As a native of the neighborhood at the center of the bicycle lane controversy now tearing apart the New York intelligentsia, I have watched the drama unfold with conflicted bemusement.
On the left side, lined up behind the celebrity Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan are policy wonks, often non-New Yorkers or relatively new arrivals Aaron Naparstek, Adam Sternbergh, Ezra Klein, Felix Salmon, Paul Krugman, Christopher Leinberger, Ryan Avent, Hendrik Hertzberg). On the center-left, a generally late middle-aged coterie of longtime New Yorkers (former Transportation Secretary Iris Weinshall, The New York Times, Rep Anthony Weiner (D-NY), John Cassidy of The New Yorker.
Even though the former group includes friends, sources and heroes of mine, and I’ve written favorably about smart growth, placemaking, alternative transportation and urbanism, I find myself emotionally torn. Not intellectually torn, mind you. The actual arguments advanced by bike lane critics such as Cassidy are wholly unpersuasive.
Sadik-Khan has embarked on an effort to remake New York’s streets to provide more space, and safer spaces, for walking, sitting and bicycling rather than maximizing the space available to automobiles. She has attracted controversy for doing so in high-profile locations such as Broadway and, most recently, Prospect Park West in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Weinshall, her predecessor, is connected to a group of area residents challenging the nine-month old Prospect Park West bike lane in court. Cassidy weighed in to cheer Weinshall and lambaste the scourge of new bike lanes.
Cassidy’s primary complaint — that bike lanes take space away from driving or parking cars, making it harder to use a car in the city — is self-defeating. Taking away space from cars is precisely the point. Slower traffic is often an end unto itself, as it makes for safer pedestrian crossings. Sadik-Khan has enacted other programs besides bike lanes, such as creating a pedestrian island in Madison Square that are meant to reclaim the city’s streets for non-drivers. The purpose of all these measures is to de-incentivize driving, which exacts social costs in lost public space and increased emissions. To complain that it does so is to miss the point the entirely.
Cassidy’s other complaint, which is echoed in the Times’ coverage, that Sadik-Khan’s efforts are a “bureaucratic diktat” is less confused, but almost as absurd. In a representative democracy the elected mayor will appoint a commissioner who will make bureaucratic changes to advance the policy agenda he campaigned on. To call it a bureaucratic diktat is both accurate and ad hominem. The language makes something perfectly normal and appropriate sound like a pernicious power grab. One might argue that Bloomberg’s democratic legitimacy is suspect since he changed the rules to allow him to run for a third term and outspent his opponent by obscene margins to narrowly win re-election. I raised questions about that, and Bloomberg’s autocratic style, back in 2009. If John Cassidy had a problem with bicycle lanes or the Bloomberg administration’s approach to governance he should have said so back then, when Bloomberg’s agenda was before the voters. Now that Bloomberg has had his policies and management style ratified by a majority of voting New Yorkers, complaints that he or his appointees lack democratic legitimacy are rubbish.
But, when critics such as Leinberger denigrate all criticism of Sadik-Khan as sexist, it becomes apparent that they simply do not understand the perspective of many longtime New Yorkers. There is an inchoate sense among many — though by no means all, nor perhaps even a majority — that bicycling has been elevated by a band of self-righteous newcomers above all other lifestyle choices, even those, such as walking, that are equally carbon-free. Plenty of people have lived in the city for many years without depending on a car nor a bicycle. They walk, take the subway and sometimes use buses or cabs. Those who are now over, say, 60 years old, are particularly unlikely to start bicycling as their primary mode of transport. Meanwhile, twenty-somethings today use bicycles in ways that we never would have imagined back when biking was a way to spend a Saturday afternoon, more akin to playing basketball than taking the subway. They bike to work, they bike out to bars and then they bike back in the middle of the night. And they love to tell you how great biking is: how you should get a bike too and how Bed-Stuy really isn’t so inconvenient because you just need to bike a few miles to get places.
As best I can remember bicyclists starting marking their territory about 20 years ago, when intense men in spandex started roaring through Prospect Park on expensive looking bicycles. Their arrival correlated to a shift in the neighborhood’s population, from hippie to yuppie, and the bikers were an occasional source of irritation to many of us. Around that time I was, at the age of seven or eight, run over by a man on a bicycle. Even being so young, I could recognize the white, bespectacled and agitated bicyclist as a member of the aggressive species beginning to colonize the bike lane of the Prospect Park ring road with bellowing shouts of “on your left” as you sauntered to the Meadow.
Today’s bicycle advocates, with their retro fixed gears, are a mellower sort. But much like their Cannondale riding forebears their attitude is post-suburban: “Look at me, I don’t drive a car because I ride a bicycle! I’m morally superior so get out of my way!” But plenty of us do not ride bikes nor drive cars. And so it is a real cultural reaction among some longtime New Yorkers, not just sexism or NIMBYism, though NIMBYism is certainly at play, to resent the bicycle madness. People fear being run over by bicyclists: a danger which seems more apparent with a bike lane running alongside the sidewalk, even if it is actually less likely because you can more easily see bikes coming. (Transportation Alternatives cites data showing streets with bike lanes are safer for pedestrians as well as bicyclists). Some people may find walking along a moving lane of bikes less pleasant than walking along a lane of parked cars. Delivery trucks and taxis making drop offs and pick ups are now stuck out in the middle of the road, because they cannot encroach on the bike lane, and that may create hassles or dangers.
None of those quibbles is meant to suggest that bike lanes are not on balance a good addition to New York’s streets. In general, the argument advanced by the bicycle advocates — that New York’s traffic and parking problems cannot be fixed on the supply side and therefore must be attacked by reducing demand through alternatives to driving — is correct. On the specifics of Prospect Park West, only data, not anecdote or argument, can show whether pedestrians are more or less likely to be run over by bicycles, or cars. (Recognizing this, the complainants are alleging that the DOT data showing decreased accident rates is inaccurate). And even a slight increase in accidents of any given type would need to weighed against other benefits.
There is no doubt in my mind that the duly elected mayor and his commissioner have the right to do everything within their statutory authority to expand bike lanes. The current whiners, many of whom supported Mike Bloomberg in 2009, can vote for someone who pledges to do the opposite in 2013.
But I do wish that my friends in the pro-bicycle movement could understand, rather than dismiss, the feelings of some longtime residents. Whatever their merits as policy, it may prove to be a real political problem, and if it results in, say, an anti-bike candidate like Anthony Weiner becoming the next mayor, it may damage their worthy cause.
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.