I was the Department of Transportation’’s assistant commissioner under Mayor Ed Koch, who, buoyed by a visit to Beijing, where he saw bike lanes used by tens of thousands, envisioned a network of physically separated bikeways up and down Manhattan.
In the summer of 1980, the mayor directed the department to install bikeways. From Washington Square Park to Central Park, the curb lanes of Fifth Avenue, Broadway and Seventh Avenue were separated from traffic by asphalt islands, giving bikers a lane of car-free roadway all their own.
Within days the complaints started to pour in. Most of the grumbling was from pedestrians concerned about reckless cyclists coming close to knocking them down (the three deaths were fresh in their minds). Some were from drivers who felt there was more congestion because of the loss of a lane.
The department’’s investigation found that pedestrians considered the bike lanes to be extensions of the sidewalk; they stood in the lanes waiting for the lights to change, where bikers often yelled at them. (The conflict between bicyclists and pedestrians is much more visceral than any between car drivers and pedestrians. You can see a biker’’s face and hear his words.)
Mr. Koch made his own observations and found many bike riders traveling outside the lanes. He had us install traffic signs along the bike lanes in typical Koch-ese —— ““Use it or Lose it.”” But even though the lanes were largely successful —— and car traffic didn’’t slow nearly as much as people thought —— criticism mounted.
During a limousine ride up Avenue of the Americas with Mr. Koch and President Jimmy Carter, Gov. Hugh Carey pointed out the bike lanes to Mr. Carter and joked, ““See how Ed is wasting your money.”” Within weeks, the mayor directed us to remove the barriers separating the lanes, which afterward were designated only by painted lines.