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  • Writer's pictureBrooke McCormick

Streets for All

How biking and urban planning can shape Morningside Heights.

By Brooke McCormick

The briny river breeze rushed across my face as I biked down the greenway, the Hudson river glinting in the sun to my right. Watching walkers and bikers of all ages flash by me, exhilarated by the joy of movement, I smiled at the urban planner’s paradise: thoughtful pedestrian and bike infrastructure. That changed the moment I pumped the cumbersome Citi Bike up the hill at 70th street and re-entered the swirl and chaos of Manhattan traffic.

I wanted to get a firsthand experience of the city’s bicycle infrastructure after spending a summer cycling in Copenhagen, one of the world’s most bike-friendly cities. I pedaled almost every inch of the Danish capital with my study abroad classmates and came to love this way of getting around. I got used to the elaborate bike culture there: the thousands of bikes parked in the streets, the scarf-like Hövding helmets ringing the necks of many a stylish Dane, and the “Copenhagen turn,” which involves crossing with the pedestrians and gently pulling up beside them to make a left turn. On a bike in a place designed for cyclists, you move unencumbered. The city’s atmosphere hums through your body as you slip through quaint neighborhoods and urban vignettes. You’re also getting from place to place more actively, efficiently, and sustainably than most other forms of transportation.

Denmark taught me the sheer power of intentional city planning, which extends beyond crafting a good bike culture. I witnessed firsthand what a safe, clean, social, nature-oriented, walkable place designed for people, not cars, could feel like. Despite New York’s comparatively weaker bike network and culture, with the twin crises of the pandemic and the climate on everyone’s minds, there has never been a better time to consider changing the status quo on transportation and how we use urban space.

New York is certainly not like Copenhagen. While heading back to the Citi Bike drop-off location near 110th and Amsterdam after my soothing Hudson greenway ride, I quickly understood why many are terrified to bike here. My heart pounded as a car, without signaling, quickly pulled out of its parking spot onto the road just a few feet from me. I was confused by the protected bike lanes on Amsterdam and Columbus that had counterintuitive directions—go on the left side to go north, and go on the right side to go south. As waiters and customers walked from the curb to outdoor dining structures directly in my path, I winced at the signs on their precarious canopies that read “WATCH OUT!” There must have been some friction between waitstaff and diners with cyclists whizzing by on e-bikes. On Broadway, I had to laugh at a faded image of a bike on a sign (in place of a lane) that did nothing to clear the side of the road for cyclists. Most of all, I was highly alert, doubly so on the city’s many unprotected stretches of pavement.

My heart rate finally slowed when I reached the glorious expanse on Columbus and Amsterdam that’s closed to cars on Sundays. Sharing the space only with other bikers and pedestrians, I felt a sense of control like I had on the Greenway. I no longer needed to peer cautiously over my shoulder for aggressive drivers in my periphery. I flowed past serene outdoor dining setups with ease, as if I had the rights of a car.

This ride, and its mix of pleasure and stress, was not unique to me. A growing group of students is interested in biking as the future of urban transport, and they have plenty to say about the state of the infrastructure in our city.

Biking at Columbia

To get a fresh perspective on the matter, I spoke to a Barnard senior who had recently completed their first Citi Bike ride. Morgan Zee, BC ’22, was encouraged to make the trek from Central Park to near NYU by her sister, who raved about the bike-sharing system. She enjoyed the way the trip was more than just a way of getting around: “When we ride the subway, it’s not an activity, she said. “Biking is transportation, but to me, it felt like a fun activity I was doing with my friends.”

Likewise, Celia Rosen, BC ’23, enjoyed Citi Biking all over town this summer, logging over 80 rides through a combination of recreation and commuting. She told me, “One of my favorite things to do is to bike down the Hudson highway through Riverside and the Henry Hudson Parkway and go down to all the piers and go read and chill. My friends and I did that on the Fourth of July to see the fireworks and the city skyline. It’s very accessible and fun.”

