Since I’ve spent the last couple of days pounding the O’Toole/Kotkin/Cox trifecta pretty hard, I figured it was time for a left-wing target: bike lanes. To be honest, I’ve always been a little annoyed with the bike wing of the urbanist lobby, but it was this article in Streetsblog, “How Ad Dollars Help Explain the Media’s Bike Backlash,” that pushed me over the edge. An excerpt:
Now national media outlets have picked up the bike lane story, tucking it inside the parallel narrative of a trumped-up “war on cars”. In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, humorist P.J. O’Rourke, who often waxes nostalgic about the masculinity of the lost muscle car culture, derides cyclists as antiquated relics relying on a dead technology, as silly children playing in the streets who somehow represent an existential threat to “innocent motorists” in two-ton vehicles, and, of course, as pawns in an Orwellian plot by the Department of Transportation to enslave us all. O’Rourke and Wall Street Journal prefer that most Americans are instead enslaved by auto lenders.
O’Rourke’s piece cannot be seen as a simple appeal to libertarian readers of the conservative paper of record; it must also be seen as desperate bid to retain the love of the automakers, who keep the wheels of the presses rolling, and who are appropriately frightened of the prospect of a transportation system that gives more people more choices in getting around.
Could it be that the bike lobby actually has alienated the rest of America (and even New York), playing into stereotypes (Stuff White People Like #61) of spandex-wearing, pasty-legged effete liberals who think that the bicycle is a reasonable tool for, say, intra-Brooklyn house moves? No, says Streetsblog – it must be some sort of advertiser-driven conspiracy. (Does The New Yorker even have an auto section? How many car ads are there in the latest issue?) This article is of course absurd, but I think it’s a symptom of the way that many bike advocates lionize their preferred mode of transit, perhaps unknowingly prioritizing it above even other non-automobile modes.
Don’t get me wrong – I have no problem with bikes, and even bike lanes. I’ve seen the stats on the Prospect Park West lane, about how it’s improved safety without slowing down auto commutes, and I don’t doubt it for a second. But as much as we wish it weren’t so, political capital is an exhaustible resource, and only so many reforms can be made before voters and citizens start to punish the politicians making them. Janette Sadik-Khan is, realistically, only allowed to anger so many people by changes to the status quo – every bike lane she stripes is a Select Bus Service route that won’t be implemented, a Haitian dollar van driver who will be fined and imprisoned, an outer-borough resident who won’t be able to catch a cab because of the medallion system. The fundamental problem, in my opinion, is that bike lanes are very culturally-loaded, and the anger they produce – which translates directly into other projects being shot down – is out of proportion with their benefits.
Clearly the bike lanes have generated a lot of rage, even more so than other recent DOT projects – JSK isn’t the psycho SBS lady, she’s the psycho bike lady. But JSK and the administration have gone to the mat for bike lanes, so people take out their anger on the projects they can control and obstruct. The successful opposition to the 34th St. physically separated bus lanes seemed to me to be mostly inspired by rage about JSK’s other street modifications (of which bike lanes get the most press), and one opponent of the rejected pop-up cafes in lower Manhattan explicitly made the connection to bike lanes:
Asked why she was repeatedly voting against the pop-up cafe applications, board member Rocio Sanz, co-owner of Tio Pepe restaurant on W. Fourth St., said she and her husband, Jimmy Sanz, dislike all the bicycle lanes that have been added to the streets under D.O.T. Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.
Of course this is a total non-sequitur and this woman and her husband should obviously never been let within 10 miles of a governing position, but this is the political system we’re stuck with. Some might argue that it’s not really about the bike lanes, that they’re just a proxy for America’s general urban renaissance and the dislocations it’s creating. And surely in the absence of bike lanes some of the rage would have been redirected at other projects, but I can’t shake the feeling that Bloomberg and JSK are losing the daily media battles over something that’s ultimately not really that big of a transportation improvement. Everyone likes to marvel over the huge bike parking garages in Amsterdam and red light kickstands in Copenhagen, but I think Matt Yglesias is right when he says that simply allowing dense development (and narrower road lanes) is the only way to encourage biking, and everything else is just window dressing and small frills in comparison
In other words, JSK, Bloomberg, and everyone else claiming to represent all alternatives to the car might want to spend a little less time thinking about bikes and a little more time thinking about things that don’t piss Andrea Peyser off as much.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m have to go now to and run over some toddlers on trikes with my Jaguar on my way to dinner downtown. And god help any cyclists I see if there’s a bike lane in my free parking spot!