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This isn’t Amsterdam

October 14, 2011

There’s something uniquely American about defining the United States not by what it is or could become, but by what it is not and could never be. A political leader who dares suggest that we have anything to learn from looking abroad will find himself on the receiving end of a school-yard taunt, one that’s ready-made for a cable news sound bite: “If my opponent loves [country] so much, I suggest he move there.”

This isolationist sentiment is a disease that infects our political discourse and prevents the United States from tackling real problems. We can’t have national health care because we’re not Switzerland. We can’t offer more generous unemployment benefits because we’re not France. We can’t do something as basic as switch to dollar coins or get rid of the penny because we’re not Canada. And we can’t have bike lanes because we’re not Amsterdam.

What San Francisco is to the Republican party, Amsterdam is to bike lane opponents: a convenient bogeyman for reductive arguments from people with little apparent interest in constructive, high-minded, forward-thinking discussions about solutions to New York’s congestion and safety problems. No one uses this strategy better than the Brooklyn Borough President:

“What is our objective in this city? To stigmatize the use of cars? To make it difficult to park? Do we want Brooklyn to replicate Amsterdam? These are legitimate policy issues.” – Marty Markowitz

Marty may be Brooklyn’s unofficial anti-bike-lane poet laureate, but someone who actually makes his living as a writer can give the phrase a more poetic flourish:

“New Amsterdam Is Not Amsterdam.”Daniel Meltzer, playwright

Meltzer’s use of the cliche is all the more ironic because he uses another in the same piece: “Houston, we have a problem.” I’d argue that the problem we have right now is that too many people want New York to be less like Amsterdam and more like Houston.

Others are not interested in poetry and simply use the phrase to get to get grossly inaccurate statements about the cost of bike lanes inserted into news coverage:

This is not Amsterdam. $65 million is going towards building bike lanes that serve so few people. Bloomberg is wasting our money.” – Barbara Ulrich

According to the DOT, the entire cost to New York City for building or painting over 250 miles of bike lanes since 2006 is $1.6 million. Not that it matters to critics; no cost is too low to be too expensive to turn New York into the Netherlands.

Like most NIMBY arguments, overuse can lead to a breakdown in basic cognitive functioning:

This isn’t Amsterdam.  We have many narrow streets and a great number of cars and trucks.” – Hank Sheinkopf, political consultant

You know, because Amsterdam’s streets are so wide and car-free that they can run canals right through the middle of them.

Eventually, using Amsterdam as a stand-in for all things that New York can not be is far too limiting so it’s helpful to take the argument somewhere just as bike-friendly. Unfortunately, as any traveler knows, something can get lost in the translation from one country to the next that even an intelligent Times columnist can get confused:

NYC is not Copenhagen. If it were, we wouldn’t be busting everyone for weed.” – Charles M. Blow

Blow’s mistake illustrates why it’s better to rely on a simple list of cities and nativism:

This is not Copenhagen or Amsterdam.  People in this neighborhood are not taking bicycles to the grocery store.” – Assemblyman Alan Maisel (D-Canarsie)

Sometimes it helps to distill this tabloid-driven narrative into its most basic elements and be as emphatic as possible:

“And they said they wanted the city to look like Copenhagen. And this is Manhattan. It’s Manhattan. It’s not Copenhagen.” – Ernest Rossi, shop owner

Still other people who are against “Better Bike Lanes” like to tie their arguments back to America:

We will never be Amsterdam, never be Copenhagen. We are never going to be Portland.” – Louise Hainline, NBBL president

If Portlandia-style liberalism and European-style socialism isn’t enough to scare New Yorkers away from bike lanes, then the specter of actual Chinese Communism should do the trick:

The lawsuit concerns just one stretch of road. If successful, however, it could open the way to a broader challenge to City Hall, which sometimes seems intent on turning New York into Amsterdam, or perhaps Beijing. – John Cassidy, The New Yorker

Amazingly, you can complete the six degrees of anti-bike-lane hysteria separation between a respected economics writer and a buffoonish Brooklyn Borough President in just one move:

Beijing is looking more like New York City and New York City is moving towards Beijing of the 1960s and 50s.” – Marty Markowitz

Unfortunately for the forces that want to keep New York mired in the Eisenhower era, using Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Beijing and other cities to make an argument against bike lanes and traffic calming is fraught with dangers, especially when a new street design’s worth is so obvious and beneficial that a NIMBY has to cross over to the darkside and become a YIMBY:

“Grand Army Plaza, as you know, is known as Brooklyn’s Arc de Triomphe, our Piccadilly Square, our Piazza Navona, but over the years as you know it’s become increasingly difficult and dangerous for Brooklynites and visitors to reach and enjoy, and that is why we’re so thrilled with these plans to create landscaped pedestrian islands, a dedicated bike lanes, additional crosswalks, and pedestrian signalss, which will help return this hub to the European-style plaza it was designed to be.” – Marty Markowitz

If you find other “This isn’t [city]” quotes, please share them in the comments.

UPDATE: 3/15/2016

Marty Markowitz, whose “This isn’t Amsterdam” protestations first caused me to start keeping track of everyone else’s, is back with more thanks to the never-ending saga of the Prospect Park West bike lane lawsuit:

Outside the courtroom, Markowitz told us that there’s no inconsistency between the work his office does using bike infrastructure as a selling pointfor tourists and his opposition to an amenity his old neighborhood has largely embraced.

“I don’t oppose all bike lanes, just this particular one,” he explained, describing his position on the bike lanes on Kent Avenue and the West Side Highway: “Love love love it.”

Still, he said, “New York City is not Amsterdam, it never will be Amsterdam, and that’s all there is to it.”

Longtime readers will also note that the first part of Marty’s quote falls solidly into another favorite bikelash category: “Some of My Best Friends are Bike Lanes.”

UPDATE: 4/29/2016

Here’s one from a story in the Chattanooga, TN Times Free Press, about a plan to add bike lanes to Frazier Avenue, a major downtown corridor. It’s one of the rare “This isn’t Amsterdam” quotes that also includes a couple of other American cities. Progress, I suppose:

“The whole concept from the beginning doesn’t make any sense,” said Suzanne Bishop, owner of Frankie and Julian’s, a women’s clothing store. “You don’t compare Chattanooga to a city like Amsterdam. Then a lot of people like to envision this like a Portland or a Seattle, but it’s not like that at all in any way, shape or form.

  1. October 14, 2011 12:07 pm

    Great post! Nice to see all the idiocy in one place.

  2. October 14, 2011 2:25 pm

    =v= This is New Breukelen, not New Amsterdam, as I explained to Marty way back when he said the first quote. As I also explained, Brooklyn had the first greenway in the world (it was called a “parkway” then, but that word’s been corrupted), and Amsterdam, Copenhagen, etc. are just copying us.

  3. eLK permalink
    October 14, 2011 11:39 pm

    Wow! Amsterdam is no longer just about a place to smoke pot. And Copenhagen isn’t just a place to go for a sex change!

    Maybe Times Square isn’t for strippers and pick-pockets?

    We’re movin’ on up.

  4. domy permalink
    October 15, 2011 2:49 am

    It seems like it took a lot of time and effort into this post. I think you’d be better off spending that time and effort on your bike. It’s good exercise, and you can also go places and get to know your neighborhood!

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