In the 19th century, Brooklyn earned the nickname “Borough of Churches,” but these days it seems that “Borough of Bicyclists” might be more appropriate. That, at least, was the gut sense I had a couple of weekends ago while I went down to Grand Army Plaza.
I took the accompanying photo in Prospect Park, which is where you would expect to see such scenes. But what struck me, visiting the neighborhood for the first time in a quarter century, was the greater accommodation for bicyclists outside the park, with lanes on adjacent Prospect Park West and Eastern Parkway—and how many people were using them.
Much of this has to do with the city’s initiative in recent years in making room for new lanes: 350 miles of them in the five boroughs since 2007, according to the Department of Transportation. But, among the small but growing force of bicycle commuters, Brooklynites take pride of place. Michelle Higgins’ article in The New York Times a week ago on this phenomenon quoted a 2008-2012 survey indicating that half of the New Yorkers who say they bike to work come from Brooklyn.
Biking is not a panacea for traffic and pollution ills, but as a regular daily bus commuter into the Lincoln Tunnel, I can attest to the havoc that one car can cause. The 27,000 New Yorkers who say they bike to work, then, can make a material difference in the quality of life for the entire tristate area.
All of this planning for bicycle routes must inevitably sound to some conservatives like their worst nightmare of centralized government control. But conservatives might be surprised to know that one of their own called for an even more drastic program of this kind.
All of this is a more literally down-to-earth version of a proposal floated by the late conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. in his quixotic 1965 campaign for mayor of New York. Buckley had no problem calling for sharp curbs on welfare and busing to achieve racial integration, but when it came to finding a solution to traffic, he was willing to call for something that even the conventional liberal in the race, John V. Lindsay, wouldn’t touch: a Manhattan “Bikeway” that would “run 20 feet above ground, on both sides of the street,” with ramps and parking areas.
Buckley may have wanted to capture some of the verve of European cities such as Paris and Berlin with the idea, but he’d hit upon something that, nearly a half century later, only has even more advantages. Building “Bikeway”—even something along the lines of the High Line, as advocated by Eric Grannis in a New York Daily News op-ed piece—would not only make bicyclists healthier and boost employment, but, by lifting the lane above ground, would do much to lessen the safety issues arising from bicycles now with insufficient room to navigate city streets.