The 'Backlash': Why Are We Surprised?

[image via nytimes]

For the past couple of weeks, cycling blogs have been abuzz with news of a backlash in New York City against bicyclists and bicycle infrastructure. Police are overzealously handing out traffic tickets to cyclists. Members of the community are demanding the removal of bike lanes. Protests are underway. Anti-cycling op-ed pieces are appearing in respectable publications. Alarmed and disappointed, cyclists all over the country are wondering what the heck is going on.

But what I'm wondering is: Why are we surprised?

Think about it objectively. Since when has society embraced sudden change? Since when have the values of a minority been unquestioningly accepted by the majority? Since when have people welcomed ideas that they believe threaten their own lifestyles? Since never. That's not how things work. And cycling - a fringe activity that over the past couple of years has attempted to torpedo itself into the North American mainstream - is no exception. The "cycling culture" is not so special as to be immune to the laws of social psychology. Ingroup-outgroup bias, prejudice, stereotyping, and all that good stuff, apply to the interactions between non-cyclists and cyclists just as they do to interactions between other social groups with conflicting goals and value systems. It was naive on our part to believe that sweeping changes could be imposed on our neighbourhoods - both in the form of bicycle infrastructure and even just in the form of increasing numbers of cyclists on the roads - without non-cyclists feeling threatened.

The incident that took place in Boston several months back illustrated this point perfectly. Just weeks after bicycle lanes were installed in Charlestown, the local residents had a Council meeting, voted to have them removed, and swiftly did so. Many cyclists were outraged by the events, and in a way so was I - The waste of government funds this battle of wills involved was unacceptable. But the reaction of the Charlestown community in of itself was understandable to me. Adequate research was not done to determine whether neighbourhoods through which bike lanes were planned wanted them or not in order to gauge possible resistance or hostility. No effort was made to establish good will with the neighbourhoods, and so there was no good will. The community felt that something strange, foreign and dangerous was being shoved down its throat by the big city planners, and they wanted none of it.

I think that we, as cyclists, need to be aware (1) that we are in the minority, (2) that cycling is perceived as weird and dangerous by the majority, which means resistance to it will be high, and (3) that we live in a democratic society where we cannot impose our beliefs on others no matter how right we think we are. There needs to be sincere and open dialogue (as in two-way conversation) with the non-cycling community, free of smugness, slogans and arrogance. It is not productive to tell people that "Everyone can cycle," that "You too can live without a car if you tried," or even that "Cycling is good for you." Rather than encouraging, those messages are perceived as threatening, making people feel as if they are being told that their way of life is inferior and that some bizarre social engineering project is unfolding against their will. I don't think that most cycling activists even realise that, because those are the only types of messages I see when attempts are made to reach out to the public.

What I suggest instead is sending messages that don't just focus on ourselves and our point of view, but on the community at large - and especially on those who don't ride a bike and don't plan to. Why not spread information that bike lanes make neighbourhoods safer? That bike lanes help small businesses? That bike lanes help motorists? Imagine a public service announcement commercial that goes something like this:
A man gets out of his sedan in front of an office building. He looks at his watch, then faces the camera with a smile. "Finally got to work on time!" The camera pans out to show the road with freely moving car traffic, and a bike lane with lots of bikes. "With the new Main Street bike lane, more people are choosing to ride their bikes, leaving the roads clear for those who prefer driving. No more traffic jams, that's for sure." And a caption underneath reads "Traffic congestion in Neighbourhood A has decreased X% since bike lanes were installed."
Sure it's simplistic, but so was "Got milk." To avoid a backlash, we need to show that cycling is good for everyone.


  1. Velouria, fantastic post! and absolutely spot on.

  2. That's a really good point. It's great to see follow-up information in New York showing that a majority of people support bike lanes.

    Individual cyclists can do a lot to set a positive image of cycling for their neighbors by following laws and showing that cycling can have utility and isn't just a weekend activity on dedicated trails.

  3. This post is especially timely for those of us who live in the Northern United States. The temperature is starting to rise and so the "fair weather" commuters and recreational cyclists will be getting out. Maybe the anti-bike crowd will not resent seeing bike lanes if they are getting more use.
    Affordable Luxury

  4. Just will add one thing, since I largely agree with you: it doesn't feel different to ride a bike in NYC since the "backlash" began. I would wager that this is the case for most people who ride a bike in New York. Just going to keep on keepin' on.

  5. Since my project bike just failed and I am without bicycle for the foreseeable future, I am not sure I still count as part of cycling culture. As an occasional motorist, I don't understand why putting measures in place to give cyclists a place to bike that will decrease the risk of them swerving into my lane to avoid car doors being opened and generally reduce the risk of me hitting one with my car is a bad thing.

    Even if you are so callus as to not care that car vs bike = dead or severely injured cyclist, hitting someone is going to mess up your schedule.

