Aaaand the bike lobby finally descends into self-parody…

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!

  • David Sucher

    Surely you jest.

  • Adam

    Of course he is. He probably just got the Jag detailed, he’d never want to mess it up with trike scratches.

    I think Steve does have a point here, which is about forcing particular solutions rather than establishing a level playing field. If he’ll excuse the amateur psychology, I’m guessing it comes from his (libertarian) preference for system-level fixes that allow the market to make the call. ie he is happy to see higher bike use happen as an emergent property of liberalizing urban planning regulations, but having the government lay out a specific track through the city for bikes triggers the same “can’t individuals choose” switch in his head as laying out a new freeway.

  • Stephen

    Yeah, I knew this one wasn’t going to make me any friends.

  • David desJardins

    OK, I just totally don’t get it. How does striping bike lanes reduce the availability of cabs? This makes no sense to me, am I missing something or is it a complete non sequitur?

  • J B

    I think his point is that Bloomberg is wasting political capital on something that will have very small benefits, when he could be spending it on things that would be much more beneficial for urbanism.

  • Stephen

    It takes political will and capital to stripe bikelanes, and it takes political will and capital to deregulate outer-borough taxis (Bloomberg’s suggestion, which as far as I can tell was never pushed very hard, was to allow non-medallion livery cars to pick people up on the street outside Manhattan). Maybe that and the dollar vans weren’t the best example, but I do very much think that without the backlash that the bike lanes inspired, the 34th St. Transitway and the SoHo pop-up cafes might might not have failed.

  • Sid Burgess

    The key is anger. I don’t mind anger, but like was well put here, you only get to use so much of it and for so long. There is a sense of fatigue in the old arguments when they continue to be presented in a 1960’s rally fashion. That doesn’t mean the arguments are not valid, just diminished in their effectiveness. Thanks for putting ink to paper part of the problem with our alternative transportation ‘revolution’.

  • Sid Burgess

    As a side perspective, Cap’n Transit makes a solid point that indeed, they consider this a “war” that was thrust upon them.

  • epar

    I don’t understand why you think that “simply” allowing more density and narrower streets would cause any less political backlash than creating bike lanes. By your own logic that would encourage biking more than just creating lanes, but the source of the controversy to begin with is encouraging biking. Plus proposing more density would bring other criticism besides just the presence of more cyclists.

  • Pingback: NYC’s backlash against the bicycle « Quotulatiousness()

  • David Sucher

    Consider “proportionality.”

    If one does, the minuscule efforts for bikes versus what is done for cars makes anti-bike talk ludicrous. Preposterous. A product of adult infantilism. e.g. the guy in in the NYT with the Jaguar who wants to dinner in Mnhattan. Tierney?

  • David Sucher

    What’s an example of “much more beneficial for urbanism.”

  • Mario

    The point that density is sufficient to generate bicycle infrastructure is disproven by very dense cities without it. The truth is that Copenhagen made a concerted effort starting in the 60 and without it, it is not likely that it would have reached the cycling mode share it has today.

  • Alon Levy

    Fair enough… but it’s more complicated. In the polls, voters tend to be positive toward the bike lanes. The people who tend to hate them are various entitled, overrepresented minorities of drivers. To a first approximation, JSK looks unpopular for the same reason third-world cities like Kuala Lumpur and Mumbai have land use regulations that encourage auto use and suburbanization: in both cases, the minority of drivers uses its wealth and political power to control the government and such elite instruments as the media. The only reason New York’s reforming at all is that Bloomberg used his money to elbow his way into politics, controlling City Hall but not the various centers of clout in the city. Put another way: if Bloomberg and JSK represent gentrification and displacement, the people who lead the charges against them represent entrenched interests and postwar-era suburbanism.

  • MarketUrbanism

    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!

    Funny. It’s actually the bicyclists along the shore in Brooklyn who yell at me and my toddler when I let him run around on the promenade without a leash. Why are they angry at us? I’m stumped, but maybe they ride bikes to pick fights with dads and kids instead of going to bars to fight with drunks. Indeed, a healthy alternative for rage-aholics.

    I try not to generalize, but there are a lot of cyclists (I’m sure a small overall percentage of all of them) with rage issues and a sense of entitlement that I have trouble empathizing with. This may be part of why politicians fear them, but there is plenty of backlash from the non-bike public for proposing bike lanes.

  • Anonymous

    I’m all for elegant market-based solutions, but this is one where it’s difficult to imagine how that would work. We’ve got a thousand non-market-based laws governing traffic and road design already– bike lanes are just one more.

  • Stephen

    I think that as it is, it’s very difficult to ride a bike in New York, so it attracts an aggressive sort of personality. (It must be really confusing for people watching Stephen Smith interact with Market Urbanism…)

  • Stephen

    Yeah, I’m with you on this one – I’m not sure that Adam (who, confusingly enough, is not the Adam that founded this blog [who posts in the comments with the name “Market Urbanism”]) really got my position right. I realize that bike lanes are virtually impossible to price, and if they did exist in a free market they would be freely provided by whoever owned the roads as a way to drum up business for the surrounding properties that they theoretically also would own.

    But as it is now, we’re so far off from that that I’m okay with letting the government decide where bike lanes need to be. Like I said, my position isn’t that I’m opposed to bike lanes, just that the current political environment, at least in NYC, makes them more trouble than they’re worth.

  • Stephen

    Select Bus Service and the 34th St. Transitway, to name two other DOT projects.

  • Simon

    So your basic point is that bike lanes are good, but use up political capital that could be spent on something better. In other words this is an argument about political tactics.

