Last semester, I took a course called Philosophy of Infrastructure. As a major infrastructure and logistics nerd, I jumped at the chance, and it was a lot of fun! For our final project we had to “adopt a New York City infrastructure” and write about its ethical, epistemological, aesthetic, social, and political dimensions. I chose to write about a piece of infrastructure that I use nearly every day: the Crescent Street Bike Lane.
Biking down Crescent Street in Astoria, Queens, is easily my favorite part of my commute. It’s relatively quiet and protected from cars, and there are always children in the playground near the school it passes by. In many ways, the stretch of Crescent Street from the Queensboro Bridge to the Triboro Bridge embodies one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the world1 - not too far away, you can pass by the Mediterranean market on the way to one of the largest mosques in New York City. And yet, it is this diversity that makes the Crescent Street bike lane a site of conflict. In this essay, I argue that Crescent Street, particularly its bike lane, is the site of broader philosophical conflicts around safe streets, gentrification, and the broader New York City bike network.
Bike Lanes as Network
New York City is home to the largest bicycle network in the United States, comprising over 1,375 miles of bike routes 2. All of NYC’s bike lanes are administered by the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT), but it is far from a comprehensive network. The lanes do not go everywhere car lanes go, and they vary in the quality of protection they offer. When Kaika theorizes about the urban water and sewer system, she writes that “endowed with modernity’s technological networks, the urban fabric became a nexus of entry-exit points for a myriad of interconnected circuits and conduits.”3 Unlike other technological networks, the network of New York City bike lanes is porous – an impurity cannot enter the “good” water lines, but a car can too often enter a bike lane and cause harm. In unprotected lanes, the only thing keeping drivers from entering the bike lane is cultural norm – which is highly inconsistent because of the devaluation of the bicycle as a mode of transportation, and determined by individuals.
Due to these interruptions, both in the network itself and in the edges of the network, we might ask – what is safety, actually? How is this network responsible, or how does it absolve itself of responsibility for the safety of cyclists and motorists? How much agency can we assign to inanimate infrastructure? In the sense that bike lanes are designed by urban planners at the DOT, and sometimes brought about by community input, these artifacts certainly do have politics, and bike lanes are subject to both technological and social determinism. The “rules of the road” are always somewhat fungible, but traffic and bike iBnfrastructure help make them more explicit by controlling and formalizing existing behavior. In this way, safety is both a function of the physical barriers that separate cyclists from motorists, but also in the behavior and social relationships between the two.
Bike Lanes as Safety Infrastructure
In 2014, New York City committed to a policy of Vision Zero – a goal of achieving zero fatalities or injuries from traffic. In the years since, traffic deaths have actually increased, from 205 in 2018 to 273 in 20214. Protected bike lanes, like the one on Crescent Street, have been a key part of that policy. The placement and grade of bike lanes is a political choice that revealing who deserves to travel safely in our cities, and who is expendable. In November 2020, a delivery worker named Alfredo Cabrera Liconia was fatally struck by a truck driver on Astoria Boulevard and Crescent Street5. In the aftermath, politicians demanded upgrades, but they did not materialize until this year, when the Department of Transportation began “hardening” bike lanes (upgrading their level of protection), including Crescent Street.
As of the latest bike map6, protected bike lanes, shown in green, are concentrated in Manhattan. Protected bike lanes mirror the subway map (Crescent Street itself runs parallel to the N/W trains in Astoria). This is a missed opportunity for transit justice – in areas where the subway does not run, like Eastern Queens, residents tend to drive to work or for errands. Providing a safe bike route, in places where public transit infrastructure is sparse, could help reduce car trips in those areas.
Equitable bike infrastructure is also a gendered issue. Women are more likely to carry the burden of household errands7, whether bringing a sick child to the doctor or going to the grocery store. This travel occurs between neighborhoods, and is often badly serviced by existing “hub and spoke” transit infrastructure, in which riders are ferried to and from the urban core. Where women do cycle, they are more likely to be closely passed by cars and face more risk than male cyclists8. Any safe streets policy must take these disparities into account.
Bike Lanes as Locus of Community Conflict
The idea for the Crescent Street bike lane came from community organizing. Advocates spoke to their neighbors, showed up to community board meetings, and got elected officials on board over a two-year long process9. When the bike lane was finally built, advocates cheered, but not everyone was thrilled. In 2016, Astoria has had the dubious honor of being named the 11th most gentrifying neighborhoods in New York City,10 and 21.7% of households were severely rent burdened in 201911. These economic realities, coupled with changing demographics and more young white people moving in, create anxiety about gentrification and displacement among long-term residents.
