Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
There’s a lot to like in Benjamin Shepard’s piece in the Huffington Post on the “Bike Backlash” in New York. Ben is a smart, tireless advocate for cycling and safe streets, and I think he nails it with this passage:
“In a pluralistic democracy, what one enjoys, others inevitably find offensive. This is part of democratic living. We have to learn to live with each other, not stir up hostilities or calls for more police crack downs, particularly for something as innocuous as cycling.”
I couldn’t agree more. One addendum would be that in an Internet-enabled, conflict-motivated media age, anyone can easily find a small group of cranks who are offended by what others enjoy and offer them a big platform and a loud megaphone. That’s really what stirs up hostilities these days.
One thing that I disagree with in an otherwise excellent piece is how Shepard frames cycling as a boon to personal health, especially when compared to driving. He writes, “Most everyone wants transportation to be healthy — for pedestrians, cyclists, and cars.” Actually, I don’t think that’s true, nor do I think it’s an argument that will gain a lot of traction. Most people want transportation to be efficient, convenient, and inexpensive. Health concerns are a distant fourth, and the fact that Americans have long made peace with losing over 30,000 fellow citizens to automobile accidents each year is evidence of that.
Most people don’t see driving as unhealthy, but rather they see traffic as the problem. The Onion put it best over ten years ago: “Report: 98 Percent of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation for Others.” On a surface level, there’s nothing inherently unhealthy about driving especially if you don’t have to spend a lot of time doing it.
This is why claims of superior health have not yet been enough to turn the tide of opinion and in fact only provoke defensive responses from drivers who don’t like being berated by stereotypical holier-than-thou cyclists. You see this in the (untrue) claims that bike lanes increase CO2 emissions from congested car traffic. “Oh, yeah?” drivers essentially say, “If you’re going to tell me my choice is unhealthy, I’m going to tell you it’s your fault!” To top it off, in much of the country, and even in most neighborhoods in New York, cycling is not a viable option for even a large minority of the population. If the message sounds like, “Just ride a bike, it’s easy, healthy, and fun!” we can’t be surprised when people react defensively.
There’s no one PR trick to getting drivers to learn to stop worrying and love bicyclists, but simplifying the message will help. For a growing number of people, cycling is an efficient, convenient, and inexpensive way to get to work, to school, or just about anywhere. These people should be free to make the same choice as someone who chooses to drive, and local governments should do what they can to provide people with the proper infrastructure–along with the proper enforcement of that infrastructure’s use–so that those choices can be made safely.
Right now, if I want to ride my bike to work on weekdays but take my giant SUV (that I do not own) to my palatial vacation home (that I also do not own) on the weekends, I should have the freedom to do that. The key to cycling’s acceptance, if there is one, is making it about personal choice and moving people efficiently, not saving the world. Sometimes riding a bike is just about riding a bike.