Reasons For Hope On Our Streets
2020 was hard. But we learned a few things.
We are at the end of an unprecedented and impossibly trying year. As we cope with all those we have lost and prepare for an unstable future in New York City, at Transportation Alternatives, we wanted to try and add some optimism to this year’s end. Even in the darkness, we see a few reasons for hope on our streets.
Chief among our reasons for hope is what the coronavirus pandemic has revealed — both in the fragility of our transportation network and in the creativity we can muster to support our neighbors and our recovery.
It is not all good news — far from it. But, there is much we can learn from this challenging year to help inspire and advance our work in the year to come. Moving forward, we must fight harder for what matters most and put our resources where they will go furthest. Here is what 2020 taught us.
Bikes Are Essential
To be honest, this is something that Transportation Alternatives has been screaming from New York City rooftops since 1973. But, as much as we already knew that bikes are essential, 2020 underscored that fact for countless New Yorkers.
As New York City locked down, food delivery workers on bikes became a lifeline for New Yorkers. Doctors and nurses turned to bikes as a way to get to work without risking coronavirus transmission. And Transportation Alternatives did everything we could to make bicycling accessible for the most needful New Yorkers. One part of that effort matched New Yorkers in need of a bike with New Yorkers who had a bike to spare. This year, we matched hundreds of New Yorkers with bikes and taught cities around the world how to follow suit.
People Want to Bike
This year, biking was more than an effective tool for essential workers — it was a part of life for record numbers of us. The number of New Yorkers riding a bike skyrocketed this year. The uptick was seen from the East River bridges to the ridership numbers at Citi Bike.
Transportation Alternatives anticipated the surge and told New York City officials how to prepare: We needed more bike infrastructure — even if temporary — and fast. We also helped New Yorkers who were trying biking for the first time acclimate themselves and learn the ropes. As the lines of New Yorkers standing outside bike shops grew, City officials responded to our call for infrastructure, rolling out New York’s first-ever “pop-up” bike lanes and some protected bike lanes that we have been demanding for years.
As cold weather has set in, the uptick has not ceased. It is clear that going forward, the need for more bike lanes and bike parking isn’t going anywhere.
Safety is Non-Negotiable
When citywide shutdowns took a bite out of New York City’s finances, Mayor Bill de Blasio was quick to put Vision Zero and other safe street programs on the chopping block. The mayor not only declined to fund the Dangerous Vehicle Abatement Act and Streets Master Plan, which were scheduled to take effect this year and next, but he also cut $7 million dollars in funding for Vision Zero projects and $3 million from the “Green Wave” protected bike lane initiative, which he created last year in response to an uptick in traffic fatalities, and delayed the rollout of a “Better Bus” initiative to create dedicated bus lanes.
While traffic safety budgets were cut, speeding and reckless driving skyrocketed, and more and more New Yorkers decided to buy a car. Far too often, safety for people walking and biking is seen as “nice to have” instead of a necessity, and 2020 has proven the folly of this thinking — especially now, in what is on track to be one of the deadliest years in Mayor de Blasio’s mayorship.
The People Want Streets For People
After a long spring in lockdown, New Yorkers on bikes and on foot flooded into the streets to protest, to connect with neighbors, to eat and drink, and to remember the simple pleasure of open space. The lesson was clear: Streets are our most important public spaces, now more than ever.
At Transportation Alternatives, our work was clear. We provided guidance on how to stay safe while protesting on bikes, and we fought hard to reclaim streets from cars — bringing Open Streets to every corner of New York. Then, we watchdogged the implementation of that program every step of the way, and at every step, echoed New Yorkers’ demands for more and better Open Streets. By summer’s end, New Yorkers who experienced their streets reclaimed from cars understood the benefits of streets for people. We pushed for Open Streets to remain part of New York even after COVID-19. Now the demand is loud and clear: Open Streets should be made permanent.
It’s Time to Put Transit Equity First
While it has long been clear that the City of New York plans bike lanes and other safety improvements inequitably, with the bulk of infrastructure installed in wealthy white neighborhoods in Manhattan, the cost of this inequity became especially clear in 2020. More cyclists were killed in the Bronx this year than in any other borough. It is no coincidence that only three percent of New York City’s bike lane infrastructure is in the borough.
Inequity also exposed medical workers to dangerous conditions. At the start of the pandemic, knowing many essential medical workers relied on the bus for transportation, Mayor de Blasio promised to build express bus lanes to make sure these workers could get to their jobs. It’s clear now that he’s fallen wildly short of his promises. It is all evidence of a city where transit equity must be at the top of the next mayor’s agenda.
Now’s the Time to Let Go of Bad Old Ideas
Compared to our European counterparts, U.S. traffic safety programs have long been over-reliant on police enforcement. In 2020, Transportation Alternatives proposed a roadmap for getting police out of traffic enforcement by increasing investment in proven street safety solutions like automated enforcement and street design.
There is a wealth of evidence that policing makes streets more dangerous for people of color. Moving forward, we must advance a safe street agenda that also ensure that no one, especially communities of color, is at risk of harassment or violence from the police.
Our Greatest Strength? People Power.
Perhaps the most important lesson learned from 2020 is that our power, as activists and advocates, is unmatched. Through the economic downturn and the threat of the virus, New Yorkers never stopped fighting for justice, for equity, and for one another. People on bikes have long been a force for good in New York City. In 2020, that tradition appeared in the efforts of bike-riding local mutual aid workers, in the roving poll watchers who kept an eye on the election, and in the cycling protesters who used their bikes and bodies as a protective blockade.
As New Yorkers, we have all experienced this year’s challenges in very personal ways. As the staff of Transportation Alternatives, we are proud to stand together in support of the city we love. We are so grateful to every essential worker on the front line of this crisis, from the doctors and nurses to the bus and subway operators to the delivery workers who we rely on so much.
In this city, and most especially in trying times, we look out for one another and fight for one another And that, more than anything, is a reason to hope.