    But your favourite libertarian policies don’t seem to be subjected to this greater bang-for-political-capital-buck analysis. Removing zoning? Removing parking minimums? They require so much political capital, with such a long-term pay-off, that they would never survive your back-of-the-envelope political capital analysis.

  • Stephen

    That’s why I suggested the 34th St. Transitway and the SoHo pop-up cafes as alternatives, not massive upzonings and removal of parking minimums. (Actually, in the article I suggested deregulating outer borough dollar vans and taxis, but now I realize that those probably weren’t as realistic as the transitway and the cafes.)

  • X. Trapnel

    I really don’t see much if any evidence at the national level for the ‘fixed stock of political capital’ model of politics you’re using here, though I concede it’s more plausible at the municipal level, where relationships/networks/cronyism are more prominent. Still, I think Alon Levy’s point is worth stressing: isn’t the main reason it’s hard to do stuff with buses that *bus riders are poor* and have absolutely no political clout, period? Bikes-vs-cars is a fight between two different slices of privileged NYC.

  • Ben Fried

    Stephen, this is a pretty lazy post, starting with the way you use an essay by two authors with no professional connection to any bike advocacy groups as a stand-in for “the bike lobby.” (Who is “the bike lobby,” by the way? Bike manufacturers and retailers? Complete streets advocates? Any individual who thinks bicycling should be encouraged as a mode of transport?) You then use a little-viewed Streetfilm from three or four years ago to illustrate the shortcomings of bike advocates’ national communications strategy. Dude, you are better than this.

    Second, you have a poor read on the politics behind the gutting of the 34th Street transitway. The reason the separated busway got killed has little to do with JSK fatigue and much to do with midtown skyscraper moguls who had an aversion to disrupting curbside access to their properties. Real estate bigs are Bloomberg’s constituency. If they have a problem with something, he listens. At the same time, there was no vocal constituency of 34th Street bus riders demanding better service. You could fault DOT’s public outreach, I suppose, but it’s not really their job to do organizing work.

    Likewise, the SoHo troglodytes have been opposing pedestrian improvements since before JSK came on board, and they will do so after she’s gone. Their mission is to preserve Soho in the amber of its 1970s artist loft glory years, which basically translates into making the pedestrian environment as inhospitable as possible for all the tourists and shoppers who come to the neighborhood these days. That, and opposing the formation of a BID, which upset the fiefdom that the local NIMBY leaders currently rule over.

    Political capital is finite, sure, and Bloomberg has spent some of it on expanding the bike network. But the best public opinion data we have to go on shows that this has been a pretty popular move (54% of voters approve, according the latest Q poll), especially when you compare it to the mayor’s overall standing right now. While DOT has certainly pissed off some powerful people by building a bike lane in front of Chuck Schumer’s house, it seems to me that these projects are also growing the constituency for street reclamation and raising the public awareness of transportation reform as a political issue. (I also thinking biking is a good gateway issue to other transportation policy topics, like curbside pricing: More people riding bikes also means more people are interested in why there’s so much double-parking in the bike lane.) Hopefully the administration will be able to do the same with bus improvements as it carries out the next two SBS corridors in Brooklyn and Staten Island.

  • Simon

    Re the demographics – I’m pretty sure bike riders are strongly skewed towards the poor, although bike advocates are a different story.

  • Stephen

    Perhaps bike riders are, but bike riders in bike lanes I do not think are. Bike lanes tend to be put in white, wealthy areas.

  • Alon Levy

    Skyscraper moguls? I was under the impression that Bloomberg chose 34th precisely in order to appeal to the skyscraper moguls, but NIMBYs in Murray Hill decided BRT would be the end of the world. (And JSK in her infinite wisdom didn’t propose to move the buses to the median, which would be in line with best practice worldwide.)

    As far as I’ve heard on SAS, Brooklyn already has NIMBYism problems with the Nostrand BRT. Sheepshead Bay people are apparently shitting bricks over the loss of car capacity.

  • Ben Fried

    It’s true that a big reason they picked 34th Street in the first place is that the Midtown BID leaders are generally supportive of ambitious changes to street geometry favoring peds/transit. But in this case the biggest players who comprise the BID weren’t won over. Vornado, the Empire State Building owners, Macy’s (ok, they’re not skyscraper moguls, but they are a gigantic corporate entity) — they were against the busway, and their position carried much more weight than the screaming NIMBYs in Murray Hill. Also, my understanding is that they didn’t have sufficient width for a center median busway, otherwise they would have pursued it.

    Nostrand BRT will be a fight, but I think advocates have done some real organizing on the ground to mobilize support.

  • Adam

    Sure, and hopefully the purported psychoanalysis was taken as flippantly as it was written. The big systemic change here would be allowing narrower streets.

  • Anonymous

    “… and the anger they produce – which translates directly into other projects being shot down – is out of proportion with their benefits.”

    I won’t question your political observations, but when I look at the volume of traffic carried by bicycle routes in several denser European cities – using much less land and infrastructure than for autos, and with virtually no added emissions – I think the benefits of cycling for the entire city should not be under-estimated.

  • Craigs

    Copenhagen BLUDGEONED its car drivers off the road with massive taxes that TRIPLE the cost of a small car. Yes you pay 2 bucks in tax for every buck that actually buys the car.  This doesnt include the interest on the loan to pay the tax.  We wont go into the fuel taxes but suffice to say your gas bill will at least double.
    And THAT is the COPENHAGEN concerted effort and that is the reason that Danes bike.  They can no longer afford anything else.  Socialism prevails.  Tell that to the sp called Communist Chinese who are ditching their bikes as fast as they can afford.  China is now the number one consumer of cars in the world, surpassing even the USA.  Of course, even the Danes are wasting their time, since the fuel they are not burning is being sold to either the USA or China or India where it is being sequestered forever.  Right?