Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
The “Transformation Department” has challenged the city’s commitment to cyclists.
They showed up on the street on the morning of October 7—25 orange traffic cones marking the bike lane that runs northbound on Chrystie Street in lower Manhattan. Several had sunflowers poking up out of their necks.
The cones were the work of an anonymous group that announced its intentions on Twitter, calling itself the “Transformation Department.” Later they performed a similar action on Carlton Avenue in Brooklyn. This week, they were on Bleecker Street in the Village. They are posting pictures of the effects of the cones with the hashtag #demandmore.
An anonymous spokesperson for the group told Gothamist that its goal was simple:
Our mission is to show how easy it is to transform streets to make them better and safer for everyone. In less than a half hour, and with about $500 worth of cones and flowers, we were able to achieve something that often gets delayed by Department of Transportation bureaucracy or political fear.
The Chrystie Street bike lanes—one on the northbound side of the street and one on the southbound—are one of the city’s main commuter routes, providing key access to and from the Manhattan Bridge, which connects Brooklyn and Manhattan. Thousands of people ride the route everyday, and that number has been growing steadily over the past several years.
But the infrastructure remains painfully inadequate in the eyes of many advocates for safer streets. Vehicles regularly park in the bike lanes on both sides of the two-way street, forcing cyclists into traffic (you can see that clearly in this short video from Streetfilms). Dangerous hummocks on the southbound side haven’t been repaired for years, because the street is scheduled to be repaved at some point in the future. That lane is frequently strewn with debris as well. Much of the paint on both sides had faded away until the lanes were recently repainted—after months of complaints.
Streetfilms Shortie - Chrystie Street's Dysfunctional Bike Lane from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.
David “Paco” Abraham, an advocate and frequent bike commuter, says that the way the New York City Department of Transportation has handled Chrystie Street raises questions about the city’s commitment to its Vision Zero policy. Launched with great fanfare at the beginning of Bill de Blasio’s administration, this push to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries seems to be languishing nearly two years into the mayor’s tenure.
“If it’s about truly changing the mode share and really making Vision Zero a priority, it makes sense to focus on where people are going,” says Abraham. “Chrystie Street could be a perfect spot for truly robust infrastructure. It’s kind of depressing that it takes so much efforts to get DOT to re-stripe, just to do basic maintenance.”
Installing flexible bollards to keep cars out of the bike lane would be one example of an improvement that would not require a street redesign and that could be implemented relatively quickly, says Abraham. Instead, even maintaining the status quo has proven difficult.
An NYC DOT spokesperson said in an email that a proposal for a two-way bike lane where the northbound lane is under review. “In terms of safety measures for bike lanes citywide, we favor a comprehensive approach,” the spokesperson wrote. “Once we determine a project that addresses the needs of all road users, we move forward with a plan that addresses the entire bike lane corridor. DOT repaints, replaces flexible delineators, repaves, and performs maintenance in its bike network citywide regularly.”
Thanks to initiatives that were started under the Bloomberg administration by then-DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, New York has become a much-touted national model for building a bike culture, installing hundreds of miles of new bike lanes and winning acclaim for the design of some of its infrastructure. The number of bike commuters doubled just between 2007 and 2011, and the advent of CitiBike, the country’s largest bike-share program, only solidified the place of bikes on the city’s streets.
As a result, people who bike have become a real constituency, and calls for better infrastructure are becoming a more mainstream idea. Earlier this year, Abraham brought a proposal for a separated two-way Chrystie Street bike lane to the local community board, and it received unanimous approval from the board’s transportation committee, as well as other neighborhood groups and elected officials. All the elected leaders representing the area signed on as well.
Nine months later, though, DOT has yet to say whether it is going to move forward with a Chrystie redesign, and the ongoing problems with the existing lane remain unaddressed.
The makeshift safety cone installations are the most visible manifestation of the frustration that advocates and bike commuters like Abraham feel over the disconnect between the city’s stated policies and its actions on the street. “We’re tired of seeing people injured,” says Abraham. “We don’t want to see Vision Zero just be a bumper sticker. Things that are as obvious as Chrystie Street need to happen. It needed to happen yesterday.”
The Department of Transformation has clearly captured the imagination of some New Yorkers with its efforts. This week they set up a GoFundMe page to pay for more cones and raised $1,000 in a single day. Abraham says the ever-growing community of people who ride bikes—and more broadly, of New Yorkers who want the streets to be safe for all users—no longer will be satisfied with a minimalist approach to bike infrastructure.
“I have the utmost respect for the people at DOT, but there’s something broken in the system when it takes a year or two years of complaining to get paint back on the ground that’s already been approved,” says Abraham. “We expect DOT to do more. It’s 2015. They’re not going to win us over with presentations that could have been made in 2007.”