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Obama's Infrastructure Bank, the Party of No and Bike Lanes in Brooklyn

Imagine a pair of roomy bike lanes hugging the park-side curb of a broad boulevard of pre-war mansions and stately apartment houses.
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It is fair to say that I am obsessed with Washington's belated embrace of infrastructure construction as a means of rebuilding the country and the economy. So if you're anything like me on this, you may be asking yourself whether President Obama's Infrastructure Bank has a snowball's chance in hell in the current political climate. Does his recent speech mean that Obama and his policy team have finally heard the muezzin's call to prayer on public transportation and other needed public works?

And where, if at all, does 30/10, LA's smart proposal to accelerate construction on 12 critical public transportation projects, figure in to all of this?

With the Party of No winding up again to cut off the country's nose to spite its face over Obama's new New Deal I thought I would focus this week on an urban infrastructure change that doesn't take an act of Congress and doesn't cost the equivalent of a Goldman Sachs partner's Christmas bonus. The fact is, not all the things government does to improve the quality of life for the citizenry involves billions of dollars in investment and years of planning and construction. Sometimes, more modest changes in the streetscape can alter in positive ways the life we live. And sometimes, the work to make those changes can be carried out by employees who are already on the payroll.

That's the case with some recent modifications of the streetscape on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn.

Imagine a pair of roomy bike lanes hugging the park-side curb of a broad boulevard of pre-war mansions and stately apartment houses. The lanes are painted green and are well marked for bikers, cars and pedestrians alike. Between the bike and car lanes is a row of parking (a floating parking lane) pushed out into what used to be a third lane of traffic on the one way southbound street. Pedestrian crossings have been day lit, meaning the parking has been configured in a way that pedestrians can actually see the on-coming traffic from the intersection. Additionally, there's room between the bike lanes and the parking so a driver would have to be getting out of a really poorly parked Cadillac Escalade or worse, to door a biker from the parking spot.

If you can picture it, this is what the New York City Department of Transportation's (DOT's) new bike lanes on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn look like. With thousands of Brooklyn bicycle commuters, casual weekend bikers, and others taking to the streets (and sidewalks) on two wheels, it was time to create a safe route for them between harrowing Grand Army Plaza and Windsor Terrace at the south end of Prospect Park. Other improvements are in the works for Grand Army Plaza which is still not the easiest place to navigate by bike, car or on foot.

A reduced incidence of traffic accidents, reduced vehicle speeds, and calmer traffic. These are the documented, or soon to be documented, results of an early DOT look at the changes and a just out film by Streetfilms on the Prospect Park West project. The film captures visually what things were like before the bike lanes and what they are like now.

But this being Brooklyn and to keep things interesting, in spite of their obvious benefits to the community not everyone is enthusiastic about the new bike lanes. For one, Iris Weinshall, the former DOT Commissioner appointed to the job by Rudy Giuliani, is not wild about the lanes, which run by her apartment on Prospect Park West. But then how much credence you give Weinshall, the wife of New York Senator Chuck Schumer, and her fellow bike lane critic Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz may depend on what you think of public policy and street redesign supported by rigorous data collection and analysis.

Since I live in LA, haven't voted in New York in years, and don't have any skin in the game, I hope my two cents contributes something to the Brooklyn bike lane debate raging on Facebook and to other cities like LA looking to add miles of new bike lanes.

From what I saw, there is no downside to what the DOT has done to give Brooklynites and others a better way to get around while making Prospect Park West safer for everyone. Though I wasn't lucky enough to snap a photo of Senator Schumer riding his bike in the new lanes, I did get to walk past his home on the upscale Park Slope boulevard facing Prospect Park, and can't for the life of me figure out what his wife's beef is with the bike lanes and street narrowing.

The usual not-in-my-back yard's (NIMBYs') argument against the bike lanes is also a strange one. Critics of the lanes say this would never happen on Manhattan's wealthy Upper East Side and Upper West Side, as if calmer traffic, less speeding and fewer accidents were a bad thing. And anyhow, there's long been a busy bus route on 5th Avenue, hardly a street without its share of billionaires and influential New Yorkers with the oomph to kill an unpopular project. Additionally, Central Park West has its own bike lane.

The final thing I like about this change to the Brooklyn streetscape is that it didn't cost taxpayers very much. And in this economic and political climate that's a big deal. The beauty of being a nimble DOT with backing from a smart mayor is that it can research a problem, find a solution and implement that solution relatively quickly and inexpensively using its own researchers, planners, and work crews who are on the payroll either way. And, the materials costs of a project like this are nominal.

The DOT is also setting the bar with its just out first-of-its-kind analysis of pedestrian safety, a must read for any major city's department of transportation.

In some ways, the research and the physical changes to the streetscape are the easy part. While I was looking at the bike lanes at the rotary at Windsor Terrace I watched a goofball on a bike exit the southbound bike lane and head the wrong way into traffic. More public education and communications targeting drivers, bikers and pedestrians alike are planned, and are coming not a moment too soon.

I liked what I saw in a place where it still rains and snows. Imagine the possibilities in LA where we can't even spell those dirty words.

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