Build Bike Parking and They Will Come

Last week New Yorkers witnessed another desperate play against cycling in the growing anti-bike fever gripping the fringes of New York, this time from real estate journalist Steve Cuozzo of the NY Post.

Citing haphazard, one-day numbers early in the bike season, Cuozzo attempted to prove that there is no demand for bike parking in commercial buildings.

Though his column appears more a ploy for eyeballs in a diminished news environment, the columnist’s conclusions were grossly non-factual–a condescension of intellect for most who know even just a little about numbers.

Meanwhile, across town, another more powerful real estate figure in New York quietly showed his support for cycling as a form of alternative transportation.

The sharp contrast between the two very public statements about cycling, one very con, the other very pro, exemplified how the fight for space on our city’s streets have become a battle between those who know what cycling is about, and those who don’t.

One man who seems to understand _the Bike_ and also has the name and the building to prove that he knows what he is doing, was Anthony Malkin, co-owner of the 102-story Art Deco, Empire State Building who announced  on March 28 that he would be building a 550-square foot, street level bike room for his tenants. It was the latest green move by the environmentally-correct commercial building co-owner.

Anthony Malkin, co-owner of the Empire State Building on MSNBC

“The world’s most famous office building needs to offer all amenities,” said Malkin through his press office.

A name recognized worldwide, the Empire State Building counts among some of its most famous moments its depiction in the 1933 film King Kong in which the character, a giant ape, climbs to the top and battles airplanes, eventually falling to his death.

The new bike space will be part of a $550 million dollar renovation and modernization of the iconic building, which will include several measures to convert the building to a more energy efficient standard, said a spokesperson for Malkin’s office.

“ESB is leading the charge in energy efficiency and is setting the groundwork for existing buildings around the world to follow suit,” wrote the company in a press release on March 28.

Malkin said his plans fell in line with Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s PlaNYC initiative to encourage more New Yorkers to bike to work to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In January, the building also signed a multi-year agreement with the Green Mountain Energy Company to purchase 100 percent renewable energy, becoming New York City’s largest commercial purchaser of green power.  Malkin can be seen talking  about how the Empire State Building retrofit is helping save the environment on MSNBC.

Malkin and his wife artist Shelly Malkin were honored for their leadership role in environmental issues at an April 15 event held for the Natural Resources Defense Council, where singer and songwriter Sheryl Crow also appeared, and where Ms. Malkin is a board member.

The environmental action group is well known for using the legal system to fight for change largely in environmental issues. Among it’s 350 lawyers, scientists and professionals, the group has been successful in blocking governmental and private actions that have a negative impact on the environment.

Though the building currently doesn’t offer showers for tenants, some tenants already have them said Malkin who also plans to house a fitness center in the building that will include facilities for tenants who join.

Hocus-Pocus, Numbers Schnumbers

While Malkin has committed to the Empire State bike room in anticipation of future use, Cuozzo tries to prove in his article entitled “Bike Lanes, Bike Lies,”  that only 0.03 percent of New York workers on April 14, want to bike to work.

But his numbers are nothing more than schnumbers.

Steve Cuozzo and his bike lane lies article

Last year the City Council passed several bike parking provisions one of which stipulated that bike rooms must be provided in commercial buildings, starting now with new developments, and allowing more time for existing large commercial buildings to allocate space, or provide garage alternatives for their tenants.

The city’s department of planning requires that 3 % of the building tenants be accommodated, a number that incidentally in future years will likely prove to be too low.

Cuozzo’s article continues along a growing chorus of bike ignorati, people who pretend to understand what cycling is, though probably haven’t ridden a bicycle since they grew a middle-aged gut. What’s more, his ideas, and those  of many other politicians in the city who loudly espouse their objections to bike lanes, show little comprehension of the cyclist’s mind, and what is needed to motivate someone to get on a bike and ride to work.

One good example of this was the objection to the Prospect Park West, two-way, protected bike lane by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz who told Cyclists International that he prefers the unprotected single lanes that are built next to car traffic. Those types of lanes were long ago proven to be not only unsafe, but not useable by most New York cyclists.

Currently many cyclists agree that riding in New York is neither safe or convenient and they do so despite the many dangers they face from aggressive drivers and pedestrians that step out in front of them against the light.

