Ending Bikelash: Bicycling Surges Nationwide As Urbanites Support Bike Lanes and Bike-Sharing Programs

by on June 3, 2013 · 7 comments

in Culture, Environment

Green lane picStudies show that bike lanes make streets safer for everyone and are better for business.

By Jay Walljasper / AlterNet

Former New York mayor Ed Koch envisioned bicycles as vehicles for the future. In 1980, he created experimental bike lanes on 6th and 7th avenues in Manhattan where riders were protected from speeding traffic by asphalt barriers. It was unlike anything most Americans had ever seen, and some people roared their disapproval. Within weeks, the bike lanes were gone.

Twenty-seven years later, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and his transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan saw the growing ranks of bicyclists on the streets as a key component of 21st-century transportation, and began building protected bike lanes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. They had studied the success of similar projects in Copenhagen and the Netherlands, noting how to make projects more efficient and aesthetically pleasing.

These “green lanes” and pedestrian plazas were an immediate hit, but they ignited a noisy reaction from a small group of well-connected people unhappy about projects in their neighborhoods, including Bloomberg’s former transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall (who happens to be married to Senator Chuck Schumer). Lawsuits were filed while New York Post and Daily News columnists thundered about the inconvenience to motorists and supposed dangers to pedestrians. New York magazine declared the situation a “Bikelash” on its cover.

Pressure mounted on Bloomberg to sack Sadik-Khan and rip out the green lanes. Anthony Weiner, then a Queens congressman and mayoral hopeful, told Bloomberg he would spend his first year as mayor attending “a bunch of ribbon cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes.” Bicyclists everywhere braced themselves for a setback, which would once again slow progress toward safer streets in New York and around the continent.

Now two years later, Sadik-Khan is still very much the commissioner, despite the fact that the lawsuit is still in the works. Bike lanes continue appearing across the city, including 11.3 new miles of green lanes last year alone, and New York City has launched the most ambitious bike-share program in U.S. history.

Two-thirds of New Yorkers call bike lanes a good idea in the most recent New York Times poll, compared to only 27 percent who oppose them. All of the major candidates to replace Bloomberg as mayor expressed support for bicycling at a recent forum, notes Paul Steely White, executive director of the local group Transportation Alternatives.

“Bike lanes are the new normal in New York,” White says. “People in East Harlem are saying we want bike lanes like those in other parts of town.”

Bloomberg’s and Sadik-Khan’s biggest idea to improve New York has now hit the streets: the CitiBike bike-sharing system, the largest in North America with 6,000 bikes available at 330 stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

What rallied the public around bicycling? “It was a combination of things,” reports Ben Fried, who chronicled the debate as editor of Streetsblog, a web magazine covering transportation in New York. First, independent polls debunked the myth that New Yorkers disliked bike lanes. “Actually a strong majority from throughout the city supported them.”

Fried also credits neighborhood leaders and bicyclists with mobilizing grassroots support for bike lanes, both online and at public meetings. “In the end, politicians need to see that bike lanes are a win for them.”

Janette Sadik-Khan underscores that the bike-share program is already a success, as 25,000 people have already paid for annual memberships and 31,000 trips have been taken by New Yorkers for a combined 87,000 miles—a third of the way to the moon! Sadik-khan told AlterNet that one of her happiest moments was riding up First Avenue on launch day (Memorial Day): “Three cabbies stopped and asked me about the program and then gave me a thumbs up…that certainly hasn’t happened with the previous projects….It’s really a phenomenon to see the community aspect gel so nicely. So many people interacting with big smiles on their faces and showing how the system can thrive. It’s really social transportation.”

Pressure for new biking facilities came also from business leaders who see better biking conditions as an asset for their companies. High-tech executives at 33 firms—including Foursquare, Meetup and Tumblr—urged Bloomberg to implement the bikeshare system “as a way to attract and retain the investment and talent for New York City to remain competitive.” The Hearst Corporation recently announced it will pay employees’ cost to join the CitiBikes program. “It’s a cool New York thing to do and good for fitness,” says Hearst spokesperson Lisa Bagley. “Our decision is driven by what our employees are interested in.”

Tim Blumenthal, president of PeopleForBikes and the sister Green Lane Project, stresses, “Bike issues need to be framed in the context of what they mean to the city, not just what they mean to people who bike. In New York City, for example, more green lanes, better bikeway networks, and the new CitiBike system will benefit all residents and visitors by reducing traffic, noise and air pollution–making city life a little less frenetic for everyone.”

This all represents good news for cities coast-to-coast. “If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere,” says White, paraphrasing the old song “New York, New York.” Other communities will no doubt face their own version of bikelash, but the high-profile debate in New York over bike lanes highlights two key assets of protected green lanes:

1.Bike lanes create safer streets for everyone. “It’s the safety stats that carried the day,” notes Streetsblog editor Ben Fried. “They’re pretty indisputable.” Crashes for all road users (drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists) on streets with green lanes drop on average by 40 percent, and sometimes as much as 50 percent, according to a memorandum from Deputy New York Mayor Howard Wolfson. Green lanes also lead to significantly fewer bicyclists riding on sidewalks.

