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Queens Chronicle

How did we get here? Bike expert weighs in

John Benfatti served Transportation Alternatives, then worked with DOT

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Posted: Thursday, July 11, 2019 10:30 am | Updated: 2:50 pm, Thu Jul 11, 2019.

Often when a proposal for a bike lane is announced, bicycling advocates praise the move for safety and convenience while critics say the move will take away parking, hurt business and lead to more traffic.

John Benfatti has a rare perspective on the topic. For most of the 1980s he was on the board of directors for Transportation Alternatives; he then moved on to work with the city’s Department of Transportation from 1989 to 2000.

“What has changed the most is that the Department of Transportation has started designing bicycle lanes that are appropriate for urban environments,” he told the Chronicle last Friday.

Benfatti said when he was with the DOT, the organization was using a national standard for the designs known as the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

“They didn’t really have appropriate designs for dense, urban environments,” Benfatti said.

He said he was restricted to those design standards but that the DOT has been able to get engineers to design appropriate bike lanes since then.

And he recalled what little regard there was for bikes 30 years ago. Benfatti, who earned a master’s degree in planning, was put in the planning division in order to come up with ideas for bike facilities though he had to rely on the engineering department to implement them.

“One of the first responses I got from engineering was, ‘We do bicycles?’ They didn’t think the bicycle was a real mode of transportation,” Benfatti said.

The first modern bike lanes were installed in the city in 1980, with markings put on Broadway and Fifth, Sixth and Seventh avenues between Greenwich Village and Central Park. Mayor Ed Koch had been inspired to install them by his trip to China, but low ridership in the city brought on criticism.

“I was swept away by the thought of what could be when I saw a million bikes in Peking,” Koch said at the time.

He added, “And I see two in New York City — on a Sunday.”

One of the critics was Gov. Hugh Carey, who said Koch had a bike “fetish.”

“I guess he wanted to look like he was promoting bicycling but he wasn’t really a cyclist,” Benfatti said. “He didn’t know what it was like to ride a bicycle in New York City.”

As the decade progressed, bike messengers were highly visible in the days before emails and texts could provide information instantaneously.

In 1986, Dinita Smith wrote in New York magazine, “Despised as bicycle messengers may be (by all but their employers) and dangerous as they are, they are fast becoming folk heroes — the pony-express riders of the eighties.”

“It was a time when bike messengers were more in demand,” Benfatti said. “But they still are in some demand mostly now, I think, for food delivery.”

The following year, Koch announced bicycle bans on Fifth, Madison and Park avenues from 59th to 31st streets from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. But before the ban could be implemented, the state Supreme Court struck it down, saying the city failed to give enough notice of the change.

By the end of the decade, Benfatti had gone to work for the DOT.

“I sort of hit a brick wall when I did that,” he said. “Here I was, a big bicycle advocate promoting bicycling, trying to get more people to ride bicycles, and then when I got to the Department of Transportation, they did things a little differently.”

He added, “I was a bit surprised. I also was green. I didn’t know what I was doing. But I learned.”

Benfatti acknowledged the DOT had a bicycle coordinator but he had not achieved as much as the bike community wanted him to. And, Benfatti admitted, he didn’t achieve as much as bike advocates wanted, either.

“We were facing obstacles and we were trying to change ways of thinking,” he said.

Benfatti formed a Bicycle Advisory Committee and invited members of various entities, including Transportation Alternatives and the NYPD, to get involved in planning and figuring out ways to address concerns.

“There was community outreach; it’s just that when I was doing it the Department of Transportation didn’t take the Bicycle Advisory Committee very seriously,” Benfatti said.

The federal government, through its Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, provided more money than usual for planning facilities for bikes and pedestrians. He was able to hire more staff members, as did the City Planning and Parks and Recreation departments.

It was a desire for bicycling that got Benfatti started in the first place. He would also help others become involved through bike tours.

He believes all the boroughs are viable for bike lanes but it’s not always easy getting people to agree with him.

“I think the bicycle still has a bad rap, a negative image in New York City,” Benfatti said.

He added, “Some people still consider them as reckless, as not following the law, going through red lights and causing danger to pedestrians and getting in the way of motor vehicle traffic. I think there’s a lot of that still around which is hard to overcome.”

Benfatti remembered a nonprofit group proposing a Brooklyn-Queens greenway, which would have linked green spaces from Coney Island to Fort Totten through Eastern Parkway, the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway and Alley Pond Park. He said it was an “interesting plan” but to try to implement it meant a lot of bureaucracy.

He said it has been “difficult” to implement on-street bike lanes. As part of his job, he would assess motor vehicle travel and if there was a negative impact on motor vehicles, he would not be allowed to do something.

Another issue for Benfatti has been approval from community boards.

“Community boards would accuse me of taking away parking spaces, which I never was allowed to do,” he said. “And I was never allowed to propose that to a community board, even. But regardless they would still accuse me of taking away parking spaces. It was very difficult to get community board approval which the department was requiring me to do at the time.”

Benfatti said he was surprised how hostile people could be at first but “after a while I got used to it.”

He added, “I did get some support but not a lot. And the people who supported me, especially at the higher levels in the Department of Transportation, didn’t last very long.” Benfatti believes it could have been their more forward thinking ideas that led to them not lasting.

Now retired, Benfatti said, “I think the city’s on the right track now because they do have a fairly large bicycle planning staff.”

However, he knows the DOT still has to overcome opposition to the bike lanes.

“I think there’s still a long way to go,” he said. “People don’t really see the bicycle as a viable means of transportation, especially during inclement weather. So it’s going to take a lot to convince people that we should invest a lot of money into bicycling.”

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1 comment:

  • Buster57 posted at 7:05 pm on Thu, Jul 11, 2019.

    Buster57 Posts: 66

    The few bicyclists I see don't obey the traffic rules. When did they make it so they ride with traffic instead of against traffic, which was safer, as they were never in your blind spot. A few streets don't have the space for bike lanes and yet they put them in & the cars are made to drive on the one lane left for them - going both ways! This city is NOT designed for bicycles and trying to force it is not going to make anyone happy. Regulate the bicycles/bicyclists like you do the drivers and hold them liable when they disobey the traffic rules.