By Bill Parry
When Gelasio Reyes was struck and killed by a drunk driver at the intersection of 43rd Avenue and 39th Street in Sunnyside in April 2017, it set off a chain of events rarely seen in the tight-knit neighborhood. Twelve days later, City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) spoke at a rally for the 32-year-old father of three and a second cyclist who was critically injured at the same intersection just days later.
“This is not a Vision Zero success story,” Van Bramer said at the time. “We’ve had one man killed here and now another man is fighting for his life. We need DOT to immediately conduct a serious, comprehensive study. It has to be made safer right away. We can’t wait months or years.” Standing next to Reyes’ widow Flor Jiminez, Van Bramer demanded a protected bike lane be built on 43rd Street from Queens Boulevard to Roosevelt Avenue.
“For me, the most important duty as an elected official is to protect lives. Each time someone dies in a crash on our streets, it must be our duty to respond and improve safety,” Van Bramer said Tuesday in a statement provided exclusively to TimesLedger Newspapers. .“After Gelacio Reyes was killed, I called for a protected bike lane on 43rd Avenue. I continue to believe a protected bike lane would make this street safer. To be clear, I support a protected bike lane on 43rd Avenue.”
In November the city Department of Transportation unveiled its plans for protected bike lanes on 43rd Avenue and Skillman Avenue that would eliminate 158 parking spaces in the neighborhood. Small business owners slammed the plan immediately, saying such parking losses would destroy the neighborhoods economy.
“DOT’s initial community outreach, including a meeting with PS 11 parents, was disastrous, making the process even more painful. I wanted to have a meaningful period of community engagement so all could be heard and no could say anything was rushed,” Van Bramer said. “And we had that process, often difficult, and sometimes ugly. But we had it.”
After a contentious town hall meeting, a workshop and numerous community board meetings that pitted Sunnyside residents against cyclist groups and safe streets advocates, the DOT revised the plan twice and Community Board 2 voted against the proposal by a vote of 27-8 earlier this month.
“I reject the vilification of cyclists and I believe bike lanes make the streets safer for everyone — cyclists, motorists and pedestrians,” Van Bramer said. “Many residents in the community, new and old, believe the proposed safety improvements would be a welcome addition. We are a community of neighbors — and everyone’s opinions matters — whether you’ve been here six months or 60 years. But the DOT’s plan, while changed a few times, still failed to gain enough support among residents, community institutions, elected officials and Community Board 2.”
Now the neighborhood awaits the city’s next move. On his weekly radio interview on WNYC last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “I have no problem saying when we’ve come to the judgment that it’s about safety, that even if there is opposition or concern, we’re going to make that judgment in the name of protecting lives.”
Van Bramer remains committed to what he said as he stood next to Reyes’ widow, a protected bike lane on 43rd Avenue.
“But I don’t believe we can move forward with this DOT plan at this time. I urge all of us to listen to each other, respect our differing viewpoints and, above all else, put the safety of each other first,” Van Bramer said. “The quest for safer streets must continue and what has emerged from this process is apparent near unanimity among opponents of this plan for a protected bike lane on Northern Boulevard in CB2. That’s some progress, but I hope we can continue to do more to build even more support for comprehensive street safety measures, including protected bike lanes.”
The DOT looked at the option of a two-way protected bike lane on 43rd Avenue only, but they determined that this alternative would not work for several reason.
“Adding another direction of bike traffic on 43rd Avenue would increase the number of conflict points between drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, who would not expect to see cyclists coming in the opposite direction” a DOT spokesman said. ““In order to make the space for a two-way path, a travel lane would have to be removed for the majority of the corridor and signal timing would have to be modified to include dedicated turn phases, resulting in increased time delays.”
The alternate design would switch all of the parking burden from Skillman Avenue to 43rd Avenue, meaning there would likely be just as much parking loss.
“Finally, if we were to remove Skillman Avenue from the project, there would be no traffic calming elements along that corridor, including the shortened pedestrian crossings that are part of the current proposal — traffic calming elements that the community has requested from DOT for several years,” the spokesman said.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr