By Jill Colvin
MIDTOWN — The words "bike lane" and "pedestrian plaza" have become synonymous with controversy. But what about when the two stand side-by side?
A Midtown Business Improvement District, which helped to usher in the original Broadway plaza installation between East 37th and East 39th streets, is now warning that the placement of the pedestrian plaza right next to a bike lane poses a serious safety risk to pedestrians, and is urging the Department of Transportation to consider reconfiguring the stretch.
Today, pedestrians hoping to cross eastbound from the sidewalk on Broadway onto the pedestrian plaza in a center lane between 37th to 39st streets must run a dangerous gamut, wedged between a bike lane on one side and vehicular traffic on the other.
In order for pedestrians to access the tempting tables and chairs inside the plaza, they have to cross from the sidewalk over a curb-side bike lane, demarcated by green paint. But many of those stepping into the lane are unaware that they could be stepping into high-speed bike traffic, critics say.
"When you step off the curb, you're stepping into the bike lane. People don't realize it's a vehicular lane," said Fashion Center BID Director Barbara Randall, who said that people are too busy eying the chairs and tables on the plazas.
"People aren't looking [at the road]," she said, adding that there have been "plenty of near-hits" and misses in the area already.
Randall asked Community Board 5's Transportation Committee for its support in moving the lanes Monday night, arguing that both pedestrians and cyclists would be safer if the bike lane were relocated either to the other side of the pedestrian plazas, or placed against the opposite curb.
Right now, the lane to the west of the plazas is used as vehicle parking space and for cars to make left turns.
The spokesman for the DOT said the agency is aware of the BID's concerns with the current layout and will work with them to consider potential improvements.
But change appears to have already stalled.
BID Senior Project Manager Leigh Harvey told the committee that the department had previously drawn up two potential improvements for the stretch, but that plans had been shelved because of mounting criticism from those who oppose the DOT's bike lane and plaza rollouts.
In preliminary plans described by Harvey, the bike lane would have been moved and the pedestrian plazas would have been made wider, which she said would have allowed the BID to use the space to hold events to recoup some of money it spends to maintain the plazas, whose mostly 9-foot-wide stretches are so narrow that events are impossible to hold, she said.
A DOT representative said that she would share the plans with the committee at its next meeting in April so that they can consider whether to back a potential change.