In Here Is New York, his 1949 love letter to the city, essayist E. B. White called Gotham “the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and finance, bringing to a single compact arena the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader, the merchant.” Since New York’s earliest days as a Dutch trading post and throughout its three-century history as a global city, density has been its defining characteristic. The city’s streets, “with their powerful throbs,” wrote poet Walt Whitman in the mid-1800s, produce an “endless and noisy chorus.” Depending on your point of view, New York is either a vibrant, churning bouillabaisse or a caffeinated bumper gallery where death and misadventure lurk around every corner.
New York’s crowded streets remain today just as White and Whitman described them: a chaos of distracted jaywalkers, hyper-aggressive bike messengers, veering taxis, outmatched suburban drivers, curb-hugging buses, plodding pedicabs, double-parked delivery trucks, and even the occasional horse-drawn carriage. But along with the ferment and creativity that this human crush enables comes the possibility of tragedy. According to official statistics, someone is seriously injured or killed every two hours in a New York City traffic accident, mostly in collisions between cars and people. Last year, 170 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents on Gotham streets. This year, in just ten months, 200 have been killed, including 17 bicyclists. An average of one pedestrian per day is struck by a car in midtown. But if midtown is bad, the wide “arterial” boulevards of the outer boroughs are worse. A recent study found that Brooklyn and Queens were both more dangerous for pedestrians than Manhattan.
The mixture of bikes, cars, and people in New York is in many ways a recipe for disaster. In August 2013, a yellow cab jumped the curb on Sixth Avenue and struck a British tourist who was buying a hot dog from a sidewalk vendor. Prior to the crash, the taxi driver had been engaged in a verbal confrontation with a bike messenger. The biker claimed the crash was caused by the driver’s road rage. The cabbie claimed that the messenger had threatened him by banging on the hood of his taxi. He only accelerated, he said, to get away from what he thought was a dangerous situation. Whether the blame belonged to the bicyclist or the cabbie, it was the pedestrian, 23-year-old Sian Green, who suffered the consequences—her left leg was severed below the knee. She is suing the city for $27.5 million, claiming that the cab driver should have had his license revoked by the Taxi and Limousine Commission for previous recklessness.
Such tragedies happen often enough to keep citizens, tourists, and tabloid editors on edge about traffic safety on city streets. The recent fatal collision in Central Park between a pedestrian and a bicyclist restarted familiar arguments among bike advocates, drivers, and pedestrian-safety activists. Cycling enthusiasts inevitably call for more of the city’s roads to be given over to protected bike lanes. Outer-borough motorists protest any suggestion that they should have to pay for automobile access to midtown. And pedestrian advocates—including Mayor Bill de Blasio—point to drivers and bicyclists who hurtle down crowded city streets as if they were on four-lane highways or enclosed Olympic bike tracks. “[B]icyclists going the wrong way down a street can pose a real danger to everyone involved,” the mayor has said. His administration’s multiagency initiative, Vision Zero, seeks to eliminate all traffic-related deaths in the city through education, enforcement, and safety improvements at intersections where crashes frequently occur.
De Blasio’s efforts are welcome and long overdue, but Vision Zero seems unlikely to succeed if it doesn’t find a way to address the fundamental problem—unlimited numbers of drivers, bikers, and walkers competing for limited space along the city’s wide and crowded boulevards. Cars, bikes, and pedestrians have competing interests that can’t easily be reconciled. Can they safely coexist in New York? Maybe not. What if separation, not coexistence, is the answer?
Years ago, after nearly being crushed between a bus and a parked car while riding my bike down Fifth Avenue, I had what seemed an original idea—elevated bicycle lanes. Giving bikes their own avenue in the sky, I thought, would ensure that no urban bicyclist would ever again experience the terror of being cut off by a fare-seeking taxi driver or having the door of a parked car suddenly swing open in front of him. I imagined a series of semi-enclosed skyways running the length of Manhattan along key avenues. Cyclists would ride on these platforms in total safety and at any speed that suited them, mounting or dismounting via ramps or elevators every few blocks. I also imagined elevated or suspended bikeways over the arterial boulevards of the outer boroughs, enabling tens of thousands of bicyclists to commute safely into Manhattan every day. At street level, the system’s footprint would be far smaller than the noisy, shade-causing elevated subway lines of yesteryear. The city would have no trouble securing rights-of-way down the middle of its own streets.
It turned out that my original idea wasn’t so original. In 1900, Pasadena, California mayor Horace Dobbins opened a 1.3-mile section of the Great California Cycleway—a brightly lit, elevated, wooden tollway for bikes (10 cents one way, 15 cents roundtrip). A bicycling enthusiast, Dobbins hoped his bikeway would one day offer commuters an uninterrupted ride over mountain, valley, and stream, at no more than a 3 percent grade, from suburban Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles, nine miles away. Dobbins’s dream was no match, however, for Henry Ford’s Model T, which debuted in 1908. After a few profit-less years, the Cycleway was torn down to make way for the Pasadena freeway, which still stands—often at a standstill—today.
