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The Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer Argument

December 23, 2010

The New York Times finally gets around to printing some letters to the editor in response to its December 17th editorial on bikes.  The selection of letters are far more balanced than the editorial was, with Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White the lead-off hitter.

But what would be a debate about bike lanes without Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes?  No article on bike lanes generates fewer than a thousand responses, so I wonder how NBBL’s letter above all, was chosen?  Could it be that Norman Steisel is using his status as a former deputy mayor to jump the queue, so to speak, as he did at the City Council Hearing on Bicycles?  I’ll leave that conspiracy theory open for discussion.

NBBL would be better served by changing their acronym to NIMBY.  There’s no amount of data and facts and no level of public support that could convince Steisel, Iris Weinshall, or any of the other members of this narrow group that the bike lane on Prospect Park West is a good idea.  The only bike lanes they approve of are on streets on which they don’t live or drive.

As I witnessed in person, NBBL will grasp at any argument, no matter how tenuous, to make their point.  We have heard that seniors are afraid to cross the bike lane because there are so many bikes, but also that the bike lane is not necessary because there isn’t a high volume of bike traffic.  Both can not be true.  Such is the argument borne of desperation.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, here’s their letter, and my takedown.

To the Editor:

Your editorial about the problems caused by law-evading bicyclists mentions data released by the New York City Department of Transportation that purport to show that the 50 miles of bike lanes it is adding each year “calm” traffic and cut down on fatalities.

But as the rest of your editorial suggests, the connection between encouraging biking — which we also strongly support — and making our streets safer and more pleasant for all users is far from established. The D.O.T. data produce more puzzlement than enlightenment.

Ah, the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer argument.  “Your numbers confuse me, so they must not be true!”  Actually, the connection between greater levels of cycling and safer streets is well established, and not just by the NYC DOT.  There’s Peter Jacobsen’s 2003 paper published in Injury Prevention.  There are also actual New York City ridership and injury/fatality statistics.  Traffic injuries go down as cycling numbers go up, as a study by the city of Portland found, and not only for cyclists but for pedestrians and drivers, too.  These studies are available to anyone with an Internet connection.

When new bike lanes force the same volume of cars and trucks into fewer and narrower traffic lanes, the potential for accidents between cars, trucks and pedestrians goes up rather than down. At Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, for instance, where a two-way bike lane was put in last summer, our eyewitness reports show collisions of one sort or another to be on pace to be triple the former annual rates.

Furthermore, the D.O.T. data’s lack of credibility is reinforced by our own videotapes. These show that the Prospect Park West bike lanes are used by half the number of riders the D.O.T. says, and that cyclists are not riding to commute as originally contemplated but are recreational users who could be better served by enhancing the existing lane 100 yards away in Prospect Park.

How was NBBL able to establish that the cyclists they observed were mere “recreational users”?  Did they survey riders, asking them directly, “Where are you going?”  If not, why should the observations of people who do not ride be trusted?  (If I needed to count the types of dogs in Prospect Park, I’d bring a vet and a breeder along.)  Isn’t it possible that some riders combine their workouts with their commute and change at the office or simply prefer to wear comfortable workout clothing when commuting?  Besides, are recreational cyclists not deserving of a bike lane network?  What about someone riding down PPW to shop at the farmer’s market or go to the library?  Why should cyclists be held to a different standard than drivers?  We do not portion out roads based on who will use their cars for work, who for errands, and who for pleasure.

I think the more likely truth is that NBBL simply can not contemplate how people with “real” jobs–that is, a job where you have to wear a suit and carry a briefcase and be at the office by 9 AM–could possibly ride a bike to work.  Freelancers, students, parents dropping off a child at school, deliverymen, or people in jobs where every day is casual Friday simply don’t count in the traditional worldview of NBBL.

On the larger point of the DOT’s credibility based on a discrepancy between their numbers and the numbers collected by videotape, unless NBBL releases their methodology and posts their videos for all to see, they have no bearing on anything.  In NBBL’s world, DOT studies are illegitimate, but “eyewitness accounts” are a perfectly reasonable way to measure year-on-year accident rate comparisons.  “Collisions of one sort or another” doesn’t sound very precise to me.

By the way, Holy ACLU, Batman!  Bikers, did you know there are videotapes of you riding the Prospect Park Bike lane?  If the DOT did this to count the cars on Prospect Park West, NBBL would probably call their lawyers.

They do slip in the old “put the cyclists back in the park” canard which can be dismissed easily.  If NBBL thinks crossing PPW is hard with a bike lane, imagine how hard it will be crossing the Park Loop with two-way bike traffic and all the other chaotic foot and rollerblade traffic.  Also, many people have jobs that require them to commute at untraditional hours.  The park closes at 1 AM and gets dark long before that.  Would you want your wife, daughter, sister, or girlfriend riding through the park at even 8 PM in the winter?

Finally, your point about the difficulty of giving tickets to cyclists who break the law is well taken. Educating bikers is a nice idea. But requiring them to be licensed like other potentially life-threatening high-speed vehicles is the only thing that will make enforcement any easier in the long run.

Louise Hainline
Norman Steisel
Iris Weinshall
Brooklyn, Dec. 17, 2010

There’s no evidence that licensing bikes leads to safer behavior or easier enforcement.  None.  In fact, if they’re worried about “life-threatening high-speed vehicles” such as bicycles, they ought to be in favor of more bike lanes with more bikes in them, a recipe for slower speeds.

The irony here is that the letter’s first signer and NBBL president is Louise Hainline, the Dean of Research & Graduate Studies at Brooklyn College.  (Just four miles away from Prospect Park West, making Hainline a prime candidate for bike commuting.)  Presumably, she’s teaching her students how to study and collect data and may have, at one point in her studies, taken a class on statistics.  She’s also a professor of psychology, so she may want to ask herself how her personal opinions and NIMBY-style reactions to the bike lane are shaping her perception of all of these puzzling facts.  Physician, heal thyself.

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