2.Bike lanes are good for business.Shop owners are sometimes zealous opponents of bike lanes, which they claim will suffocate business by reducing traffic and eliminating parking. Yet businesses on 9th Avenue, the first major green lane in the city, saw a 49 percent rise in retail sales, compared to 3 percent across Manhattan as a whole, according to research by the New York City Department of Transportation. Another study of consumer patterns by Portland State University researchers, found that shoppers who arrive by bicycle spend 24 percent more at stores per month than those who drive.

New and unfamiliar ideas like green lanes always spark opposition, at first. “Pushback is inevitable,” Fried says. “It doesn’t mean the project is flawed. Once it’s built, the constituency for it will grow.”

Complaints about a “war on cars” have echoed around Seattle from a small but persistent chorus opposed to bike lanes. In response, the Cascade Bicycle Club commissioned a poll of Seattle voters (conducted by the independent research firm FM3 using a scientifically rigorous sample of 400 respondents), which found that 79 percent view bicyclists favorably, 73 percent want to see more protected green lanes, 59 percent support “replacing roads and some on-street parking” to build green lanes,” and only 31 percent believe Seattle is “waging a war on cars.”

(Green lanes in Washington, DC have also been denounced as a “war on cars,” even though only 1 percent of Washington’s roads are dedicated to bicyclists, according to computations by Washington City Paper reporter Aaron Wiener.)

In Chicago, there’s no organized opposition to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s vision of boosting the city’s economy by providing 100 miles of green lanes and 550 more of on-street bike lanes. More than 16 miles of green lanes were built in 2012. One project on the South Side, however, did raise aesthetic concerns about historic Martin Luther King Drive, which was solved by shifting the protected green lane to a parallel street and adding buffered bike lanes (wide swaths of paint) to King Drive. The community engagement process around this issue resulted in neighbors forming the Bronzeville Bicycling Initiative to encourage more people to bike in this historically African-American community.

However Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass rouses emotions with his warnings that the mayor’s plans “foreshadow the day that cars will be illegal.” He also targets “little bike people” as “free riders” who don’t pay to keep up the roads and as scofflaws who defy traffic laws.

Ron Burke of the Active Transportation Alliance regards “little bike people” as a compliment, noting “how little space we take up on the roadway, how little wear and tear we cause, and how little our facilities cost within the grand scheme of transportation spending.”

GreenLane_Badge_Logo_plainBurke agrees with Kass that bicyclists who endanger other people should be ticketed, but deconstructs his claim that motorists pay their own way on the streets. Between 24 and 38 percent of total road costs in Illinois are not covered by user fees such as gas taxes and vehicle stickers, even when you count federal funding as user fees, Burke explains, citing a study from the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

The Tribune’s John Kass is one of a number of commentators across the country who regularly target bikes and bicyclists. After New York Daily News columnistDenis Hamill wrote, “I hate bike lanes…they are steering some people like me to road rage,” one reader responded, “All I hear is an old man yelling, ‘Get off my lawn.’”

Jay Walljasper is a writer and speaker who explores how new ideas in urban planning, tourism, community development, sustainability, politics and culture can improve our lives as well as the world.

Originally posted at Alternet

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Sean m June 3, 2013 at 12:51 pm

The new uphillbike lane on montezuma is about 50% wider than a car lane, but is used much less frequently.


avatar James Donohue June 3, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Someone’s got to go to jail for Vehicular Manslaughter. The guilty parties are getting nervous. Bicycles are an everyday, common item. A person on a Bicycle can cover Five times the distance he or she could otherwise walk.
Rear View mirrors are available for bicycles now, whereas in the past, the bike mirros weren’t any good. The Bicycle industry had to make better mirrors to compete with camcorders (someone balanced a camcorder on his shoulder, and kept one eye on the screen). So in 1994 , convex, wide angle mirrors with a Velcro mounting strap became available.
The Bicycle helmet was $500.00 in 1975, and the price has come DOWN since then. Deflation .
The ten-speed bicycle was invented in France or Switzerland in 1908, but did not apper in the UA until 1960.
All-Terrain Mountain Bikes hit-the-market in the 1980’s.
There is NO class warfare going on – Rich people don’t drive cars and poor people don’t ride Bicycles. Instead, the wealthy have BOTH Bikes and Cars, the poor have neither, and the middle class is disappearing.
And a person on a Bicycle can cover Five times the distance he or she could otherwise walk.


