Thursday, December 18, 2008

The White Zone

As long as you have cars on a street, people are going to need to load and unload them. This is a pretty basic fact, but you'd be surprised to know how often it's ignored. The most recent example is in the redesign of Grand Street in Soho that was implemented this fall.

In the past there weren't as many cars, so the city could simply provide one big pool of curbside parking and there was enough for long-term parking, short-term parking and loading. Over the past fifty years more people have acquired cars, and long-term storage has crowded out loading.

Of course, the need to load and unload has never gone away. People have developed ad hoc workarounds, but they just pass the problem on to someone else. Parking on the sidewalk takes space from pedestrians and puts lives in danger. Parking in bike lanes too. Enough said about those.

The other fix, double-parking, is not much better. When it blocks an entire travel lane it causes congestion and inspires horn-honking, one of the chief complaints about the new Grand Street design.

Before the bike lane was added to Grand Street, there was a single travel lane that was wide enough for drivers to double-park and for other drivers to pass them. From a motorist's point of view this may sound ideal, but it's bad for pedestrians and cyclists. The street alternated unpredictably between stretches where a car could comfortably pass a cyclist (or vice versa) and stretches where a the safest action was for the cyclist to ride in the middle of the remaining pavement, preventing unsafe passing but potentially provoking reckless actions from impatient drivers.

The other main problem was that it was simply a waste of space. At a given time there may be two or three cars unloading on a single block, but an entire lane-width was sacrificed for this 24/7.

The current design is a big improvement: it takes that lane-width and allocates it to bikes, making east-west travel much easier. Most notably, the innovative layout uses parked cars to prevent drivers from blocking the bike lane. It even addresses the issue of loading space during business hours, but for some reason not on weekends, which is what some residents are complaining about. It simply needs to be adjusted so that there is room for loading on weekends. Future street design changes should similarly leave space for loading and unloading.

A thought came to me when I was writing this: in many bike lane installations like this, there is often opposition from "community leaders," who usually happen to be motorists. The DOT regularly assures motorists that no parking spaces will be sacrificed for the bike lane. In this case, they were not being truthful; it's not clear whether they anticipated the conflict over loading, but from now on they really have no excuse.

It's not fair - or necessarily even effective - to put in the bike lane and leave the bike activists to fight with residents over loading zones. It runs the risk of provoking a backlash that could convince skittish politicians to abandon the bike lane. From now on the DOT and bike lane proponents should be up-front about the need for loading zones pretty much around the clock.


NYC taxi photo said...

nice, interesting and unbiased report. cool! I haven't been on Grand east of center recently, but I feel it has always been a traffic choke. I wondered why they chose Grand for a bike lane. I agree it is over used by everyone. the city really needs to rethink parking and loading regulations and accommodations throughout mnhtn, bk, and qns.

grvsmth said...

Just to clarify, Taxi Photo, the proto-Streetfilm argues that Grand was underused, at least at the western end.

I used Grand Street as part of my bike commute route in 2002-2003, before the bike lane was put in, and I can attest to what the Cap'n says about it. I wound up zigzagging all over the place to avoid double-parked cars, and it was stressful to be constantly looking over my shoulder for someone speeding. I haven't ridden on it since the latest redesign, but I can imagine it's much better. It deserved a bike lane because it's a good way to commute from Soho to the Williamsburg Bridge.

Anonymous said...

I agree the line of reasoning, but I don't accept the claim of certain residents that horn honking has increased, without evidence. The same people have said that cyclists aren't using the new bicycle lane, which has not been true at any point (I rode it before they even took down out the caution tape). Horn noise is pretty subjective until you bring in some instruments to measure it over the course of a day—I wonder if we have such data from before the lane went in, to do a comparison?

It's my perception that people are honking their horns all over Manhattan all the damn time, so there's that. When I lived on 11th street it was a contant source of rage for me, especially during morning street sweeping when a bunch of parking freetards would fight with each other for the suddenly available, unmetered spaces. If the new bike lane actually did cause an increase in horn noise (if!), at least the lane can greatly benefit New Yorkers at large, unlike the free parking on 11th that was the source my horn woes. And like you say, there are ways to lessen horn noise that do not involve scrapping safe facilities for bicycles.

Oh, what's that noise I just heard? Horn honking, as cars block other cars trying to get to the Brooklyn Bridge (not very prudent, given the forecast). Guess we'd better strip out the bicycle lanes on Boerum Pl and give everything to cars, so they will be happy and quiet, even though they were not happy or quiet when we were doing just that!

Cap'n Transit said...

Fair enough, City. I was granting them the honking thing for the sake of argument, but apart from that there's no reason to take their word for it.

Many people also seem absolutely convinced that bicyclists are so much more of a danger than cars, and if you try to tell them about documented injury and fatality rates, they act like you're trying to con them.