Gut Check: New Yorkers Need to Speak Up For Bike Policy

Yesterday the Post came out with another attack on the ongoing evolution of New York into a city where transit works better, streets are safer, and people have better options for getting around. Using a Post-manufactured squabble over the city’s Christmas blizzard response as their set-up, the editorialists launched into a screed against Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, and basically called for her head.

Normally, one angry editorial in the city’s News Corp. tabloid wouldn’t be cause for concern. But this one came complete with a companion news piece, in which City Council members, including Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca, piled on. And it’s also the latest and loudest salvo in what can only be described as a multi-pronged assault waged by local media and politicians on the city’s bicycle program.

John del Signore at Gothamist ran a good piece exposing the Post’s shoddy case against Sadik-Khan, calling the paper’s focus on one city official a “disingenuous” attempt to “score cheap political points.”

I’d like to focus on one particular rhetorical tactic favored by the Post’s editorial staff: the name-calling.

The Post refers to Sadik-Khan as “Deputy Mayor for Bicycles” and, a few paragraphs later, “Bicycle Lady.” As astute observers will know, if the writers had been paying attention the past three years, they would have come up with a more accurate nickname, like “Pedestrian, Bicycle, and Bus Lady.” Or, to really cover the full extent of what’s been going on, “Safer, More Efficient Transportation Lady.”

We’re living in a golden age for improvements to bus corridors, expansions of public space, engineering that prioritizes pedestrian safety, and yes, more efficient streets for motorists. The recent progress of the city’s bicycle program has been stupendous too, opening the door for many more New Yorkers to feel safe riding on city streets. But with so much else going on in NYC DOT’s transportation modernization effort, it’s telling that the Post singled out bike policy for derision.

No matter how much evidence piles up that more people are riding and fewer pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists are getting hurt, in some people’s view, bike infrastructure will never be legitimate. The message comes through loud and clear in the editorial pages of the Post. You can sense it when national Republicans threaten federal bike-ped funding before taking aim at any other transportation programs. It seeps into public hearings in NYC, like when the Democratic chair of the City Council Transportation Committee says that bike policy is “all about trade-offs” with motorists, not about protecting New Yorkers who ride or extending access to an affordable mode of transportation.

If you want to see NYC keep making strides toward becoming a bike-friendly city, it’s gut-check time. Community boards need to hear from residents that safe streets for cycling matter (Brooklyn CB 6 folks can get going on that this Thursday). Council members need to hear from their constituents that bicycling and bike policy matter. At your local precinct community council, cops need to hear that smart, targeted traffic enforcement matters.

And the Bloomberg administration needs to hear from New Yorkers who want to see the progress of the past few years continue. Here’s a good place to get that message out loud and clear.

  • “But with so much else going on in NYC DOT’s transportation modernization effort, it’s telling that the Post singled out bike policy for derision.”

    It is because bicycling is such a convenient, inexpensive solution. There is no reasonable argument against it, so motorheads have to resort to derision.

  • Larry Littlefield

    But why? To follow the demonization, you’d think that people were being sent to the hospital by collisions with bicycles several times every day.

    The Post turned hostile to bicycles due to the Times Square pedestrian improvements. Those have been so popular with business interests that the Post has redirected its outrage to people who ride bicycles.

    Other opposition has been orchestrated by opposition to protected bike lanes. Not only are they perceived to inconveniece motorists, but they are rightly perceived to breed new bicycle riders. It is fear of being struck by motor vehicles that keeps the number of people riding bicycles down. Just ask someone who doesn’t do it.

  • NattyB

    Massive Snowstorm –> Some areas take a while to get their streets plowed –> It’s bicyclists fault.

    Like, people were angry that the bike lanes on 1st ave and WillyB were plowed before their random side street in BK/Qnz (ignoring that an arterial bike path might warrant priority over a side street).

  • fdr

    “Some areas take a while…their random side street in Bk/Qnz”
    Exactly the nonchalant attitude that infuriates people in “Bk/Qnz”
    NattyB sounds more like Mayor Mike B.

  • JamesR

    It really does feel like we are under siege from multiple sides right now, and it’s coming at the point of the year when the fewest number of cyclists are on the road. If this keeps up, what will it be like come spring, when there are several-fold more cyclists out there? I’m genuinely concerned about where this is all headed.

  • “But why? To follow the demonization, you’d think that people were being sent to the hospital by collisions with bicycles several times every day.”

    They follow this chain of “reasoning”:

    I intend to keep driving my car as much as I always have.

    Bicycling would be just as convenient as driving for many of my trips – and healthier.

    Therefore, I hate bicycling because it is a threat to bad habits that I don’t want to change.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “If this keeps up, what will it be like come spring, when there are several-fold more cyclists out there? I’m genuinely concerned about where this is all headed.”

