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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Biking in the Storm

Air Date: Week of
Commuters on the Manhattan Bridge on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012. (Photo: Andrew Hinderaker)

The number of cyclists on New York City streets spiked after Superstorm Sandy. Caroline Sampanaro, director of bicycle advocacy at Transportation Alternatives, joins us to discuss the importance of the bike to helping create sustainable cities.


CURWOOD: Well, assaulted by an unprecedented storm surge, many tunnels connecting New York to outer boroughs flooded and choked the city’s public transportation network. And with power out in much of the region, gasoline was hard to find. But hey - it's New York - so people found ways to get from here to there. For an unprecedented number - the answer was the bicycle. Here's the Director of bicycle advocacy at Transportation Alternatives in New York, Caroline Samponaro.

SAMPONARO: What we saw was a breakdown in the public transit system and our subway system, which is really our backbone. What we also saw was New Yorkers taking to bicycles in huge numbers. So, for example, on the East River bridges, bicycle volume increased from 10,000 to 30,000 cyclists last week, which is a huge increase.

CURWOOD: How might increasing the capacity for bikes in a city like New York help make it more resilient?

SAMPONARO: I mean, I think what we have in New York City is a perfect city for bicycling. When you’re talking about transferring trips from cars to bicycle in the city, the vast majority of trips are under five miles, which is a very bike-able distance. At the crux of actually changing behavior is making bicycling more favorable, is making bicycling easier, safer, more feasible for these trips.

During a storm, when, you know, our underground got flooded out, the streets became really important, and how we use our streets becomes really important. So, whether that’s creating HOV lanes, or dedicating lanes to rapid bus service, or making sure that it’s safe to bicycle through dedicated space, these are all really important steps to take to cut emissions and create effective ways to get big groups of people around.

CURWOOD: So, what has New York done so far to make itself more bike-friendly? I noticed in mid-town especially on the east side, not so much by way of bike lanes.

SAMPONARO: Yeah, I think what we’ve seen over the last five years in particular is a build-out of the bike network. So, we’ve seen around 300 miles of bike lanes added. We’re going to have the largest bike-share program in North America next year, starting in the spring.

I think, you know, the missing middle is really continuing to build out the grid of protected bike lanes that will encourage people that are scared to ride on city streets with cars, to encourage them to get on their bike and make that two-mile or three-mile trip on their bike.

CURWOOD: So, in New York, here are the obstacles: You’ve got potholes, no really safe place to park the bike at the other end, actually it’s kind of tough to get a bike all the way up to a fourth or fifth floor walk-up. What can the city do to make it friendlier for people who want to bike?

SAMPONARO: I mean, that’s absolutely true, I mean, lack of secure bike parking is a deterrent for most people to choose biking daily. And I think bike-share will solve some of that in terms of you don’t have to actually solve the parking problems, but Transportation Alternatives has worked hard to make commercial bike access easier. So, there’s a law in the city that now requires commercial buildings to provide access to bicycles. There also needs to be some innovations. Maybe there needs to be some secure bike parking at transit, or additional accommodations, because the bike parking thing is huge, as you pointed out.

CURWOOD: What effect do you think Sandy could have on bicycling in the long term, I mean, is this possibly a silver lining of Sandy to have more awareness about bikes and what should be done?

SAMPONARO: There’s definitely the possibility of that. I think the large increase in the number of cyclists, of individual cyclists - I mean, who knows… hopefully they’re going to be stuck on the convenience and affordability and practicality of riding a bike to work. That’s our hope at Transportation Alternatives.

I think for the city, and its entire transportation network, a storm like this is a wakeup call to really think in a forward-thinking way about how we can make our transportation network last through storms but also be sustainable. Be working against climate change as opposed to contributing to it. That means, thinking about how our surface public transportation can be part of the solution during the aftermath of a storm like this.

CURWOOD: Caroline Samponaro is a bicycle advocate for Transportation Alternatives in New York City, thank you so much, Caroline.

SAMPONARO: Thank you.



Transportation Alternatives info about biking in NYC after Sandy


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