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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.