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The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Change Itself.

December 16, 2010

Turning a city into a bike city, or at least a city in which you can get around safely by bike, inspires a lot of passion both for and against.  Those of us on the pro side seem to have facts and popular opinion on our side.

It can take some stunning mental gymnastics to be against bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, and other traffic calming measures that make a city of pedestrians safe from cars.  How else to explain someone who thinks that shorter crossing times and slower cars in some way makes crossing more dangerous, especially when the only new wrinkle it puts into one’s routine is to look both ways before crossing the street?

Bicycling has much in common with other progressive movements.  And, despite the many conservative reasons to support cycling, I mean “progressive” in both the liberal and and gradual, forward-moving sense.  Change takes activists, and those activists often tend to be liberal, but it also takes time.

I read this post from Jason Kuznicki at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen on the subject of gay marriage and the “slippery slope” argument that it could lead to social or legal acceptance of incest.  While gay marriage is certainly a more pressing issue than a bike lane here or there, it seemed to apply to any movement that challenges the status quo.

The fear of slippery slopes is not the fear of a legislative or judicial process leading by its own wicked logic to the abandonment of common sense. It’s the fear of cultural change. Or rather, the fear that the future will not always agree with you. Less charitably, it’s the fear that you might just be plumb wrong on a lot of things that you would find highly embarrassing to reconsider.

Many of those who oppose bike lanes think that it will lead to a city where cars are banned.  This is not the case.  In fact, even in cities that most activists think of as biking paradises such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, you’ll find cars.  You just won’t find a lot of people using them all of the time, especially for short trips.  Bike lanes give some people, even a lot of people, the option of using bikes as transportation.  But it does not mandate that they do.  So that slippery slope is not what bike lane opponents fear.  What they fear is change.

Many of the more pressing issues in this country, such as gay marriage, DADT, and health care boil down to a fear of change.  The world may not always be as it was, and that, to some, is scary.  So it is with less pressing matters, such as bike lanes.  Some of the seniors who make up a disproportionate number of bike lane opponents are so inured to the threat of cars, that they see bikes as an affront.  The city is dangerous, yes, but what makes it dangerous?  It can’t possibly be the thing that’s dominated streets for 50 years, can it?  It’s easier to blame it on bikes.

I believe that some of the biggest bike lane opponents, such as Marty Markowitz and those who live on Prospect Park West, have that fear.  This is not the Brooklyn they know, the Brooklyn they have lived in for the past many decades.  To them, the city has always been a city of cars, the roads have always been designed to accommodate them, and what looks like a sudden change–even if it is the result of multi-year conversations with community boards and intense, data-driven studies–is a shock to the system.  Carol Linn, of Neighbors For Better Bike Lanes (which is actually against the PPW bike lane) testified to this very point during the City Council hearing on bikes.   She mentioned going away last summer only to come back to see that the street had been radically changed.  Years of requests from the local community board and conversations with the DOT were invisible as far as she was concerned; all that mattered was that the street had changed without her knowing it.

There is also another fear that comes with change: the fear of being wrong and having to admit it.  John McCain may be the best example of that in our country right now.  Once someone stakes a position on something, it becomes very hard for them to do a one-eighty, even if the facts are staring them right in the face.  Study after study has proven that bike lanes and street narrowings do what no amount of police presence can: slow traffic.  But if that’s true, then everything people believe in about cars and the streets they have grown used to would have to change.  And that’s a lot to take in.

  1. Jonathan R permalink
    December 17, 2010 2:00 pm

    Nice article. I think you are not giving opponents of change enough credit for self-awareness, however.

    It’s entirely possible for smart people to be blinded by their own self-interest. Check out the Ed Rothstein article here, where he takes on the Park Circle redesign from a auto-centric point of view. If you don’t see people on bikes as legitimate users of the street, then Park Circle becomes “an obstacle course” to Rothstein and the redesign of PPW becomes a desecration.

    As I’ve said before in other contexts, Markowitz is term-limited and realizes that he needs to nurture a Marty Markowitz brand in order to stand out from other local politicians. His anti-bike lane position is a way to burnish his credentials to suburban Brooklyn power groups looking in the medium term for spokesmen and figureheads.


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