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Where Do All the Cyclists Live?

March 29, 2018

In previous posts, I’ve documented the language used by people who oppose bike lanes and safe streets projects. From “I like bikes, but…” to “This isn’t Amsterdam,” there are a host of things people say repeatedly in service of preserving parking and the car-dominant status quo.

And while these statements were covered in local news outlets, they didn’t originate from reporters’ pens; they were things that came out of the mouths of bike lane opponents themselves. But one thing that I’ve been cataloguing for quite some time — and least in my mind — is in fact something that comes straight from members of the press: the question of who reporters define as members of “the community.”

Take this story from the Queens Times Ledger about a revised proposal to install protected bike lanes in Sunnyside:

The original proposal by DOT, heavily opposed by the community, eliminated up to 158 spaces in exchange for bike lanes, while the new proposal eliminates 117 and 129 parking spaces on both Skillman and 43rd Avenues combined between Roosevelt Avenue and Queens Boulevard.

The original proposal was “heavily opposed by the community,” yet guess who showed up to see the new one?

The auditorium at PS 150 40-01 43rd Ave. was packed to standing room with bicycle advocates associated with Transportation Alternatives, which fights for safer streets, and community leaders such as Patricia Dorfman, executive director of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, who claimed many small businesses feared going out of business entirely.

This was only the latest example of something that plays out in press coverage all over the country. When it comes to covering the ongoing shift from car dominance to people-powered transportation, “the community” is just shorthand for “people who oppose change.” People who support street redesigns, however, aren’t members of the “community.” They’re merely “bicycle advocates” or “cyclists.”

Last year, I noticed this report from Cambridge, Massachusetts:

The first public meeting on a Cambridge Street separated bike lane project drew some 150 cyclists, street residents and concerned business proprietors and others Tuesday, and the design – shifting the bike lane between parked cars and the curb – and summer timeline were received with overwhelming support.

“Street residents” tells us something useful about the people who attended the meeting, namely that they live on the affected street or at least in the immediate vicinity. Similarly, “concerned business proprietors” paints a mental picture of local mom-and-pop store owners. But who are the “cyclists” and where do they live? Your idea is as good as mine.

Here’s another example from St. Paul, Minnesota.

This headline raises a good question: do any of the neighbors have neighbors who bike?

It isn’t just reporters and editors who fall into this trap. Here’s a listing from a 2017 event hosted by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

galebrewerevent

Brewer has been generally supportive of bike lanes, a car-free Central Park, and safe streets in general. But the above shows that even those with the best of intentions can divide people into limited and unhelpful categories. Note the copy that asks, “How can we accommodate more bikers, and improve biker/community relations?” This makes it sound like bikers are an invasive species infecting the urban ecosystem. The listing might have been improved if it said, “How can we accommodate the growing number of New Yorkers who bike and improve conditions for all street users?”

Of course, nearly every bikelash trope can be found in the case that perhaps kicked off the phenomenon, or at least elevated it to its most absurd zenith: the Prospect Park West Bike lane. Here’s how a  2010 story from WNYC framed the players in this neighborhood drama:

ppwwnyc

Some Park Slope residents believe that the bike lane has made the street more dangerous, since pedestrians now have to cross a two-way bike lane and then a one-way street when leaving Prospect Park. Some residents also say that cyclists do not obey traffic lights along Prospect Park West.

However, cyclists and other supporters said it’s not a pedestrian safety issue, since cyclists should still obey traffic lights, and pedestrians simply need to look both ways before crossing. In addition, many believe slower traffic is an improvement for a street known for speeding cars.

Now it is true that not all people who bike through a neighborhood live there, and in the case of Prospect Park West — a street that runs next to Brooklyn’s biggest and most popular park — that is most certainly the case. But that’s just the nature of city living. Most New Yorkers do not live on limited access cul-de-sacs or within gated communities. The streets that make up one neighborhood are merely threads that connect the entire urban tapestry. And that is what gives this city — any city, really — its vitality.

