“I see people who buy $25 mac-and-cheese on both sides of this argument,” Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, told The Observer last week as he finished dinner at Rachel’s Burritos in Park Slope and prepared to hop on his bike for the 1-mile trek home. “And yet I do think it’s true. I think Marty Markowitz and his ilk have been buffeted over the last decade by change after change that remind them that we don’t live in old New York anymore. I think they’re feeling embattled by all these changes.”
During half that decade, the Bloomberg administration laid down roughly 250 miles of dedicated bike lanes. That is, generously speaking, less than 1 percent of the city’s roadways, but it remains one of the myriad ways the administration has subtly re-engineered the five boroughs, from the posting of calorie counts to the widespread banning of smoking.
Four of those boroughs have the worst commute times in the country, according to the Census Bureau. Meanwhile, MetroCards have surpassed $100 a month as service is curtailed. Bridge tolls have jumped to boot. And yet here comes the mayor and his men (and, in this case, one particular woman), painting green stripes all over town, promoting what many see as little more than a children’s toy.
“I think many motorists are mad,” said James Vacca, chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee and a representative of the car-heavy Bronx neighborhoods of Throgs Neck and City Island. “They feel under siege, and in many ways I don’t blame them. Gas is $3.59. They see the mayor proposing increasing parking-meter fees. They were hit with registration and licensing increases from the state. Insurance rates are higher. The parking ticket phenomenon. The blitz is unbelievable, and of much frustration. Add bike lanes to that, and it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
In a city where the teachers are already seen as terrible, where most people rent and do not personally pay property taxes, where public health care has long been as close as a ride to Bellevue, in this moment of national angst, New Yorkers need something to rally against. They have settled on bike lanes. Welcome to New York’s last culture war.
Four days after the shootings at Kent State in May 1970, more than 1,000 hippies rallied on the steps of Federal Hall on Wall Street. Construction workers at the nearby World Trade Center site, fed up with these longhaired shenanigans, stormed across Broadway and set upon the rally. It was Nixon’s silent majority rising up against the counterculture that had gone and changed everything.
The event became known as the Hard Hat Riot. It lasted for two hours and ended with the workers nearly seizing City Hall. “This has always been going on in New York,” Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said. “Back in the ’60s, it was between the beatniks and the longhairs and the people who went around in suits. It’s always been about that tension, and it’s a good tension. You want that next generation to push.”
Riots of a nonviolent sort began sweeping the city last fall in response to the spread of bike lanes, mostly in more liberal redoubts–the Upper West Side, the East Village and that most progressive principality, Park Slope, where even avid cyclist Chuck Schumer is said to oppose a new bike highway along his home street of Prospect Park West. Yet this time it was the hippies in the role of the hard hats, backed by the longhairs in suits at City Hall. As for the silent majority, they were stuck on a broken down F train.
The Abbie–make that Abigail–Hoffman of this group is Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. Opponents have called her Janette Sadistic Khan and Roberta Moses, as well as much worse, and there is some truth to the latter. Long ago, Ms. Sadik-Khan realized that her agency was not subject to the city’s land-use review, with its divisive politicking and City Council votes. If the DOT wanted to close a corner of Dumbo, say, and turn it into a public plaza, all her department had to do was throw up traffic cones and slap down paint. This led to ever-more-ambitious projects, such as the closure of Broadway, first in Times and Herald squares, though now the closure stretches from Union Square north to Columbus Circle.
The acrimony between the red-sauce set and the truffled mac-and-cheese crowd followed, quickly framed around the larger question of what kind of city New York should be. And much like other culture wars–gay marriage, Hollywood ratings, the president’s birth certificate–bike lanes became a convenient punching bag for larger concerns.
To bike-lane foes, the socialists seem to be on every corner, plotting. “I don’t want to get into aesthetic arguments, but would you put a bike lane on the Champs Élysées?” asked Norman Steisel, a former deputy mayor who wrote the original bike master plan with Ms. Sadik-Khan during the Dinkins administration–and who was unaware Paris had actually approved such lanes last fall. He is now one of the chief opponents of the Prospect Park West lane, citing safety concerns to pedestrians and cars.
Somewhat odd, given that many of the bike lanes are being built in the name of “traffic calming,” an effort to slow vehicles and thus save lives. Studies show that the slower the traffic, the safer the streets. On stretches such as Prospect Park West, Grand Street in Chinatown and Eighth and Ninth avenues in Chelsea, incidents are down 50 percent since bike lanes were installed, according to the DOT. (Mr. Steisel and his cohort in Brooklyn filed a lawsuit Monday seeking to remove the lane on the basis that these numbers are fabricated.)
Traffic calming sounds nice. But since when has anything about New York ever been calm? “It’s part of this weird, misplaced nostalgia for a New York that was much rougher and more crime-ridden,” said Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). “Someone was saying, ‘Well, you know, Janette Sadik-Khan is trying to domesticate the city.’ As though being run over by a taxi was a sign of New York’s urban vitality.”
Eben Weiss grew up in the Rockaways, and like many suburban kids, he misspent his youth riding bikes, BMX in particular. He still rides in road races, and did a stint as a bike messenger in Manhattan, but he also has a healthy appreciation for cars, having come of age a New York driver.
“Some people may say, ‘Oh, bike lanes, they want to sissify the city, you can’t handle it, and all these transplants are coming,’” Mr. Weiss said. “For all of that, I’m sure you have people who just don’t want people coming into their neighborhood and messing around with it.”
Mr. Weiss has been chronicling the foibles of the city’s cycling culture for the past four years at Bike Snob NYC, an anonymous blog up until last year, when he outed himself to promote a book of the same name. He believes a good deal of the responsibility lies with cyclists, especially for doing a poor job of selling themselves, not only to others but to each other.
“The mistake the cycling advocates make is pushing the fact that cycling is green,” Mr. Weiss said. “And the problem with that is during a time like now, when there are much more pressing concerns, like people are out of work and all this stuff, the last thing you want to worry about is being green. Being green is sort of a luxury.
“Or David Byrne,” he continued. “I have huge respect for him, but he’s become like the poster child for cycling in New York. I’m a writer for a living, and an English major in college. And I look at David Byrne as the example I should follow? I can’t relate to this guy. He lives in a loft on the West Side and bikes to a studio he works in on the West Side and he can cycle back and forth. Good for him.”
As for Mr. Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman
and longtime New Yorker, he is happy to be lumped in with the Lycra-wearing masses.
“Yeah,” he emailed, “riding a bike as a way of getting around isn’t a super-macho thing, is it? Other cities around the world have absorbed it into their culture–and I dare anyone to call the Vikings and the Latin-Americans sissies.”