The truth about bike lanes

We cyclists seek a revolution in our thoroughfares

January 10, 2014 3:00AM ET
A man rides in a controversial bike lane in Brooklyn.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

People sure do get upset about bikes. Whether road, mountain or (heaven forfend) “fixie,” they drive Americans nuts. Aren’t crazy about bike lanes either, which evidently infringe on the constitutionally protected right to ample parking. For those interested in maintaining healthy relationships with friends and family, a word of advice: Refrain from mentioning bicycle share programs. The terms “greenway,” “sharrow” and “Portland” are suspect, too, depending on context. This is known.

What is less well understood is why bikes rile us so. The League of American Cyclists, using U.S. Census data, found that Portland, urban mecca of bicycle hipsterdom, has just 6.1 percent of its residents pedaling about the roadways. New York City boasts the largest number of bike commuters: 36,496 in 2012, or less than 1 percent of its 8 million-plus population. A meager 200 protected bicycle lanes currently exist in the United States, according to the Green Lane Project. These numbers are very much on the upswing, but there remain, ultimately, few bicyclists on our roads, and few lanes on which they might bicycle.

Despite these minuscule numbers, the advance of bikes into the prime real estate of the American road space remains a source of much agitation. Reports of bikelash abound, as do lawsuits, fears of bike lobby thugs, nostalgic objections to cycling-related aesthetic decisions and, of course, partisan political skirmishing.

Many people, even those who long to run over the slightest two-wheeled, nonmotorized invader, acknowledge cars as a problem with which we must reckon. Automobiles clog our deteriorating thoroughfares. We too often meet our end in high-speed collisions. Cars pollute our air, deplete our dwindling supply of fossil fuels, and, hey, if you can find a reliable mechanic in your town or mine, let me know.

Unfortunately, the bicycle cannot solve these problems. It will not clear up traffic, banish smog, end obesity or reverse the course of climate change. But if bikes are of minor importance in the larger American milieu — and they are — perhaps our urban planners ought not to prioritize them, our activists to glorify them, our municipal pols to run for or against them or our hearts to damn them. 

Bike lanes constitute a direct spatial challenge to the automobile. They confiscate valuable property from the car and redistribute it.

Yet here is where the real provocation of bike culture becomes clear. No, our pedal-powered curatives cannot and will not save the world. But they can harm the car.

Think about it. Efficient vehicles, car-pool lanes, ride sharing, emission regulations, infrastructure improvements, even more arcane (translation: European) efforts like traffic roundabouts represent more practical solutions to our predicament. But all of them share one, admittedly psychological, shortcoming: They recognize, and pay obeisance to, the car’s primacy on the road.

Bike lanes, and the self-satisfied travelers thereon — need I point out that I have cycled to work over the Brooklyn Bridge for going on 10 years? — constitute a direct spatial challenge to the automobile. They confiscate valuable property from the car and redistribute it, in nigh-socialist fashion, for use by another mode of transport. Not much of it, in truth, but enough to spite those stuck in traffic. To be sure, the freeway will remain king of the road, and the fundamental symbol of America’s profligate personal independence, for the foreseeable future. The bike is nothing more than an irritant, a jab, a ploy to undermine the automobile’s authority by indicating the ways in which it falls short of absolute necessity. In so doing, however, a conversation might arise about how best to order our urban spaces, about population density and its discontents, air quality and poor health, and what impact dependence on private instead of public transport has on poverty and inequality. The bicycle proffers no remedies in this regard. But perhaps, through its annoyances, it can divert attention in a useful direction.

This is the only rationale for the controversy that I can see: to make it more difficult to drive, to park, to luxuriate in guilt-free abandon on an unfettered blacktop. Collectively, we understand this, I imagine. But it is rarely said. Some might argue that as a biker I would do better to keep quiet. A war between the bicycle and the Benz is bad for all, but especially for the biker.

But it is important to recognize the reality of the situation. Lately, much discussion around bikes has centered on what riders must do to mesh with the larger transportative culture. How might we find acceptance? How might our numbers be increased without subjecting the automobile or the pedestrian to the indignity of change? (New York’s “Don’t be a jerk” bike campaign springs to mind.) Yet if the only achievable goal is to abuse the car, however lightly, who cares if bike riders salmon the wrong way up the block or roll through red lights — helmeted, spandexed and insouciant — sporting the beards people find so amusing? Acceptance isn’t the point, drivers. We’re here to destroy you.

Theodore Ross is the author of a memoir, Am I a Jew? (Plume, 2013). His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's magazine, the Oxford American, The Atlantic, Saveur, Buzzfeed, Medium and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about modern manhood.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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