Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
A 2002 public access show offers shows just how far the city has come.
If you think biking in New York City is tough today, look back 15 years, when the city’s handful of dedicated lanes were potholed, unpainted, and widely disrespected by motorists. This bit of early 2000s public-access TV footage gives awesomely grainy testimony to how intrepid a cyclist had to be in those days, and how much conditions have changed for the better in relatively short order.
Clarence Eckerson, now the principal documentarian at STREETFILMS (you may remember him from such films as “Why Houston Is Back on the Bus,” and “Vancouver’s Multi-Modal Success Story”), dug up this gem he filmed in 2002 for the now-defunct show bikeTV. Eckerson’s been making short films about street design since the late 1990s, starting with shooting bike routes around the Brooklyn neighborhood he moved to after college. “I was getting so excited that you could really bike all around the city if you learned the best routes,” he writes in an email.
Eckerson, who’s never had a driver’s license, realized that documenting the uglier side of city biking could push policy, too; this “state of repair” report for bikeTV was aimed at holding transportation officials accountable for upkeep. In the film, Eckerson charts a course via bike lane from his home in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens to Manhattan’s Herald Square, and finds the network largely left for dead: Brooklyn’s Adam Street lane (minute 1:26), for example, is totally unusable, thanks to wall-to-wall parked cars. Several bike commuter thoroughfares in Manhattan—like Lafayette Street (3:30), Sixth Avenue (3:50), Broadway (4:23), and Second Ave (4:56)—are little more than half-hearted pavement squiggles. Elsewhere, he finds lanes strewn with glass and trash and no shortage of un-abiding drivers.
“I give my overall experience, as an experienced cyclist, a C,” the then-bandana-headed Eckerson says in the film. “But if I were a beginning cyclist or thinking these lanes would motivate anyone to do anything, it’s about an F, and that’s pretty sad.”
In the fifteen years since, improvements have been dramatic. In the video description, he flags major changes lane by lane: The featured section of Adams Street, for example, now adjoins a car-free pedestrian plaza, and has stripes throughout. All of the aforementioned Manhattan lanes are now fully protected. “Every day you see families, kids, and older people you wouldn’t have seen five years ago,” Eckerson writes.
Those observations are representative of a citywide transformation: New York City has built nearly 400 miles of new and improved bike lanes since the mid-2000s, which, with the launch of bike sharing, helped quadruple ridership. Although Manhattan and Brooklyn have received the most attention, other boroughs are receiving major cycling investments, too (even when community members oppose it). The $100 million overhaul to Queens’ “Boulevard of Death,” for example, is “the kind of thing I never thought I would see in my lifetime,” writes Eckerson.
Janette Sadik-Khan, NYC’s DOT commissioner from 2007 to 2013, is widely credited as the author of this cycling-centric transformation. The growing influence of bike advocates (including Eckerson himself, whose film on Bogota’s Ciclovia directly inspired similar mass-cycling events around the world), and the “Vision Zero” road safety movement can’t be discounted, either.
New York’s bike network is still far from a grade “A,” however, especially for beginners. More connections and more safety upgrades are needed to get bigger volumes of New Yorkers on wheels, Eckerson writes:
We need to work on more crosstown routes, and in the near future, commit to to turning our protected bike lanes done with paint, plastic bollards and the occasional traffic island in to true raised, protected areas that are unable to be penetrated by bad drivers or parking.
Until then, he’ll keep his camera sharply focused.