By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — Some Upper West Side fire officials are speaking out about their fears that new Columbus Avenue bike lanes could hurt their ability to fight fires, but the FDNY's top brass says the lanes aren't causing problems.
Dan Murphy, a 25-year firefighter with Engine Company 74 at Columbus Avenue and West 83rd Street, said he has "serious concerns" about the lanes, which run from West 96th Street to West 77th Street.
As a result of the street's redesign, a line of parked cars, a buffer lane and a bike lane now separate fire trucks from the curb. That means firefighters' aerial ladders might not be able to reach as far as they need to, Murphy said.
"The fire apparatus is basically triple parked," said Murphy, the Uniformed Firefighters Association Manhattan trustee. "It'll be harder to reach certain floors. Eventually somebody's not going to be able to reach a floor because of the position of the rig and someone's going to get killed. I'm not saying it's going to happen next week, but it could happen down the line."
Murphy said he's also concerned that fire vehicles have to approach hydrants at odd angles now, which could cause delays in getting water to a fire.
The concern was echoed by another FDNY official in the neighborhood, who told Community Board 7 leaders at an October meeting that the bike lanes had created a "small increase" in response times, according to meeting minutes.
At a September Community Board meeting, department heads from DOT and FDNY discussed concerns that "FDNY is having a problem with access to (the) curb lane when there are parked cars on the floating lane," according to the meeting's minutes. The "floating lane" is the row of parked cars that runs alongside the bike lane, providing cyclists with protection from moving traffic.
But FDNY headquarters said there was no evidence to support the claims.
The department doesn't track response times on a neighborhood level, but response times citywide for the first 10 months of 2010 were better than they were last year, said FDNY spokesman Frank Dwyer. The northern stretch of Columbus Avenue bike lanes were installed in late August.
Firefighters this year arrived on average two seconds faster than they did in 2009, Dwyer said.
"Overall, we're getting to fires faster and better than we ever have before," Dwyer added.
Dwyer said he couldn't comment on anecdotal remarks made by neighborhood fire officials.
But he said that the FDNY had closely monitored the design of the city's new bike lanes, which were part of a larger street redesign that added pedestrian islands, planters and turn lanes to Columbus Avenue.
The FDNY reviewed the plans for the reconfigured street and suggested changes, which the Department of Transportation made, Dwyer said.
"Our number one concern is public safety, so we would raise any concern we had," Dwyer said. "Things wouldn't go forward if we weren't on the same page."
Officials from the Department of Transportation also disputed the idea that the lanes hampered firefighters' ability to fight fires.
"Like protected lanes elsewhere in the city, this bike lane is specifically designed to accommodate emergency vehicles and provide direct, unobstructed access to the curb, whether or not vehicles are parked in the floating lane," DOT spokesman Monty Dean wrote in an e-mail, explaining that the bike lanes were wide enough to accommodate fire trucks, which could enter the lane at the beginning of the block.
Cyclists have hailed the new lanes as a vast safety improvement that would encourage more people to use bikes to get around the city. They say the redesigned street will lead to fewer accidents — not just for cyclists, but for pedestrians and drivers too.
Lisa Sladkus of Upper West Side Streets Renaissance recently told Community Board 7 the reconfigured Columbus Avenue was the same design that's been successful in Chelsea, where there had been a 56 percent reduction in traffic-related injuries since bike lanes went in on Ninth Avenue.