Marty Markowitz: Fuhgeddaboudhim
From his paranoid claim that DOT tipped off cyclists to inflate ridership counts on Prospect Park West to his entrance on a tricycle at the State of the Borough address in 2011, no one made a bigger mockery of the fight for safe streets in New York City over the past twelve years than Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. So vociferous — and, some might say, delusional — were his claims and antics that if one were to write a screenplay for “Bikelash: The Movie,” studio executives might kick back the script with a note saying, “Love it, but can you tone down that Marty character?”
With just weeks to go before his final term in office expires, Marty has been the subject of a valedictory story in the Times and earlier this week took to the airwaves for a look back. In an interview on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” about the changes in Brooklyn during Marty’s twelve years in office, host Brian Lehrer pointed out that many of the show’s web commenters tagged the borough president as “a prime critic of bike lanes.” And while most of the city has learned to stop worrying and love bicycles, here’s how Marty, with characteristic stubbornness, responded:
Brian Lehrer: Have you warmed to the mayor’s approach on [bicycle lanes] at all?
Marty Markowitz: Listen. First off, I’m not against bicycles, my wife and I have a bicycle, but I have [an] absolute right to raise a question as to whether or not bicycle lanes should be emphasized as a viable alternative transportation mode. And I have serious questions about that. I really do. If you’re in your twenties and early thirties and you live in Williamsburg and you work in DUMBO, absolutely I can make sense, I don’t oppose that at all. But if you live in Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach and you work in Midtown Manhattan, and you’re in your fifties and sixties, come on. You know, the bottom line is, you know, this has to be approached rationally and the one thing I learned in all my years in public service, when you’re a zealot, you’re a zealot. If you’re not with them a hundred percent no matter what they want you are an enemy to them. So I’ve gotten used to this already and it’s okay. So have I warmed to it? Not really. I mean I recognize that certain bicycle lanes are wonderful. For instance, in Manhattan, on the west side, I love that bi—I love it. If you want to build a bicycle lane on the Verrazano Bridge, magnificent, I think it’s wonderful.
Brian Lehrer: And Citi Bike, a good thing?
Marty Markowitz: From what I can see so far it doesn’t seem, you know, except the placement of some of those bikes somewhere, but I, it looks like it’s had a positive impact by and large. I don’t see any opposition to it.
In a two-minute near-soliloquy, Marty neatly encapsulates his entire relationship with bicycles over the past decade, covering everything I’ve come to know — and truly appreciate — about how people who really hate bike lanes talk about bike lanes:
- The obligatory “Some of my best friends are bike lanes” assertion. Marty excels at this tactic like no other person. And there it is, right in his first breath: “Listen. First off, I’m not against bicycles, my wife and I have a bicycle…”
- One statement that directly contradicts the next. Marty believes that bicycles shouldn’t be emphasized as a “viable alternative transportation mode,” but also believes they are a perfectly viable transportation mode for young people commuting from Williamsburg to DUMBO. (By the way, why is it that no one questions whether or not bicycles are a viable mode for men of all ages transporting Chinese food?)
- Framing the slight reallocation of road space in terms of a culture war. Marty not only symbolizes Brooklyn’s mostly false divide between young newcomers to the borough and “real New Yorkers, he also epitomizes the tactic of using this dichotomy to fight progressive change. (Go to any community board meeting on bike lanes and listen to people establish their bona fides by first stating how long they’ve lived in the neighborhood and you’ll know exactly what I mean.) But remember, it was bike-lane-opponents Neighbors for Better Bike lanes, not Transportation Alternatives, that felt that starting a spin-off group called “Seniors for Safety” would help their cause. Seniors who bike for transportation and recreation — and there are many — should be insulted by the way people like Marty cynically think so little of their physical ability.
- The straw man. Very few advocates or transportation planners believe bike lanes will result in large numbers of two-wheeled commuters heading from Sheepshead Bay to Manhattan. Rather, they think that giving New Yorkers safe and more convenient access to jobs, schools, parks, shopping, and transit hubs in their communities is simply a smart approach to a sustainable future. Of course, it would be great if the end result of patching together those smaller networks is that one could safely ride seventeen miles from Columbus Circle to Manhattan Beach, but that’s not the immediate objective. But, man, the way Marty puts it, it sure sounds like those crazy TA hipsters are pretty far out of the mainstream if they think real New Yorkers will pedal their way from one end of the city to the other! Put down the Gatorade, bike crazies!
- The plea for common sense. When Marty says, “This has to be approached rationally,” he sounds like Internet commenters who use the anonymous handle, “Voice of Reason.” Typically the comments that follow are anything but.
- The paranoid invocation of an all-powerful bicycle lobby. With his use of the words “they” and “them,” but without going the full Rabinowitz, Marty implies that he’s been the target of an uncompromising and unnamed opposition who sees him as the “enemy.” Never mind that many of the traffic-calming projects Marty opposed outright, including Prospect Park West and Plaza Street, involved a lot of fine tuning and tweaking to satisfy bike lane opponents’ criticisms. And it also helps to ignore that a group of people sued to have a popular bike lane not just changed, but removed entirely. In Marty’s world, it’s the bike people who are rigidly unreasonable.
- The demeaning personal insult… For NBBL member Louise Hainline, it was the condescending comment that people who ride bikes for transportation are holier-than-thou hippies. (“Bikers really think they’re doing work for the environment if, instead of taking the car a block, they take the bike to the food co-op. That’s touching. But it’s silly.”) For Marty, it’s saying that anyone who subscribes to the radical belief that one fifth of a roadway along a park should be devoted to bicycles must be a zealot.
- …followed by the claim of persecution and martyrdom. Despite the name calling, Marty does not believe he’s done anything to deserve the scorn heaped upon him for his positions. He’s “gotten used to this.”
- “Am I getting too beligerent? Here, let me once again remind you that I love bicycle lanes.” “I mean I recognize that certain bicycle lanes are wonderful,” says Marty, rattling off a couple that are just dandy. One happens to be a mostly recreational path on the far edge of Manhattan and the other doesn’t exist yet, but, man oh man, does Marty Markowitz adore bicycle lanes… so long as they don’t take space from cars.
When Lehrer asks Marty if Citi Bike is “a good thing,” Marty’s characteristic belligerence gives way to an almost confused resignation. This is where you really must listen to the interview since you can almost hear the air come out of his tires as he stammers and trips over words in an attempt to reconcile the fact that Citi Bike is undeniably popular with his belief that there’s still some debate about the future of bicycles as transportation. Citi Bike, in this way, is the bike hater’s Kryptonite.
So there you have it: an exit interview of sorts with the man who was the face of the bikelash, at least while it lasted. Will I miss Marty Markowitz? In some ways, yes. I will miss his love and enthusiasm for Brooklyn, even if it was a love for a kind of egg-creams-and-Dodgers-games simulacrum that was probably never as ideal as he made it out to be. And I will certainly miss the material he gave me for this blog, especially in its early days. But I will not miss his opposition to safety for all Brooklynites, nor his apparent lack of compassion for people who can’t afford to drive everywhere.
As a livable streets advocate who sees nothing but opportunities ahead now that one of the biggest obstacles in the fight for safer streets motors off into the sunset, perhaps my feelings about Marty Markowitz can best be summed up by one of the funniest moments from “Fiddler on the Roof,” in which a rabbi is asked by a young villager if there’s a blessing for the tsar. “Of course,” replies the rabbi. “May God bless and keep the tsar…far away from us.”