The capital bias affects bike lanes: Disputes in New York

As we could have predicted with building more and more bike lanes, there are conflicts. Far from being able to assume that bicyclists and pedestrians have a solid coalition, bikes and pedestrians are coming into conflict in New York City, where the mayor has promoted the opening of new bike lanes.

The various aspects of this story are standard in planning conflicts. “We, of course, support bike lanes, but we don’t want them here.” You can, of course, substitute “transit, the arterial, the recycling center” or any other number of projects for the bike lane; community opposition is what it is. However, the opposition suggests that planners’ days of cramming development past community objections via New Urbanist promises are either numbered or over, and we’re going to have to go back to negotiating development with communities no matter how green greeny green we claim the changes, like bike lanes, are.

The controversy also suggests a capital bias in planning & policy for bikes much like what exists for transit. One of my shibboleths here is the willingness that transit advocates have to scream that agencies build projects that advocates spend no time or political capital on getting operating funds for. So we build, and we all get to look at our great choo-choo, and then somehow money is supposed to fall from the sky to operate the thing.

The same problem seems to be occurring here. The complaints aren’t really about the design—there’s nothing in the complaints all that specific about the bike lanes as infrastructure. The conflicts are arising because of rude, scofflaw bicyclists. That’s an enforcement issue, not an issue about where the lane is or how it is set up. If you had cops out ticketing bad bicycling behavior, there would probably be a change in behavior. Instead of arguing that that bike lane should go, people should be arguing for policing rather than bike lane removal.

Bicyclists get mad at me when I say this, but the bike culture in US is a problem on the bicyclists’ side as well as on the drivers’ side. In places where everybody from little old ladies to young kids ride bikes, you have drivers that know enough to look out for them and there are enough sane people on bicyclists that their conduct spans the spectrum. Yes, there are young people who think they are indestructible diving in and out traffic, thinking they are studs because they have just whizzed by a toddler at 30 mph with just inches to spare (dickheads). But there are plenty of sane bicyclists to offset the entire image of what it means to be a bicyclist. In many US cities, and LA is one of them, the street environment is hostile to bicyclists, so the ones that are out there I argue are more likely to be the big-headead risk takers—the guys like Puck from MTA the Real World—who sneer at pedestrians and boast openly of “taking on” drivers. Now–of course–there are plenty of bicyclists like my idealist planning students who are out there trying to save the planet and trying to be good citizens–but the hostile road environment means that all but the most risk-clueless or the most stubborn greenies are going to be discouraged. And that means that the bicyclists out there are going to be disproportionately prone to bad risk behavior and in need of policing.

This is obviously theory only–no evidence other than the fact that my husband and I come in every day and say something like “Well, this bicyclist tried to kill me….” when we walk around DTLA. But I think it’s pretty good theory, and the way to improve it isn’t to oppose bike facilities. The way to change it is getting more people to try it out, get people to enforce the rules of good conduct, and stop creating an environment where only thrill seekers thrive.

2 thoughts on “The capital bias affects bike lanes: Disputes in New York

  1. I agree that bad bicycling is a political problem for bicyclists, but only because it gives cover to people who simply believe that bicyclists should not be accommodated on any street where doing so might impinge on motorists.

    From my perspective as a bicyclist, only a small fraction of motorists use their right turn signals. Because bicyclists tend to ride to the right-hand side of the roadway, this is quite dangerous for bicyclists. Yet if I were to argue that we should eliminate all “turning infrastructure” (right and left turn lanes) and refuse to install any new turning infrastructure–unless and until motorists learn to turn correctly–you and everyone else in the world would treat me as if I were insane.

    Bad driving is never seen as a reason not to install infrastructure for motorists. Which suggests that bad bicycling is not the real cause of opposition to bike infrastructure; it is an excuse for it.

    And if those darn hippies had just cut their hair, we would have gotten out of Vietnam years earlier.

    There is a lot of “bad” bicycling with respect to pedestrians, and for the most part bicycles shouldn’t be on sidewalks.

    But there is also some “bad” pedestrian behavior with respect to bicyclists. It is my observation that, especially in Downtown LA, pedestrians are aurally-oriented. They determine whether they can step out from between parked cars, get a jump on crossing the street, etc., in part by whether they HEAR a vehicle coming. As a bicyclist, I routinely have pedestrians step into my path without looking when I am riding in the correct lane position.

  2. Am I not clear enough? Because the point you make was what I thought I was saying. I would argue that eliminating right turns because some people are too dumb/rude/lazy to use their blinkers is nuts–just like I think it’s crazy for NYC to remove bike lanes because there are complaints about a handful of bicyclists who are behaving badly.

    This is what I mean when I mean capital bias: there is a real problem in the US where we think we can just supply infrastructure and then VOILA! magic happens. It doesn’t: people are people they need help governing the commons, regardless of whether they are drivers who don’t use the blinkers, observe residential speed limits, look for both pedestrians and bikes, etc or whether they are bicyclists that who act like jerks or whether they are pedestrians who behave badly (hassling each other, jaywalking, etc). Just because it’s expensive to operate things once we build them doesn’t alleviate us (the commons) of the (often fiscal, often social) responsibility to make sure that what we provide is used within the limits of the social good.

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