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Cyclists Must Be Part of the Long-Term Plan for New York

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Toward the beginning of last week's Times Up! Valentines night bike ride a cyclist showed up with large sign on his bike which declared "Love Your Lane" in celebration of New York's bike lanes. For over 25 years, volunteers for Time's Up!, have been using educational outreach and direct action to promote a more sustainable, less toxic city. As volunteers, commuters, and workers, we ride every day. In recent weeks we have seen both widespread appreciation for cycling as a solution to problems ranging from climate chaos to congestion and health, as well as a potential wedge issue for politicians running against Bloomberg's record as they run for office.

"Mayoral candidates are treating recent bike infrastructure improvements as their political footballs, as they try to stand out from Bloomberg and each other," noted my friend PedalPower Pete. "Politicians like Quinn and de Blasio are making very odd and scary statements. As Janette Sadik-Khan pointed out in the Times about politicians wishing they were polling as high as bike lane approval ratings.

The previous week, the letters to the Daily News about Dennis Hamill's obnoxious anti-bike editorial "Wheely lame lanes," (Jan. 30) were finding their way into the letters sections. Surprisingly, my letter was listed first:

"Every day, I ride my bike from Smith St. across Jay St. to Tillary, where I must swerve in and out of designated bike lanes to avoid cars double-parked outside the courthouse," I was quoted. "I am certainly not alone. According to a Hunter College study, there's a 60 percent chance a cyclist will obstructed by a car in a bike lane. Yet never have I seen a police officer ticketing a car in one of those lanes. Cyclists should be applauded as part of the solution to climate change, not subjected to harassment or intimidation."

Others implored the writer just grow up:

To Denis Hamill: I am a 34-year-old woman who rides a bike on a daily basis. I am not wealthy. I am not a kid. If a bike lane enrages you because it is a reminder that you need to share the road with others, I am not sorry. Driving a car clearly has not made you an adult. Laura MacNeil.

And Joseph Borkowski wrote:

I must ask when bicycling become an act of privilege. While a few cyclists might fall into the category of those traveling "Hipster Highway," most of us are taking the healthy and frugal path to work, school and recreation. Pedestrians who are not cyclists benefit, too, from shortened street crossings and reduced auto speeds on streets with bike lanes. Shouldn't safety and frugality for all be prioritized over the expensive and privileged automobile?

A final reader chimed in "Hamill, you are a disgrace to the New York Irish."

At the end of his piece, Hamill tried to make a pivot toward city politics, calling for a mayoral candidate ready to "hit the brakes on bike lanes," noted Village Voice columnist Nick Pinto. "If the popular response to his column is any indication, mayoral candidates will recognize that as a sucker's move."

In other words, cyclists are workers with jobs and distinct view on the life in the streets of New York as a global city. In the days immediately following Super Storm Sandy, the city was gridlocked. Cyclists made their way through long gas lines and traffic without impediment. Groups such as Bike Habitat and Times Up! immediately organized relief rides in coordination with Occupy Sandy, bringing supplies and energy bikes (pedal-powered electrical generators) as well as volunteers to relief hubs from the Lower East Side to Breezy Point.

The Times Up! energy bikes were born out of necessity," noted Keegan Stephan, who helped bring the bikes to Occupy. "We were working with the Occupy Wall Street Movement in Zuccotti Park when the fire department seized all the gas generators in the plaza the night before a blizzard. We quickly designed, secured funding for, and built 16 energy bikes that met the energy needs for the entire park. We brought this lesson to our response to Sandy. Immediately after the storm, we deployed these energy bikes where power was down, allowing people to charge their portable electronics and reconnect with loved ones.

"Bicycles were used in the East Village by the thousands of volunteers who came to help people trapped in the high rise NYCHA buildings in Zone A," noted Wendy Brawer, founder of Green Map System. "With bikes, they could haul heavy supplies and get around quickly without dependence on dwindling supplies of fossil fuel. Bikes were used to scout and communicate where outages and problems were persisting, becoming vital parts of ongoing relief planning. People with bikes are naturally readier, more resilient and involved in everyday reduction of harms. They should be part of all NYC emergency planning, including in the evacuation plans."

"In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, bicycle commuting from Brooklyn allowed me to get to work in Midtown Manhattan (eight miles each way) as if nothing happened to my commute, while my office was at maybe 50.0 percent capacity by the end of the first week," noted cyclist Stephen Arthur. "During my commute I could not help but notice droves of people queued up on the sidewalks apparently waiting to ride on MTA buses that would take hours to reach their final destinations, and countless motorized vehicles paralyzing the streets for miles in all directions."