Illustration by Taylor Yingshi

On the most intense end of the biking spectrum are the competitive cyclists, who breeze past casual riders in a blur of bright racing gear and shiny sunglasses. Angelo Coehlo, CC ’23, is the president of the Columbia Cycling Club and a campus expert on biking in the city. He discussed how his group regularly completes long rides all around the region, sometimes as far as fifty miles away, and serves as a home for any type of competitive cyclist: “We have some 25-year-old grad students who are riding 200 miles a week at 15-20 mph and we have 18-year[-old] undergraduates starting off who have never raced in their lives.” The group’s triweekly rides and countless off-schedule trips build a community with intense camaraderie for the roughly 50 Columbia students involved.

Despite its social benefits, few would deny the safety risk involved in biking in Manhattan. With a dominant car culture running through New York, even walking in our city is a hazard—in 2019, Peter Awn, Columbia professor and former dean of GS, died from head injuries after being hit by an SUV while walking on Claremont. In 2020 alone, there were 12,450 bike crashes and 28 fatalities in New York. These tragedies do not go unnoticed by the fiercely passionate cycling community, who have quietly commemorated cycling deaths in a haunting manner; the Street Memorial Project honors the cyclists and pedestrians who have been killed on New York City’s streets by placing “ghost bikes” around the city. Ghost bikes are bikes placed on collision sites, to remind residents and policymakers of these tragedies and inspire collective action.

Students concur that the streets can be dangerous. Zee and Rosen both mentioned how helmets may make them feel safer, but because users of Citi Bikes must supply their own protective equipment, this safety measure is not always a realistic option. Instead, they opt for the path that includes the most highly protected bike lanes as their main safety precaution.

“I babysit and I cannot imagine a parent’s fear if their child wasn’t wearing a helmet,” Rosen confessed. She will go out of her way through Riverside or Central Park to have a less nerve-wracking ride, avoiding the terror of an open car door or wide-turning bus. Coehlo also prefers “closed loop” spaces. He complained, “Whether it’s legal or not, cars just assume that’s where they’re supposed to be, and you get angry honks and people swerving to get past you. At that point, you’re not in control. You can only do so much to avoid cars. You’re defenseless behind them. When they come up behind you, you feel pretty worried.”

Still, students seem to see biking as a primarily positive feature of their lives. The pandemic has only increased interest in this method of getting around, which carries considerably less COVID risk than public transportation. In fact, Lucie Swenson, BC ’22, only became an avid New York city recreational biker due to a quarantine itch to leave the house and explore the sleepy city. Swenson recounted, “At first, it was like, how far away can I bike? Oh yeah. And then it became like, no, I can bike pretty far and I can bike for a pretty long time. This is healthy. This is fun. So I began doing it multiple times a week, and I think the pandemic, I wouldn't have done it without that.” On the other hand, Coehlo noted that an uptick in bike interest and general supply chain issues have made getting a bike sometimes twice as expensive as it was two years ago, with long waiting lists for bikes and replacement parts.

The ideal city for Columbia bikers, it seems, includes a far more thorough network of protected bike lanes. Rosen suggested a three-lane system for three speeds—“chilling and taking time with your kids, medium, and fast”—with the latter category for the speedy e-bikers. She also wants Citi Bikes to be as affordable or cheaper than the $2.75 bus and subway fare and for there to be a student discount applied to the expensive $200 annual membership. Swenson would appreciate more obvious ways to get to other boroughs like the Bronx and Queens, and a more seamless bike lane transition onto the Brooklyn Bridge. Coehlo would like to see a completed East Side greenway, so that he and his fellow Cycling Club members don’t have to go back into traffic if they want to circle Manhattan.

The Policy Landscape

New York City’s need to rapidly adopt these initiatives can’t be overstated. From my experience this summer, I found that infrastructural changes can drastically shift individual behavior. That is, people will use the city streets differently if fewer cars go through their neighborhoods, if there are solid protected bike lanes in place, and—a perennial issue in New York City—if the bus and subway system can be an appealing and reliable transit option.

