Bicycle ban starts in midtown Manhattan. City hopes 90-day trial will improve safety; opponents argue it's premature

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Concern over traffic safety in Manhattan's teeming midtown area has led to a ban on bicycles from three major avenues during business-hours, starting today. Citing careless bikers, particularly messengers, Mayor Edward I. Koch says strict regulations are essential for safer streets.

Reactions, of course, are mixed. George Morales, a bicycle messenger from Queens, shakes his head when asked about the ban.

``It's terrible,'' says Mr. Morales, as he leaves 42nd Street for 15 downtown deliveries. ``I'm a family man, just trying to look for a living.''

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``They are terrible,'' says Ellen, a retiree riding a downtown bus. ``Just the other day I almost got hit by a boy running a red light and going the wrong way up 2nd Avenue.''

``There is going to be a ban on bicyclists? That could make a difference!'' says a director for a public relations firm that frequently dispatches news releases. But after a quick check with the stock room, she happily reports that most of their messages go out by foot messenger.

The experimental ban on bicyclists who traverse Fifth, Park, and Madison Avenues from 59th to 34th Streets begins a 90-day trial today. Scofflaws will get warnings this week, and starting next week summonses will be issued.

Last year, there were 640 pedestrian-bicycle accidents in the city, and three people were killed. There were also 2,953 bicycle-motor vehicle accidents, and nine deaths. Midtown Manhattan has the heaviest concentration of pedestrians.

Some citizens have lobbied heavily for the ban. But others complain that it came without warning.

Nancy Cooper, president of both a messenger service and of the Association of Messenger Services says she suggested as recently as July that commercial bicyclists be licensed or issued permits by the city. That way the city would be better able to track down violators.

``This [ban] is disheartening. We're [still] trying to negotiate with the city,'' Ms. Cooper says. Messenger businesses say the ban, as now proposed, could have an impact on the efficiency and cost of their service, as well as on the income of their messengers.

Cooper says her service will remain open regardless of the ban. But she predicts a slowdown of 15 to 20 minutes on deliveries, and an increase in charges. She also expects she'll have to increase her staff, which, she says, ironically will end up adding more bikes to those blocks that are available for use.

George Apostolakos, bicycle coordinator for the city's Department of Transportation, says there is lawlessness in midtown, and the city needs a dramatic crackdown on the flagrant and dangerous situation.

He says previous bicycle laws have not had the teeth of enforcement. And he notes that a comprehensive package is still being worked on by the city, which would include licensing and insurance provisions.

Enforcement of the ban will include increased police power within the ban area and on its periphery. At the same time, there will be a refurbishing of the several bicycle-only lanes and increased towing of vehicles that park by the lanes.

``We are trying to ban the behavior and not the class of vehicles,'' says Mr. Apostolakos. During the trial ban, there will be a large-scale evaluation of its effectiveness, including interviews with riders, pedestrians, and drivers.

Charlie Komanoff, president of Transportation Alternatives, says the city needs to look at the whole picture, rather than use bicyclists as scapegoats. He believes motor vehicles and pedestrians are also to blame for some accidents. He says a reduction of motor vehicle traffic would be far better for both pedestrians and bicyclists, who are often forced into close proximity by autos.

There also needs to be a vigorous education campaign, Mr. Komanoff says, that includes a discussion of the dangers of jaywalking pedestrians.

Morales, who makes between $300 and $350 a week as a messenger, says he has not had any accidents during the five months he has had this job. How would he improve safety? ``I don't know,'' he says. ``My mind is on these deliveries.''

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