    In the spring, the politicos will be focused on avoiding blame for tax increases and devastating cuts to public services, by looking for someone else to blame.

    Bicycles? The fact that bike infrastructure has very low public capital costs (wasn’t that figure $2 million?) and zero public operating costs is all that matters in the long run.

    They’re just having fun while they can. Fun is over soon, for a long time.

  • J

    Things aren’t working the same as they have in the past, and that makes many people angry. More and more people and jobs in the city means more cars in the city (even if a smaller % drive). Bicycle lanes and bicyclists are an easy target because they are highly visible, and still largely (and I say this with some hesitation) relegated to the young, the physically fit and immigrant workers, and bike lanes are seen (or characterized) as only benefiting that small group. Many people simply don’t believe that many New Yorkers will try biking. I, however, disagree.

    Once numbers grow to the point that cyclists are a better cross-section of society, it becomes MUCH harder to stereotype and demonize us, since you’ll likely piss off everyone. That is when you hit the tipping point. Then, these types of improvements are no longer contentious, since they benefit everyone. We are starting to see this happen in Brooklyn and in parts of downtown, but I think there will need to be some patience.

    We aren’t going to convince anyone that we aren’t a small minority except through growing numbers. This includes our fiercest opponents. Let’s engage our opponents in open debate. Why not publicly ask Normal Steisel and Iris Weinshall to go for a bike ride down several different types of bike lanes in the neighborhood? It’s easy to write an article demonizing the “other” on both sides. Let’s show them how we see the world, face to face, and hopefully tone down the rhetoric a bit.

  • Charles, I like your line of reasoning in #6 very much. I would add to it the common resentment of people self-consciously engaged in healthier or more environmentally friendly activities in one’s direct field of vision. That’s why people angry about bike lanes are always suggesting that you ride in the parks, out of their view.

    I was cheered up by riding to 14th St today, where as I entered my bank’s ATM lobby with my bike, there was one woman with her bike inside already, and as I left, there was another guy outside locking up his bike to go in. I’ve never seen that happen before, and it was a kind of miserable day for riding today.

  • Joe R.

    I agree it’s more important now than ever for the cycling community to present a unified face to the world supporting what the city has done so far. Let’s all leave our individual differences aside. Sure, I’ll admit to saying most current new cycling infrastructure is useless to me personally as it doesn’t mesh with my riding style, or isn’t near where I live. However, my support for this new infrastructure remains steadfast because I recognize its value to a broad range of potential cyclists. The key word here is “potential cyclist”. Nearly anyone who can walk is a potential cyclist. The key then to growing our numbers to the point where demonizing us is political suicide is doing things which get these people to go from “potential” to “actual” riders.

  • First they ignore you (80s), then they laugh at you (90s), then they fight you (00s), then you win.

    Looks like this whole “controversy” is about to wrap up.

  • ‘Exactly the nonchalant attitude that infuriates people in “Bk/Qnz”’

    Speak for yourself. This resident of Bk/Qnz is more concerned if his bridges or subways are unavailable, than the two blocks of Love Lane & co.

  • Two points:

    One – I was in Mid-town during the nasty weather on Tuesday and was just amazed at how many people were riding in that totally crappy weather with streets in equally crappy condition from all the watery snow everywhere. Just amazing!

    Two – Bike infrastructure investments will be saved by the coming of $5 and $6 gas in a year or two, if some predictions are correct. It’s only a matter of time before the inevitable rise in gas prices allow the meek to re-inherit the streets. Don’t count on electric cars to save our motoring lifestyle.

  • Jeffrey Hymen

    I work on multi-modal transportation solutions, including increased bicycle infrastructure, as part of my job. I also interact considerably with the general public. Reading the above I can only conclude that you just don’t get it, willfully so (see Charles at 2:51 yesterday) in some cases.

  • Jeffrey, if you don’t believe in bicycle and livable-streets advocacy, then why are you reading Streetsblog? And as a transportation professional, don’t you find it frustrating that infrastructure improvements with measurable safety effects, like the PPW bike lane, get vilified by people eager to preserve their privileges of driving everywhere?

    If you have any advice on how cyclists should behave in order to properly demonstrate their gratitude toward motor vehicle operators for letting them use the leftover road space, please post it.

  • Jeffrey Hymen

    Jonathan, I absolutely believe in bicycle infrastructure and liveable streets and work to make those things happen. The long answer to your question will take too long (for me to write) and the short answer is probably too glib. I am genuinely sorry.

    Perhaps I’ll try to take some time, over an extended period of time, to verbally work out the long answer. If I could get it right, it would probably be one of the most useful things I have done in my career. In the meantime, I will continue to work on projects that are harder and harder to implement because of rational arguments by rational people. (As opposed to selfish people with selfish motives–see PPW–or the members of the car culture who cannot understand anything but.)

