The Bikelash is Dead, Long Live the Bikelash!
Left to its own devices, the bikelash will sow the seeds of its own demise.
That sentiment, first articulated by former DOT policy director Jon Orcutt in 2012, has been echoing through my mind as I’ve read the reaction to columnist Courtland Milloy’s Rabinowitzian rant against “bicyclist bullies” in the Washington Post. Here’s what Orcutt had to say back then:
Last year’s media-fomented “bikelash” had the unintended effect of arousing public interest in bike lanes when many New Yorkers might otherwise have been indifferent, he said. When opinion polls consistently showed overwhelming support for bike infrastructure, said Orcutt, the negative stories disappeared.
Much of the discussion surrounding bicycling and safe streets takes place on niche blogs like mine or on the smart and informative WashCycle. We’re little fish in a little pond. Even Streetsblog, Greater Greater Washington, an BikePortland.org, which each have a readership and influence I can only dream of, still reach a relatively small sliver of the Internet pie. So, if there’s any value to Milloy’s call to arms against the “biker terrorists out to rule the road,” it’s that his odd collection of, let’s face it, sociopathic rantings have been published in a place where a ton of people will see them. (Whether the Post should have published a piece in which a writer recommends sticking a broomstick in cyclists’ wheels and diminishes the life of fellow human beings to $500 is another story, but here we are.)
If the Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz had written a thoughtful and reasoned take on bike share and the policies of the Bloomberg Administration, the most such an op-ed would have garnered might have been a few tweets and perhaps a link on a roundup of daily headlines. Instead, she starred in “Death By Bicycle,” launching the irrational hatred of bicycles into stratosphere and prompting Jon Stewart, who’s surely never heard of Streetsblog or Brooklyn Spoke, to tell his viewers, “They’re just fucking bikes!”
So while I think responding to Milloy’s open endorsement of violence is right and necessary, a point-by point rebuttal – a tactic I’ve been known to take – may be cathartic but perhaps beside the point. Unless, that is, it prompts Milloy to write not one but two follow-up columns of equal or greater insanity, as The New Yorker’s John Cassidy did in 2011. Then it’s totally worth it.
In “Moving Beyond Bikelash,” a presentation I do with Aaron Naparstek, we discuss various ways to combat the opposition that tends to arise over changing streets to serve more than just motorists. While each of us draws on examples from our specific areas of expertise, from new media and journalism to television production and humor, we ultimately arrive at one of the most important tools for resolving conflict: letting people talk.
On the person-to-person level it can really make a difference. A community member hates bike lanes and thinks they’re dangerous? Fine. Don’t shout them down. Let them talk for a minute. Eventually you might find what the real issue is, whether its a simple misunderstood fact or an outright a fear of the unknown, change, and gentrification. On the person-to-established-media-figure level, it can make an even bigger difference. It can cause people far beyond the orbit of livable streets advocates to sit up and listen, bringing attention to a cause that no amount of letter-writing or donations to advocacy organizations could ever hope to accomplish.
So when a cranky newspaper columnist — or local TV reporter — says that bike lanes are an instrument of terrorism, embrace the crazy! Let it go on for as long as it can. It’s the only way to make sure it ends quickly.