Ignoring the detractors: Biking isn’t going anywhere

Shaun Jacobsen
Posted on December 13, 2012

Source: Transitized

People on bikes just want to get to their destination. Pictured above: people riding bikes in Copenhagen. Credit: Eastown Community Association.

People on bikes just want to get to their destination. Pictured above: people riding bikes in Copenhagen. Credit: Eastown Community Association.

There’s a reason why newspapers like The New York Times are often cited throughout the country and internationally as a great source for editorials and opinion pieces. Their columnists are smart, sharp, and eloquent.

In Chicago, we like to be different: we have the columnists of the Chicago Tribune.

I debated even writing about this because I don’t see the point in sending pageviews to Tribune columnist John Kass’ latest vendetta against people on bikes, which are becoming boring, repetitive, and generally predictable. I’m not even going to post a link here. But I read it, because it’s important to understand the enemy in any “battle,” even if the battle is completely fabricated by disgruntled motorists and the “enemy” is a narrow-minded bellyacher writing for a subpar newspaper.

Moving on…

The entire editorial is about reckless “little bicycle people” that don’t obey the law, cutting off pedestrians and drivers, running red lights, et cetera… and how people on bikes need to be punished for their awful crimes! Never mind that you could replace “little bicycle people” with “drivers” and make the same argument in the opposite direction. Drivers routinely run red lights, stop signs, they speed (which is much, much more dangerous and deadly than anyone on a bike), and disobey the law at the peril of others. Police break these laws too (and not just in pursuit). Unless Kass is going to press for automated enforcement of drivers that break the law too, he should lay off heavy enforcement of bicyclists.

Then, somehow, the editorial moves toward the falsehood that bicyclists pay no taxes and since drivers have to pay an exorbitant $85 for a vehicle sticker (the horror!!!) and $99 for license plate stickers (again, so much money!!!), people on bikes need to pay up too. I’m not sure for what, exactly. Everyone in the city pays taxes in some form. People who don’t drive end up subsidizing roads they don’t use as much as drivers do. And everyone inevitably pays a gas tax, because so much of what we buy comes to us by way of gas-consuming vehicles, like delivery trucks.

Adam Sternbergh, a blogger at The New York Times, wrote a post a while ago in response to The New Yorker’s John Cassidy, who wrote another anti-bike rant about bike lanes in New York City. Sternbergh wrote, in near-checklist form, a deconstruction of these anti-bike tirades:

Pre-emptive self-exoneration: “I don’t have anything against bikes.”

Invocation of humorlessness of cycling advocates, preferably with ironic comparison to homicidal political faction: “the bicycle lobby … pursues its agenda with about as much modesty and humor as the Jacobins pursued theirs.”

Reference to ominous encroachment of cycling-based anti-Americanism: “City Hall … sometimes seems intent on turning New York into Amsterdam, or perhaps Beijing.” (You know, Beijing: where the communists live!)

Invocation of personal cycling bona fides: “As a student, I lived in the middle of Oxford, where cycling is the predominant mode of transport, and I cycled everywhere.”

Fond nostalgia for pre-lane New York City cycling perils, coupled with implied dismissal of today’s namby-pamby cyclists: “In those days … part of the thrill was avoiding cabs and other vehicles. … When I got back to my apartment on East 12th Street, I was sometimes shaking.”

Oddly self-contradictory declaration of support: “Generally speaking, I don’t have a problem with this movement; indeed, I support it.”

Invocation of meddling government apparatchiks: “A classic case of regulatory capture by a small faddish minority.”

Invocation of America’s long, sun-dappled love affair with cars:“Since 1989, when I nervously edged out of the Ford showroom on 11th Avenue and 57th Street, the proud leaser of a sporty Thunderbird coupe, I have owned and driven six cars in the city.”

Invocation of obviously repellent stereotype: “I would put my knowledge of New York’s geography and topography up against most native residents’ — cycling members of the Park Slope food co-op included.” (To be fair, if you’ve ever been to the Park Slope food co-op, you know how its members are always prattling on about their topographical expertise.)

Brief feint toward fact-based argument, unencumbered by actual facts: “From an economic perspective I also question whether the blanketing of the city with bike lanes … meets an objective cost-benefit criterion. … Beyond a certain point … the benefits of extra bike lanes must run into diminishing returns.” (Yes. They must. But when? At what point? Sorry — no time! Moving on!)

