Joshua Benson on DOT’s Bicycle Program

Joshua Benson

Joshua Benson, the 33-year-old Acting Director of Bicycle & Pedestrian Programs for the New York City Department of Transportation, admits to being particularly fond of the basket sitting at the front of his simple single-speed bike, noting how it allows him to carry anything from groceries to his laptop and projector on the bike. Benson started riding a bike as a student at NYU and now commutes to Downtown Manhattan every weekday from his home in Prospect Heights.

“Biking to work really does help me do a better job. On a bike, I get to see the streets more often and get a feel for what works and doesn’t work out there,” he said. After receiving a master’s degree in urban planning from Columbia University, Benson began his career in City government at the Department of City Planning. After a year, Benson had the opportunity to move to DOT and implement the very same biking and greenway plans that he had already drafted on a purely conceptual level.

Bikes and PlaNYC 2030. With the City’s population expected to exceed nine million by 2030, Mayor Bloomberg is promoting bicycling as a safe and reliable mode of transportation that will help relieve overcrowded roads and subways. PlaNYC 2030, Bloomberg’s vision of a greener city, includes doubling the number of bicycle commuters by 2015.

So far, the results have been promising. Bicycling increased 116 percent between 2000 and 2008 and grew 35 percent between 2007 and 2008. In July 2009, the City achieved its goal of adding 200 miles of bike lanes in all five boroughs within three years. It also added 20 sheltered bike parking structures and 6,100 new bike parking racks. An international design competition was recently held to develop a better-looking official bike rack. The winning design is a cast metal circle called the “Hoop,” which resembles a bicycle tire bisected by a bar. DOT plans on installing more than 5,000 of these racks over the next two years.

A bike network. According to Benson, DOT intends to build an all-encompassing, all-connected network of bike lanes allowing cyclists to safely and comfortably commute throughout the City. It has considered models from all over the world and fine-tuned them. Although it plans to make every part of the City accessible by bike, DOT has focused primarily on Manhattan and areas within an easy commuting distance of the borough because of the density of population.

A key feature of the bike network has been the creation of protected on-street bike lanes along Eighth and Ninth Avenues and Grand Street that are physically separated from car traffic lanes. Located between the sidewalk and parked cars, they allow cyclists to ride in a safe space protected from cars. Based on initial success, the City plans to install 15 additional miles of protected bike lanes by 2010 and 30 miles from 2011–2015.

Response to resistance. Benson points out that in most cases, the addition of painted and protected bike lanes have generally not resulted in the loss of parking and loading lanes. Loading space, however, may be lost when a bike lane is set right against the curb.

When DOT installed painted bike lanes on the northbound and southbound sides of Kent Avenue along the East River shoreline in Williamsburg, local property owners in the community complained that it had become more difficult to operate businesses. DOT worked with those business owners to redesign the street in such a way that parking and loading zones were restored alongside protected bike lanes instead of painted lanes.

Bike racks and indoor parking. Benson wants commuters to feel comfortable knowing there is a secure place where they can park and lock their bikes. While DOT is scheduled to finish installing 37 new bicycle parking shelters and 5,000 more bike racks by 2011, indoor bike parking is also in the works. In April 2009, the City Council approved the Department of City Planning’s bicycle parking text amendment, which requires developers to include secure indoor bicycle storage space in new buildings, conversions to residential use, and enlargements of 50 percent or more. In July 2009, the Council enacted legislation mandating that office buildings with freight elevators allow tenants to enter with their bicycles and requiring commercial parking garages to provide space for bikes.

Enforcing safety rules. Benson emphasizes that DOT’s primary concern is safety. It has worked with the Police Department to make sure that officers are enforcing not only the laws that keep cyclists safe, but also those preventing cyclists from becoming a safety hazard to pedestrians and motorists.

According to Benson, DOT will share information with the police about locations where it has received complaints regarding cyclists causing safety problems. Benson notes that cyclists, who are subject to the same duties as motorists, are regularly ticketed by the police for running red lights and riding on the sidewalk, the wrong way on a one-way street, or in a bus lane.

An everyday activity for everyone. Benson hopes that all New Yorkers will start to consider bicycling as more than just a fringe activity, but rather as a normal way of getting around the City. He also views the purchase of a bike as a good financial investment, noting that one can easily buy an inexpensive bike and then save on subway fare or gasoline and perhaps even a gym membership.

Where is Benson’s favorite place in the City to ride a bike? Admittedly biased toward Brooklyn, he picks the long ride from Prospect Park to Rockaway Beach, which involves passing through nearly the entire borough. And what’s the worst worst place to ride? “I’ll have to pass on that question,” he answered. “But when you find out, let me know and I’ll make it better.”  — Matt Windman

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.