Polls aside, Bloomberg’s bike lanes are at the mercy of his successor

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Bike lane near Madison Square Park. (UrbanMapper via Flickr)
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Cycling advocates, the Times reports today, are coming to grips with the fact that whoever succeeds Michael Bloomberg as mayor will not be as committed to bike lanes as Bloomberg has been.

Bloomberg has distinguished himself with his unwavering advocacy for bike lanes and other alternatives to driving.

Under the direction of his transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan (a woman who has achieved idol status in transportation advocacy circles), the administration has built hundreds of miles of bike lanes across the five boroughs.

The mayor is also prone to making pronouncements about bike lanes that are, by the standards of ordinary political rhetoric, fairly radical.

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"Cyclists and pedestrians and bus riders are as important, if not, I would argue, more important than automobile riders," he said recently.

The candidates running to replace Bloomberg would not make that argument.

The Times story, for example, features comptroller John Liu calling the removal of existing bike lanes "a likely scenario in some parts of the city,” former M.T.A. chairman Joe Lhota saying he "could see” removing controversial bike lanes, and some lukewarm general comments about bike lanes from Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, and former comptroller Bill Thompson.

Bloomberg's deputy mayor Howard Wolfson, a cycling convert and aggressive defender of the city's bike-lane program, said it's "certainly true" that none of the candidates are adopting the Bloomberg line on biking, and conceded that technically the next mayor would be able to do whatever she or he wants with the existing lanes.

But he also predicted the political reality would preclude a wholesale reversal of current policy, which polls show to be broadly popular, and that the worst-case scenario is that the expansion of the bike-lane network stops where it is.

"Bike lanes are more popular than the candidates running for mayor, that's what the polling says," said Wolfson. "And as far as the public is concerned, the bike wars are over and the bikes have won."

And yet the candidates have their reasons for criticizing the administration's bike policy, beyond whatever sympathy they actually have for people who find it annoying.

For one thing, the city's tabloids, ostensibly channeling the anger of car owners, have staked out deeply unfriendly positions toward bike lanes, and toward their proponents.

More importantly, all of the candidates, but particularly the ones interested in winning the Democratic primary, must say that they intend to do things differently and better than the incumbent has.

(I think things are perfectly fine and intend to allow things to go on precisely as they have for the past 11 years is a bad look, in any election.)

So as is the case with policing (where almost all the Democratic candidates support stop-and-frisk in some form) and education (where all the Democratic candidates support Bloomberg's signature achievement of mayoral control), they express displeasure with the status quo and talk about making the decision-making process more democratic without actually promising to reverse course completely.

Which is perhaps why some candidates are moderating even their relatively modest criticism of bike lanes, and instead of vowing to rip them out--as a sweary former mayoral prospect named Anthony Weiner famously did--offering at least support for them in concept.

In January, Quinn joked on WNYC that she puts bike lanes “in the category of things you shouldn’t discuss at dinner parties."

Now, she's telling the Times she's generally supportive of them, while also stressing the importance of community input in the city's decisions about where to put them.

And while de Blasio said last week that he was open to removing bike lanes where "where they haven’t worked" and, according to City and State, "signaled that future traffic changes would not be implemented without community support," he told the Times that he wanted to see more bike lanes as well as more public feedback.

It should be said that bike lane advocates usually read calls for community input as code for a de facto bike-lane containment policy.

When, in 2011, Quinn announced passage of a bill that required the city to consult with community boards and various city agencies before creating more bike lanes, Transportation Alternatives spokesman Michael Murphy told me, "No other safe-street improvement seems to get that kind of treatment," and said the group feared the legislation would slow down bike lane expansion.

Now, Transportation Alternatives, which has a very close relationship with Sadik-Khan, is taking a different tack.

Following de Blasio's comments last week, I got an incredulous email from the group, asking where he was getting his information.

Transportation Alternatives executive director Paul Steely-White told the Times that the candidates' positions reflect political "laziness," and said, "I get that Bill de Blasio and others are striving to distinguish themselves from Bloomberg. My advice to them is to pick another issue.”

Following today's story, and de Blasio's subsequent issuance of a more positive statement on bike lanes, the group appeared to engage in a gentle backtrack of its own.

"We're not worried," Murphy emailed. "Any serious candidate and any serious plan will include bike lanes and anyone in the mainstream public policy world knows that."

"Obviously, the mayor has a fair amount of latitute to do things, but I think public opinion on this is very settled and it's very clear and you see that in the way that some of the candiates are now backtracking," Wolfson said today. "I mean Thompson has backtracked, de Blasio has backtracked, Quinn has backtracked."

According to the Department of Transportation, all that's required to remove a bike lane is notification of the local community board.