The age of the bike controversy

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Readers responded vehemently — pro and con — to our “Disrupting the Grid” column


  • On Fifth Avenue. Photo: Doug Davey, via flickr

Bicycles, for better or worse, are swiftly multiplying on the streets of Manhattan. So too, it seems, are the self-referential celebrations mounted by advocates to trumpet their ascension.

Did you know May is National Bike Month? Or that Bike to Work Week runs from May 15 to May 19, climaxing with Bike to Work Day on May 19? Of course, the Five Boro Bike Tour on May 7 was inescapable. But perhaps you missed Bike Expo New York on May 5 and 6?

It was against backdrop that we turned to readers to ask two simple questions: “Is the bicycle the scourge of the city or a saving grace? Does it diminish our street life and imperil the grid, or does it green Manhattan and make urban life more livable?”

The context was a column, “Disrupting the Grid,” that ran in the May 3 issue and proved a bit controversial, in which I argued that the orderly patterns of Manhattan’s street-grid system, which dates to 1811, were being undermined in the Age of the Bicycle.

As the signature design for the island’s roadways, the grid bestowed discipline and order with its straight lines, right angles and linear street walls. It was my contention that an untrammeled, unregulated proliferation of bikes, accompanied by an ill-planned, ill-designed grafting of bike lanes and infrastructure onto the grid, sowed disorder, diminished street life and fostered a climate of fear among pedestrians.

Reader response came fast, and sometimes furiously. Typically, it was thoughtful. Always, it was interesting. Via emails, phone calls, tweets and online comments, at least 64 people with strong opinions vented. Roughly 40 percent sang the praises of the city’s biking culture; 60 percent demonized it or criticized the pedal community’s wayward ways.

And yes, my central thesis was subject to some ridicule:

“I can’t tell if this article is a joke or a really long satirical Onion-style piece,” wrote a reader identified only as “Alex” in an online comment. “Douglas Feiden, you are either really hilarious in making yourself sound like a backwards fuddy-duddy, or have no real connection to reality.”

A correspondent named “Vooch” agreed, saying, “It must be satire ... It’s gut-busting funny.”

Actually, I can assure Alex and Vooch, the column, however executed, was an attempt at a cri de coeur to alert City Hall to the follies of radically re-engineering Manhattan’s streetscape to accommodate the stampede of scofflaws.

“Glad that finally someone is bucking the trend and describing the reality of the bike culture in NYC and its negative impacts,” wrote the landscape architect Edmund Hollander, whose fluency in the grid hails from his designs for street-level gardens on Murray and Sullivan Streets and rooftop gardens on Park Avenue and Central Park West.

Hollander, whose eponymous firm is based on Park Avenue South, offered a modest proposal: “How about license plates for bikes and registration fees, like cars, to help pay for and support the infrastructure?”

It’s a first-rate idea. User fees are a form of taxation that might put the brakes on over-saturation, give government a means of regulating the market, maybe keep ne’er-do-wells off the streets and even fuel a robust enforcement regimen where none currently exists.

“They all should be issued ‘mini-plates’ for their bikes, and when they go thru lights, ticketed!” wrote Sherry Ahimsa, who lives on the Lower East Side. “I’m writing to local officials. Maybe you can also.”

The column’s focus was on the impact of bicycles on the street-level, or horizontal, grid. But Upper East Side resident James Mahoney argues they’re also proving detrimental to the vertical grid, meaning the forest of skyscrapers that spring from the intersection of street and avenue.

“Bikes are insinuating themselves right into our office buildings,” he said. “I for one do not welcome them.”

Mahoney is right. Under the 2009 Bicycle Access to Office Buildings Law, cyclists are permitted to park their bicycles in or near their workplaces. As the city Department of Transportation helpfully notes on its website, many offices have unused “dead space” in their reception areas that can be utilized for bike parking.

Funny, I always thought a business had the right to decide how it wants to use its reception area, not the DOT. But that’s a column for another day.

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