Anther reason that conditions are not what they should be, the bike lanes being put in are not being built concurrently, so riding in the city is still a conundrum of ill-connected bikeways, and leaving a good bike lane often means entering a dangerous side street where cyclists compete with cars for space. Poll any cyclist and they will know someone–or more than someone– who has died on the streets, been hit, or hit and injured.

What’s more, Cuozzo shows either a knack for tom foolery, or a lack of understanding of numbers. Using a smattering of information from the Real Estate Board of New York’s building managers on one day to gather “evidence” of cycling commuting, Cuozzo then used an average of square feet per building to estimate the number of people coming in per building.

But the information taken from 70 million square feet of commercial buildings on April 14, only represents a fraction of the 449 million square feet of space in Manhattan, and not all of it is occupied. On average, Manhattan is suffering from anywhere from 10 to 16 percent vacancy rates, and it is unclear what the actual average is for this small sample. That one missing factoid can swing the numbers wildly in any direction.

Next, given the square footage of his sample and adjusting for a conservative average of 13% vacancy, then his sample represents only 16.7% of Manhattan’s total commercial office space.

Further missing from Cuozzo’s “analysis” is an understanding of who bikes, who wants to bike, and how they do it.

First, REBNY’s poll used information on one day, April 14, when it was cool in the morning (when cyclists decide to ride,)  and was extremely windy, not good conditions for cycling.

Cuozzo and REBNY also failed to take into account seasoned bike riders who  take portable bikes into their offices by putting them in little bags, and taking them into their offices–thereby avoiding the building’s bike room.

Cuozzo also failed to detail the Class type of the buildings that were polled and how they were distributed in the sample.

Class A buildings are less likely to be amenable to cycling because professionals in well paid positions often have to appear at work in suits and dresses, a composition that can be quickly undone in one bike ride without the use of shower and changing facilities. Most office spaces in Manhattan do not have shower facilities.

Class B and C buildings that house creative companies with more casually dressed tenants are more likely to attract cyclists. Class B and C buildings were not as well represented in the snapshot said a spokesperson for REBNY.

Though it would be impossible to draw conclusions from this data without the raw data identifying each building’s tenants, their industries, dress codes, and potential for changing and showering at work, one thing we can do is re-estimate the so called demand for bike space using a more accurate sleight of hand than the number spoof we witnessed.

Adjusting for Class A space, we can assume that the majority of those buildings house workers and companies that have to dress carefully for work, and in some instances frown on the appearance of a “bike culture” among its well-heeled employees. This tendency is only a function of time, and with greater bike use, will eventually see some erosion. But currently, the social pressure to appear and smell good in an office environment makes the difference between cycling to work and not.

Assuming the majority of the 77 million square feet lack showers and changing facilities or have work environments that frown on casual dress and appearance, we can estimate that about 20 percent of the tenants–and this is an aggressive estimate–actually encourage cycling to work.

That leaves us with 15.4 M of a total of 449 M square feet of space.

Then adjusting again, conservatively for type of work and class of space, that leaves us again an aggressive estimate of 50% of that 20 percent with the potential for biking to work, or 7.2 million square feet.

Then we need to adjust for vacancy rates–they are higher in Class B and C buildings according to numbers recently reported by the Real Deal Magazine using Colliers research, and especially downtown where vacancy rates reach 16% in class C space–we can now say that on average, there was a 14 percent vacancy rate, leaving us with about 6.9 million square feet where someone might realistically be considering riding to work (on a cold and windy day).

Using Cuozzo’s formula of 250 square feet per employee, that leaves us with 27,600 employees who might be encouraged to ride to work by their employers and building managers.

The city’s request that buildings accommodate 3 percent of employees in each building comes out to 828 people. That number is a lot closer to the 300-odd count of bicycles the building managers saw in their designated bike rooms on that one, fairly cold, very windy day after one of the worst winters in memory.

The formula for a successful bike commuting city does not begin and end with one bike room or 10 or even 10,000. People will commute by bike once they feel safe doing so, have a place to shower and change, and have a safe place to put their bicycle.

It will also change when people like Cuozzo stop fearing the bike, and get on one. Being a convert to a whittled waist and a great feeling of freedom is just one positive step in the direction of embracing cycling in New York City.

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