New York City has started to embrace a pattern of planning known as “complete streets,” rejecting the long-held belief that drivers are the most important users of the road. The city’s transportation department is narrowing wide boulevards to slow down speeding cars, which also makes it less scary for pedestrians to cross. It is developing Select Bus Service, a first step in trimming lethargic bus commutes. And it is rapidly constructing a network of protected bike lanes, which shield cyclists from motorists and also contribute to slower vehicle speeds. These changes should be hailed in particular by college students, almost none of whom use a car while at school.
That’s why it’s so disappointing that the neighborhoods to Columbia’s east seem incapable of making any significant streetscape changes. Just last week, Community Board 10, which represents the portion of Harlem from the eastern edge of Morningside Park to Fifth Avenue, listened to a presentation from the Department of Transportation about a plan to calm traffic on Morningside Avenue. The street would be cut from four traffic lanes to three, with one shared turning lane; parking lanes would be widened; and painted or concrete medians would be constructed for pedestrians. With no traffic lights for seven blocks, the avenue is a popular spot for motorbikers to speed or do wheelies, or just for drivers to push the pedal to the metal a little harder, sending parents and their children blocks away to the nearest safe intersection. Parents and block associations have spoken out about these problems before, but CB10 held off on supporting the plan, calling on the DOT to produce more data.
Earlier this year, DOT and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority approached CB10 and CB11—which represents the area east of Fifth Avenue—to nominate the M60 for Select Bus Service status and to propose a bus-only lane on Harlem’s main thoroughfare. For Columbians who take the bus to LaGuardia—or anywhere else along 125th Street—this seems like a no-brainer. It’s often faster to walk down 125th than take the bus. But State Senator Bill Perkins and CB11 held DOT and MTA hostage, asking the agencies to slow down (ironically), purportedly due to a lack of data.
Soon, DOT was forced to slash the plan in half, and then the agency scrapped it altogether. Last month, local politicians, including Mark Levine, likely the next City Council member for the area, wrote letters in support of M60 SBS—but it could be some time until DOT decides to revisit the plan. Harlem looked its gift horse in the mouth: Instead of taking a plan it sort of liked and improving it once it was implemented, Harlem politicians shot it down due to its imperfections.
Boldness, however, has paid off on the Upper West Side. It’s now possible to bike almost the entire length of Central Park down Columbus Avenue thanks to the Upper West Side’s CB7. Although initially hesitant about DOT’s protected bike lane plan, the board went out on a limb and OK’d the project. It was embraced by the community—even business owners, the biggest source of resistance, came around. In December 2012, with only a slight speed bump (no pun intended), the community board extended the first phase of the lane to stretch from 110th to 59th streets. The board recognized that the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. We wish CB10 and CB11 would do the same.
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Correction: An earlier version of this staff editorial referred to Mark Levine as City Council member-elect. He is in fact the Democratic nominee, running against a third-party candidate in the November general election.