In September 2021, Edwin DeJesus, a candidate for City Council with the Green Party, wrote an op-ed titled “I Love Biking Too, but the Crescent Street Bike Lane Is a Disaster.”12 In it, he argues against the existing bike lane, citing issues with parking, the privatization of bike share, and cars being forced to idle or block the bike lane. He cites the “interests of the community,” “our families,” and “life-long Astoria residents” to imply who he believes is to blame for these issues – “cyclists” and those who are new to the neighborhood.
DeJesus may be right to link bike lanes with gentrification. In “Forewarned: The Use of Neighborhood Early Warning Systems for Gentrification and Displacement”, Chapple and Zuk argue that bike lanes, among other transportation improvements, can be a warning sign of oncoming higher rents13. It is true that such improvements might make a neighborhood more desirable, which can raise rents and push out existing residents – but does this mean that no safety improvements should be made? Must we accept higher cyclist and pedestrian deaths in disadvantaged communities? The bike lane protects the many delivery workers in Astoria who cycle for work, not only white newcomers, but the benefits aren’t perceived to be equally distributed. Besides, injuries decline for motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians when bike lanes are installed. Working-class neighborhoods deserve the safety that bike lanes provide, and these investments must be made equitably.
Compared to what it once was, Crescent Street is more peaceful, due to fewer and slower cars. Longtime residents mingle with new arrivals, and the bike lane has helped make a street that was otherwise built to encourage speeding so safe that children ride bikes and scooters in it. Oftentimes, once the dust settles, investments in safe streets are appreciated by everyone. The ever-changing nature of the lane – from mere idea, to community board approval, to the most recent hardening phase – reflects the ways in which New York City’s infrastructure is always shifting and the philosophical questions that arise from NYC’s incomplete bike infrastructure, recent enough to not be “urban dowry,” but foundational and future-looking.
Alexandra Starr, “In New York’s Multinational Astoria, Diversity is Key to Harmony,” National Public Radio. March 30, 2015. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/03/30/393339438/in-new-yorks-multinational-astoria-diversity-is-key-to-harmony ↩
“Biketober: Two-Way Protected Bike Lane Along Fort Hamilton Parkway Now Complete,” New York City Department of Transportation, October 22, 2021. https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/pr2021/biketober-two-way-protected-bike-lane-fort-hamiltom-pkwy-complete.shtml ↩
Maria Kaika, City of Flows: Modernity, Nature, and the City (New York: Routledge, 2005), 28. ↩
“Last year was the deadliest under Vision Zero. Here’s how Mayor Adams can save lives in 2022,” Transportation Alternatives, January 26, 2022. https://www.transalt.org/writing/last-year-was-the-deadliest-under-vision-zero-how-mayor-adams-can-save-lives-in-2022 ↩
Jake Offenhartz, “Bud Light Truck Driver Kills Delivery Worker Near Controversial New Bike Lane,” Gothamist, November 13, 2020. https://gothamist.com/news/bud-light-truck-driver-kills-delivery-worker-near-controversial-new-bike-lane ↩
New York City Bike Map, New York City Department of Transportation, 2021. https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/nyc-bike-map-2021.pdf ↩
Yingling Fan, Andrew Guthrie, and David Levinson. “Waiting time perceptions at transit stops and stations: Effects of basic amenities, gender, and security.” Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, Vol. 88 (2016): 251-264. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tra.2016.04.012. ↩
Greg Lindsey, “Bicycles, Gender, and Risk: Driver Behaviors When Passing Cyclists,” University of Minnesota Gender Policy Report, July 15, 2019. https://genderpolicyreport.umn.edu/bicycles-gender-and-risk/ ↩
“How Crescent Street Came to Be Safe for Cycling,” Transportation Alternatives, August 10, 2020. https://www.transalt.org/writing/how-crescent-street-came-to-be-safe-for-cycling ↩
Amy Zimmer, “Here Are City’s Top 15 Gentrifying Neighborhoods,” DNAInfo, May 9, 2016. https://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20160509/crown-heights/here-are-citys-15-gentrifying-neighborhoods/ ↩
“Astoria Neighborhood Profile,” New York University Furman Center, https://furmancenter.org/neighborhoods/view/astoria ↩
Edwin DeJesus, “Op-Ed: I Love Biking Too, but the Crescent Street Bike Lane is a Disaster,” September 17 2021. https://licpost.com/op-ed-i-love-biking-too-but-the-crescent-street-bike-lane-is-a-disaster ↩
Karen Chapple and Miriam Zuk. “Forewarned: The Use of Neighborhood Early Warning Systems for Gentrification and Displacement.” Cityscape 18, no. 3 (2016): 109–30. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26328275 ↩