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Op-Ed: The Latest Bikelash Has An Odious, Trumpist Feel

10:20 AM EDT on October 21, 2019

The Trump circus came to town on Sept. 25, in the form of self-styled climate activist John DeLiva Halpern getting up on a chair and yelling, “You want to clown around with me?” Photo Jake Offenhartz via Twitter

The Sept. 25 “town hall” regarding the protected bike lanes installed last year on Park Slope’s Ninth Street had all the hallmarks of classic bikelash.

But it also, somehow, felt different.

Sadly befitting these times, an air of belligerence hung over the room from the start, thanks to a taunt by self-described “mindful filmmaker” and “climate activist” John Halpern, “You wanna clown around with me!” and the threat of violence from an amped-up guy in an FDNY T-shirt who told a bike-lane proponent that he would, “Beat your ass."

Cyclists are accustomed to pushback from people who see us as an "all-powerful bike lobby." But the aggression and disconnect from reality seemed more fitting of one of President Trump’s rabid re-election rallies, where the leader of the free world condones violence against those who disagree.

Eric McClure
Eric McClure

Except at the Park Slope forum, the "fake news" was coming from the organizers. Myra Manning, a 70-something Ninth Street property owner, had plastered fliers around the neighborhood claiming that fire trucks and ambulances are being delayed on bike lane-choked streets — ignoring the fact that a post-redesign Ninth Street remained the widest east-west route in all of Park Slope. Yet advocates who extolled the safety benefits of complete-streets treatments were shouted down — in one case with a gentleman screaming, “That’s not true!” when a safety advocate accurately reported the width of Ninth Street (which is easily verifiable, not that that matters to some people!).

And a similar anti-bike-lane town hall in Fort Greene a week earlier also featured a first-responder repeating the lie that the DOT ignores concerns about FDNY and EMS vehicles — and then got belligerent when called out on it.

Certainly, the larger struggle over how we use the city’s streets has been characterized repeatedly in past years by hyperbole and some fast-and-loose playing with the facts, predominantly by defenders of the automobile-dominated status quo.

The inaccurately named Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes played that same flimsy emergency-response card, and CBS2’s Marcia Kramer invoked the specter of a two-wheeled 9/11 redux, but it all seemed like gamesmanship in the service of a philosophical battle against baby boomers’ diminishing relevance. Norman Steisel’s playful umbrella assault of Gothamist’s Nathan Tempey following a Prospect Park West court hearing in 2016 was about as rough as things got.

But the Trump Effect has become more apparent of late. Earlier this year, Flushing Community Board member Kim Ohanian joked that some pedestrians “deserve to get run over” (reminiscent of then-candidate Trump mocking a disabled reporter). And also this year, a Fort Greene cop used the PA system in his NYPD SUV to tell a cyclist to “go back to where you came from” (appropriating Trump's own language of hate).

Trump himself has even been invoked in the name of opposing street-safety projects. Longtime Queens CB4 member Ann Pfoser Darby didn’t mince words at a 2017 meeting about plans to improve safety on 111th Street with a road diet.

“Once Trump removes all the illegals form Corona, there won’t be anybody to ride bike lanes,” Pfoser Darby said. Given a chance by a reporter to take a step back, she declared, “I’m a realist, not a racist.”

Oh, really? The problem with that comment is that reality continues to deliver uncomfortable facts for people who choose their own truths. Take the remarkable reductions in travel times and increases in ridership along Manhattan’s newly minted 14th Street busway, which has left opponents flailing with chants of fake news or specious lawsuits.

On one hand, much of this feels like the bikelash’s convulsive death rattle. But on the other, this may be the present and future of the fight to keep us from taking meaningful strides toward a better, safer, saner city — a lunatic fringe convinced that cars are virtuous, bikes are dangerous, and advocates are gathered in the basement of the local pizza parlor plotting to take away "their" free parking.

We clearly have the president to thank for that.

Eric McClure is executive director of StreetsPAC.

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