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The Bikelash is Dead, Long Live the Bikelash!

July 9, 2014
photo (7)

A “biker terrorist” in training.

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.

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4 Comments
  1. Jesse permalink
    July 9, 2014 4:16 pm

    I appreciate the response but can you do a post on this common driver complaint (highlighted in the Milloy’s rant)?:

    Bikers routinely worm their way to the front of a line of cars waiting at a red light. When the light turns green, they’ll poke along at a snail’s pace, holding up traffic while motorists wait for a chance to pass. Then they do the same thing at the next stop light.

    It’s so flawed but I think to a lot of drivers it sounds right. For one, there is no such thing as a queue at a stop light. If you’re in a car, following behind another car and the first one comes to a stop at the light, then if the lane next to you is open, you’re not expected to wait behind the first car. You can move to the other lane. The only reason cars don’t filter into the spaces between cars is because they can’t fit there. But people on motorcycles do this all the time, and in most cases it’s not even illegal.

    Second, in many places (NYC for one) it’s legal for cyclists to pass on the right when the cars aren’t moving. This makes sense, given that you’re usually legally required to ride as far to the right as practicable. And regardless of what the law is in that case, it’s what bullying motorists demand of you anyway.

    Which is the last point. Motorists don’t even want you riding in the middle of the lane. They want you to be in the gutter or the door zone, except, when traffic isn’t moving at all. Then you’re supposed to just stay put I guess and wait till the light turns green and everyone can clip you with their side mirrors.

    The reason cyclists do this at lights is obvious: (1) to keep moving when traffic is stalled and (2) to establish a safe space in the intersection so that when the light turns green. drivers have no choice but to give you room and pass safely. And the reason drivers object to this goes back to the same double standard they always have when viewing cyclists: Despite the fact that they are stuck behind a line of cars as far as the eye can see, somehow, YOU are the one reason that traffic isn’t moving. The attitude that you should be shunted off to the side always and stop when they stop – removing the one advantage a bike has over cars in this situation, and which benefits motorists as well – is just another manifestation of “cyclists, get off MY road!” And beyond simply not riding your bike, there is no amount of capitulatory behavior that will appease these types.

    • July 9, 2014 4:37 pm

      I’m not sure there’s much to respond to in Milloy’s complaint. For starters, as Bike Snob pointed out today, it’s the rare bike hater whose biggest problem with cyclists is that they stop for every red light. Also, if cyclists didn’t worm their way to the front of the queue, my suspicion is that Milloy and drivers like him would be upset about the cyclists who are in the way when they want to turn right. As you said, there’s nothing even the most law-abiding cyclist can do to appease some people.

      • July 10, 2014 11:08 am

        My objection to the piece was purely the incitement to violence. I made that point in the comments. That’s what’s reprehensible.

        The rest is the usual, self-contradictory nonsense, which it’s tiresome to waste time combating.

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