Comments Worth Saving: Manhattan Walkability and the Obstacle of Central Park

I left this comment a couple weeks ago on Streetsblog, discussing the possibility of developing bicycle routes across Central Park:

The park itself is the problem. Who decided it would be a good idea to separate the East and West Sides with an imitation landscape? As Dr. Bones points out, crossing the darn thing on bicycle involves long detours or inconvenient walking or both.

Even on foot, there are really only seven transverse routes: W 63 to E 60, along the north side of Hecksher PG and south of the zoo; W 67 to E 69, along the north side of Sheep Meadow and crossing south of Rumsey Playfield; 72d St; W 81 to E 79, past the Delacorte, along the south side of the Great Lawn, and out south of the Met; W 85 to E 84, along the north side of the Great Lawn, and north of the Met; 96th along the path marked for bikes, or 97th by the tennis courts and bathrooms (on opposite sides of the transverse road); and 102d via the shortcut road.

The four routes south of the reservoir are indirect and winding, usually very crowded with people on foot, and poorly marked as cross-park routes. I did use to go around the north end of the Great Lawn after dark back 10 years ago and that was never a problem, but perhaps it has gotten busier now.

The notion that the transverses could be made tolerable for bicycling is seductive, but who wants to ride in a jersey-barriered lane in a ditch? It lacks appeal as anything more than an expedient shortcut.

It seems to me that in a contest between maintaining the park according to the Olmstead-Vaux vision and using parkland to create bicycle facilities, the architects’ vision must take precedence. A three-block-wide green zone in the middle of Manhattan is of course going to impede people getting from one side to the other, no matter how much bicycle infrastructure you build. If Olmstead and Vaux wanted to make bicycling between East and West Sides easy, they wouldn’t have built the park.

Moving on to another aspect of Manhattan’s walkability versus bikeability, I came down firmly on the side of Manhattan being the epitome of walkability, with negative consequences for bikeability, in a short BikePortland comment,

As a Manhattan resident and daily bicyclist, I can attest to the truth of this statement. On my block (no crossing streets), I have day care, flower stand, restaurant, convenience store, pharmacy, fish restaurant, pizza parlor, subway entrance, newsstand, and supermarket. Everything I need, and too close to make bicycling worthwhile. The farmers’ market is about the farthest unique thing away, and that’s only a 20-minute walk.

Bike Theft and Fundamental Attribution Error

The potential fallacy of fundamental attribution error should warn us away from inventing motives to explain why other people use cable locks or other less-than-perfect locking techniques. Developing high-tech methods to discern GOOD bicycle securers from BAD bicycle securers doesn’t help make those securers’ motives clear, whatever those motives might be. I am certainly not a priori convinced that there is a huge demand for a more didactic approach to providing advice on how to lock up your bicycle, and I refuse to accept the observation that lots of bicyclists use cable locks as support for the argument that everyone should register their bike and lock it right.

Since I wrote this first paragraph, I actually went ahead and purchased a cable lock. It cost less than $10, and was rated “1,” the least secure rating in the marketer’s system. I was out of town for school, and so I used it once or twice when leaving the bicycle outside a store for more than 10 minutes. Most of the time I would fold up my bike and take it with me, to class (where I left it folded in the back of the classroom) and to the grocery store (where I folded it up and put it in the cart, so as to take up space and keep me from buying too much food to carry home).

I’m pretty sure this doesn’t make me a bad person. When I travel for business or school, I like to use the bicycle as effectively as I can to get around, which means bicycling right to the front door and not hunting around for a bicycle rack that could be several dozen meters away from the door. Part of my effectiveness at bicycle operation is knowing when it’s necessary to lock up, and when it’s not. Even in New York City, when I duck into the newsstand every morning, I don’t lock my bike up. I just leave it outside, IN THE GHETTO practically, for 30 seconds while I go in and get my newspaper. Of course my bicycle could be stolen. But who is out there on the corner at six a.m., looking for a bicycle to steal?

Reading about decent-hearted people who have gotten wound around the axle of bicycle security makes me sad. At the worst, I see it as another example of in-group policing, where members of a small group come up with elaborate justifications for why other people cannot join, everything from the wrong style of handlebars to the wrong kind of lock. Secondly, they ignore how locking up one’s bicycle is a time-waster on the level of visits to the ATM machine–count up all those five-minute intervals spent either crouched over a staple rack or hunched in front of a bank machine, and pretty soon an entire week of life has vanished into the breeze.

Thirdly, judging the quality of all lock-up jobs by a single standard making the assumption that everyone in the same area has the same requirements. It’s weird that the same people who extol the flexibility of the bicycle as a transportation tool are so rigid when it comes to securing that bicycle. And lastly, if bicycle advocates can call for society to resolve the issue of traffic violence in bicyclists’ favor, why can they not also suggest some way to diminish the need to carry around 20 lbs. of locks and chains?