Every so often, people get mad at me for rolling my eyes at my profession and the fuss we make over bike lanes, which always winds up with somebody lecturing me on how bike lanes save the universe, and…Copenhagen! Davis! Portland! Oh my.
1. I have nothing against bike lanes. Nor do I think they save the world. Or cities. But we should have them anyway. They are an amenity that increases the choices and options available to people; they make places better. The people who use them enjoy them, tremendously. They are an inexpensive way to add value to streets.
2. Thus they are a no-brainer. I don’t spend a lot of time advocating for bike lanes and other amenities for the same reason (I think) that the bike loudmouths don’t advocate for pedestrian amenities–we both assume that these things should be the default, and every time we go out to redevelop, these amenities should get put in without a lot of question and hooptydoodle because they are a standard urban amenity that we put in every redevelopment plan, like a sidewalk or a setback.
3. People who seriously oppose bike lanes are a minority, and those people are cranks. Cranks are everywhere. You have to deal with them, but you shouldn’t make them the centerpiece of what you think about when you think about your job. The average conservative does not worry about bike lanes. Real opposition comes from people who are worried about the other stuff that come with redevelopment (like gentrification and strangers), or because they are worried their ideas and preferences are getting shoved aside in favor of what planners want, or because bike lanes are often packaged with a heart-stoppingly expensive rail project. There are things we can do about the opposition, but it’s not to scream louder about bike lanes.
4. I do think that bike lane babble displaces a lot of the discussion around what other things people really want and need from urban redevelopment, such as ensuring affordability. I think far too many people dance on the head of a pin when it comes to the hard questions of “what to do” in favor of focussing on street amenities because because, as I said, those are a no brainer. Bike lanes are to planners what “our children are our future” is to politicians. If one of the charges is that your profession is marginal and ineffectual, then one of the ways to refute that charge is to pick an inexpensive solution to implement and credit it with having huge, world-altering impacts. I don’t buy this line of professional self-promotion, and I doubt many people outside the profession do, either. Again, I don’t think bikes save the world, but I’m sure that bikes are good for people and neighborhoods. I don’t think we should give up on the big problems in urbanism, or the small ones, either, but I think planning looks foolish when it conflates the two.
5. This does not mean that, if you are a bike and pedestrian planner or advocate, I think your job is trivial or meaningless. Some of the most meaningful things are details and no-brainers. Nobody loves the sanitation workers until they go on strike. Nobody ever thinks about storm drains until they don’t work. Underneath all that public ignorance is a system that works well, in the US at least, because talented and smart people have worked on them, and there are still many problems to solve in those systems. Yeah, surgeons are awesome but so are the nurses who help you go to bathroom. Bike and pedestrian planning matters in the same way, and there is great possibility for doing good and creatively solving problems within the context of bike planning. The political difficulties are real, but planners spend far too much time shadowboxing about the importance of things that are not really controversial with anybody other than cranks (see above). Providing the bread-and-butter in a profession is not as gratifying as it should ideally be if you what you want is wealth and status.
So yeah, bikes lanes? Get ’em done and get busy on the other issues. Of course, if you have framed the world of the city entirely in terms of your pet bike issue, you will be furious with my comments because everything you see wrong with cities is a bike-related problem. My advice is to ask yourself why there was no bike-lane-themed season for The Wire. Perhaps it was a GM conspiracy.