    That said, I agree with you that change is scary.

  6. A lot of good points here.

    I agree that nobody likes having someone else's ideology stuffed down their throat, or being condescended to simply because of a differing lifestyle.

    It's a really good point that we can't get too focused on simply selling bicycles to people. This is all about something much bigger, and that is making our communities nicer to be in, for everyone.

    Many of the conditions which make it nicer to ride a bike on a street (low speeds, narrow street, easy crossings, high permeability, etc) also make it nice to, for example, take a weekend walk to the neighborhood cafe, give children play space directly outside their home, have summer picnics or neighborhood street parties outside.

    Our goal ought to be making our communities better, and the bicycle is a useful tool in that endeavor, but it is not the end in itself.

  7. For a while in the 1990s I lived on what was then the relatively low-rent end of Prospect Park West. That sort of backlash happening there really doesn't surprise me at all. You're certainly right about how change can be resisted, and in New York it can be even worse than other places. The impression I had when I lived there was that because shared resources are extremely scarce in New York, interest groups become deeply entrenched politically and fight tooth and nail to hold on to every tiny privilege they have.

  8. It's true that some projects could be handled better, but I think part of the surprise is that (in many instances) the communication is actually happening, in the way you describe, and over long periods of time. It's only when the projects are installed that the backlash begins. The Prospect Park West bike lanes, the focus of so much attention now, are the perfect case in point: years in the making, approved by the affected neighborhoods, popular in polls, but the focus of intense, localized scrutiny by a relative minority of citizenry.

    In Los Angeles, we're following these cases closely, as our own bike plan was approved in the past couple of weeks. I'm sure we'd like to prevent backlash, but it seems inevitable.

  9. You are the needed voice of reason within the bike culture, if such a thing exists.
    In presenting a reasonable, well thought-out argument, you will be totally ignored.
    Next time, present a bizarre, cliche' ridden diatribe, and prepare to be embraced.

  10. I thought I should add that I don't advocate in either direction. I was always a political cyclist only in the fact that I was out there and visible.

    Bike lanes would be nice. Right now, my town mostly has "shared use" lanes. The problem here is that there wasn't a program to educate drives on how they work.

  11. Park Slope is so politically, racially and culturally homogenous that I think a lot of people were genuinely surprised there was opposition to the traffic calming at all.

    What Examined Spoke says is true. The case of Prospect Park West is unusual in that the more vocal and powerful opponents are politically connected and do not oppose bike lanes as a rule, just the separated one that took away some of their particular parking spaces. This bike lane was actually requested by the community. Important to remember that.

    In my neighborhood a painted bike lane was removed to accommodate the Hasidim, who had not known about it in advance, but another separated lane was approved by the community board after working with the Hasidic community and addressing their concerns. The Kent Ave lane, similar to the PPW lane in its structure, is about as uncontroversial as it gets. Williamsburg is much more diverse, with fewer powerful NIMBYs (ie, no senator's wives and Brooklyn college deans) than is Park Slope.

    So, while I do totally agree with Velouria about not imposing one's lifestyle (ugh, lifestyle), I also think that this particular case is remarkable in that there were multiple public meetings between the DOT and the community. The community board asked for traffic calming along this stretch. And vocal opponents entered the process late and wielding political influence to try to remove something that actually did undergo extensive community outreach, and which is approved by 2/3 of local residents. Their lawsuit has broad, disturbing implications, etc etc.

    I think that the "backlash" is largely driven by the tabloid media, but that in no way means that everyone loves bike lanes or that the city shouldn't be more sensitive to communities. Recently there was a pro-bike protest with cyclists dressed as clowns and it ended in a pie fight. To that I say: sob.

  12. Point very well made. Not only do I want to feel safe riding, I take pleasure in the fact that I am not the "norm". What works for me is just fine, what works for others is also just fine. Bike lanes and bikes should not be seen as threatening or smug, just additions for those whom choose to utilize them.

  13. Advocacy tip: Always focus on the safety of the children. It's manipulative, but it works.

    As for the backlash, neighbortease pretty much covered what I was going to say.

  14. I think Velouria is spot on here. Part of what makes the New York backlash unexpected, though, is that it has led to some unfamiliar and unexpected divisions within normally homogenous cultural groups. Everyone expects car commuters from Jersey and the New York Post to be against bike lanes for the reasons Velouria mentioned, but seeing people like New Yorker writers and Sen. Schumer's wife take positions against bike lanes has an "et tu, Brutus?" quality that makes people shocked and outraged.

