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The Straw Man

June 3, 2013

Josh Greenman, writing in the Daily News, wants to broker a truce in the war on cars.  Except that he doesn’t.  What he really wants to do is offer a defense of the poor, put-upon New York City motorist.  And he does so by assigning beliefs to a Rabinowitz-style “bicycle lobby” that it does not have.

Here are my thoughts on Greenman’s massive straw man of an argument.

I’m a Citi Bike founding member, and I’m happy to flaunt my membership fob. The bike share racks don’t bother me, and neither do the riders.

Some of my best friends are bikes!

Knee-jerk anti-bicyclism is a curious thing in this city, a convenient, mostly evidence-free outlet for pent-up reactionary thinking. I am sure that a third street-level mode of transportation can happily coexist alongside pedestrians and motor vehicles. I regularly cross paths with a dog-walking unicyclist, whose bravery and skill I hereby commend.

But there’s one thing I can’t countenance about the bicycle evangelists at Transportation Alternatives, Streetsblog and the like, and that’s their ingrained, reflexive disdain for the automobile.

To distinguish one’s self from “knee-jerk anti-bicyclism,” it’s probably not a good idea to describe TA supporters, Streetsblog writers and readers, “and the like” as evangelicals.

Poke around online or on Twitter and you will find that the bicycle is the greatest thing since the invention of the wheel, while gas-powered, four-wheeled vehicles are practically the embodiment of evil. They’ve ruined our neighborhoods; they’re destroying the environment; they kill pedestrians and bicyclists, practically with glee.

The fact that one has to “poke around online” undermines the idea that anti-car zealotry is a mainstream position among the above-mentioned “evangelicals.”  And drivers may not kill pedestrians and cyclists with glee, but they do it largely without consequence.

The zero-sum vision of some pro-bicycle advocates is a tacit assertion that in some parts of the city, cars, those corporate tools, have no claim to the road. They must be managed in the way an incurable disease is managed. God forbid anyone in power should try to make life easier for those who dominate the roads.

Cars have plenty of of “claim to the road” where bicycles and pedestrians have none.  Highways come to mind.  And while 274 deaths per year is not an incurable disease, it is a public health crisis.

Josh’s use of the word “dominate” is as curious as it is meaningless.  Cars dominate the road because decades of policy has allowed them to do so, not because they are fundamentally better than other forms of transportation.  Dominance, therefore, does not entitle one to privilege.  But never mind that we do, in fact, provide plenty of privileges to drivers.  The city offers free on-street parking on some of the most expensive real estate in the world.  Drivers have a host of free bridges from which to choose if they want to enter Manhattan.  Many police precincts turn a blind eye to speeding.  As I mentioned above, few drivers who kill pedestrians face any real legal penalty.  Maybe Greenman needs to provide specifics: how much easier should life be for drivers in New York City?

I’d like to offer words in defense of the car, and its cousins, the truck and bus.

Cars take elderly people to the doctor, help cops to chase criminals and bring people to work, including teachers and nurses who travel early or late to areas that lack convenient public transportation.

Yes, cars do all of these noble things.  But imagine how many fewer people would have to go to the doctor if they didn’t spend so much time in cars.  Imagine how many criminals the NYPD could chase if they weren’t serving as de facto investigators for the auto insurance industry.

Cars give families the freedom to escape the city for a weekend. Cars enable middle- and working-class people who live well beyond the bounds of Manhattan to participate in the life of the city. And don’t forget those suburbs: Sometimes a New Jersey or Long Island family, whose chosen a life of quiet streets and backyards, wants to brave the tolls and traffic to pay a visit.

Yep. Cars are great for all of this stuff, too.  But rental cars and Zipcar memberships also offer families–including mine–the same freedom of escape without cluttering the streets with automobiles that are only used two times per week.  Again, the position of livable streets advocates is far more nuanced than Greenman will allow himself to admit.

A 13,000-strong fleet of yellow cars, and a parallel fleet of black cars, provide a living to thousands of immigrants. Summoned by our fingertips, they take us just about anyplace we need to go. They have helped many a drunk get home at the end of a long night.

Nowhere in Greenman’s statement can an argument for the status quo be found.  That an industry employs a lot of hard-working immigrants is a wholly separate idea from that industry being good for the city.  Strip clubs and adult video stores provided a lot of employment in the Times Square area for decades until Giuliani decided it might be good for public safety and the economy if the area wasn’t so dominated by them.

And, yes, it’s wonderful to live in a city where you can get drunk and not ever have to worry about getting home.  But cars, it should also be pointed out, are often driven by drunk people who kill people, including sober people in cars.

And trucks?

Trucks bring bananas to the supermarket, stock every store on my vibrant Park Slope strip and serve ice cream to kids. Trucks deliver packages, so many packages. I’m glad mom got her birthday gift on time.

Who can argue against mothers, kids and ice cream?  Everyone knows that the people of Chelsea have not tasted the sweet, sugary taste of ice cream ever since the 8th and 9th Avenue bike lanes were installed.  And if you have a mother who lives on Prospect Park West, I have some bad news for you: she hasn’t received your birthday gift to her since sometime before June 2010.

