New Yorkers: Fight the Bike Backlash
January 31, 2011
By Benjamin Shepard
Anthropologist Jeff Ferrell has suggested that while the term hegemony is often an overused term, when one talks about influence of the automobile on U.S. political economy, energy, and urban policy, such a description does not feel unreasonable. Cars dominate urban space in countless ways. In spite of this, the environmental movement has aimed to challenge the very notion of a presumed right of cars to dominate public streets. Faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of creating spaces for bike and non-polluting transportation in the mean streets of New York City, environmental activists have made use of a politics of play, direct action, and community organizing to engage others in the struggle for non-polluting transportation. And today, we’re feeling the backlash.
Most everyone wants transportation to be healthy — for pedestrians, cyclists, and cars. This is a given. It is also why many have come to applaud efforts to expand the network of bike lanes throughout New York City’s five boroughs.
We already know that bicycles are part of the future of a logical transportation network for a global city, committed to supporting health and reducing global warming. In addition, bicycling is a fun way for people to get around the city. It reduces car congestion, offers a clear transportation alternative to the MTA’s increased fares and reduced service, and finally, it helps cool a planet suffering from far too many carbon emissions and weather disruptions. In short, bicycling is a cost-effective solution for a myriad of problems. It represents the future of cities. Yet, today, in New York City, it is under threat.
This is why many in the bike community are concerned that the City is targeting only one group of commuters: cyclists. According to the Village Voice, the NYPD hit cyclists with 1,400 tickets in the first two weeks of 2011 alone. Not just tickets; many are being forced to go to court to defend their actions or put through the criminal justice system: just for riding a bike.
Traffic laws exist for the safety of all users of the road, including pedestrians, bicyclists and cars. Yet, many cars fail to respect the bike lanes. According to a Hunter College study, there is a 60 percent chance of a cyclist being obstructed by a car in a bike lane. The 2010 Report of the Manhattan Borough President’s Office echoes these findings.
Today, riding in New York City can be a risky experience. Over the last year, I have been doored and hit several times (on one occasion in a bike lane). One of the drivers even suggested the lane was “optional” for bikes. It does not have to be this way. Yet, as the New York Department of Health report “Bicyclist Fatalities and Serious Injuries in New York City:1996-2005” lays out; it often is.
In the face of increased hostility toward cyclists, those of us in Times Up! have talked about the risk of cyclists enduring increased road rage in the wake of the NYPD singling out cyclists as “out of control.” We are already seeing a violent underside to heated rhetoric directed towards cyclists. Just a few days ago, a delivery person was struck full force from behind. Jen Chung of Gothamist reports:
A 28-year-old delivery man on a bicycle was struck by two cars in Manhattan last night. First, a Lexus struck him from behind at Eighth Avenue and West 47th Street around 10:15 p.m. A witness told the Post that the driver “rammed into the 28-year-old bike rider near 47th Street with an impact so violent that the cyclist’s head knocked out the windshield on the passenger side.” In spite of that, the driver did not stop and kept going. Then the delivery man was run over by a BMW SUV, whose driver stopped and remained at the scene. The Lexus’ driver, Clark Gettinger, was eventually caught at 50th Street
This is not the first time cycling has been under attack in New York. Since the 2004 Republican National Convention, cycling has been the subject of an inordinate amount of scrutiny and harassment. Cyclists have been violently pulled off their bikes and arrested, had their bikes confiscated, etc. – all at enormous taxpayer expense. At Times Up!, we recognize that an injury to one is an attack on all; injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. On May 30, 2008, the Reverend Al Sharpton came to Union Square and made this same point before a Critical Mass Ride:
We’re going to work together to have a Critical Mass in this city where we can ride in justice… so when you ride tonight, we come to stand with you because we must stand together, whether you are white, whether you are black, whether you are latino or asian, whether you are fat, skinny, gay, straight: we are all Sean Bell, we are all Critical Mass, we are all here together.
In response to these attacks, cyclists litigated. Over and over, the city was found to be guilty of violating cyclists’ basic rights. Just last fall, the City agreed to pay cyclists attacked on Critical Mass rides $965,000. Yet, instead of apologizing, the City set its target on cyclists. Instead of focusing on vehicles which cause the most danger — mainly automobiles — the City set its sites on ticketing cyclists. This attack is already discouraging cyclists from commuting to work or around the city. And the opponents continue to critique a practice which offers a healthy alternative to the automobile and ineffective MTA.
There is a vaguely Freudian quality to all the hostility toward cyclists (and the exercise culture which biking represents). Over and over the rift breaks between those who ride to get around and those who support cars and automobile culture; in this way it is a conflict over visions of urban living, suburbia vs metropolis, us vs them. Cyclists suggest cars cause global warming and increase congestion, while automobile supporters tend to find cyclists an offensive, disrespectful lot. Regardless, there is a great deal below the surface of the fury over bike lanes, such as the one on Prospect Park West, which everyone from the local councilman to the Department of Transportation agrees is effective at reducing traffic speed and increasing cycling. It is fine if someone does not want to ride, but why deny or hinder a healthy transportation alternative to those who do want to ride? In a pluralistic democracy, what one enjoys, others inevitably find offensive. This is part of democratic living. We have to learn to live with each other, not stir up hostilities or calls for more police crack downs, particularly for something as innocuous as cycling.
There is a joy in cycling. I cannot tell you how excited I was to see my daughter’s classmates riding their bikes along the Prospect Park West bike lane, separated from cars, on the first day of school last fall. From the Williamsburg Bridge looking over East River to the West Side bike path along the Hudson, cycling offers one of the purest ways to experience our dynamic city. We hope everyone takes the opportunity to enjoy the city from this perspective.
Biking is a solution for a global city. It reduces traffic and opens up the city to new perspectives, connecting the boroughs, bridging streets and people, communities and individual riders. Yet the program will never reach its full potential as long as there is no enforcement of traffic laws prohibiting cars from parking in the bike lanes. Like many cyclists, I applaud the city for the increase in bike lanes. Yet, for the program to be effective the city must recognize that cyclists have certain inalienable rights just like everyone else (see bikewriterscollective.com). Those in the biking community now ask for assistance from the city in supporting safe, non-polluting transportation, rather than a counterproductive attack on cycling.
Over the next week, you will see Time’s Up, the group I work with, passing out “Token Tickets of Love” to cyclists braving both the weather and antagonistic conditions and trying to spread the love. The group argues there are five reasons to start riding a bike:
1) Cycling saves the environment
2) Cycling saves you money
3) Cycling saves your health
4) Cycling is fun
5) Cycling is hope — As the biking community grows, so does our dream for a better, more sustainable future. Biking unleashes the imagination! Biking gives you freedom!
Riding a bike means doing the right thing for the planet and the city. Out with the jive, in with the love. Fight the bike lane backlash.
As Freddy Mercury sang: “Get on your bikes and ride!”