  • Jeffrey, thanks for the honest answer. In abeyance, is there some kind of existing book that you can recommend from which you’ve drawn some of your insights?

  • Mrbadexample

    Not to sound conspiratorial about this, but we’re only a few weeks past the NY Post’s story (planted by a Bloomberg-friendly city councilman) that multiple Sanitation workers (who wouldn’t go on-record) were claiming that the city’s failure to respond to the snow was all a Union plot.

    Murdoch is not above doing a favor for a fellow media mogul, and this story (like the union-bashing ones that preceded it) are all deflecting blame from Bloomberg for the city’s lousy response on the Christmas Blizzard.

    A lot hangs in the balance here. I can’t think of anybody who could replace JSK in terms of her enthusiasm for cyclists and pedestrians and her willingness to think outside the box. But if Bloomberg has decided to throw her under the bus (so to speak), this isn’t about the Post. And coming as it does at the same time that Ulrich’s ‘initiative’ on bike license plates came out, it tells me that livable street activists better start assuming they have no friends at Gracie Mansion.

  • Joe R.

    “And coming as it does at the same time that Ulrich’s ‘initiative’ on bike license plates came out, it tells me that livable street activists better start assuming they have no friends at Gracie Mansion.”

    I’ve always assumed that all this new cycling infrastructure wasn’t done purely out of benevolence. Basically, what I think is Bloomberg can see the handwriting on the wall regarding automobile use in the city. Basically, it will be less, a lot less, in the coming years as gas prices rise, salaries remain flat, and ever stricter air quality laws push autos out of population centers. Given this premise, the assumption was made that *something else* will need to replace those auto trips. Walking and public transit can only do so much. Public transit is expensive, the system likely won’t be expanded much beyond what it already is due to budget constraints. Walking can’t comfortably take most people more than maybe 3 miles ( even that is too much for a lot of people ). So that leaves cycling. All good and well EXCEPT with the decline in auto use, the city will have to find some way to replace the ticket revenue from drivers. First step is to encourage much of the population to bike by building cycling infrastructure ( and also by letting cyclists flout traffic laws with impunity so that cycling is often the fastest way from point A to point B ). Next step once cycling is ingrained ( and the alternatives either don’t largely exist any more, or cost too much ) is zero tolerance enforcement of the law on cyclists to replace the revenue stream from motorists. Of course, ignored in all this is the revenue from motorists doesn’t even cover the true costs of their driving, whereas cyclists cost the city very little. I personally thought we wouldn’t get to the zero tolerance enforcement part for a few years at least, the idea being to ticket cyclists only once they no longer have viable alternatives, hence can’t just give it up because they’re afraid of getting tickets. Had the city’s cycling policy been truly benevolent, it would have been accompanied by a repeal or modification of traffic laws with respect to cyclists, such as an Idaho stop law, and also allowing sidewalk riding except where signed otherwise, and provided it’s done at reasonable speeds. The idea is to get rid of laws which can and currently are being used to shake down reasonable cyclists for revenue.

  • I have a beautiful argument which disproves Jeffrey Hymen’s rational arguments from rational people, which I also will not share at this time. For the moment, just accept that everyone but myself is quite wrong!

  • Jeffrey Hyman is the reincarnation of Pierre de Fermat.

  • Jeffrey Hymen

    Not quite as jowly, but the images on Wiki’ are probably of Pete when he was older than I am now.

    Here is an attempt at a short synopsis (based, Jonathan, to a large extent but not exclusively on what I read on Streetsblog) of what I would try to convey if I had the time to write such a policy piece:

    The discourse on bicycling in New York and the infrastructure being built to support it is becoming more polarized. There are staunch advocates at both poles whose opinions are unlikely to change for any reason. Like many contests for elected office, it is the opinions of the people in the middle that are movable. However, the rhetoric and actions of many cyclists are having an effect opposite of their own self-interest. Or, to put it another way, the “independents” (to stay with the earlier analogy) are deciding, as they take sides in the increasingly polarized discourse, what the pundits at the NY Post (for example) are saying is closer–not necessarily close but closer–to their own thinking and feeling.

    One of the projects I am working on is traffic calming and bike lane in a community board that has been generally supportive, occasionally even progressive, on the issue. However, the tenor of the discourse has become so poisoned–as much by bike riders and advocates as their opponents–I fully expect the community board to oppose the plan. Of course, DOT will implement the plan regardless of the board vote because that’s how we roll here … and that will only alienate the “independents” further.

    Most of America and certainly its cities are going to need to re-think transportation. I believe bike riding is going to figure prominently in the new paradigm, certainly so in cities. But too often bike riders and advocates do their own cause a disservice. They do not have to respond in any meaningful way (Snark on Nate!) to the concerns expressed by people who might become sympathizers but instead of treating those complaints as strategy for making converts, there seems instead often to be a stubborn philosophical opposition to do so. I find it irrational.

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