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April 11, 2011
Text via BikeSnobNYC:
And That The Wall Street Journal Didn’t Want
by BikeSnobNYC

Bicycles and automobiles are siblings. In fact, they’re fraternal twins.

In 1885, John Kemp Starley introduced the Rover Safety Bicycle. This chain-driven bike with more or less symmetrical wheels succeeded the already popular high-wheeler, or pennyfarthing, and is essentially the same machine most cyclists ride today.

Meanwhile, in 1883, Karl Benz, along with two fellow bicyclists, founded Benz & Cie, and by 1885 he had built the Benz Patent Motorwagen, which is generally considered the first automobile, and which literally put that old motor known as the “horse” out to pasture.

So why don’t these siblings seem to be playing very well together these days? As cities like New York incorporate more bike lanes into their infrastructure, drivers react like it’s the Intolerable Acts of 1774 and cyclists are freeloading Redcoats raiding their larders and leering at their daughters.

The problem isn’t with the siblings themselves; it’s with their parents (or their owners—or, in the case of cars, their lessees), who just can’t stop fighting.

As a culture, we tend to become more tolerant and refined as time passes. For example, in 1885, the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery in the United States was only 20 years old. 20 years is not a long time—in fact, it’s only three more years than it takes to create a fully-formed Justin Bieber. (He’s 17). Now, almost seven and a half Justin Biebers later, we are a far more enlightened people. Slavery is gone, along with Jim Crow laws and segregation, and there are but a few venues left in our modern world in which it is perfectly acceptable to be closed-minded and openly prejudiced.

Commuting is one of them.

This is because, almost 120 Justin Biebers after Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan helping that hapless traveler who was beaten and left to die on the side of the road, commuting is still an ugly business. We hurl invective at each other. We crash into one another. Sometimes we even die. In 2009, 93 people were killed on the roads of the US every day. When it comes to getting around, we have yet to experience that Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus epiphany in which we realize, “Hey, we better look out for each other!” Instead, we yell, and argue, and sometimes come to blows, because we still feel like we’re fighting for our lives.

Consequently, we identify with our vehicles like they’re our nationality, or religion, or race. It’s acceptable and indeed almost expected that a driver should hate a cyclist, or a cyclist should hate a driver–and that all of us should hate Segways.

In New York City, much of the new bicycling infrastructure has been laid by the Michael Bloomberg administration, under the direction of Department of Transportation Commissioner Janet Sadik-Khan. Recently, critics have maligned Sadik-Khan for these bike lanes, as well as for the installation of medians and pedestrian plazas in various parts of the city. In fact, Janet Sadik-Khan has even been called a modern-day Robert Moses, as if re-jiggering a few streets to work in a bike lane or scattering some chairs in Times Square can compare with either the lavish public gift that is Jones Beach, or the eternally nightmarish slog that is the Cross Bronx Expressway. Moses imposed his will onto the landscape like an emperor, changing it forever. By comparison Sadik-Khan is just gussying up the city cheaply with paint, chairs, and other household items, like a municipal Martha Stewart.

Not that there’s anything wrong with frugality. The city only spent $600,000 on bike lanes last year, and as Martha herself might say, “It’s a good thing.”

Bike lanes are cheap, and we need them. People are still riding bicycles in substantial numbers all these Biebers later, even after an entire 20th century of being ignored by city planners. Arguably, the bicycle industry is more robust than the automobile industry. This is partly because it is smaller and more nimble in the same way a bicycle is smaller and more nimble than a car, but it’s also because the simple fact is that lots of people ride bikes. Either way, Trek has never asked for a government bailout. Why then, in 2011, is there actually controversy about bicycles having their own lanes?

The simple answer is this: Prejudice. American drivers think bike lanes are like bidets—something weird, European, and useless.

Sure, bicycle advocates can be cloyingly smug and thus difficult to identify with, but that’s just bad marketing. The truth is, bike lanes are far from useless. Not only do they afford cyclists the safety they’ve been denied all these years, but if you’re a driver they may be your salvation too. Like many Americans who value private transportation, I have both a bicycle and a car at my disposal, and I choose one for local trips in the city, and the other to take my family to visit relatives in Connecticut. (You can probably figure out which I use for which). City streets that facilitate this choice for people like me by incorporating amenities for bicycles means more of us will be inclined to leave our cars at home more often because we’ll feel safe in doing so. On the other hand, city streets that fail to acknowledge the difference between my 20 pound bicycle and my 2,700 pound compact (to say nothing of a 7,000 pound GMC Yukon) means only two things—more danger for me, and compacts and Yukons creating more traffic for you.

Cyclists and drivers are not absolutes, living in self-contained mutual exclusivity, as both Marty Markowitz and David Byrne might lead you to believe. Many people own and use both bicycles and cars, in the same way they use vacuum cleaners and brooms, and conventional ovens and microwaves, because all of these things complement each other.

I’ve been driving in New York City as long as I’ve had a license, and I know that few things are more frustrating. That’s why it’s easy for politicians and others with agendas to point to those freshly painted bike lanes and tell drivers, “See, there’s your problem.” However, as a cyclist and a driver I also know that driving was frustrating long before the bike lanes, which have improved cycling enormously. We all stand to gain from this, but in their frustration drivers are being duped into vilifying policies that will alleviate congestion and supporting ones that will cause it.

More importantly, a century and a quarter after the safety bicycle was invented, our roads and our attitudes remain sadly outmoded and stunningly hostile to the people who use them. If you don’t believe vehicular prejudice exists in this country than consider this: In 2010, in Eagle, Colorado, a Morgan Stanley wealth manager, Martin Erzinger, fell asleep at the wheel of his car, striking bicyclist and surgeon Dr. Stephen Milo and then driving away. Milo survived, sustaining spinal cord injuries and bleeding from the brain. Erzinger was charged with two misdemeanors, and he was sentenced to a year of probation and a suspended jail term. Erzinger’s attorney argued, among other things, that his client may have been overwhelmed by the “new car smell” of his Mercedez-Benz. Something tells me that Karl Benz would not have approved.

Maybe instead of fighting each other, we parents should put aside our differences and pay more attention to our children’s safety. The smaller sibling needn’t be an afterthought, and he’s really not asking for much.
One Comment leave one →
  1. sue permalink
    April 12, 2011 11:04 am

    A great article. The subject matter is great, and it couldn’t have been better stated. Great writing adds to the pertinence of the subject.

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