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Bike Lane Hater of the Week: Charles Blow

May 31, 2011

On Sunday, someone I follow on Twitter retweeted a true gem from Charles M. Blow, the Op-Art columnist for the Times.  Like a social media version of John Cassidy, Blow quickly unleashed a torrent of irrational arguments against bike lanes in the tweets that followed.  It was almost as if he sent out the first one, realized his mistake, but then couldn’t stop himself from trying to have it all make sense.

Random observ: NYC is going CRAZY with the air conditioners. 9 months of the year it’s 15 degrees!  Seriously, do you know how much roof space, infrastructure, and money is devoted to equipment that’s only in use for three months?  I mean, why have beaches, public pools, parks, or, on the flip side, even schools?  They’re not in use 100% of the time and therefore must be unnecessary.  Did you know that most roads are totally empty for at least eighteen hours a day?

Never mind that the more bike lanes you build and the better you maintain them, the more likely are you are to see year-round ridership.  Copenhagen is not exactly Los Angeles when it comes to weather, yet 80% of its residents continue cycling through the winter.

Speaking of Copenhagen:

Marijuana is illegal in Denmark.  Amsterdam, Copenhagen…whatever.

Blow should realize that he can’t out Cuozz the Cuozz:

The DOT’s bike lanes are usually devoid of bikes except for food-delivery personnel. The lanes are the superhighway for General Tso’s chicken, but lonesome highways for everyone else.

Remember: delivery men and messengers are not humans deserving of the security and protection afforded them by bike lanes.

Shorter tweet: we should wait until New York City is under water to install more bike lanes.

Blow must have read Adam Sternbergh’s how-to for writing an anti-bike-lane argument, because the requisite “pre-emptive self exoneration” is right there.  From the Times‘ “Let’s be clear. We like bicycles,” to Dominic Recchia’s “I’m not against bike lanes,” establishing some sort of environmental or cycling bona fides is essential when making this kind of irrational argument.

Zero.  Then again, as everyone knows, there was no traffic in New York City until 2007, when Janette Sadik-Khan was chosen to head the DOT.

One of Blow’s followers stepped into the fray, presumably tweeting, “Portland, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin and DC have robust bike lane networks. Why not NYC?”  Here’s Blow’s response:

I’ve never understood this line of reasoning.  Why would NYC be too “big and complicated” for bike lanes, but not for all of the other things one finds in cities?  Is London less complicated than New York?  Over 21 million people live in the Mexico City metropolitan area, and yet it supports a thriving bike share program.  Private cars, not bikes, become increasingly inefficient as cities get bigger and more complicated.

If by “size” Blow means geographic area and not population, his reasoning also falls flat.  The more one divides New York into a collection of small, walkable neighborhoods, the less relevant its overall geographic size becomes.  While few people undertake a daily 22-mile bike ride from the Rockaways to Times Square, bicycles are ideal for short commutes or for trips around the neighborhood.  Plus, a funny thing happens if you build enough bike lanes for the majority of people who take those short trips through small neighborhoods: eventually you have a connected network that benefits the people who take long ones.

Another follower challenged Blow along those lines, telling him that bike lanes were a classic case of “If you build it, they will come.”  Blow’s response:

When it comes to traffic safety, this city has been a failed experiment for nearly a century.  Sadik-Khan’s “experiments” have resulted in the lowest number of traffic fatalities in decades.  If Blow is interested, the statistics would make a great chart.

I found this line of reasoning to be Blow’s strangest.  Yes, New York is unique in that kids often get placed into schools a long distance from their homes, but that doesn’t mean every school is located on the outer fringes of the city, ten miles from nowhere.  Park Slope, where both I and Blow live, has some of the best neighborhood schools in the city, which is part of the reason apartments zoned for PS 321 command such high prices.  Offering further explanation, Blow later tweeted, “Kids (or parents & kids) have to schlep all over the place, with book bags, and sports equipment and cupcakes. It’s a real pain.”

This is textbook bike-lane-hating narcissism:  “Because I can not use a bike as transportation, the city should not do anything to promote bikes as transportation.”  Give Blow credit, however.  Before going the full Markowitz, he pulled back a little bit:

I don’t think advocates are well served when they try to convince someone like Blow that he can, in fact, bike to work or schlep his kids and their cupcakes to school on a cargo bike.  If he can’t or doesn’t want to, that’s up to him.  But it would be nice if people who were so reflexively anti-bike lane could better understand their prejudices or at least admit, “Eh, it’s not for me.”

Watching Blow dig his hole was entertaining enough, but one tweet he sent moments after the last was the most telling:

I pictured Blow pedaling away furiously on a stationary bike, getting out a week’s worth of personal frustration, when suddenly a “random observ” pops into his head.  He whips out his Blackberry, types it in, hits “send” and begins his rapid descent into irrationality, enshrining himself as another strange character in New York’s bike lane backlash.

Maybe he would have been happier if he had been outside enjoying the beautiful weekend weather pedaling down a bike lane instead.

  1. May 31, 2011 10:30 am

    Note to bicycling advocates: if you don’t feel strongly enough about the benefits of bicycling to work, strong enough to mention it as an option to healthy adult folks who are already exercising (like Mr. Blow), maybe you should find something else to advocate for. I think what the author means here is that some people are never going to bike to work, that Mr. Blow may be one of them, and that not wasting time and energy on fruitless persuasion is a good thing.

  2. May 31, 2011 11:23 am

    Great analysis and summary! However, I would not describe the network in Berlin as “robust”. Still, the city has a bike modal share of about 15%.

  3. krstrois permalink
    May 31, 2011 2:25 pm

    This was satisfying to read and spot on.

    I think Blow, like Cassidy, was really shocked by the blowback he received on the Twitter. To his credit, he did not succumb to Oxford Union level apoplexy, like Cassidy did.

  4. Dr. Dr. permalink
    June 1, 2011 1:32 pm

    So is this guy like a celebrity or something? I’ve never heard of him. The Tweet and Response style you wrote in was great, consistently smacking him down. What a joke.

  5. Oscar permalink
    June 1, 2011 8:18 pm

    Not a celeb, but you’d think someone who works for the Times op-ed page would be a little smarter.

  6. June 2, 2011 8:27 pm

    Well with a name like Blow, what do you expect?


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