My headline isn’t going to get as many clicks as the one at the top of this Thrillist article, so click through and read reporter Dave Infante’s take on the challenges of building better bike lanes in New York. Here’s one of my favorite passages:
Reengineering the city’s 6,000 miles of roadways to be more equitable is the DOT’s job, and it’s a big one. “City streets are all a balancing act,” Wright, the DOT greenway director, patiently told me in a phone interview. “You’re trying to make everything work on this small curb-to-curb place.” As noted earlier, the imbalance exists because the system was designed for motor vehicles, but it persists because it’s beneficial to the very people who hold the power to change it: car owners.
I’m quoted in the piece along with a few other names you might recognize.
I haven’t updated “Some of My Best Friends are Bike Lanes” — a post about how people who oppose bicycle lanes first have to say they love bicycles — in quite some time. However, the following quote by attorney Steven Sladkus is worthy of inclusion.
“I can’t stand these bicycles,” Mr. Sladkus said. “While I applaud this mode of public transportation, I still can’t believe that helmets aren’t required and I still cannot believe the rationale the city uses in placement of some of these racks.”
It’s actually an inversion of the standard, “I like bicycles, but…” construction. In this case, Sladkus flat-out admits that he “can’t stand these bicycles” before applauding bike share. That’s a new one.
In his book, Fighting Traffic, Peter Norton describes the reaction that many had to cars in American cities in the early part of the 20th century:
With the sudden arrival of the automobile came a new kind of mass death. Most of the dead were city people. Most of the car’s urban victims were pedestrians, and most of the pedestrian victims were children and youths. Early observers rarely blamed the pedestrians who strolled into the roadway wherever they chose, or the parents who let their children play in the street. Instead, most of the city people blamed the automobile. City newspaper headlines, editorials, letters, and cartoons depicted the automobile as a juggernaut.
Norton’s book spans many decades, though a large number of the editorials and cartoons he cites are from the 1920s, when the Model T, for example, would have already been in mass production for at least twelve years, their impact deeply felt in cities such as New York or
While doing a little research, I stumbled upon this piece from the July-December 1906 issue of Life Magazine. Titled, “Get After the Chauffers,” it was written about two years before Ford’s Tin Lizzie rolled off the assembly line at a time when motoring would have largely been a pursuit of the most affluent Americans. (While today the word chauffeur means any person employed to drive a motor vehicle, typically with a passenger, I’m assuming the 1906 definition was more of a catch-all for motorists in general. Readers with a deeper knowledge of etymology are free to help me out in the comments.)
The essay pulls no punches in describing what ought to happen to New York’s newest class of street user:
The article, appearing in about as mainstream an American publication as there is, expresses many of the frustrations that are today often limited to advocacy circles. It compares “homicide by automobile” to “homicide by a gun,” describes a horrific crash after a motorist “came racing down a drive in Central Park,” and bemoans the lack of legal consequences for drivers who kill:
We read every day of innocent people being killed or hurt by automobiles, but we never read that any adequate degree of inconvenience has been incurred by the chauffeur who did the killing. Nothing of any consequence seems to happen to the homicidal chauffeurs, unless they happen to be the victims of the accidents they cause.
Consider this musing over the idea of what constitutes an accident:
There will be some legitimate automobile accidents, just as there are runaway-horse accidents, but they should be few. Horses are irresponsible, and cannot be punished for running away. Chauffeurs, as a rule, are very imperfectly responsible, but they can be punished for running away and held accountable for the harm they do.
Compare the above to stories of drivers who “lost control” of their cars before killing innocent victims. In some cases, news sites such as DNAInfo.com even describe the car itself as the thing that was “out-of-control,” never mentioning a driver, as if the car was some sort of sentient animal that got spooked. Like, say, a horse.
While the New York City bikelash has been dead for quite some time, there are outbreaks every now and then, like some sort of horror-movie zombie that refuses to stop crawling long after the hero has hacked it to bits with a machete. The most recent has been the mini — and it is very mini — hysteria over the pending Citi Bike expansion on the Upper West Side. Ben Yakas at Gothamist has a good rundown of some of the more ridiculous claims:
“Our street is a very narrow one,” Joanne Aidala argued about a dock slated to be placed at West 78th Street near Columbus Avenue. “There are mothers with strollers, and there are young children walking around.”
Tom Valenzuela, who lives near a proposed site on Central Park West between 67th and 68th Streets, hit upon the core of the complaints: “There are so many safety concerns here,” he said of that location. “I have witnessed many near-misses between bike riders and pedestrians in that area. There will be way too much combat between Citi Bike riders and pedestrians.”
