes. They are also encouraging new riders!

From our vantage point, the majority of New Yorkers are happy about the investment in bicycle transportation and they want more. At a rally in support of the Prospect Park West bike lane last month, organized in response to opponents holding a rally of their disapproval, supporters of the bike lane outnumbered opponents 5 to 1.

The reality is that in a city like New York, change is hard. Our streets and sidewalks make up 80 percent of our public space. That is of course why NYCDOT is working so hard to make streets and sidewalks safer and more livable for the non-driving majority. But it is also why any change on the street can cause opposition.

People that are having a hard time with the street changes seem to be using bike behavior as a way to justify their discontent. But I think these issues need to be untangled. We would never conclude that sidewalks should be removed simply because New Yorkers jaywalk. We would talk about enforcement and education. Bike lanes are safety improvements like sidewalks. They are safety improvements that are reducing injuries for all street users, not just cyclists. Bike behavior is a surmountable challenge, and as all New Yorkers adjust to our new streets, all New Yorkers will start to use them in safer and more law-abiding ways. In fact, on streets with protected bike lanes, we have seen 80 percent decreases in sidewalk riding, pointing to how it is not just enforcement, but also design that helps folks make safe choices.

NYC is one of many cities around the world that is investing in bicycling as a practical, affordable, environmentally friendly, healthy and equitable form of transportation. Cities that are ahead of us in this effort are proof that there is a period of public adjustment that we will eventually end. So will the idea that there is some sort of backlash. We will outgrow that conversation as our new street designs become the status quo—a much safer, more enjoyable status quo at that!

What do you think is needed to calm the tension?

Fair and balanced reporting that is based in actual fact, and that offers a viewpoint other than that of the small – but loud – number of New Yorkers who are having a hard time adjusting to changing streets and see bicycles as the most obvious scapegoat.

What do you plan to do to maintain support for existing lanes and ensure that DOT continues to move towards bike- and pedestrian-friendly measures?

We are going to keep doing what we have been doing since we were founded in 1973 – act as a voice for the majority of New Yorkers who care about streets and neighborhoods that prioritize biking, walking and transit as equitable and practical forms of transportation in NYC, as well as help empower communities to work directly with the City to realize their goals for safer streets.

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  • Barnard

    John,

    It sounds like Transportation Alternatives does advocate for bike enforcement. Caroline said:

    “The City and groups like T.A. take bike behavior seriously and are working hard to address it through outreach and calls for more targeted enforcement.”

    Do you have specific examples?

    Best,

  • John

    And I don’t mean to be a serial poster, but I think I’d just like to say to Hilda that I agree with you in large part. Education is important. However, TA’s approach to resolving auto-related concerns is overwhelmingly regulatory- and enforcement-based. It’s a contradiction with an obvious motivation. When they really want change, they work with the law.

  • John

    It’s really amazing. After all of that explanation, once again, when pedestrian vs. cyclist conflict comes to the fore, TA stands against the pedestrians by objecting to “no cycling” signs on sidewalks:

    http://www.dnainfo.com/20101203/upper-west-side/upper-west-side-board-wants-put-no-biking-decals-on-sidewalks

    I truly don’t understand how Caroline can remotely suggest that TA isn’t anti-pedestrian in circumstances when walkers and cyclists come into tension. We’re talking about preventing injuries to pedestrians from cyclists who are *breaking* *the* *law*, and TA tries to roadblock it because they’ve got a seat on CB7.

    Crazy.

  • Hilda

    I find it disheartening to see that education is so belittled here. TA’s Bicycle Rules Campaign has been filling a void for two years that is only now starting to be looked at by City Commissioners. Educating everyone is what is in order; what percentage of respondents were not aware of the actual NYC speed limit again?

    Beefing up enforcement would be a wonderful revelation, but it is not likely to happen to the degree that is it needed. In addition, no one wants to be the enforcer, so programs that work through design, education and community participation are preferable, often less expensive, and work better than simply enforcement. Enforcement is of course a factor, but so is taking it upon yourself to follow a code of conduct, laws, rules, etc.