  15. Nice post, I never really liked those critical mass events. They seem to do more harm then good. I ride in Korea every day and the drivers and cylists are much more courteous

  16. neighbourtease said...
    "it doesn't feel different to ride a bike in NYC since the "backlash" began. I would wager that this is the case for most people who ride a bike in New York. "

    Just from speaking with friends who live there, that's what I understand to be the case as well. BUT... The thing is, that this is no longer a local issue, because it's been publicised on such a large scale. IMO the publicity was pretty damaging nation-wide, insofar that other cities that had been harboring resentment toward cyclists now feel more justified in doing so. In Boston, this issue has been ongoing for some time as well.

  17. Also, regarding there having been public meetings between the DOT and the community, surveys, etc. - I think for something this major it may be insufficient, because a large chunk of the population (dare I say most of those who are not explicitly interested in transportation or city planning - i.e. "regular people") is either not aware of those meetings, or is unable to attend. That does not mean that they won't be vocal about it when they wake up with a "dangerous" bike lane outside their front door. In fact, they will probably be more vocal, as not having gone to the meetings, they miss all the talk about the positive factors associated with the bike lanes.

    So what's the solution? Just blaming people for not having attended the DOT meetings is not useful, because it won't change anything. Instead, I think the media needs to be more involved in publicising the issue so that people have a chance to get used to it - just as they would publicise it if, say, highway construction had been scheduled to begin in that neighbourhood. In order for that to happen, the DOT needs to send press releases out to the media that not only make the issue sound important and worth making front page news, but also outline all the benefits of the new infrastructure.

    Finally, the DOT and various cycling organisations can make it a priority to include advertising in their budget, submitting "public service announcement" type of commercials, such as the one I described, to local TV stations.

  18. I also totally agree that the city and state DOTs need better PR when it comes to new infrastructure stuff, as well as just making new laws public knowledge, etc.

    I feel like one of the biggest problems in Portland is simply ignorance - new stuff goes in or new laws get made, and nobody makes any effort to tell the general public about it, so it can get really confusing.

    I think this is really important, and something Portland is starting to do a little bit more of, but it could do much better still.

    We react strongly to the unknown, to surprises, so I think if cities and states just did a better job informing the public of upcoming changes, and why they are happening, there would be a lot less reactionary anger to them.

  19. Velouria, I found all the backlash predictable for three reasons.

    First of all, it's happened before. During the 1980 transit strike, then-Mayor Ed Koch built bike lanes on Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Avenues in Manhattan. Non-cyclists did not share his initial enthusiasm for them. Later, he "repented," saying that the lanes were a "mistake."

    The installation of the bike lanes had all of the earmarks of an old liberal's Great Society program: Koch was going to bring the light of day to the benighted masses. But neither he nor anyone in the city's Department of Transportation cycled to work or for pleasure. So, predictably, the lanes were poorly-designed, which not only endangered cyclists but made them a seeming obstacle to non-cyclists. That led to confrontations, some of which escalated into violence, between motorists or pedestrians and cyclists. Worse yet, it led to some serious injuries among cyclists.

    Which leads me to Reason #2: Many of the lanes are poorly-constructed and aren't marked clearly. In fact, there's one marker for a "bike lane" on the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge that leads to a sidewalk. The police wait there and ticket cyclists. But the worst part is that other lanes lead into the middle of intersections or spots where cyclists and motorists suddenly are thrown together. This has led to more than a few angry confrontations, not to mention accidents.

    Finally, there is the demographic factor. Those who most vehemently oppose the lanes tend to be self-employed plumbers, contractors and the like who drive a lot and complain about, among other things, the difficulty of finding places to park. They are also the same people who oppose turning major thoroughfares into pedestrian malls and the now-dead proposal to charge drivers a fee for driving in midtown and downtown Manhattan, much as they are charged in the Center City of London. Others who oppose the lanes include the Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish communities, who have a lot of political influence in this city. (That is not a statement of anti-Semitism. All you have to do is look at the numbers.)

    The self-employed people and religious conservatives I've mentioned are almost never cyclists and tend to view us as elitists. They--especially the religious people--are often raising large families; most of us are not. Why does that matter? Well, for one thing, that means we tend to be a bit younger than non-cyclists. More important, though, we have the choice of living without automobiles and therefore not paying the high taxes and price of gasoline that go with them. And people who are tied to one lifestyle or another, whether through choices or the expectations of their families or communities, often harbor resentments toward those who, in their eyes, encountered opportunities and got breaks that they didn't.

    So, yes, the backlash is, to a very large degree, a generational and ethnic one.

  20. "BUT... The thing is, that this is no longer a local issue, because it's been publicised on such a large scale."

    I agree that it's been damaging, but, in New York, at least in regards to the PPW cycle track (which is what is generating all the national publicity), the DOT did everything right. What I'm saying is, the backlash cannot be disregarded as advocates screwing up. Done right or wrong, there will be backlash regardless.

