As I hazily recall, I first read Jean Merrill’s marvelous 1964 children’s book, "The Pushcart War," as part of the curriculum at my elementary school in suburban Denver. In any case, the story of pushcart Davids battling truck-driving Goliaths on the streets of New York City has always stayed with me, and it’s been on my mind as the streets of New York have again become a transport battleground.
In "The Pushcart War," of course, it’s a battle of trucks vs. pushcarts. As ever-larger trucks rumble through the city’s streets, the pushcarts are eventually forced out entirely, the streets declared the sole domain of truckers. But a spirited guerilla campaign by pushcart vendors armed only with peashooters forces the truckers to relent, and an historic compromise — The Truce — comes into force. Trucks are reduced to exactly half their size, exactly half as many are permitted on New York’s streets, and there is space once again for the vendors to peddle their wares from their modest pushcarts.
In my memory, the peashooters won the day, but I’ve just reread the final section of the book, and it turns out The Truce doesn’t end the war. Certain key power brokers still side with the trucks by default, and pushcart peddlers find themselves losing their licenses simply for asserting their collective right to half the street.
The decisive moment comes when a spirited letter-writing campaign to the newspaper proves, beyond any doubt, that the vast majority of New Yorkers want pushcarts on their streets. “Is New York being run for trucks or people?” one letter asks. Another wonders, “Since crowded streets seem to be our trouble, wouldn’t it be more helpful to get rid of 300,000 trucks than 500 pushcarts?” Kids write in professing their love for ice-cream peddlers, an old lady talks about how important the neighborhood fruit vendor is to her quality of life, and the popular tide turns forever against the trucks. Street space for pushcarts is assured happily ever after.
In real-life New York, there was no truce. Motor vehicles have long reigned supreme, though giant trucks have at least agreed to share the space with cars and taxis. And with the arrival at the helm of the city’s Department of Transportation in 2007 of a crusader named Janette Sadik-Khan, armed with lane paint and Danish urban design specs instead of a peashooter, the Bike Lane Wars have now found their most highly visible battleground.
The front line in the defense of the motorized status quo has set up its forces along a few blocks of high-priced apartment buildings across the street from Prospect Park in Brooklyn’s lovely, family friendly neighborhood of Park Slope. Under Sadik-Khan’s tutelage, one-third of the street below — one of the three lanes that used to carry motor vehicle traffic — has been transformed into a two-way bike path, separated for safety from the other two lanes by a row of parked cars.
As New York magazine recently reported, six parking spots have been lost to the project. (Count ‘em – you barely need your second hand.) And though more than 70 percent of neighborhood residents are in favor of the new bike lane, those living on Prospect Park West itself are apoplectic with indignation at the whole scene.
The finer details, though salacious (involving high-powered attorneys and senators and former Department of Transportation chiefs), are actually not that relevant here. The important thing to note about the opposition to bike lanes — on Prospect Park West and beyond — is its sense of entitlement. Streets are for cars. If pedestrians want to use the street, they should watch where they step or apply for permission to cross at the nearest corner. Bikes? Fuhgeddabouddit. As one New York city councilman put it in that New York magazine feature, “Most people in New York will never ride a bike to work. They will never ride a bike to a show. Not going to happen. Period.” Which is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t build it, it’s somewhere between very dangerous and simply impossible for them to come.
Jan Gehl, the Danish urban design guru who inspired Sadik-Khan’s New York street makeover, likes to put it this way: “Cultures and climates differ all over the world, but people are the same. They will gather in public if you give them a good place to do it.” Note that he doesn’t say they will ride bikes exclusively. This is the missing element in the rhetorical artillery of the Bike Lane Wars to date: it’s not (just) about bike lanes. It’s about what city streets are for. As the letter-writing pushcart warrior put it, “Is New York being run for trucks” — and cars and street parking for the owners of expensive apartments — “or for people?”
In Gehl’s Copenhagen, almost 40 percent of all residents and something like 55 percent of downtown dwellers commute by bike, but the city did not achieve these numbers by laying down bike lanes alone. No, Copenhagen officials, facing catastrophic gridlock from the late 1950s onward, deployed a range of tools. They closed key commercial streets to motor vehicles entirely, gave people and bikes priority on others, improved sidewalks, reclaimed public squares that had been transformed into parking lots during the first years of the automobile age. They built a whole new transportation infrastructure and stitched together a whole new kind of urban fabric, one in which cars were merely one of many critical components. This was not a war on cars; it was a Pushcart War-like Truce, aimed at establishing an equal share on Copenhagen’s streets for things that weren’t cars.
In Sadik-Khan’s New York? Same deal. Times Square has been pedestrianized, (which not only created a great public space but improved the average speed of a northbound taxi’s traverse of Midtown Manhattan by 17 percent). Little pocket parks and mini-plazas have been created the length of Broadway, in the Meatpacking District, in downtown Brooklyn. Safety is improving for pedestrians as well as cyclists. Sadik-Khan’s mantra isn’t bike lanes; it is complete streets.
The goal of New York’s “Sustainable Streets” program isn’t (just) more cycling but rather the creation of the great public space Gehl talks about. Which is a multifront project with compound benefits. There are some impressive numbers in the New York magazine story linked above that are easy to miss amid all the blather. (Though it’s remarkable blather, to be sure; one bike lane opponent refers to the cycling boom in the Big Apple, in all apparent seriousness, as “homegrown terrorism.”)
Here’s one key figure: streets with protected bike lanes are 40 percent safer — for everyone — than streets without them. And New York’s new bike lanes, all 255 miles of them, cost the city $11 million over the last four years — compared to $1.5 billion in street repair alone over the same period. For what amounts to little more than a rounding error in the overall transport budget, you get safer streets, more choice in the transportation mix, less pollution, reduced car dependency. And, most of all, a reimagined public realm.
It’s the reimagination, not the bikes, that raises the ire of bike lane opponents. It’s not incidental to the Prospect Park bike lane story that the most heated opposition has arisen over parking spaces. For half a century, the automobile’s dominion over the street was so complete that parking spaces for cars were deemed more important than anything else we could do with the thin sliver of our streets that wasn’t already being used to move cars around.
Think back to The Truce in "The Pushcart War." The hegemony of the trucks came not when the street was equally divided between trucks and pushcarts, but only when the public in general made it known that they preferred these more complete streets to the old status quo.
In the thrilling conclusion to "The Bike Lane Wars," Part 3 will examine the global complete streets movement. After that, I swear it'll be back to shorter, snappier fare. Meantime, to carry on this conversation in ultra-snappy 140-character bursts, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.