On a personal level, my commute to work takes me from my apartment in Park Slope and through Gowanus, Boerum Hill, and downtown Brooklyn before I reach the Manhattan Bridge. In Manhattan, I ride through Chinatown, Little Italy, Soho, and Greenwich Village. And even though I don’t reside in these neighborhoods, that doesn’t mean I’m not a member of the community of people who make up each of those places.

Sure, people who live in a particular area generally have a much more vested interest in what happens there than those who merely pass through, and local residents’ should be allowed to have a voice — but not necessarily a veto — on street-level changes. But automatically excluding or othering people simply because they ride a bike makes no sense, even if it does make for convenient “both sides” reporting. Besides, something tells me that if a group of people who lived outside a neighborhood but who regularly drove through it came to a meeting to object to a bike lane project, very few of the similarly car-dependent local residents would object to their support. And no one in the press would describe them as “avid motorists” or “car advocates.”

One reason I disdain the term “cyclist” — and the broader “cycling community” — is because it creates an artificial tribe where none really exists. Jonathan Maus of BikePortland.org shares my point of view and articulates it in this post quite nicely:

As many of you know, I have a big problem with labels like “cyclist community.” What even is that? Am I member? Are you a member? Or are we just regular people who want safer streets? Even though KPTV doesn’t use the label with any intended malice, I firmly believe labels like this are unnecessary and harmful.

Labels are lazy. They allow us to paint with a broad brush instead of taking the time to speak in more detailed strokes. Labels assume a large group of people share the same motivations and beliefs when in fact no such common cause exists. Labels also perpetuate hate and divisiveness by serving up a tidy basket for people’s anger. Labels are linguistic punching bags — a conveniently gift-wrapped “other” served on a platter for people to take swings at.

I am not a cyclist. A bike is just a tool I use for getting around. And only then some of the time. I’m frequently a straphanger. More often than not I’m a pedestrian.Occasionally I’m a driver. I guess you could call me a multi-modalist. But I think it’s easier, more accurate, and more productive to just call me a New Yorker.

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9 Comments
  1. March 29, 2018 7:51 pm

    While you make an excellent point that “bicyclists” or “bicycle advocates” should not be counterposed with “the community” or with “residents”, I cannot agree with disdaining the term completely.

    I am most definitely a bicyclist. I like the label, because it fits. Bicycling is part of my identity. While a bike is indeed a tool that I use to get around, it is more than that. Through riding a bicycle I feel most strongly my sense of place, my connection to my beloved City. I also feel an intimacy when I am visiting someplace else on my bike. I feel my fascination with Philadelphia and Washington, and I feel an interest in Baltimore that is mixed with a sort of anxiety that I do not feel in other cities. Perhaps somewhat perversely, I also value the sense of annoyance that I feel when riding in non-urban areas, because this reveals something profound in my makeup, as it reconfirms my affinity for the urban landscape.

    On a more fundamental level, when I am coasting down a nice hill, I almost always contemplate the fact that I am at that moment surfing the cosmic forces. (If I weren’t an atheist I’d be tempted to call this a spiritual feeling.) So it is by means of the bicycle that I experience my strongest connection to the Universe.

    When I had the greatest pain of my life, caused by the sudden death of the person whom I loved most and who loved me most, when everything was blighted by grief and I could barely cope, one thing that kept me from complete collapse was the satisfaction that I could still derive from bicycling.

    Now that I have regained my balance from that tragic event of seven years ago, I can once again feel the full pleasure of bicycling. And I can say that there is literally nothing in the world that is more enjoyable. Riding all day in the summer heat is the best feeling there is. It’s better than sex, better than pizza, better than the Beatles.

    Beyond the personal, there is the policy question. Bicycling, more than any other single measure, is The Answer. It is the solution to congestion, to pollution, and to sprawl, as well as to obesity and other issues related to public health. Therefore, we should have policies and laws that incentivise bicycling at the expense of driving.