"Sandy taught us a lot about how to define a crisis: for one thing, it means that all your infrastructure breaks down," noted Josh Bisker, another Times Up! volunteer. "Every pathway we rely upon for transporting people, goods, and information, from roads to gas stations to telephone lines to electricity for devices, everything goes down, and people are left to themselves. That's not to say they're 'left alone,' but to themselves, to what individuals and communities can create and sustain.

"That's when we saw bicycles become crucial elements of self-directed community survival," Bisker continued. "It's more nuanced than the fact that bikes could get through blocked-up streets: it's that bikes let people immediately organize autonomous support networks in the absence of traditional infrastructure, creating effective new pathways not only for moving supplies and transporting volunteers but, crucially, for quickly relaying information from homes to neighborhood hubs, and from neighborhood to neighborhood, so that relief operations had the knowledge they needed. Bikes were not merely an asset to the greater relief effort, they were a lifeline for countless individuals and communities who were stranded when our infrastructure failed. And no matter how much we harden our systems, they'll fail again. In fact, when it happens is exactly when we'll know that a future emergency has just become our next true crisis. And right then, bikes will once again enable individuals to immediately begin self-directing their own survival with effective new structures to move and communicate."

In the subsequent weeks, hundreds of bicyclists, many with large trailers, transported thousands of pounds of crucial food, medical supplies, and other needed goods from Brooklyn out to the Rockaways, approximately 18 mile each way, later distributing the supplies to individual households in need and taking on other important tasks during our volunteering visits.

"On these relief rides, I could not help but notice again that there were countless numbers of motorized vehicles paralyzing the main roads leading into the Rockaways," noted Stephen Arthur. "Since bicyclists were not stuck in these massive traffic jams, we were able to carry out our volunteering duties unimpeded, while the MTA subways were flooded, other means of transportation were stopped to a crawl. The NY City Council should be passing laws that encourage cycling, and give incentives to those who do, because cycling is a viable means of transportation under all circumstances."

"Since Sandy, we have designed and built two new models of energy bikes, one that plugs directly into wall outlets and backfeeds electricity into the grid, offsetting the use of centralized fossil fuel burning, and one that is a completely closed circuit that can be deployed where the grid is down or no grid exists," noted Keegan Stephan, of Times Up!

"Riding these bicycles to create power makes people acutely aware of their energy usage, encouraging conservation. Time's Up believes we must reduce our consumption, as well as advocate for decentralized, zero-emission energy to empower communities and create a healthy environment. Offshore Wind farms would have not only reduced the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy, they would have kept the power from going out in the Rockaways, and created more jobs in more communities. Time's Up has written a comprehensive plan for sustainable energy in New York State and is pushing Governor Cuomo to implement it."

"In addition, we have made our energy bike plans open-source on our website. By providing people with the tools to create their own energy and advocating for decentralized large-scale energy production, we are empowering communities to be more independent from corporations and governments, and more resilient to disasters. In 2013, we hope to secure funding to build more energy bikes, present them in more venues, and organize large-scale demonstrations for sustainable energy."

Stephan continues: "Time's Up advocates for improved pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, which also creates independence and resiliency. Immediately after Hurricane Sandy, public transportation was down, cars and buses were ruined by flood water, and there was a city-wide gas shortage. Bicycle Ridership went up 300 percent. Sidewalks and bike lanes were the main arteries for disaster relief, and they were overcapacity. An investment in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure is an investment in the vitality of communities today, and also an investment in the next disaster relief effort. That is why, this year, Time's Up! will redouble its efforts to advocate for new and better bike lanes."

As New York plans for more disasters, Times Up! recommends:

That emergency bike repair kits should be in NYC's official emergency plans and be funded according to guidelines suggested by energy policy analyst Charles Komanoff.

That NYC support a Go Bike design project for the bikes, for the groups suddenly dependent on them, for coordinating logistics and planning.

That the city expand its network of bike lanes, fund bicycle-related initiatives, enforce its traffic laws more strongly, and re-organize its Accident Investigation Squad, so that cycling is a safer, more widespread, and more family-friendly endeavor. This will increase ridership, and prepare a more resilient and capable citizenry before the next disaster strikes.

"Investing in bike infrastructure now is an investment in the next disaster relief effort," noted Times Up!'s Keegan Stephan.. "Investing in bike infrastructure is an investment in communities, giving them the tools to deal with the next disaster. Hurricane Sandy was the result of burning fossil fuels. Investing in bike infrastructure and other zero-emission transportation will help mitigate the next disaster." Cycling is part of the solution for a global city. We hope that every candidate for mayor understands this.

The author would like to thank Keegan Stephan who drafted several paragraphs of this, Josh Bisker and the others in Times Up!