Cars, bikes, and the steering wheel's pernicious political stranglehold

[Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz riding a tricycle to score cheap political points by crapping on bikes.]

As a Bicycling and Walking Obsessed Individual (yeaaa BWOI), there's nothing that gets me down like anti-bike lane backlash. Just when you finally pull enough strings, get someone elected, somehow get a DOT to pay for some decent bike or ped infrastructure, along comes some politically-connected schmuck driving around in their Robert Moses-mobile who all of a sudden has to deal with a bumpout or an actually enforced speed limit or driving an extra block to park their Lincoln, and the next thing you know they've got Congressman Douche-Whiner on the the phone and the next next thing you know he's in a meeting with your mayor saying things like this:
“When I become mayor, you know what I’m going to spend my first year doing?” Mr. [Douche-Whiner] said to Mr. [Mayor], as tablemates listened. “I’m going to have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes.”

And maybe its my fault for actually paying attention to New York City politics, but this kind of asinine crap seems to happen everywhere that's experiencing a “bike revolution.” Granted New York is a special place where common sense goes to die, but this same kind of thing happens here too in the Twin Cities, or also Toronto comes to mind, or Wisconsin, or probably lots of other places that I don't know about. It seems that just when you think you're making progress, you find yourself at the business end of a Nissan Armada.

[In America, somehow this makes sense.]

As I said, there's nothing more frustrating than the chokehold that the steering wheel seems to have over our American psyches. Why is it so difficult to make a few little changes to the urban landscape?

To some degree, I can understand how we got to this depressingly auto-choked political impasse. The typical American is conceived in the back seat of a car, spends their infancy in and out of car seats, grows up playing with toy cars and getting driven to and from school, music lessons, and sports practice until they turn sixteen at which point they go through a rite of passage and get their driver's license. Then they spend the rest of their adult lives driving around for hours each day, working to pay for insurance and gas and car repairs, driving to and from work and school, driving home to watch NASCAR races, spending weekends polishing their chrome, and falling asleep each night to nightmares where they're searching for the last parking spot in the city. This goes on until one day they lose their job and off themselves by sucking on their tailpipes in their attached three-car garage and are taken away in a hearse. End of story.

Well, that's not true for everyone. But it did happen in American Beauty, or something. And it illustrates the extent to which, like Johnny Knoxville in Jackass: The Movie, we've shoved automobiles up our collective posteriors.

What else could explain how tightly we cling to our cars, despite the strain and stress and ever higher gas prices?

I'd have to guess that it's the extremes that make car politics so pernicious. On the one hand, the car commercial freedoms: speeding through a city at night, winding down a windy mountain road with the top down, the limitless convenience of going right from your doorstep to your destination 50 miles away in under an hour, filling the trunk with all your crap from Target and bringing it right into your home, the road trip with family or friends that speeds you out of the city and into the great unknown. When everything's working correctly, nothing short of heroin is more intoxicating than the happy motoring lifestyle.

On other hand, there's the reality of the terrible world of actually existing driving. You know, that that all-too-rarely lives up to the dream? Constantly getting stuck in traffic, searching for parking spaces for block after frustrating block, going to the gas pump and helplessly watching that terrible number get larger and larger as you squeeze the nozzle spewing fumes into the fluorescent air, that inevitable problem with the [insert expensive part of car here] that forces you to submit to mechanical extortion. The downside of car culture is really terrible, and more than anything it's these extremes that give bike-backlash car politics so much traction, that make these sort of appeals so appealing. As if a little change, building a new freeway or getting rid of the bike lane, will somehow magically make all the frustrations of driving disappear into the rear view mirror.

[Hey look everyone, its the gas price!]

From my bike and walk-centric perspective, these bike lane backlash stories are incredibly frustrating. Is it so much to ask, when all this space and infrastructure and attention and money is thrown at this problem of car frustration, for a little bit of space on the street devoted to an alternative? For a safe and comfortable lane for cyclists, or for calming measures that make it pleasant to walk down a city street? Are these extra 4 parking spots, or having to drive five miles per hour slower through a residential neighborhood, such tremendous sacrifices for US drivers? Is it too much to ask that our city streets be comfortable, quiet, and safe places to experience life freed from a windshield?

The sad truth is that, as much as I want to see a biking and walking revolution, until non-motorized transportation achieves a critical mass (or until the gas price goes up even farther), we're going to have to fight like hell for every square foot of space on US roads. For every two steps forward, there's a step back. And this is true even in a place like New York City, which has the lowest rate of car ownership in the country. If they can't build a bike lane in New York without a knock down drag-out fight to the death with every hyperactive politician who can make hay catering to stressed out soccer moms and political big wigs who like to park on the sidewalk in front of city hall, how will they do it in Omaha or Orlando?

The bike snob says it best yesterday in a rare moment of non-snark:
Sure, Weiner isn't necessarily going to get elected, but given the way most people seem to feel about bike lanes and cyclists these days I can't imagine any candidate actually expressing any support for them during a campaign. Sure, once all the bike lanes are gone there are plenty of us who will keep riding anyway. After all, we've already spent years as the rats on the subway tracks, dodging and parrying as much larger machines bear down upon us, so it won't be very difficult for us to revert to our survivalist behavior. No, I just feel bad for the regular people with no particular interest in being lifestyle cyclists or becoming part of the "bike culture" who just want to be able to hop on a bike and get stuff done. At any rate, it should be amusing in a few decades when other cities actually have modern streets and people in New York City are still dodging Lincoln Navigators.

If we're really going to make biking and walking progress in my lifetime in the US, we've got to start letting go of our steering wheel, lose the tail light myopia, and begin to gradually leave our cars behind. But this seems like such a big task, and often seems like its an all-or-nothing affair.

Meanwhile, some days, being a biker and pedestrian (advocate) can feel awfully Quixotic.

["That's OK Sancho, we'll get our horse lane built someday."]

Update: Much better article on the bike lane fight comes from The Guardian, via StreetsblogNY.


Alex said...

Nice post, Bill. We've all been there. I think the key is to not get so down that you skip the meeting/rally/advocacy event. Although I have to say I too often do.

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