These kinds of arguments were completely ridiculous in the spring of 2013 just before Citi Bike’s launch. Now, with millions of trips logged since then, they’re absolutely absurd. Think about it: in the two years since bike sharing began in New York, hundreds of people have been killed on city streets… by drivers. Thousands more were injured. Those weren’t near-misses, they were actual hits.
All of that is a long way of saying that while it may seem worthwhile to ignore some of the more fanciful or ignorant claims about bike share, highlighting them does provide a valuable lesson, should the powers that be care to learn from it. Citi Bike is Kryptonite to bikelash. It renders it completely powerless, and exposes anti-bike sentiment as nothing more than a paper tiger.
So come on, DOT. Get stuff on the ground. And stop worrying about the haters. There’s nothing you can do to stop the tabloids from squeezing a little more blood from the bikelash stone.
Last month I had the pleasure of attending Le Festival Go vélo Montréal, an annual celebration of biking put on by Vélo Québec. While the festival lasts for an entire week, I was in town just long enough to participate in its two main events: rides on Friday evening and Sunday morning involving thousands upon thousands of riders.
The one that kicks the weekend off is the Tour la Nuit, which, as the name implies, is a nighttime tour of the city. A 21-kilometer ride on car-free streets, it’s short and stress-free enough that it attracts all kinds of people, from hardcore sports cyclists to young kids and everyone in between. And I do mean everyone. Over 15,000 people take part.
It’s almost hard to call the Tour La Nuit a bike ride. “Party” is probably the more appropriate term. Costumes aren’t required, but scattered throughout the throngs of riders are people who truly dress for the occasion.
Even Bixi, Montréal’s bike sharing service, gets in on the act. Twenty-four-hour passes (normally $5 CAD) are only $1, and 72-hour passes (normally $12 CAD) are only $2, making it easy for people to take out a bike for the ride, late charges be damned.
The ride sets off at 8:15 PM, just as the sun is going down. If you’ve never seen 15,000 riders head off into a pink-hued Canadian sunset, you’re missing out.
Being a father, one of the things that struck me most about the ride was the number of kids who participated in the ride, either on their parents’ bikes or on their own. It was truly a sight to see. The pictures can’t do it justice, but there were easily more kids at this ride than at any other comparable bike event I’ve seen, such as Bike New York’s Five Boro Bike Tour or Boston’s Hub on Wheels.
I spoke with Suzanne Lareau, the president and CEO of Vélo Québec, about her organization’s efforts to attract children and families, specifically through the Tour La Nuit and its companion event, the Tour de l’Île. “Our goal is to encourage cycling,” she said, matter of factly. To that end, the Tour La Nuit is free for children 12 and under, and just $15 for kids 13 to 17. Adults are $25.50, although fees vary depending on when participants register, Vélo Québec membership, and other promotions. Compare that to the $92 Five Boro Bike Tour registration fee or the $50 fee for Hub on Wheels.
A few years ago, only children 6 and under were free. About 2,000 kids participated in the Tour La Nuit, still an impressive figure. But making it free for kids under 12 doubled the number of children from one year to the next to about 4,000. And their ranks continue to grow. Free registration for kids, and low prices for teens and adults has yielded tremendous returns for Vélo Québec. “It’s special,” Lareau told me. “When families do this, they realize they can do more, ride more.” Not surprisingly, kids return with their parents year after year.
A 21-kilometer ride takes some people an hour or less, although there are rewards to taking it slow. The real action during the Tour La Nuit comes, of course, during the darkness. The streets of Montréal become a sparkling galaxy of blinky lights, glowsticks, and reflective bike gear. Clarence at Streetfilms captured some of the magic of the 2014 Tour La Nuit in this film, but there’s truly nothing like being there. Think about being this kid, riding through the city at 9 or 9:30 PM — or even an hour or two later! — on streets that are normally off limits to anyone without a driver’s license.
Many thanks to Vélo Québec for bringing me to Montréal for this year’s Festival Go vélo, and to Clarence Eckerson, Jr. of Streetfilms for connecting me with the organization. Feel free to check out my Flickr album from my weekend biking around the city.
Kidical Mass NYC is back for 2015! Join us for our first Brooklyn ride of the year this Sunday, April 26th. The ride starts at 10 AM from 3rd Ave and DeGraw inside of Douglass Greene Park. We will ride on city streets — kids can ride on sidewalks — with bike paths to the Brooklyn waterfront. Our destination is Jane’s Carousel in DUMBO.
This is a beginner, all-ages ride, so kids on their own bikes, kids in cargo bikes, and people who just want to have a fun leisurely ride are welcome to come.
For more information and to RSVP, please check out the Kidical Mass NYC Facebook page. And if you’re in Queens or Upper Manhattan, you can join up with our other Kidical Mass NYC chapters on Saturday.