East Harlem Split Over New Bike Lanes

Bicycle wheels hiss up and down Second Avenue, creating a symphony of pumping pedals and shifting gears outside of Elizabeth Harper’s sixth floor window. The music lasts from morning to as late as 11 o’clock at night, says the 91-year-old who has lived in her East Harlem apartment since 1959. Cyclists in the neighborhood are nothing new.

 “I’m afraid of the bicycles when I come out. I have to turn around and look, because they get so close to you and you could fall,” said Harper. Her neighborhood led New York State in pedestrian-cyclist accidents from 2007 to 2010, according to a recent Hunter College study.  

Safety concerns, along with transportation initiatives, spearheaded Community Board 11’s push for protected bicycle lanes along First and Second avenues in East Harlem. Beginning next spring, the Department of Transportation will build the lanes between 100th and 125th streets, working on Second Avenue first. The project is part of the DOT’s plan to extend bicycle lanes from Houston to 125th streets.

The measure has sparked uproar from small business owners, who worry that the new lanes will worsen traffic congestion and complicate deliveries. But the community board and local cyclists have applauded the decision, listing its many benefits and considering it a step towards safer streets for all. East Harlem residents find themselves toeing the line, pleased with the increased safety but worried that the plan will intensify daily traffic.

“The bottom line is it’s going to cost me more money,“ said Scott Weinstein, owner of a Second Avenue delivery service, adding that having his staff work around the existing bus lanes and pending bicycle lanes will result in more hourly labor. Traffic congestion and lack of parking currently stretch a 5-block delivery to an 8-block one, he says, and the new lanes will only make matters worse.            

Under the DOT’s plan, Second Avenue in East Harlem would lose a travel lane.

In midtown, some small businesses have juggled bicycle and bus lanes for the past year, admitting that deliveries are a hassle.

“The trucks have to park two blocks away and carry the stuff to us,” said Valerie Kalaibjain, manager of a pharmacy on Second Avenue near 42nd Street, “Sometimes we have to go and get it because they can’t get in.”

The DOT says it went door to door letting small businesses in East Harlem know about the coming change, a statement some shop owners contest. “I’m here everyday, seven days a week, from 7 A.M. to 11 P.M. Nobody came here,” said clothing store manager Muhamed Dialloh.

Community Board 11 approved the DOT’s plan Sept. 20, with 37 members voting in favor, none voting against and three abstentions.  In a meeting that saw one angry small business owner yelling at DOT representatives, the board agreed that the bicycle lanes’ payoffs will outweigh the inconveniences in the long run.

“The lanes will serve for safer recreation and commuting purposes,” said Board Chair Matthew Washington, noting the lack of public transportation on Manhattan’s East Side.

About 2 percent of East Harlemites use their bicycles to get to and from work, according to U.S. Census data, a number that trails only lower Manhattan and northwest Brooklyn. “The bike lanes will make it a lot easier for us in traffic,” said rider Eric Perez, recalling an accident with a yellow cab.

Community leaders also believe the lanes will promote healthy living. In the neighborhood, one in four elementary school children and six in 10 adults are overweight or obese, according to a report by the East & Central Harlem District Public Health Office. At the Sept. 20 meeting, members listed recreational cycling’s health benefits as a way to tackle this issue, an underlying incentive for the new lanes.  

Washington adds that local shop owners’ concerns are being heard and that the board is working with the DOT to find a solution that accommodates everyone. The DOT says a meeting with the board and small business owners will take place in November.

“There’s no reason why we can’t move forward with these new lanes while also addressing the worries of small business owners,” said Washington.

Some longtime residents like Harper welcome the lanes, believing that a designated area for riders will reduce bicycle related accidents.  DOT statistics show that accidents have significantly decreased in areas recently equipped with lanes, dropping nearly 37 percent. Residents who drive, however, are concerned.

“You have the bus lanes taking up most of the street, then you add a bike lane. How many lanes are you going to have for the cars?” said Albert Ocasio, parked outside of his building near 121st Street, “It’s going to make traffic a lot worse.”

But more traffic is a small price to pay for overall safety, says resident Colleen Diggs, “It’s New York City. If you don’t like congestion, you shouldn’t be here,” she said.

Despite the rift, one thing all sides agree on is that the bicycle lanes will prove useless in the face of cyclists who blatantly disobey the law. Many cyclists don’t follow the rules of the road, local drivers and residents say, often choosing to ride opposite the flow of traffic and weaving through cars.

Washington agrees that cyclists, like those zooming up and down the street outside of Elizabeth Harper’s window, will have to fully cooperate for the new bike lanes to be effective.