Bikes Over Buses: Citi Bike Rolls Out, But 125th Street Bus Lane Gets Cut in Half

After being cut in half, the 125th Street bus lanes will only extend from Third Avenue to Lenox—and even then, it'll have a few holes.

After being cut in half, the 125th Street bus lanes will only extend from Third Avenue to Lenox—and even then, it’ll have a few holes.

When it comes to bike lanes, the Bloomberg administration and its trinominal Department of Transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, doesn’t back down.

Whether it means facing down her predecessor, Iris Weinshall, and husband Chuck Schumer over the Prospect Park West bike lane, or enduring the tabloids’ volleys over Citi Bike, the administration can be counted on to be a reliable ally when it comes to bikes.

Buses, though, are another story.

Yes, the administration has pushed through a number of bus lanes. Incorporating some (but nowhere near all) of the aspects of “bus rapid transit,” the city—it’s the city, after all, not the state-run MTA that controls the streets—has laid down blue paint for its Select Bus Service-branded lines along the length of Manhattan along First and Second Avenues, along with lines on Fordham Road in the Bronx, Hylan Boulevard on Staten Island, 34th Street across town, and Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn is due for its own SBS line later this year.

But there have also been some high-profile failures. The first was on 34th Street, a crucial crosstown corridor that connects five subway trunk lines and Penn Station, where the DOT announced an ambitious proposal for median-running bus lanes (the most effective kind, since they don’t get fouled up by drivers turning right onto the avenues), which would involve closing the street to non-bus traffic entirely between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

The administration backed down after howls of protest from the skyscraper czars of 34th Street, aired through Post columnist Steve Cuozzo, who said the plan would “ruin 34th Street from end to end.” The busway was downgraded to a painted lane.

While transit activists could chalk that defeat to the formidable lobbying power of the Malkins and Vornado, who own property along the corridor, the demise of the full-fat 125th Street plan is a bit harder to explain.

The Harlem thoroughfare was slated to contain bus lanes on both sides of the road, from Morningside Avenue on the west side to Third Avenue on the east, according to DOT presentations earlier this year. The desperately needed lanes would speed buses along the corridor for the tens of thousands of daily riders who crawl along the street at less than 3 miles per hour during rush hour, and are stationary—either in traffic, at lights or at bus stops—for 60 percent of the time.

But after complaints from State Senator Bill Perkins, whose district includes much of Upper Manhattan (like all opponents, he wouldn’t cop to opposing the scheme outright, instead couching his opposition with language about “process”), DOT worked with the senator’s staff to roll back most of the dedicated lanes. They axed all the lanes west of Lenox Avenue (sorry, A/B/C/D riders!), much to the chagrin of riders, leaving only about two avenues’ worth of double-sided lanes between there and Third Avenue (the rest of the short stretch will get just one side’s worth of dedicated lanes). Left turn restrictions were lifted as well.

“The partial roll-out is setting it up to fail,” WE ACT transportation equity coordinator Jake Carlson, whose group pushed the Department of Transportation to implement the 125th Street SBS corridor, told The Observer. “You’re going to create a huge bottleneck there at Lenox.”

“They’re going to need a unified community approach,” he continued, “as opposed to a tale of two Harlems.” He also suggested that East Harlem’s familiarity with dedicated bus lanes, in the form of the First and Second Avenue SBS lines, may have helped it keep its stretch of dedicated lanes on 125th Street.

While the Bloomberg administration has shown itself more than willing to go to the mat for cyclists, it has been less eager to please the many, many more bus riders across the city. (34th and 125th Streets, for example, each carry more than 30,000 bus riders per day—far more than the entire Citi Bike system is expected to handle when its roll-out is complete.)

With the mayor’s term winding down, Bloomberg looks likely to leave behind a mixed and somewhat uncomfortable transit legacy. While the city no longer controls the subways or buses, it does control the streets, and the mayor’s choices—whether intentional, or, more likely, not—seem to disproportionately benefit wealthier and whiter bike riders (bikeshares tend to skew towards the yuppy demographic), while leaving the much larger—albeit poorer and browner—crowds that board the city’s buses each day in the lurch.

Update: Paul Steely White of the group Transportation Alternatives gave us a call and pointed out that it’s not just bus lanes that have gotten the axe under the current administration—bike lanes in South Williamsburg, Staten Island and Harlem have also been removed, or removed from consideration.