Cyclists Versus the Bureaucracy: Public Participation within Midtown, Manhattan

A New Yorker’s daily commute can be quite hectic, no matter what mode of transportation is taken. To cope, the city has been working to make the most efficient roads as possible. Although making roads safe for all types of transportation seems like a fundamental right, it is not always that way. In terms of the fifth avenue bus lane proposition, the city is not thinking of the greater good for all transportation, rather it is just improving bus traffic (Meyer, 2017). Using Midtown’s community board, located in lower Manhattan, it is evident that the proposed implementation of the fifth avenue double bus lane displays the role that the “ladder of participation” plays in citizen participation through the concepts of codes and social capital within the context of communication (Arnstein, 1969).

Fifth avenue serves as a major artery within the Manhattan. The large retail and commercial business presence alone the avenue allows for heavy foot traffic as well as many tourists (, 2017). Although data displays fifth avenue area as being mostly bus traffic, many bicyclists are beginning to speak out of their apparent unsafety in the area. Technically speaking, the lack of bike lanes above twenty-sixth street are making the roads a dangerous place to be for cyclists of Midtown (Meyer, 2017). The Department of Transportation argues that the implementation of the double bus structure has worked in the past in areas such as Madison Avenue ( Although many cyclists agree to have safe roads in all aspects of traffic, many feel as if they are feeling marginalized and ignored, which is why there have been many demonstrations (Meyer, 2017). In this past October, cyclists of the city banded together to form a “human protected bike lane” stretching between fiftieth and forty-fourth street along fifth avenue. The demonstration has pushed the Department of Transportation to face the issue more seriously, and make loose promises in regards to bike lanes in the future (Meyer, 2017).

The debate has heeded a large divide within the community and can be observed in the community board meeting of Midtown’s fifth district. The area is make up of people ranging from twenty-five to thirty-four years of age, similarly to the demographics of New York city as a county (US Census Bureau, 2010, T7). Since the residents of the area are within the average age of the entire city, the public participation within the group was high. The homogeneity of age aided conversation, but not enough. Although the attendees were all a part of the same community, there was an obvious tilt in power dynamics (Observation, October 2017). In these situations, it is often that there has been “little effort to examine culture and power in face-to-face communication” (Briggs, 2006). Within the first 15 minutes of Midtown’s board meeting, a man adorned in full cyclist gear yelled “We can’t hear you… louder!” at the board leader. This encounter was followed shortly after by a man in a navy slim cut suit yelling “Hey, be nice!” (Fieldnotes, 2017). The code confusion between these two men is best described as what is bound to happen when a heterogeneous group comes together without fully understanding each other. This confusion is an instance where a small interaction may speak for the larger power dynamics at work within the board meeting (Briggs, 2006).

To put things into scale, Midtown’s residents are some of the wealthiest. In this case, data shows that average Midtown Manhattan resident pays $3,000 or more on rent, while on the Upper East Side in census tract 120, the stats are the same (US Census Bureau, 2015, T236). While the income level affects the dynamics in public participation, it is not for the best. The dichotomy between democracy and the bureaucracy is a tension filled one (Briggs, 2006). Since the codes in which many of the participants seem to follow are economic rank based, this fine line between participation and overstepping the boundary as a participant is clear. While these professionals attempt to follow their codes, the residents that do not get as much attention, the cyclists, affect the dynamics of the meeting (Fieldnotes, 2017).

Similarly, the advancements of the allotted involvement within the meeting affects participation. The “ladder of participation” that covers all different levels of public and government participation partnerships displays how the community board has actually had the chance to affect policy (Arnstein, 1969). In this case, Midtown’s board allowed for speakers from any identity within the community, to voice their opinions on the fifth avenue bus lanes. While many cyclists spoke up for their community, they were shorty later shut down by the speakers for the Department of Transportation (Observation, October 2017). Their allowance for hearing out the other side puts them at a “placation” rank on Arnstein’s 1969 ladder. Although this ranking is a good step for the role that participation has in the community, it was affected by the power relations within the community. When speakers of other organizations would disregard the cyclists’ arguments, the cyclists threw their hands up holding flyers stating “No safety? No Plan.” (Observation, October 2017). Their lack of impact on the meeting’s proceedings displays how the “window-dressing ritual” is in effect (Arnstein, 1969). They are seen as statistics pf participation rather than citizens with voices.

In a larger social context, the reality of public participation in the twenty-first century is dwindling. Statistics show that “since 1973 the number of Americans who report that “in the past year” they have attended a public meeting on town of school affairs has fallen more than a third” (Putnam, 2000). Part of the cause of this large social change has been the inability of global, cities such as New York, to adapt to the growingly diverse community. Due to the lack of faith in government it seems as if many citizens have given up (Putnam, 2000). There is no doubt that this attitude is partially due to the lack of control that the public has in their own communities. In reference to the fifth avenue bus lanes, the actual population who has rallied together for a cause is not taken into account when voting. Instead the board listens to the Department of Transportation discuss how they have to prioritize the transportation of busses first (Observation, October 2017). While the tension is a disappointing sight to witness, the cyclists’ army of at least 30 people there to support their cause was rather refreshing. It is possible that the rise in distrust in government and the rise of young people getting involved with their governments will amount to greater participation, such as in Midtown, so that the local governments of these communities will allow for actual changes to occur (Rowe and Frewer, 2004).

In addition, the idea of the “right to a city” impacts the overall identity of each public participant (Jonas, A.G., McCann, E., & Thomas, M., 2015). This idea can be seen through the shift in income in the area at question. In the case of Midtown Manhattan, over the past decade, the community has shifted to become a more affluent once. Adjusted for inflation, the percent of households in Midtown that make $125,000 or more has increased by 3.9% from 2009 to 2015 (US Census Bureau, 2009, 2015, T56). The shift has affected the way that the community board operates. The meeting was set at a private school that had no signs welcoming the public. Due to that lack of publication, it seemed as if the community could have done more to rally participation. This may be why the majority of the non-cyclists there were people working for a government official, or some of the more affluent dwellers with something at stake (Fieldnotes, 2017).

The main issue is that although participation within Midtown is occurring, the local government is choosing to not hear all opinions of the community. By giving a false sense of fulfillment by allowing people to sign up to speak, but to not take these opinions into account, they are systematically limiting the effects of public participation.  To solve this issue, the first thing to look at is the Department of Transportation. Currently, the DOT does know about the cyclists’ fight for a 5th avenue bike lane and they have tweeted on the issue saying that bike safety is an ongoing battle (nyc dot, 2017). The solution for this problem begins with two large ideas. First, big steps need to be taken to improve bike safety in Manhattan. It may be beneficial to fix America’s Surface Transportation Act that covers pedestrian and cyclist safety, but the movement is not proactive in this cause (Han, 2016). By taking the steps to keep Manhattan safe on a local level seems to be the answer. The protected bike lanes within New York have reduced crash related injuries by 17% (, 2014). Secondly, for the larger issue within the community’s rank on the “ladder of participation”, the locals within the community need to band together as they have started to, before seeing a change (Arnstein, 1969). The human bike lane triggered the DOT to send out a message; this is the start to change within a community based on the citizen’s request. Although it took time and effort, by coming together and voicing their opinions, Midtown’s inhabitants can creep up the ladder and eventually have a direct say in what occurs within their local government.



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