The Letter to the Times That Foresaw NYC’s Biking Triumph 10 Years Ago

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

With the recent news that Bicycling Magazine has named New York America’s best city for biking, this seems like a particularly good moment to share the very first time protected bike lanes were mentioned in The New York Times.

It happened on October 10, 2004, in a letter to the editor from a man named Kenneth Coughlin. It was a response to a personal narrative the previous week from a young Times reporter who had made the daring decision to start riding her bicycle to work. In that article, then-Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall had made the prediction that New York City could one day be “one of the world’s great bicycling cities.”

It seemed like an obviously ridiculous claim. In a city of 8.2 million, fewer than 20,000 New Yorkers biked to work at the time. There was no Streetsblog, no Summer Streets, certainly no Citi Bike. The Times reporter, Lydia Polgreen (later a decorated Times correspondent in Africa, now the newspaper’s deputy international editor), described an incident in which she spent 20 minutes just looking for a place to lock her bike. Still, Polgreen came away from her first summer of bike commuting convinced that New York (“flat and compact … perfectly suited to biking”) had potential.

You can still find Coughlin’s 151-word reply to Polgreen on the NYT’s website. Here it is:

To the Editor:

Your reporter’s positive experiences with cycling in the city (”Spin City,” Oct. 3) should embolden more New Yorkers to take to the streets on two wheels. But city government could do much more to make cycling safer and more widespread. What’s stopping it, in many cases, is its co-dependent relationship with drivers.

Officially, the city laments car use and extols alternatives like cycling. But in practice it is loath to improve conditions for cyclists if it means constricting the flow of cars, such as by removing a car lane to create a physically separated bike lane.

Until the city grasps that it cannot enable the current level of driving and at the same time significantly improve the cycling environment, the transportation commissioner’s vision of New York as ”one of the world’s great bicycling cities” will remain just a pleasant fantasy.

Kenneth M. Coughlin
Upper West Side

Coughlin was exactly right. The following year, Danish planner Jan Gehl visited New York and helped persuade city leaders to install the country’s first parking-protected bike lane on Ninth Avenue. Just as Coughlin’s letter argued would be necessary, adding a protected bike lane required removing one of the four motor vehicle lanes.

Ninth Avenue was the spark that lit the fire. Here’s what happened next, as documented by mentions of the concept in U.S. newspapers.

Seven years later, protected bike lanes have spread to 24 states and 53 U.S. cities — almost every single one requiring a little less street space to be devoted to cars. Three out of four people who live near the lanes, whether they use them or not, say they want more, and that’s exactly what cities are delivering. As you read this, dozens of protected lane projects are nearing completion around the country, from Los Angeles to Boston to Lincoln, Nebraska.

And this week, 9 years and 11 months after Coughlin’s letter first appeared on page A15, Bicycling Magazine crowned New York City as the country’s bicycle capital.

Never underestimate the power of an extremely good idea.

So thanks, Ken. Looks like we all owe you one.

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  • R.A. Stewart

    And thanks for the reminder that, contrary to how it often seems to some of us, it’s not always the bad ideas that take hold.

  • But not in bazarro SF world where we actually have a ballot initiative to enshrine car lanes and parking here until eternity!

  • BBnet3000

    “But in practice it is loath to improve conditions for cyclists if it means constricting the flow of cars”

    I don’t think this has actually changed one iota. All the locations where a lane has been removed to create a protected bike lane were wildly overbuilt for the number of cars using the street. I’m not aware of any case where they actually removed a car lane where it actually meant prioritizing cycling over driving.

    That’s also why the 2nd Ave protected lane will never be completed and the 1st and 2nd Ave lanes have “mixing zones” that require bicycles proceeding straight with a green light to wait behind left-turning cars that are stopped for pedestrians crossing.

    We have nibbled away at the edges of the incredible excess that was given over to cars in the mid 20th century but we have never, as of yet, prioritized cycling.

  • Richard Fitzer

    When I moved to Austin, Tx, in `79, iy already had a protected lane on Guadulpe St., so N.Y.C. wasn`t first. It`s telling that they needed someone from outside the country to figure out how to do it.

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