Well, the series of tubes has certainly run thick in recent weeks with heated talk about bike lanes and urban cycling. And I’m about to add to the deluge in a three-part examination of the origins and battle lines in the Bike Lane Wars.
Today, in Part 1: P.J. O’Rourke & the Myth of the Pinko Cyclist
The most widely tweeted-and-blogged-about salvo in the Bike Lane Wars of late comes from big-shot commentator and neocon gadfly P.J. O’Rourke. He weighed in a few days ago at the Wall Street Journal website with a smarmy and rambling screed about how bikes are child’s toys smelling vaguely of Eurotrash socialism. Plus they represent special-interest agendafication in the name of anti-democratic do-goodnik political correctness run amok. Or something.
This is mostly boilerplate neocon talking point stuff on the (non-)role of bikes in red-meat American transport, a thick stew of status quo bias, oil addiction and garden-variety get-off-my-lawn change aversion. And it was actually done better, to my mind — not to mention more concisely and colorfully — by Canadian hockey commentator and national institution Don Cherry, who introduced the new mayor of Toronto by telling city hall he was “wearing pinko for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles and everything.” Rob Ford, for his part, declared “the war on the car” on Toronto’s streets over within days of taking office.
(Sidenote for non-Canucks: If you’re not a regular viewer of "Hockey Night in Canada" and you’re wondering, after watching that clip linked above, how a guy dressed like a colorblind 1930s dandy passes himself off as a straight-shooting, bike-hating Joe Sixpack, it’s a long story, but Cherry wears suits like that all the time while bloviating on national TV here in Canuckistan once a week about the merits of the hardchecking, fisticuffy approach to our national game; you need to know a lot about the 1970s Boston Bruins and the careers of Dougie Gilmour and Kirk Muller to truly understand it.)
Anyway, back to O’Rourke’s diatribe. His primary focus and casus belli is the high-profile flashpoint for the urban cycling debate across America and beyond, the putative beachhead in the Eurotrash do-goodnik’s invasion of right-thinking, car-driving American society: the new bike lanes of New York City. More specifically, there is a particular bike lane on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn that has become a widely disseminated talking point in the broader conversation about non-automotive transportation in our cities.
Probably the best overview of the New York debate can be found, oddly enough, at the British-based Guardian; Streetsblog is doing excellent reporting from the frontlines. And O’Rourke’s screed has, of course, inspired all manner of direct rebuttal, much of it conceding that he’s a funny writer on the way to noting his jokes are stale and his argument pretty limp.
I’d like to make my own brief response to P.J. (whose work for Rolling Stone in the 1980s was, I must confess, one of the things that made me want to become a journalist). This will be a sort of segue into the broader conversation about what streets are for — and why, as I’ll explain in Parts 2 and 3 of this post, there far few tools as cheap, easy and effective at building sustainability back into our cities than a “complete street” of the sort that New York transportation kingpin Janette Sadik-(Genghis)-Khan (to borrow O’Rourke’s low-watt zinger) has been building along Prospect Park West and throughout the Big Apple.
First, the only salient point worth making about O’Rourke’s post: It’s weak sauce. Thin gruel. A handful of smarmy quips hunting in vain for a real target and a legitimate beef. It says almost all you need to know about the opposition to that contentious bike lane on Prospect Park West (about which I’ll say more in Part 2 of this post) that this sort of stuff is the best they can come up with to defend their distaste.
O’Rourke’s so desperate to find purchase for his glib dismissal that he winds up flailing around for evidence in the place that makes the strongest case for urban cycling. Europe, that is. And the best he can muster is passing references to a 20-year-old Dutch infrastructure expense and some half-hearted attempts at encouraging cycling in a handful of British burghs apparently too inconsequential to bother naming. Here’s the leaky water pistol P.J. tries to pass off as a smoking gun: “In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Dutch government spent $945 million on bicycle routes without any discernible effect on how many Dutch rode bicycles.”
Really? You want to go there, P.J.? You want to take this argument to the Netherlands? Home of the highest per capita cycling rates in the free world? A place about which I can find, in like 10 minutes of casual Googling, everything from comparative rates for nationwide bike use (27 percent for the Dutch, 0.9 percent for Americans) to a fascinating study called Making Cycling Irresistible by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler of Rutgers that notes, among other things, a steady increase in Dutch cycling rates from an all-time low in the mid-1970s. The reason for the about-turn is that it was around ’75 or so that the Dutch stopped treating car traffic as the be-all and end-all and switched to the sort of infrastructure now being mimicked on the streets of New York. Honestly, man, your best ammo in this fight is that it didn’t work in Holland?
Let’s also take particular note of O’Rourke’s final missive: “Bike lanes can become an acceptable part of the urban landscape if bicycle riders are willing to pay their way.” Again, P.J., let me Google that for you: studies estimate that American motorists pay somewhere between 20 and 70 cents less tax per gallon of gas than the actual cost of maintaining the roads they treat as their sole dominion. And 99 percent of the time they arrive at a free parking spot — so many free parking spots indeed that the total U.S. subsidy in free parking alone amounts to between $127 and $374 billion every year. If you are looking for state-subsidized, handout-dependent pinkos, P.J., look behind the wheel.
Of course, the facts about comparative tax burdens and government spending are just a smokescreen here. The bigger issue — the one feeding the Prospect Park feud — is cultural. It’s a question, ultimately, about whom the city’s streets belong to and what they are for.
On the one hand is the status quo, dominant since the postwar baby boom stretched the average commute to highway length, which argues, as P.J. does, that although they are built and maintained using public money, streets are intended primarily if not exclusively as a conduit for private transport by automobile.
On the other hand, the emerging sustainability argument: that public space is the life’s blood of a city, that streets are the most abundant public space in the urban landscape, that high-density, mixed-use urban design is the most livable and sustainable option for urban living, and that streets should thus be reconfigured to enable a multiplicity of uses, particularly the climate-friendly and less oil-dependent means such as cycling, walking and using public transit.
In Part 2 of the Bike Lane Wars, I’ll look at the biking culture and complete street construction in New York. In Part 3, I’ll discuss the theory and practice of “complete street” design worldwide. And as always, if you'd like to call me "pinko" or sing my praises in 140 characters or less, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.