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The More Streets Change, the More Some People Stay the Same

September 22, 2016
A commuter rides a Citi Bike on Prospect Park West.

A commuter rides a Citi Bike on Prospect Park West.

This is how the bikelash ends, not with a bang but with a press release.

I launched Brooklyn Spoke in late 2010, shortly before the fight over the Prospect Park West bike lane was really heating up. (The lawsuit was filed in March 2011, the winter of our discontent and perhaps the height of the New York City bikelash.) For the most part, my early posts focused on biking in general; they’re clearly written by a newbie who was just dipping in his toes in the larger social and political words of bikes, activism, and progressive transportation planning.

My first mention of the Prospect Park West bike lane was in a post from December 16, 2010: “The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Change Itself.” It wasn’t specifically about PPW, but was a general reflection on the fight over bike lanes in general.

I believe that some of the biggest bike lane opponents, such as Marty Markowitz and those who live on Prospect Park West, have that fear. This is not the Brooklyn they know, the Brooklyn they have lived in for the past many decades. To them, the city has always been a city of cars, the roads have always been designed to accommodate them, and what looks like a sudden change–even if it is the result of multi-year conversations with community boards and intense, data-driven studies–is a shock to the system. Carol Linn, of Neighbors For Better Bike Lanes (which is actually against the PPW bike lane) testified to this very point during the City Council hearing on bikes. She mentioned going away last summer only to come back to see that the street had been radically changed. Years of requests from the local community board and conversations with the DOT were invisible as far as she was concerned; all that mattered was that the street had changed without her knowing it.

There is also another fear that comes with change: the fear of being wrong and having to admit it.

That last idea — that being wrong about bike lanes means never having to say you’re sorry — is very evident in the statement Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes and Seniors released yesterday. Ben Fried at Streetsblog artfully describes it not as an apology, but as “a longwinded attempt to save face and maintain the fiction that they sued to erase a perfectly safe and functional bike lane out of a sense of civic duty, not selfishness.” It was written, as Ben implied, with what must have been the knowledge that most journalists would offer little more than “he said/she said” coverage of the lawsuit’s end. If that was the calculation, they were right. Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes and Seniors for Safety may never have known much about bike lanes or safety, but they always seemed to know a lot about the press.

I began to find my voice as an advocate responding to a lot of the nonsense that NBBL managed to get into print. In the spirit of those early days, I wanted to single out two parts of NBBL’s full statement [PDF].

Here’s the first one:

Back in June 2010, the City installed a bike lane on Prospect Park West on a trial basis, for the dual purpose of facilitating “traffic calming” goals and providing a public recreational amenity.

But wait! In 2010, NBBL acknowledged that one of the bike lane’s original purposes was to facilitate bicycle commuting. Here’s what Norman Steisel, Louise Hainline, and Iris Weinshall wrote in a letter to the editor of the New York Times:

Furthermore, the D.O.T. data’s lack of credibility is reinforced by our own videotapes. These show that the Prospect Park West bike lanes are used by half the number of riders the D.O.T. says, and that cyclists are not riding to commute as originally contemplated but are recreational users who could be better served by enhancing the existing lane 100 yards away in Prospect Park.

So, in 2010 NBBL acknowledged that one of the goals of the redesign was to accommodate cyclists who were “riding to commute,” even if they felt that it wasn’t living up to that promise. Yet yesterday they said that one of the two original purposes was to provide “a public recreational amenity.” If this swtich was intention, it sure is a subtle way of positioning people who use bicycles as less than people who drive. It reminded me of Louise Hainline’s dig at people who bike from this March 2011 New York Magazine feature:

“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.”

See? I told you the winter of 2011 was really bad.

Here’s the second part that caught my attention. Again, emphasis is mine.

From the outset we have believed that bikes must be effectively introduced as a critical feature of the City’s evolving public transportation infrastructure. In fact, some of our groups’ members are civic leaders who participated in the formulation of the City’s transportation policy and plans well before this bike lane’s installation. However, we believe the evidentiary record and recent court decision in our favor confirm our view that the previous administration was purposely misleading with regard to the temporary nature of the original project.

Shorter NBBL: “We like bike lanes, but…”




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