Since the Grand Street Bike Lane opened in 2008, the Department of Transportation has faced slack for bad planning. Businesses along the lane, spanning from Varick Street in Soho to Chrystie Street in Chinatown, complained the bike lane was bad for business while residents of the city claimed the lane, nestled between the sidewalk and a lane for parked cars, was dangerous and an inefficient use of space. I took a walk across Grand Street to investigate the scene and see just how the bike lane is being used now, three years after the controversy surrounding the lane erupted.
As I walked along Grand, I noticed people pushing strollers, pulling suitcases and hand-trucks, pedestrians, and people walking their bikes among the bike traffic on the lane. About a third of the bicyclists using the bike lane were going in the wrong direction (traveling west rather than east with Grand St traffic).
The logic of the bike lane really starts to fall apart between Elizabeth and Chrystie Streets, with two blocks of bustling Chinatown street vendors and outdoor markets throwing an unplanned kink in the attempt to organize traffic. Vendors and customers take up the majority of sidewalk activity, and so pedestrians frequent the bike lanes just as much as bicyclists. Later in the evening, around 5pm, I noticed more and more hand-trucks being pulled and pushed in the bike lanes, and I witnessed the tension between bicyclists and delivery men: a hand-truck being pushed west narrowly missed a bicyclist, who cursed and yelled, “WATCH IT!”
I ran alongside one man as he pushed a hand-truck in between Elizabeth and Bowery, and he told me he felt too constrained navigating the sidewalk with so many people, so he used the bike lane instead. When I pressed about the safety of using the bike lane rather than the sidewalk, he smirked and said his mom got hit by a bicyclist while she was walking in the bike lane a couple of weeks ago. Yet still, there he was, pushing his hand-truck in the bike lane so he could move quickly and avoid the crowd on the sidewalk. As we walked he was constantly looking forward and backward, watching out for bikes going in both directions. But he was prepared to take the risk of being hit rather than bear the slow-moving sidewalk.
I spoke to crossing guard Lydia Saldana at the intersection of Baxter and Grand Streets to see if she had any thoughts on the bike lane. She immediately fired off on the “stupidity” of the lane: “This street is too small for all this; bicycles, parked cars, traffic.” She explained that she redirects cars that drive up behind the lane of parked cars thinking they are a part of moving traffic between 70 and 80 times a week. As a crossing guard for PS31 on Baxter St, her greatest concern is the danger of bicyclists pose for children crossing the street: they come fast and from both directions in the lane. As I walked away, I heard a small voice yell “Lydia!” and I turned around to see Lydia enveloping two children with huge backpacks and huge smiles in a hug as they were walking home with their dad.
The use of the bike lane seemed to be very different to the east in Soho than in Chinatown, with much narrower streets and more sidewalk activity on the Chinatown end. But the seemingly ‘unplanned’ nature of the street market in Chinatown doesn’t mean that the bike lanes won’t be useful or used for their express purpose there, but suggests that the solution to bike traffic should be unique and localized in different areas of the city depending on the street life. How can the DOT solve the problem of hand-trucks, pedestrians, and wrong-way traffic on the Grand St bike lanes?