The City and Bike: Rubber Meets Road

by Jason Gay, Wall Street Journal, June 22, 2011
It is now summer 2011 and have you noticed a change? New York City isn’t freaking out so hard about bicycling.

Spring was a little shrill and embarrassing. There were crazed media furies about bike lanes, non-stop reports of police crackdowns, hyperbolic worries that the city was transforming into an effete Euro village. If we didn’t defend our streets, the cyclists would overtake Manhattan. Mayor Bloomberg and Department of Transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan would open a leg-shaving station in Union Square.

One day you’d walk down to the harbor and see the Statue of Liberty sausaged into tight shorts, sipping a Stumptown espresso and thumbing through Velonews.
But then a funny thing occurred. It got warmer, more people started riding, and the mania was eclipsed by reality.

That’s the beauty of a bike, a simple machine with two wheels and zero ideology. When you can turn a pedal and feel safe, it’s fun and makes sense.

And anyone can ride. There have been cheesy distortions of cycling as a trendy, elite activity—to link bike paths to ongoing gentrification, and claim the city is catering to a hipster fringe.
You want to see what a fraud that argument is? Get on a bike and ride. For every Spandexed obsessive tucked on a $3,000 carbon fiber frame you’ll see 100 people of every imaginable background just trying to get to work, do their job, have fun with their kids, safely spin from A to B.

Bikes are New York fringe? Email your friends. Ask how many of them own bikes. Then ask how many of them own cars. If more of them say they own cars, look out the window. You live in Connecticut.
This is not to say there aren’t problems. Safety is still a priority. Many places in the city continue to need pathways and better solutions. A ride through midtown still feels like Car-mageddon. The West Side Bike path on a weekend is a free-for-all. The Brooklyn Bridge is tourist madness—always take the saner Manhattan, if you can.

And cyclists can’t be exempt from criticism. A bike rider in New York City has a responsibility to be not just an advocate but an ambassador. There’s nothing worse than a haughty biker who thinks the rules don’t apply to him or her.

Actually there is something worse: a haughty biker without a helmet blowing a whistle, yelling out of the corner of his or her mouth for people to get out of the way. Slow down, lunatic.
But New York’s cycling momentum looks unstoppable. The city is finally closing in on a bike sharing program, in which people will be able to rent bikes for a small fee at a kiosk and return it at another kiosk at their destination. This is long overdue. It’s a little embarrassing New York doesn’t already have it. Washington, D.C. beat us.

Think bike sharing has nothing for you? You know the traffic nightmare of getting across town at 4:30 p.m.? Can’t get a cab; subway doesn’t go there; it’s too far to walk. Imagine paying a couple bucks to hop on a bike, and pedal safely through the gridlock to get there in five minutes.

Naturally, there are cries that bike sharing will cause chaos, that ghastly kiosks will clutter the sidewalks, that it’s another example of urban planning gone amok.

Right, of course! Paris installed bike sharing a few years ago, and now look at it. It’s completely ruined; nobody goes to Paris anymore.

The revival of urban cycling in this country follows a fairly predictable pattern: nervousness and ridicule, followed by the realization that the truth never matches the fear-mongering. The supposed choice between bikes and everyone else is a bogus choice. More bikes in a city doesn’t merely benefit riders; it reduces congestion, saves money, improves quality of life, elevates the experience. No one returns from a city and says, “Oh, it was great—except for all the biking.”

The biggest mischaracterization about the infamous New York Cycling War is that there’s a war at all.
Look all around you. The bikes have won, and it’s not a terrible thing.