Followed by quick return to actual motivation: “Like many New Yorkers who don’t live in Manhattan, one of my favorite pastimes is to drive from Brooklyn … into the city for dinner to find a parking space once the 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. parking restrictions have lapsed. … These days, [this] is virtually impossible.” (A lack of parking spaces naturally serving as evidence of too many bike lanes, not too many parked cars.)

Invocation of damnable scofflaw cyclists: “On those rare occasions when I do happen across a cyclist, or two, he or she invariably runs the red lights.” (On a related note, I personally witnessed three hit-and-run accidents outside my old apartment at Atlantic Ave. and 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn. I logically determined that drivers invariably get into accidents, and thus launched my campaign for the eradication of city streets.)

One last invocation of overreaching City Hall bureaucrats, for good measure: “[I]t is time to call a halt to Sadik-Kahn and her faceless road swipers.”

I’ll leave that there for you to ponder yourself. Kass makes a lot of assumptions about people on bikes (apparently only from a window on one street corner), apparently trying to strengthen his point, but actually coming off as immature and narrow-minded (can we still call someone a “journalist” if they relentlessly rely on dated stereotypes?).

There are over 4,000 miles of roads in Chicago, most of which are not safe for people on bikes. Just 27.1 miles have buffered or protected bike lanes – 0.6%. In the Loop, where the new Dearborn protected bike lane will open tomorrow, there are plenty of streets on which to drive, and none with protected lanes for cyclists. The Mayor is serious about getting more people on bikes, and projects like the Dearborn protected bike lane prove it. Those that complain about losing one lane of traffic for the sake of safety for people on bikes (safety from dangerous drivers) can find another street just a block away to drive on. There’s really no reason to complain. Furthermore, I believe that with dedicated traffic signals for cyclists – like those on the new Dearborn lane – will make more people on bike stop for the signal. It’s a shift toward recognizing that the roads were designed for the automobile and nothing/nobody else. By retrofitting existing roads to accommodate many types of transportation and how to move people efficiently, we can make everyone safer. This is why it’s a better idea to have dedicated signals for buses (which hold a lot of people and should get priority at intersections, for faster movement), and a good idea to have separated facilities for bicyclists (with their own signals, for everyone’s safety).

We shouldn’t let people like Kass and his stereotypes and falsehoods get in the way of this progress. A great majority of people I see on bikes are well-mannered and just want to get to their destination in one piece. There are always people, in any group, that break the law. I’ve seen my share of people on bikes race out into the road, almost hit by a car. And I shake my head, because I really can’t do much else except hope that’s an abnormality (based on observation, it is). I do the same thing with drivers that almost run over pedestrians legally crossing the street, when drivers run stop signs (stand at any one of Chicago’s intersections and just count), run red lights (even in front of police officers, who do nothing), and speed through our neighborhoods. Illegal behavior should be punished, but it is senseless to focus efforts on one mode of transportation that has so many positive externalities, while simultaneously ignoring the need to focus on a mode of transportation that has so many negative externalities.

Bicycle “culture,” by which I mean the positive aspects that come along with it (walkable, dense neighborhoods with lower crime, healthier residents, and safer streets), is a public good and should be encouraged, not discouraged by redirecting police away from dangerous drivers toward mostly harmless people on bikes. People who read this blog already know that. If you’re on a bike, however, do your part and prove people like Kass wrong – show them that people on bikes are courteous, safe, and just want to get where they’re going.

Shaun Jacobsen

Shaun Jacobsen

My name is Shaun Jacobsen, and I’m a 2012 graduate of Sociology, French, Economics, and Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. My primary interest is urban sociology and its relation to urban planning. I am also heavily interested in transportation planning. As the title suggests, this blog is a collection of news, ideas, and thoughts on urban transportation.

I currently work for a global market research firm, but I hope to someday go to graduate school for a Master’s degree related to my interests.

I try my hardest to represent the truth in what I write, and welcome any criticisms and feedback in the comments (I will happily respond!) I hope you find something on this blog that will entertain your mind.

Feel free to send an email to transitized [at] gmail [dot] com.