But the dream of elevated bike lanes lived on. Perhaps inspired by Dobbins, National Review founder and conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. proposed building a bikeway from First Street to 125th Street in Manhattan during his quixotic (and unsuccessful) campaign for mayor in 1965. Gotham lawyer Eric Grannis revived the idea in a 2012 Daily News op-ed, claiming that cheap, lightweight materials such as fiberglass could be safely used to bring Buckley’s long-forgotten proposal to life. He called it “a High Line for bicycles.” And why not? New Yorkers think of their city as being on the cutting edge of urban ingenuity. But as City Journal’s Nicole Gelinas noted earlier this year, while Gotham has made great strides in increasing pedestrian safety and reducing traffic deaths, New York “remains behind—in some cases, far behind—other global cities.” New York has proved reluctant to consider a radical redesign, instead focusing on marginal improvements to the current system of sidewalks, streets, and painted bike lanes.
Other cities think big. In London, famed architect Norman Foster has proposed an ambitious, 136-mile elevated bike path, to be suspended above the city’s suburban rail network. Foster’s “SkyCycle” plan—which could accommodate 400,000 bike commuters daily—has the support of former mayor and potential Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson, as well as the local government agencies responsible for London’s public transportation system. Architect David Nixon envisions a floating bike lane in the Thames River that would allow a car-free commute from the city’s residential areas to the financial district.
In Melbourne, Australia, a consortium of investors has proposed attaching an enclosed, mile-long “Veloway” to the side of an existing rail viaduct running through the city. “[C]ars, bikes and pedestrians just don’t mix well,” Committee for Melbourne CEO Kate Roffey told a reporter earlier this year. “This would solve the problem of separating cars and cyclists moving east-west across the city, and pedestrians can go under or over roads.” A similar approach would seem well suited to New York’s outer boroughs, where, unlike midtown Manhattan, elevated rail viaducts remain the norm. Many commuters in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx would likely take advantage of an option that would get them from home to work in about an hour, safely and free of charge, with a little fitness thrown in.
In Denmark, bike-friendly Copenhagen cut the ribbon this past summer on its Cykelslangen, or Cycle Snake—an elevated lane providing cyclists with a much-needed traverse over a pedestrian-heavy corner of the central city. “It is one of those rare occurrences in Copenhagen where seemingly everyone is happy,” wrote Classic Copenhagen blogger Sandra Hoj. “Cars have not had to budge an inch, the lower level has been returned to pedestrians, and cyclists love it. Besides easing the transition from highway to bike bridge, it is a pure joy to ride.”
While the popularity of elevated (and floating) bike lanes is on the rise elsewhere, New York City’s cycling advocates are cool to the idea. Transportation Alternatives, one of the oldest and most effective voices for the city’s two-wheeled community, agrees in principle that Gotham’s pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers need “separate spaces . . . [to] keep everyone out of each other’s way and out of harm’s way.” Yet TA deputy director Noah Budnick called Grannis’s 2012 proposal an “expensive, unsafe boondoggle.” In response to my questions about the feasibility of building a cycleway in New York similar to the one proposed for London, he replied: “In the Vision Zero era, the city’s capital resources must be focused on fixing the biggest, baddest streets in New York City—our ‘arterial’ roadways—which make up only 15 percent of city streets but account for over half of the fatal and serious injury crashes between drivers and people on foot and bike.” Rather than coming to an accommodation with New York’s motorists and pedestrians, TA’s priority seems to be getting as many cars off city streets as possible—with the goal of making the streets safer for bicyclists. The organization has friends in high places. TA’s former communications director, Wiley Norvell, left to become then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s spokesman. He currently serves as the mayor’s deputy press secretary.
The dream of a car-free city, though, is just that—a dream. In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s modest congestion-pricing proposal to limit car traffic in midtown Manhattan went down in political flames, defeated in Albany thanks to opposition from the powerful state assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver. But even without Silver’s veto, getting cars off New York’s streets is fraught with complications. How would businesses take deliveries? How would the disabled get around? What about the city’s profitable—and influential—parking industry? These questions and others seem destined to scuttle the dreams of those who envision New York—or at least Manhattan—as a car-free paradise for bikers and pedestrians.
Constructing 50-100 miles of elevated bike lanes and related infrastructure across a city that took 11 years to rebuild the World Trade Center is, admittedly, a long shot. But so are the bold ambitions of de Blasio’s Vision Zero. In a city where cars, bikes, and pedestrians engage in a daily competition for limited space along wide boulevards and crowded streets, collisions are inevitable and death does lurk around every corner. Many New Yorkers have had at least one near-fatal experience such as the one that almost happened to me on Fifth Avenue years ago. No one has come up with a politically viable plan to ensure that tragic accidents like the one that cost Sian Green her leg—and could cost the city millions—won’t continue to happen with distressing regularity. Perhaps such incidents are an inevitable part of life in the big city. But if the London, Copenhagen, and Melbourne experiences are any guide, getting bikes off the roads and into the air or even onto the water can be done safely and at relatively low cost, for the benefit of everyone. It’s at least worth talking about.