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Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

February 2, 2011

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.

  1. Jonathan permalink
    February 2, 2011 12:30 pm

    Thanks for posting your response, which I largely agree with, especially “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.” Since I am too lazy to set up my own blog I would like to make additional comments here.

    I am happy to see Ben’s op-ed piece on a prestigious site like HuffPost, but I think he is totally wrong on how to promote cycling. He gives five reasons to ride a bike:

    Cycling saves the environment
    2) Cycling saves you money
    3) Cycling saves your health
    4) Cycling is fun
    5) Cycling is hope

    I agree that these are all true and desirable, yet I fear that they are collectively tailored to maintain cycling’s niche position in the New York City transportation universe.

    As Mikael Colville-Andersen never ceases to explain, cycling’s greatest attraction in places where people do it a lot is that it’s the fastest way from A to B.

    This is why this winter season is so depressing, because when the city doesn’t clear the bike lanes in any kind of timely manner, cycling isn’t the fastest way from A to B. It becomes more dangerous, and more annoying, and much less attractive.

    Bicycle advocacy should in my opinion focus on A to B because other approaches fall into the trap of the “two New Yorks” frame, as vividly expressed in Cap’n Transit’s recent blog post, here. Even the thoughtful and positive Charlie McCorkell from Bicycle Habitat made this mistake earlier this week, differentiating between Brooklyn Present and Brooklyn Future.

    There is only one New York (and one Brooklyn). Bicyclists in that New York are real New Yorkers trying to get from A to B, and they deserve the same respect as anyone else getting from A to B. Many of those real New Yorkers are people who are bicycling for a living and who regularly break the traffic rules. Others are people who don’t have driver’s licenses, are too young to drive, too cheap to drive, or “not dumb enough to have a car in this city,” as the Daily News puts it.

    Instead of supporting these bicyclists overtly, Ben and others have invented a privileged class of bicyclists who ride for environmental, health or other intangible benefits. It is child’s play for anti-bicycle advocates to relegate this class to the margins, because they are not organized for A to B, they are organized for more diffuse benefits, which anti groups can easily dismiss according to weather patterns (“it’s too cold to bike”), recreational use (‘it’s more fun to ride in the park”), and socio-economic status (“they’re just hipsters”). Worse, bicycling advocates themselves are fascinated by exclusion, witness TA’s “Biking Rules,” which sorts out cyclists into good and bad depending on behavior, equipment, and dress.

    For your reference, here’s a simple message that might work:

    I support bike lanes and other such improvements in my community because they help people on bikes get around safely and quickly, without putting their lives at the mercy of cars and trucks, many of which are just using our streets as a shortcut to get somewhere else. People who ride bikes are real New Yorkers, members of our community, and they deserve the respect of having safe ways to get to school and work. Parents shouldn’t have to be forced to get a car because they feel it’s unsafe for their kids to ride to school.

  2. February 2, 2011 1:17 pm

    I think you’re right. Cycling may be fun and hopeful for a lot of people, but for most, it’s just efficient. I doubt the average food delivery cyclist is having much fun, especially not with the threat of being run over by a drunk driver, and I’m also guessing that the environment is not one of his top concerns. Getting around quickly and making money are what matters, and restaurant owners have decided that having people delivery by bike is more efficient than having them do it by car. Not much fun in that equation, but so what? Delivery people are as entitled to separated bike lanes and enforcement of traffic laws as anyone else.

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