In Medellin, Columbia where the Bikes4Life movement was founded, participants were allowed to paint DIY bike lanes called “life-lines” to show where cycling infrastructure was needed. Over the next year, the city of Medellin went ahead and installed permanent infrastructure where activists had painted their “life-lines”.
NYC didn’t have a process in place whereby we could do things exactly the way it was done in Columbia. I wasn’t sure how or if we could implement something like this here. But I knew exactly who to reach out to in getting some help- Keegan Stephan. Keegan is a friend, fellow activist and also a member of the group Right of Way. If anyone knew how to pull this off, Keegan was it and he eagerly agreed to help out.
It’s been amazing to witness the build out of bike infrastructure here in NYC over the last few years. To NYC DOT, we extend our extreme gratitude (especially for the protected lanes). But there are still too many streets in NYC in need of a little “bike love”. I felt it was important the location of our “life line”/DIY bike lane would be highly visible and hold symbolic meaning towards safer streets for ALL.
We wanted to do this on 6th Avenue.
6th Avenue because the bike lane that does exist abruptly ends at 42nd street, forcing people on bikes to vie for road space with cars that often speed and drive aggressively in this area of midtown.
6th Avenue between 42nd and Central Park because it’s part of our central business district.
6th Avenue because due to the location Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall on this stretch of 6th Avenue is a major tourist destination.
Most importantly- 6th Avenue between 49th & 50th streets because on August 22, 2013 that’s where taxi driver Mohammed Himon had an altercation with a cyclist, accelerated his vehicle on to the sidewalk and slammed into British tourist Sian Green, severing her leg.
Sian Green wasn’t on a bike. She was a pedestrian. She was standing on a sidewalk a quarter of a city block away from the curb when her life was permanently altered. A protected bike lane could have made a difference in her life. If 6th Avenue was a Complete Street, it’s more likely that Sian Green would have been able to enjoy her stay in NYC actually seeing the city sights rather than recovering in a hospital bed.
When our group gathered on Saturday night to create our ‘gift’ to the city, we were joined by New York Times journalist Colin Moynihan and photographer Robert Stolarik. Colin and Robert (who both arrived on bicycle) were along to document our action for the New York Times. It helped calm nerves that they seemed genuinely excited and curious about our plan and the motivation behind it. As Colin and I chatted before the roll out, the irony of our action became apparent. What we planned to do wasn’t officially sanctioned. It was being done for the greater good and safety of all New Yorkers. Yet, we had a greater chance of facing repercussions for it than most drivers who kill or maim our fellow citizens.
Keegan’s outlook was perfect: ““We’re doing something for the public good. So I think it’s O.K., even if it’s illegal.”
Installing the ‘life- line’ was a team effort. It was imperative to remain alert, calm and work quickly. As we worked, curious onlookers asked questions about what we were doing. At one point someone asked me if we were with a ‘department of the city’. I simply responded “We’re with safety”. It was uplifting that most people passing by- pedestrians, pedicab drivers, cyclist and yes…even motorists – cheered us on, gave a thumbs up or just told us they thought what we were doing was great.
At one point, a stranger approached a member of our group and unsolicited, handed over $40 as a donation towards our efforts. “I think what you’re doing is wonderful. Keep up the good work.”
Of course, you can always find at least one person will disagree with anything you think or do in NYC. A limo driver standing next to his parked vehicle wasn’t pleased at all. He said that people on bikes did not have the right of way on 6th Avenue because there was no bike lane there. It was his opinion that people on bikes didn’t belong on 6th Avenue at all. How bittersweet and ironic. Apparently, he didn’t know that people on bikes did have the right of way, they just hadn’t been given any dedicated and safe space to travel said length of 6th Avenue.
Two hours after our initial meet up it began to rain, putting an end to our efforts. Though we weren’t able to completely extend the lane up to Central Park, it was pretty amazing that we were even able to install six city blocks of DIY bike lanes in a such a short time. If we had only been able to install our ‘life-line’ on the city block where Sian Green’s life was permanently altered I would have been happy. It was sort of fitting that the DIY extension was incomplete- a reflection of the fact that bicycle infrastructure overall is incomplete in NYC and that even on some of the streets that do have bicycle infrastructure- there are gaps and inconsistencies (1st Avenue is a good example).
Though we were able to enjoy a celebratory ride the next day with friends and unveil our ‘gift’, five days later all the markings had been erased.
In the end, would our DIY bike lane have truly made 6th Avenue safer? Yes, but not as safe as it should be. To truly make 6th Avenue safer for all, a complete street with a protected bike lane needs to be implemented. There are advocacy groups working to make that happen and not just on 6th Avenue, but on streets throughout NYC. Through petitioning, doing outreach to local businesses, talking with Community Boards and elected officials, these groups are doing it the correct and official way. It just takes a long time to get these street redesigns OK’d and implemented (often years of effort).
The DIY bike lane Right of Way installed was nothing more than paint and graphics- a symbolic gesture to show where safer infrastructure for people on bikes was and still is needed. But the message was strong and it’s got the discussion going (and not just here in NYC, but around the world). In that we accomplished our goal. In the upcoming election, it’s important to keep this discussion moving forward. There should be no talk of maintaining status quo or rollbacks. The transformation of hundreds of miles of NYC streets has been amazing to witness and it needs to continue.
This isn’t just about bike lanes. This is a matter of life and death. More New Yorkers are killed by motor vehicle traffic than are murdered by handguns. Everyone deserves safe, complete and livable streets. No matter how long it takes- don’t give up. We can make it happen.