avatar unWASHEdwalmartthong June 3, 2013 at 11:14 pm

In the last several years there were too many cyclist deaths by vehicles. From simple research & scanning articles re these deaths, apparently the drivers of the vehicles were not charged w/ anything. Someone dies, no charges filed. The irresponsible drivers may feel guilty for a while, years even, but they will forget & move on, & the lives ruined by the death of a loved one will be ruined forever.
Nice idea, these bike lanes, but drivers in Southern California truly need to pay attention to the damned road & not the cell phone, not the radio/CD player, not the children in the back seat, not the taco on the lap, & get those damned little dogs out of the drivers’ seats!
It’s way too easy to obtain a license in California, & it’s way too easy to retain it after killing a bicyclist. If you fall asleep while driving & kill a cyclist, then, guess what, you are guilty of involuntary vehicular manslaughter. The license should be revoked for about ten years; the perp should do some time in a minimum security prison, & community service should be completed for a couple of decades, & the guilty person should travel the city from school-to-school, from corporate office to corporate office telling the tale of how the death of a cyclist changed their life forever. And if one of those itsy bitsy dogs was on the lap of the killing driver, then that person may not own a dog for a decade or two.
I think I just might start yelling at those canines in training dogs on the laps of their owners. “Hey, who the hell has the license? You or the mutt?”
Frankly, I’m getting tired of getting strafed by asshole drivers who think bicycles should not be permitted on the road. Anymore, I carry a cop’s whistle & Mace; strafe me & pay the consequences, jerks.


avatar John June 4, 2013 at 2:09 am

Strafed by what?

Anyway, I’d like to point out that:

” and as scofflaws who defy traffic laws.”

He’s got a good point. If I had a dollar for every time I saw a bicyclist blow through the 3 4 way intersections on Voltaire (Abbot, Bacon, and Cable) without even slowing down, with several cars waiting and wondering what to do…. I’d be rich. Some even do it via the sidewalk.
It’s gotten to the point where when I ride up and slow down to a near standstill, trying to wave the car on the right through to take his due right of way, they don’t know what to do.
Most of the worst offenders seem to be casual cyclists, on beach cruisers, with ape hangers, for instance. However there is that “critical mass” type contingent that feel “taking the lane” amounts to a different set of rules for cyclists than for cars. (Yes, I run some red lights and blow through stop signs after slowing or stopping. Only when it doesn’t affect the right of way of another vehicle.)
People, if you want respect from drivers, show them the same respect of operating your machine within the law, the benefit being they don’t have to guess what the unpredictable d-bag cyclist is going to do. Like I do when I daily see another cyclist headed at me going the wrong way.

On that one I’m thinking jousting may be making a comeback.

Finally here’s a concept that does seem to have an effect: Ride faster. I’m quite serious, and I’ll use Voltaire St. again as example. If I’m pedaling hard on my roadie, I’m doing around 20 mph minimum, cars know I’m making an effort and the speed isn’t painfully slow to them. I get their respect. “Casual cyclist” as mentioned above, bebopping along with ape hangers on his way to whatever pub he sees next, is the guy cars seem to treat as an obstacle- to drive around OR over.
He’s a slacker making little effort to be anything other than in the way.
This may be unwelcome news to anyone matching that description, but don’t blame me for pointing it out. I didn’t create reality.


avatar Goatskull June 4, 2013 at 7:49 am

I’ve posted this a couple times before. I work on Catalina Blvd not far from the Ft. Rosecrans Cemetery. Once past the unmanned gate there is a bike line on both sides, but the area between Cannon (where Fresh and Easy is) and the unmanned gate there are no bikes lines and the road is narrow. During morning and afternoon rush hour it really is unsafe to ride there. In the four years I’ve been working up here I’ve seen about five incents of riders getting side clipped. There just isn’t enough room for a cyclist to safely ride here when there’s heavy traffic and for the life of me I can’t understand why anyone does during these hours. I’m not excusing the drivers but it really is playing Russian roulette.
On a side note, several years ago one of my colleagues hit a rider while turning into the parking lot of my office. Not only did she avoid charges, she actually sued the rider for the damages his bike did to her car and this is where there IS a bike lane, so yeah the laws here ARE a joke. Not sure what the outcome was.


avatar unWASHEdWalmaRttONG June 5, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Strafing occurs when a car or truck pulls up quite close to a moving cyclist & blares the horn at the rider; sometimes they just lay on the horn.
One time in La Mesa I was strafed, & so I chased the guy down on my bike to simply ask calmly the WTF question. He jumped from his car screaming, grabbed my bike from my hand & threw it to the ground & tried to stomp on it. I recovered the bike & called the cops. Turns out he was drunk, but no arrest was made.
I’ve been strafed too many times in San Diego county, especially in East County or along the old 94, sometimes on Mt. Helix, sometimes on Mission Gorge on the hump between the park entrances. It seems like people love to gun it up that hill & blast their horn at someone working out. I was strafed once on Sunset Cliffs Blvd.
I’ve never been strafed on Gilman going north or along the PCH between SD & say Encinitas or Pendleton or on the hill at Torrey Pines.
Thanks for the input, Goatskull. I stopped riding Catalina last year. I now cut over toward the ocean & ride Tarento Dr. to Snta Brbra to Pt Loma Ave. just to avoid the high speed of the cars on Catalina.
Also, some states have a slow ‘n go rule for cyclists at stop signs. This might be a good rule for San Diego.


avatar Goatskull June 5, 2013 at 5:24 pm

“Also, some states have a slow ‘n go rule for cyclists at stop signs. This might be a good rule for San Diego.”

Can’t disagree with that. Sadly I don’t think SD has the political ability in implement such a thing.


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