    What is tragic is that so few people ride a bike. And here we see that “the cycling community” is not a tribe, because tribe is exclusionary; but any cyclist would prefer ideally that everybody take up riding. The set of people who could realistically be expected to ride regularly consists of those who have no disability that prevents bicycling, and who live within ten miles of work or school. Even if you exclude people whose jobs entail the hauling of tools or gear and who therefore require the use of a car, only a fraction of the remaining masses are regular users of bicycles.

    This is down to prejudice caused by enculturation — a polite way of saying “brainwashing” — into a perception of bicycling as an oddball activity, a viewpoint that is a natural outgrowth of the uncritical acceptance of driving as the default mode of transportation. Here we have our society’s prevailing orthodoxy. To undermine this orthodoxy and to normalise bicycling, that is the struggle of our time. The more that people feel comfortable embracing the label “bicyclist”, the more likely they are to engage in this struggle. The most obvious expression of the struggle is the attempt to achieve more and better bicycle infrastructure, which in turn entices more people to ride, thereby helping to transform bicyclists from “the other” into the mainstream..

    In your last paragraph you commit the very same error that you describe at the outset of the piece, as you set being a bicyclist in some kind of opposition to being a New Yorker. The reality is that all New Yorkers carry multiple additional identifications, whether ethnic/racial, (a)vocational, or ideological. A New Yorker will also identify as a Puerto Rican or a Jew, as a writer or a singer, or, in my case, as a class-conscious proletarian and an Esperantist. And also as a bicyclist. I’d like to turn Jonathan Maus’s comment completely on its head, and say that labels like this are necessary and helpful.

    • April 2, 2018 10:53 am

      “The reality is that all New Yorkers carry multiple additional identifications, whether ethnic/racial, (a)vocational, or ideological.”

      That’s the point. I am not a cyclist. I am a lot of different things that all add up to me being a person. The more the press (and even planners) refer to bike lanes as being for “cyclists” the longer and stupider these fights get. Bike lanes are for New Yorkers who want to get around by bike.

  2. March 30, 2018 6:43 am

    Great essay Doug!

    Have a beautiful day!

    Ben Kintisch

    >

  3. Woodside mom permalink
    March 30, 2018 1:13 pm

    In Sunnyside, the protected bike lane was proposed in the aftermath of a cyclist’s death, but that cyclist was killed by a drunk driver, so there’s no guarantee that a protected bike lane would have prevented that. There are now bike lanes drawn on many streets, which hopefully will make drivers think about cyclists (I know it does for me). To take away parking spots in a neighborhood where parking is already tight really affects the quality of life of residents. And if there are no statistics to support the need for a protected bike lane, that makes it even harder to swallow. Many of us are car owners, pedestrians AND cyclists so we should not be at each other’s throats but should try to come up with solutions that serve everyone.

    • Adrian Horczak permalink
      March 31, 2018 1:21 pm

      How many parking spots is one life worth?

    • April 2, 2018 10:54 am

      I don’t know the specifics of the case to which you refer, but my guess is that a protected bike lane is great protection from being killed by a drunk driver or any other type of reckless motorist. The stats bear that out.

  4. Clark in Vancouver permalink
    March 30, 2018 3:08 pm

    Good article. I have also noticed the framing of people as outsiders. The news media maybe way in the past had journalistic integrity but it hasn’t for a long time. They certainly now are not a friend of the people.
    Then there are those who you thought were media savvy because they are in a category of person that in the past was demonized by the media, go and just eat it up. They really should know better.
    You can live in a neighbourhood your entire life but lately it seems the moment you sit on a bike seat you’re considered to be an invader. Worst still are people who have known you for decades and have seen you cycle all that time suddenly talk to you like you’re some type of other person and the activity they’ve seen you do for years is now all of a sudden suspicious.
    Another odd thing is people who cycle more than you do consider themselves to not be cyclists yet you, who cycle less than they do, are. Don’t get that one.

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