Bike Lames! Straw Men on 10-Speeds in 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.”

Bike Lames! Straw Men on 10-Speeds in New York's Last Culture War