The video is at once maddening and frightening: An FDNY fire engine stationed on 51st Street in Woodside goes to make a left turn on Skillman Avenue with its siren blaring and lights flashing, only to be blocked by vehicles parked legally on the south side of the street and ones parked illegally on the north side in a marked, striped-off area.
With that stretch of Skillman reduced to one lane since the construction of a protected bike lane earlier this year, firefighters jump out of the truck to guide the driver as he backs up, straightens out and continues north along 51st.
The driver’s fastest option is to turn left on 39th Avenue and head to 48th Street, where he can double back to the south on a two-way street before making a right on Skillman, which goes back to two lanes at that point.
And the president of the union representing New York City’s rank-and-file firefighters has told the Chronicle that the video depicts an event that is occurring with increasing frequency in portions of the city where bike lanes have been installed.
The westbound bike lane on Skillman, paired with an eastbound lane on 43rd Avenue to the south, was controversial from the start, with businesses and Community Board 2 against it; cyclists, environmentalists and traffic safety advocates in favor; and residents divided among both camps.
Mayor de Blasio, who has pushed for bike lanes, settled the issue on June 12, ordering the city’s Department of Transportation to move forward over the objections of CB 2, which opposed the lanes by a vote of 27 to 8.
But in a statement to the Chronicle, Gerard Fitzgerald, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, said the incident shown on the video [youtube.com/watch?v=k-F3-fyZidM] has become an all too common occurrence.
“Incidents similar to the firehouse on Skillman Ave. are not just occurring at one location, and not just in Queens,” Fitzgerald said in an email. “Extended bike lanes affect traffic patterns and block access to necessary equipment for our men and women in uniform to perform their jobs effectively. This is becoming more and more common throughout all five boroughs which adds significantly to response times — and firefighters across the city have been delayed for crucial minutes as a result. We are committed to finding a solution to this problem — and we hope the Mayor’s Office will acknowledge this issue and work with us on a solution that benefits both New York City residents and New York’s firefighters.”
The FDNY often will request changes after a project is put in place.
A DOT spokesman said the union’s request for a solution is being addressed.
“The Skillman Avenue bike lane is not a problem for FDNY vehicles at 51st Street,” he said in an email. “Our improvements will address illegal parking at this location, which is restricting FDNY access. We will continue to work closely with the FDNY as we do on all of our projects before, during, and after implementation.”
Cycling advocates and many residents of the neighborhood argued that protected bike lanes are needed in general to reduce the numbers of those killed and injured in accidents.
Cyclists also say the marked lanes, located curbside, have greatly increased safety in the most widely used east-west cycling path across the borough for those using the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge to get to and from Manhattan.
Juan Restrepo of Transportation Alternatives, which lobbied hard for the bike lanes, said at just about one month, it is too soon to have solid data for things like accidents.
Like the DOT, he lays blame on those parking illegally at 51st and Skillman.
“You really do need more of an enforcement metric,” he said.
“You can have a couple of months adjustment for any major safety project,” he said, referring to a recent bike lane installation on Northern Boulevard that saw some drivers initially striking new barriers.
“They’re not doing that anymore,” he said. Restrepo also reiterated his group’s belief that the protected bike lanes on Skillman and 43rd avenues should have long-standing safety and transportation benefits.
“With more and more people commuting to Manhattan by bike, this is an integral corridor for central Queens,” he said. And he believes its popularity will only increase among riders.
For now the same can’t be said about many residents and some businesses near the intersection.
On a visit to the Skillman Avenue corridor beginning in the morning rush hours on Oct. 11, the Chronicle over about five hours observed multiple traffic tie-ups in the one traffic lane between 56th and 49th streets; a shouting match between a motorist and the driver of a tractor trailer delivering to a supermarket; that same truck driver backing up his big rig for a full block with guidance from store employees; and numerous vehicles parking in the marked-off area whose drivers once again would have prevented the 51st Street-based Engine 325 and Ladder 163 from making a turn onto Skillman.
One of those vehicles was a large truck belonging to a contractor for the city’s Department of Transportation, which was in the lined-off section of pavement as workers prepared to put down new traffic markings on the pavement.
While the cycling traffic was light, just over half the bicyclists observed to approach red lights at Skillman and 51st stopped for them.
“It’s disrespectful to the neighborhood,” resident Margo Corr said of the bike lane. “It’s been disruptive.”
She said a recent event that featured a road race caused backups along the street for about three hours. John Dunn, who lives north of Skillman on 52nd Street, said he and his wife, along with their neighbors, have been stuck trying to get out of their street when traffic backs up far enough.
He said that can be exacerbated by parents who drop their children at PS 11 at the school’s 54th Street entrance.
“They have to do a horseshoe on 39th Drive and come out on 52nd and turn on Skillman,” Dunn said.
Resident Catherine Loftus said she had nearly been struck by a cyclist speeding through a red light the day before as she stepped from the curb.
Resident Larry Weiss said police presence did work to keep the intersection clear.
“After I called everyone,” he said. But shortly after the patrol car moved on, traffic once again did not.
Weiss also is curious how the DOT and Department of Sanitation will deal with plowing Skillman between 56th and 49th streets when the first big snow of winter strikes, given the bike lane’s location between a parking lane and the sidewalk.
“Last year some of the piles were up to here,” he said, holding his hand above eye level standing in the bike lane. “And that’s when we had two lanes.”
Clearing the bike lane, he said, would appear to leave only the sidewalk and parking lane for the snow to be displaced.
Corr and Susan Santangelo worried that an accident in just the wrong place would prevent an ambulance from coming through.
Ken Jin, manager of a liquor store, said it is far too soon to determine if the single lane — and 116 eliminated parking spaces -— has hurt business.
“But it’s tough on delivery drivers,” he said. “Some of the drivers have to park two blocks away. Some want to avoid this altogether.”
Sheikh Akram, who has run his convenience store on the northeast corner of Skillman and 51st Street for 23 years, said he and other businesses already are feeling the pain.
“With less parking, people don’t stop as much,” he said. “Why did they want to hurt businesses?”
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) came under heavy criticism from most of the residents interviewed.
Van Bramer was a constant presence at meetings and hearings, catching heat from both sides. Following de Blasio’s order, he did announce that he backs bike lanes, and should have been more clear about his support.
Through a spokesman on Tuesday, he acknowledged the concerns of residents and firefighters alike.
“There is no question that the redesign of Skillman Avenue from 49th Street to Roosevelt Avenue has experienced more problems than the rest of Skillman and 43rd Avenues combined,” he said in an emailed statement. “Skillman Avenue between 50th and 51st is of particular concern. I’ve asked DOT to assess the problems and to make any and all necessary changes to make sure that the overall safety goals of the plan are met.”