Trucks take away our garbage and recycling, my old cat litter, your spoiled cottage cheese, your neighbor’s broken bookshelf. Trucks enable construction workers to build this dense city and allow plumbers and electricians to make repairs. Outfitted with sirens, trucks speed heart attack victims to emergency rooms.

Greenman gets really lazy here.  No one I know–NO ONE–thinks there shouldn’t be garbage trucks, service vans, or ambulances.  They have all of those things and more in some of the world’s most livable cities.  It’s just that the glut of cars on our streets makes it really hard for heart attack victims to reach emergency rooms, among other problems. Livable streets advocates think that sensible solutions like congestion pricing, parking maximums, or competitive rates for curbside parking could go a long way toward reducing congestion, allowing garbage trucks to pick up trash faster and help that plumber get to more clients in a day and make a lot more money in the process.

Now, bicycle advocates will tell you they’ve got nothing against cars and trucks. The only point, they say, is that they’ve had free rein, and reign, for far too long. They’ve pumped nasty emissions into the air and hit pedestrians and hit bicyclists. They’ve ruined the waterfront and torn up our human-scale streets, no thanks to the horrid ambitions of Robert Moses.

He’s right!  Although I don’t think Moses’ ambitions were all horrid; many were merely the products of his time.  But we’ve had over half a century now to consider the effects of those ambitions and some need re-thinking.
These advocates say they only want to rebalance things a bit. What they fail to grasp is that New York City, unlike, say, Miami, where I grew up, is already pretty damn balanced. It’s a really tough place for drivers to drive. The signage sucks. The “highways” are mottled. The streets are narrow. Other forms of transit do as they please, and that makes driving more tension-filled than in car-dominated cities.
Of course New York is balanced compared to Miami.  And Miami is balanced compared to Atlanta.  But so what?  Is New York balanced, at least in terms of traffic fatality rates, in comparison with Berlin, Tokyo, Hong Kong, or London?  Not really.  And Greenman’s logic also fails when he writes that driving is less “tension-filled” in cities where the car dominates.  Of course it is!  It’s easier for drivers in those cities precisely because it sucks for pedestrians.  You can sail through Houston in a car at certain hours of the day, but god help you if you try to cross the street on foot there.

Meanwhile, in most respects, we’re already living in the highly walkable city of new urbanists’ dreams, despite the car supposedly having run amok.

As we respect and even expand the territories of pedestrians and bicyclists, the question is: Do we do the same for the many who drive?

Again, New York is highly walkable in comparison to almost every other American city.  But even here, Greenman is experiencing a limited New York, that of Manhattan, brownstone Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and other “gentrified” parts of the city.  For many pedestrians in Brownsville, Upper Manhattan, and much of Queens, the car has, in fact, run amok, leaving those communities disproportionately burdened by asthma and long bus commutes.

If you see cars as always the tool of the oppressor, and if you see bikes as always the weapon of the oppressed, then, naturally, you will try to make life harder for vehicles with engines, and thus harder for the people who rely on them.

Those aren’t Wall Street millionaires taking the wrong off-ramp and getting lost in the Bronx. They’re real people doing their level best to hack it in the city.

There are plenty of valid reasons to commute by car, especially when so much of the city gives residents, even those who can’t afford one, no other option.  No one thinks there’s a one-size-fits all vision for New York City that doesn’t include ambulances, garbage trucks, and, yes, private cars.   In reality, much of what we “evangelicals” are doing is trying to give people, ahem, transportation alternatives.  But that argument doesn’t get page views, does it?
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4 Comments
  1. invisiblevisibleman permalink
    June 3, 2013 7:20 pm

    I’m a newspaper reporter. I sometimes come up with a nice, neat argument about a subject and then seek to check it out. From time to time, it turns out that one can’t actually prove the proponents of a point of view hold views as silly or extreme as one imagined. Self-discipline requires one at that point to change the argument or modify it to fit what people actually do say. I always feel uncomfortable when I’m arguing with vague generalities. It’s a sign that the piece isn’t going to be that good. The inconvenient truth is always more interesting.

    I have some professional sympathy for Josh Greenman. He was trying to strike what he imagined was a balance and, I’m sure, working to tight deadlines and for unforgiving editors.

    But I still get the sense that he started with a neat argument in his head and then ended up twisting uneasily as he discovered that he couldn’t find views to quote from Streetsblog and so on nutty enough to suit his purposes.

  2. Seth Rosenblum permalink
    June 12, 2013 4:05 pm

    It’s pretty absurd that you quote the article (correctly) as calling TA and streetsblog “evangelists”, but then reference greensman’s use as “evangelicals” three times. In fact, I would say the term evangelist really does apply to these two organizations that actively try to convince people to try out bicycles, as it does to me, someone who tries to get his co-workers to bike to work more often. Were you thinking of the term fundamentalist?

    • June 12, 2013 8:26 pm

      “Evangelicals” or “evangelists” are loaded terms, such as they’re associated with fundamentalism and religion. The words are frequently used in anti-bike editorials to demean organizations that work to promote cycling and livable streets. I think Josh was aware of this, although I’m willing to assign a neutral value to his motivation.

      “Advocates,” “activists,” “proponents,” or “supporters” are all better choices that don’t have association with religion.

      Although I will admit that I am a fundamentalist when it comes to evangelizing for the prevention of death by automobile.

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