The Bike Wars Come to City Council

Janette Sadik-Khan is probably the only transportation commissioner, or city commissioner of any sort, really, with honest-to-god fans. Not just

Janette Sadik-Khan is probably the only transportation commissioner, or city commissioner of any sort, really, with honest-to-god fans. Not just supporters or boosters, but groupies who adore her. A few were spotted today, poking their cellphones past reporters who were buttonholing Sadik-Khan outside a City Council hearing room this afternoon.

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A tall blonde woman, clutching her Blackberry, picture in hand, told The Observer, “She’s the best.”

Not everyone inside the hearing room would agree, as Sadik-Khan had just endured more than two hours of angry, playful, sanctimonious questions from council members who, along with their constituents, seem to either adoringly love or petulantly hate her. And still, here she was, answering the questions she wanted to, evading the ones she didn’t. (“I don’t have the numbers,” “That’s not my department,” etc.) This after having undergone foot surgery the night before. The reason was never explained, but for Sadik-Khan’s relying on an orthopedic wooden cane for support.

The big issue for the council is that Sadik-Khan painted a long green stripe right through their turf. One of the few things Council members feel like they have any real say over is land-use issues, of which the streets are a major part. But when the lanes began to proliferate, and Sadik-Khan and the rest of the DOT began painting with impunity, Council members realized they really didn’t.

From the cyclists’ perspective, this is great news. Increasingly, we can get anywhere in the city safely and efficiently. Yet not everyone bikes–according to Transportation Alternatives, the number now stands at more than 200,000 a day, about as many people who live in Rochester, but still well below the millions of daily commuters.

So what happens when the needs of one group of commuters come up against another’s, especially when everyone knows they are in the right? What is it about the streets–not just here but anywhere–that everyone thinks they own them, when clearly no one does, even Commissioner Sadik-Khan.

Consider this exchange between Councilman Lew Fidler, who represents the the lobe of land surrounding Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, and Sadik-Khan:

Fidler: I don’t see why you have to connect Eastern Parkway and Shore Parkway, when no one wants that. They want biking in the parks.

Sadik-Khan: It’s for the sake of connectivity.

I don’t undsertand the connectivity point. We should build bike lanes where people want to bike.

If we don’t have an integrated system, it just dumps you into a dangerous situation.

But these streets, people don’t want to bike on them, they want to drive on them.

I will take a look at it and get back to you.

This was coming from a guy who opened his remarks by saying that he subscribes to the Field of Dreams approach, “build it, and they will use it,” though he also pointed out that absolutely no one could commute to Manhattan by bike from his district. “Biking in my district is a recreational activity.”

Yet later on, Councilwoman Tish James told Sadik-Khan: “My constituents would love access to the parkways and the shoreways of the great borough of Brooklyn, to access all that we have. There is no better way to address the sedentary culture of our city and our country.”

Councilman Brad Lander, a supporter of the lanes, admitted that there was something inexplicably visceral about the entire biking debate.

These are the sort of inescapbale, unanswerable questions at the heart of being a New York: What do you put on your hot dog? Condo versus coop? Brooklyn or Manhattan?

Is it wrong to build a bike lane if no one will use it, but maybe they just might?

mchaban [at] | @mc_nyo

The Bike Wars Come to City Council