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The War on Pedestrians

January 19, 2011

If you’re visiting this blog you’ve probably already read Streetsblog editor Ben Fried’s excellent post calling out the Post and members of the City Council for their juvenile and vehement rhetoric against Janette Sadik-Khan.  Fried writes:

The Post refers to Sadik-Khan as “Deputy Mayor for Bicycles” and, a few paragraphs later, “Bicycle Lady.” As astute observers will know, if the writers had been paying attention the past three years, they would have come up with a more accurate nickname, like “Pedestrian, Bicycle, and Bus Lady.” Or, to really cover the full extent of what’s been going on, “Safer, More Efficient Transportation Lady.”

Ben is spot on.  The Post editors know they won’t get much traction if they rail against faster bus service or a Times Square where thousands of pedestrians, once crushed into narrow sidewalk space, now get to enjoy open vistas, cafe seating, easier walking, and fresher air.  (Nor will they find much success among area business owners and landlords, who are enjoying higher revenues and rents since the street-to-pedestrian-plaza switch was made.)

If I could add or change one thing about Ben’s post it’s that he, too, falls a bit into the trap laid for him by the Post. The headline should not be an admonition for New Yorkers to speak up about “Bike Policy,” but for New Yorkers to speak up about “Pedestrian Policy.”  Why?  Because every single one of the projects instituted by Khan and the DOT has had a larger benefit to pedestrians than to cyclists.

The Prospect Park West bike lane is one example.  Lower car speeds, shorter crossing times…these benefits would accrue to pedestrians even if the bike lane was filled in with dirt and turned into a mile-long community garden.  It’s one of the reasons NBBL opposition rings so hollow: even if one could prove that cyclists weren’t using the lane in big numbers, reducing PPW from three lanes of traffic to two has had an immensely positive effect pedestrian health and safety.  Going back to the way it was before might get rid of the bikes, but it’s not going to help protect pedestrians.

I’ve walked through Times Square and down Broadway to Herald Square and, in my mind, the bike lane is the least useful part of the thoroughfare’s redesign.  In many places, the bike lane is between the curb and a pedestrian seating area, rendering the bike lane almost useless as a transportation route, especially on matinee days or during Times Square’s busier periods.  Cyclists may be safer separated from cars, but they hardly have a smooth route through the city if they take Broadway.  While that may be an argument for getting rid of or redesigning the bike lane, it’s not an argument for getting rid of the pedestrian plazas and turning everything back over to cars, which is what the Post and many elected officials want.

Everywhere you look, the “Extreme Makeover: DOT Edition” treatment has benefited pedestrians more than cyclists.  Madison Square Park and Union Square are two other areas where pedestrians now have fewer lanes of traffic to cross and more open space in which to enjoy the city.  Should the thousands of people who enjoy these areas every hour have this taken away so that a few hundred car drivers have more asphalt?

That’s why I think that pedestrians need to start paying attention.  Because the shorter version of all of this criticism of the DOT and cyclists boils down to this: more cars, more cars, more cars.  A person who wants the PPW bike lane taken out wants more cars.  An editorial writer who argues that the Times Square redesign needs to go wants more cars.  A City Council member who complains of bike lanes being plowed before streets or who advocates for smaller fire hydrant zones wants more cars.

More cars! More cars! More cars!

Pedestrians ought to be up in arms about this, but instead they are focusing their energy on an easy scapegoat: bikes.

The current bike crackdown and slew of anti-bike editorials and media reports is having a far greater effect than a few $270 tickets or silly legislative proposals to license bikes.  What it’s doing is pitting cyclists versus pedestrians.  Every story about a cyclist running a red light that generates a rash of defensive comments or letters plays right into the narrative the media is pushing.  The cycling community, if one exists, has to stop doing this.  Stop being defensive about bad cyclist behavior.  Yes, let’s all speak up against egregious abuses of power, disproportionate appropriation of enforcement resources, and gross misunderstandings of traffic law, but a person who runs a red light deserves a ticket even if we can all come up with a million justifications for why that person did it.  A person who rides on the sidewalk deserves a ticket.  A person who rides without lights at night deserves a ticket.  A person who salmons deserves a ticket.  Own that behavior, admit it’s wrong, and stop arguing.  By defending it, by rationalizing it, all you do is cement the impression that cyclists don’t care about anyone but themselves.

The only way to diffuse the argument is to own it.  Someone who argues that cyclists are all bad is looking for you to rationalize why you simply had to run that red light.  But if you say, “You know what, it is wrong,” they have nothing left to argue and they then have to confront the truth.  (I found Paul Steely White’s opinion piece in the Brooklyn Patch very effective in this regard.)

By doing this, we can then turn the spotlight back where it belongs: on cars and our non-sensical–and seemingly non-existent–traffic enforcement policies.  We’ll also find that we’ll get more pedestrians on our side.  It’s not exactly the same as asking someone, “Tell me, when did you stop beating your wife?” but making the pro-car people own their philosophy and behavior is the best way to re-frame the debate.  So, to the editors of the Post, James Vacca, Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes, Marty Markowitz, David Greenfield, Andrea Peyser and company, I have one question: Why are you in favor of more pedestrians getting hit by cars?

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2 Comments
  1. January 19, 2011 1:52 pm

    Good post.

    Cyclists must kill with kindness.

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