A dozen clown-cloaked cyclists reeled through the heart of chasidic Williamsburg one morning last week, boasting cone-shaped orange hats and marking their territory in a citywide battle to reclaim their lanes. Though a group of Satmar chasids stood by snapping photos of the clowns, there was an underlying current of frustration about the bike lanes within the close-knit Orthodox community.
But it’s not just about the clowns.
Brooklyn is actively jumping aboard New York City’s ever-growing campaign to make the five boroughs a more environmentally friendly place. The 14-mile bike path — part of the New York State Environmental Protection Fund’s Brooklyn Greenway Initiative — begins at the northern tip of Greenpoint and then heads southeast through Williamsburg and Brooklyn Heights, extending down around Red Hook and ending up in Sunset Park. Like members of many other neighborhoods that have suddenly acquired bike lanes, residents of Williamsburg complain about their sweeping loss of parking spaces and charge that the city slapped down the paths without community consultation.
“You put a ‘no stopping’ in front of that building, schools cannot pick up or discharge children,” said Rabbi David Niederman, the president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg. “Residents and the neighbors can’t find parking.”
On that drizzly Wednesday morning, the bikers in neon-colored circus garb barreled southbound down the newly designated bike lanes along Kent Avenue, representing the environmental activist group Time’s Up! Bicycle Clowns, who are engaging in a “Love Your Bike Lane” Campaign. As the bikers came across parked vehicles in their path, the scantily-helmeted entourage would orchestrate a slow-motion smash into the car’s rear, then collapse into a scraggly and dramatic mess on the pavement. Unable to budge an 18-wheeler, however, they looped yellow tape all over the truck’s backside, while a boom box strapped to one of the bikes blasted oldies hits.
“We need to have something flamboyant,” said Time-Up volunteer Ben Shepard, eager to show motorists that they can’t block a biker’s rightful path. “So we use theater.”
But the local populace isn’t necessarily enjoying the show.
“This is what they are, clowns,” said Satmar resident Joe Berger, who spoke to The Jewish Week from the window of his minivan. “What is the law here?”
Living under the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, community members say they have few alternatives to car transportation, and they continue to protest the Department of Transportation’s decision to plant paths along either side of the Satmar main street. At the end of October, when DOT finished designating the lanes and accompanying “no stopping” signs, they instantly eliminated hundreds of parking spaces and put a strain on local businesses, residents claim.
“I don’t understand why they protest — we have nothing against bikers. We wouldn’t mind if both bike lanes existed, as long as they were on one side of the street,” said Mark Miller, a resident of Schaefer Landing, the low-income high-rise along Kent Avenue that houses many Satmar families. Miller is frustrated that he now has to park far away from his home. “It’s not a chasidic issue, it’s not an environmental issue. If they want to give us parking then I’m fine with the bike lanes,” he said.
While some media reports suggest that community members object to the lanes due to the tight-fitting clothing of many cyclists, Satmar spokesmen insist that their complaints hinge solely upon business and parking concerns. The New York Post’s September headline “Hasid Lust Causes Culture Clash over Sexy Cyclists” and accompanying article that pits the chasids against “the hotties” took neighborhood sentiments completely out of proportion, according to Rabbi Niederman.
Satmar residents said they are worried most about the safety of their children. Due to the bike lanes, they argue, their children may now walk in the paths of speeding cyclists and can no longer be dropped off by buses in most spots along the new lanes. Meanwhile, they said, bikers tend to disregard many of the traffic laws they are required to observe, with many ignoring flashing school bus lights.
“They drive without helmets; they drive without the front and back lights,” added community activist Isaac Abraham, who is running for City Council and contends that bikers should be paying taxes and insurance premiums, just like drivers. His own wife was recently knocked unconscious for two days due to a pedestrian collision with an oncoming biker. “If they want to share, let’s not just share the street, let’s share everything,” he said.
The chasidic community feels that city government inappropriately disregarded the local residents in a decision that would impact their daily lives. Local politicians remain divided on the issues at hand but generally agree that the community should have a more prominent voice in such important resolutions.
“Numerous studies show that the presence of bike lanes actually increases safety in the sense that drivers are reminded that there is another presence on the street,” said Teresa Toro, chair of the Community Board 1 transportation committee. Yet according to Toro, the committee had no idea that DOT would be planting “no stopping” signs in the lanes. “The moment your foot taps the brake you are breaking the law.”
“Three-hundred parking spaces evaporated overnight,” said Jake Maguire, spokesman for City Council member David Yassky (D–Williamsburg).
On Dec. 5, Yassky was among several local politicians who signed a letter to DOT Commissioner Joseph Palmieri, protesting the current state of the lanes and requesting community involvement in the plans.
Satmar resident Mark Miller is pushing to move the two lanes onto one side of the street to open up parking on the opposite side and reinstate half of the lost spaces. Another option would be removing the southbound lane from Kent Avenue because a southbound bike lane already exists on the parallel street, Wythe Avenue, according to Yassky’s office. Leo Moskowitz, who lives in Schaefer Landing, suggested that the bike lanes could function during daylight hours but should be open for parking at night, when cycling would be dangerous anyway.
Yet in addition to parking and safety issues, residents complain that businesses have seen losses because customers can no longer park near local shops, according to Simon Weisser, a Satmar representative on Community Board 1.
“Maybe you can market to the bicyclers,” proposed Shepard from the Time-Up bicycle clowns. “Bicyclers have cash and disposable income — I wanted a cup of coffee that morning.”
Shepard feels that the Satmar residents should not take the bike lane implantation so personally, but he says that such emotional reactions are certainly not limited to the chasidic community. Along Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, for example, he has faced protesters who called bike lanes there “anti-gay” and others who claimed those in Little Italy to be anti-Italian.
“Someone at a community board meeting [in Chelsea] said, ‘I hate to point this out, but bike lanes don’t have a sexual orientation,’” Shepard said.
“Drivers feel entitled to the whole road. They don’t like competing with anyone for the street, and my concern is that if you remove a bike lane, the presence or absence of a bike lane is not going to influence whether or not a cyclist takes a particular street,” said Toro, pointing out that bike riders were using Kent Avenue long before the lanes appeared. And if the lanes are removed, she fears for the cyclists’ safety.
“I worry that it’s going to be open season on bicyclists.”