    Biking Rules, and the significant increase of bike infrastructure has changed the way I ride, after 23 years of riding and commuting. It certainly wasn’t through fear of enforcement; but rather simple consideration for the ‘way it should be’. And besides it makes my self-righteousness even more defendable!

    The best way to change is to educate, now and our next generations.

  • caroline

    John,

    With regard to enforcement, although that is really only one piece of this puzzle, we have a number of active campaigns including advocacy for re-institution of the bicycle cop program and targeted enforcement on bike lane routes, especially when they are new. In general we are a leading voice on transparent and fair enforcement that targets the most dangerous behaviors.

    Biking Rules matters because no matter what, enforcement is selective and will never do the whole job. We are talking bike riding culture change here, and education and public dialogue are inseparable from that. You’ll notice that cities around the world with far more ingrained bicycle transportation systems, have complimentary civic riding behavior. It is not a coincidence. Design, enforcement, education and riding culture change over time are all part of why.

    I don’t think it makes much sense to be responding to my response about bicycling issues, because that was the point of this post, with a claim that T.A. is bike-centric in our viewpoint and work. Our work speaks for itself, whether it was starting Safe Routes for Schools and Safe Streets for Seniors, fighting for a play streets policy and neighborhood low speed zones or leading the discussion on transit funding reform and Vision Zero, we are out front on transportation issues for all New Yorkers. Not just cyclists. I just happen to be responding to a question about bikes.

    Back to Work for Me,
    Caroline

  • John

    Caroline, I appreciate your response, but all you’ve identified is a cyclist *education* campaign, as I initially pointed out.

    Bad driving is dangerous, and TA rightly has fought for increased enforcement and management of those dangers. However, bad cycling is also dangerous, and TA’s lip service to pedestrians ends whenever there’s a possibility of enforcement or restriction that would require cyclists to make any sacrifice for the safety of pedestrians.

    I get that the facade of self-regulation is preferable to actual enforcement. The banks and oil companies play that game even more effectively. But the day that TA stands up and says that they are going to fight for NYPD enforcement of sidewalk riding or that they are going to set up cameras to catch red-light cyclists buzzing pedestrians legally crossing Riverside Drive is the day that I start to believe that TA considers pedestrians as anything but a constituency to ignore in the event that our interests conflict with cyclists.

    I agree that TA does some positive things for transit riders, and they should be commended for that. However, it’s clear that TA considers cyclists to be their prime consideration whenever there are issues of conflict. But, hey, if you’re having conversations with Janette Sadik-Khan about how to crack down on dangerous cyclists, or are pushing a law or regulation about same or are now fully supporting the 72nd and Riverside cycling calming decision, please keep us pedestrians in the loop – we’re all ears.

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  • caroline

    John,

    Have you seen our bicycle education campaign, Biking Rules? It revolves entirely around advocating for pedestrians with regard to pedestrian-cyclist interactions. Your claim is simply not true. Just because we are a strong voice for cyclists, and we consistently are, does not mean that we are not advocating for other street users and for safe and sane bicycling paired with smart enforcement. I’d be happy to talk with you in more depth about this, but thought it was important to correct that confusion. You can reach me at bike[at]transalt[dot]org.

    Best, Caroline

  • John

    To be fair, the reason that there’s so much animosity towards TA from non-cyclists is that whenever an issue arises that requires compromise by either cyclists or pedestrians, TA always sells out the pedestrians (see Riverside and 72nd), and *always* advocates cyclist “education” even when cyclist regulation is really the right answer.

    Even above, Caroline addresses “enforcement” when it comes to jaywalking, but TA never honestly advocates for enforcement of illegal *cyclist* behavior. In fact, in this Q&A, she clearly advocates “design” improvements rather than emforcement to prevent sidewalk riding.

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