I spoke to Lisa Orman, the director of Streetopia Upper West Side, an offshoot of the liveable streets advocacy organization Open Plans, to get a better understanding of where Morningside Heights stands in the quest for better urbanism. She underscored our neighborhood’s potential to be a “slow street” zone and listed several immediate changes that should be implemented by the Planning Department: a bike lane on Broadway, more crosstown bike lanes (especially 110th Street), and fully pedestrianizing the “beautiful, quiet side streets” of the Upper West Side. Orman referred to the work of urban theorist Donald Appleyard, whose research found that low-traffic streets are the streets with by far the most social connections among residents.

But who should be responsible for creating this reality? Orman thinks Columbia could be a “powerhouse in trying to get changes through,” although, at the moment, the University is relatively disengaged in these local issues. A lot of the burden of crafting safe street initiatives falls on Business Improvement Districts, or BIDs. “It’s a lot of work to open a street to people and close them to cars,” she said. “And most of that is because we have temporary infrastructure like barricades that need to be put out. And the current rules around that are that the barriers are supposed to come in at eight o’clock at night and go back out at eight in the morning, which really is quite a waste of time and energy on the part of the people moving the barricades.” Thus, Orman suggests the onus should really fall on the city government. The mayor has the greatest influence on the policy direction the Planning Department and Department of Transportation follow, and at the moment, Orman is critical of De Blasio’s lack of meaningful commitment to improving our street conditions.

Steve Cohen, director of the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management at the Earth Institute and SIPA professor, similarly opined that top-down thinking can radically alter the cityscape, describing the infamous mid-century urban planner Robert Moses’s impact on New York: “Moses tried to make New York City more like other parts of the country, where he had big highways going through the city.” While many of Moses’s projects, such as expressways that tear through all five boroughs, got the green light, he never successfully rammed the highway he had proposed through Greenwich Village (which would have destroyed Washington Square Park), due to activism from figures like the iconic urbanist Jane Jacobs. Cohen was also quick to point out that even though walkable, dense neighborhoods are a worthy goal in New York City, it is a large place, much of the city is still relatively car-dependent. This reality informs policies like congestion pricing.

Congestion pricing, a mechanism in which cities charge vehicles to drive in certain areas, is a timely solution to limiting the air and noise pollution, CO2 emissions, and hazards to walkers and bikers that vehicles impose on cities. Public hearings for the policy in New York City began a few weeks ago, marking the beginning of a long review process that could extend into 2023. Cohen recalled that when he was growing up in the sixties, driving into now-congested areas like Times Square used to be easy—on a Sunday afternoon, for instance, you would hardly see other cars. Today, Cohen goes on to say, there are more cars per household than ever before, and a deep need has arisen to stop droves of combustion-engine vehicles from entering cities around the world.

“I wholeheartedly support congestion pricing,” said Orman, “and I feel like it will radically reduce the number of cars that are driving through our neighborhood. You have to remember that a lot of cars aren’t driving through our neighborhood just to stop and pick up grandma. They are driving through our neighborhoods to get to other neighborhoods. [Residential parking permits] would force people to think twice or three times about if it’s worth coming to this neighborhood because they’re going to have to pay for parking.” Cohen agreed and added that studies have shown that outer-borough commuters are typically on the higher end of the income scale, so the burden of cost will not be borne by working-class New Yorkers.

However, making our mass transit options efficient and up-to-date is a necessary policy move to accompany such limits on driving. Cohen is skeptical of the MTA’s ability to upgrade its lines, but acknowledges that this issue now draws more public pressure as cities adopt more environmentally responsible transportation strategies. Subways are, in his words, “a really important resource for economic mobility in the city. Biking and walking are even better if you don’t have a car. And I think, you know, these bike-share programs where you combine biking with the subway is another way to extend the subway line out to places where it doesn’t exist yet. ... So I think all of these innovations are going to make mobility less resource-intensive: [a] lower carbon footprint and better for people.”

Sitting outside Hungarian Pastry Shop on a bright Sunday, with Amsterdam Avenue closed off to cars, I reflected on what these experts had to tell me. Families walked peacefully through the streets, bikers crossed without struggling through traffic, and the usual city noise dampened to a faint hum. This scene doesn’t have to be limited to certain streets, or particular days of the week. In a few years, one hopes, New York City will be safe for bikers, and the streets will belong to the people.


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