Astoria residents demand
safe passage for cyclists

By Rashida Kamal

Astoria cycling activists, along with their counterparts from other neighborhoods and boroughs, gathered at Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan on Thursday, September 15 to start off a mass bike ride organized by Transportation Alternatives to hold Mayor Bill De Blasio accountable for his Vision Zero promises. The demonstration came just days after the Department of Transportation (DOT) approved a new bike lane on 31st Avenue.

This June, DOT had presented a proposal to the Queens Community Board 1 (CB1) Transportation Committee to add a mix of shared roads and regular bike lanes along 31st Avenue. The proposal met opposition from committee members, including the chair, Robert Piazza. The committee was concerned about one five-block stretch that felt to be especially dangerous due to double parking and speeding. The committee ultimately recommended against the original plan, instead proposing a bike lane detour to 32nd Avenue for that five-block stretch. However, cycling activists, including Astoria resident Macartney Morris and Queens Organizer for Transportation Alternatives, Jaime Moncayo, argued against the detour. They felt that the detour would actually make the bike route less safe for cyclists. Morris felt passionately enough to write an op-ed in the Times Ledger stating as much.

"Instead of targeting the culprits behind the unsafe conditions they bemoaned -- illegally double parked and speeding drivers -- the board chose to make the proposal more unsafe for cyclists by making it less efficient and diluting traffic onto two routes," he wrote.

To Morris's pleasant surprise, Department of Transportation announced that they would move forward with the original proposal, without the detour. He still rode at the mass bike ride because he believes there is still plenty to be done. He points to double-parking and speeding as the main problems on Astoria streets for cyclists, but notes that there is a larger issue at play: the tension between drivers and cyclists.

"When you go to a Queens community board, particularly CB1, any proposal that comes before it, the only question that is guaranteed to be asked is 'Are you taking parking spots? Are you giving us parking spots?'" he said. "Queens in particular is a very car centric culture."

Morris feels that this attitude will ultimately only maintain the status quo, rather than meeting the changing needs of New Yorkers, particularly residents of northwestern Queens.

But not everyone in Astoria agrees. After the DOT announced their plans for 31st Avenue, some residents took to Facebook to bemoan the decision.

The Astoria Post recently posted an article on its page about DOT implementation of its 31st Avenue proposal. A lively debate began in the comments section of that post.

"Too [sic] many bike lanes already as it is. Don't need them. Nobody uses it and winter is coming no one is gonna ride there bike in 20 degrees and snow ice and slush on the ground," wrote one user.

Another user said, "Time for bike riders to register their bikes and start paying for this nonsense."

Not all of the rhetoric was quite as civil -- and some called for voting their current representatives out of office.

As suggested by the diversity of opinion present at the Transportation Committee meeting, Astorians do not all agree on how to make their streets safer -- but it is a goal they share.

Organizers, like Moncayo, have specific solutions in mind, "The overarching theme for us in Queens is that we don't have a cohesive bike network. [...] All our major projects are about giving cyclists a route to go somewhere."

Morris, who commutes daily, is well aware of the danger of not having designated space on the road for cyclists. "I think it's just a numbers game that if you're biking everyday, sooner rather than later, you're going to get into a crash," he said.

According to the Motor Vehicle Collisions data published by the NYPD, Queens was the only borough to see a general increase in motor vehicle collisions from 2014 to 2015 (though all boroughs saw an increase in serious collisions involving cyclists).

As the mass bike ride, on each of the bikes, there was a list of five demands of the De Blasio administration. The demands included funding and fast-tracking bike lanes and pedestrian crossings for the Vision Zero's priority corridors, stopping victim-blaming and retaliatory ticketing by the NYPD, and enforcing the 25-mph speed limit in the city.

Though the mood of the mass bike ride was somber -- some of the speakers present talked about the loss of their loved ones in cycling crashes -- there was optimism that the future will be different.

"I wouldn't be involved or fighting for it if I didn't think the change was possible," said Morris.