  21. Adam - Oh, of course. It's not about screwing up. It's about understanding what went wrong (because clearly something did) and perhaps changing tactics. The problem with DOT meetings and surveys (see my comment above) is that they are not always the most effective means to communicate with the general public. Typically, those who attend already have an interest in the issue.

  22. I take exception to the original comment that cycling has just recently "attempted to torpedo itself into the North American mainstream." The process of making bicycles part of the transportation infrastructure has been ongoing for several decades. The fact that we all discuss a couple of recently publicized confrontations might be just as attributable to the recent rise of "cycling lifestyle" blogs as to much measurable change in development of, and conflict over, cycling infrastructure.

    I think that neighbortease's point about the process, and when the Prospect Park dissenters entered it, is a good one, and not all that different from scenarios that I have witnessed over the years. Bike lanes don't just pop out of nowhere. They are usually the result of years of traffic studies, meetings at a number of levels, community feedback etc.. I agree that these may not always be the most effective forms of communication, but I also think that a large part of the problem is attributable to civic laziness and self-interest. Many(most?) citizens don't take an interest in their community until someone starts digging in front of their house, and they are only interested in how they will be impacted.

  23. Justine - That's an interesting point about Hassidic Jews. A family with 8 kids could probably not get around by bicycle even if they wanted to. Then again, when we lived in Washington Heights when I was a child, most members of the community there did not own cars but walked and used public transportation. It must be different in Brooklyn.

    Erik said...
    "I take exception to the original comment that cycling has just recently "attempted to torpedo itself into the North American mainstream." The process of making bicycles part of the transportation infrastructure has been ongoing for several decades."

    That depends on how you look at it. I would say that over the past 2-3 years things have certainly accelerated. Look at the types of (transportation) bicycles that are being sold in the US now that haven't been available here previously. Look at the cycling blogs. Look at the rate at which bicycle infrastructure is being created. For the first time in a long time, it is a truly noticeable change.

  24. As someone who is a Planner by profession - can I throw in here how incredibly hard it is to get people to pay any attention at all to city-building related stuff? radio ads, newspaper ads, posters, social media, facebook pages, websites, email, flyers - people ignore it all when it's about municipal stuff.

    If everyone who reads this blog made an effort to spend even just a day or two a year to participate in some kind of event related to a project in their city, that would be GREAT! Give informed feedback on a development proposal or a community plan or transportation plan or the budget - your city will love you for it!

    Here ends my public service announcement.

  25. I am in the community where the PPW bike lane went up and I knew it was going up from neutral sources all along. I'm unsure how they could have missed that since the local papers did cover it. The NYTimes isn't going to cover just one of many local bike lanes just in case there's resistance or a story...they covered the topic as a whole and then covered them extensively only when issues came up. Until a contingent in the minority decided that it would go against the community planning, the positive safety studies and everything else that came with it (which were all released to the media with press releases), most news sources didn't have nearly as much to saw about the PPW lane, from what I recall.

    I was at the rally pictured above and those pictured were about the only people present for the anti-lane side while the pro-lane side quadrupled that number, at least.

    What the media "should" do and what it *does* do are two different things. They definitely like to fan the fire and sensationalize the issue so even if it's the same 20 residents protesting the lane, and the same 150 supporting the lane over and over, it gets flogged to death in the name of stirring the pot for readership numbers.

    Also, there was an open survey re ideas to improve the bike lane a few months ago, in addition to Community Board 6 just having an open meeting for both sides focusing on all of the issues you mentioned from both sides *and* requesting input for suggested changes to improve the workings of the lane. (I answered the initial survey with my improvement suggestions and emailed CB6 since I couldn't make it to the meeting.)

    I definitely agree with neighbortease and Erik - this didn't happen in a vacuum. Most of these folks are decently well-connected to the community if you have been reading along and their reasons for hating the bike lane have been anything from a) less parking spots, b) too many people terrorizing the bike lane and them not being able to cross the street, c) no one ever uses the bike lane so it's not worth the trouble, d) aesthetics.

    Watching this whole thing unfold I have to heartily second Erik's statement: "Many(most?) citizens don't take an interest in their community until someone starts digging in front of their house, and they are only interested in how they will be impacted." And that goes for most issues, not just bike lanes!

    On a stroll from Grand Army Plaza to Bartel Pritchard Circle this Sunday we counted 44 people on the bike lane as we walked past, 1 pedestrian cutting off 4 bikers (including 2 kids under 10 years old), 2 bikers exiting the bike lane and heading the wrong way down a one way street and 1 biker stopping for a pedestrian with a stroller on the pedestrian median to let them go at the designated light. In addition to many pedestrians safely crossing the bike lane - either at designated areas or anywhere, with or without their kids and/or dogs.

  26. I agree with Velouria. Even 5 or 6 years ago, when I bought my ultimately doomed hybrid bike, I really wanted a dutch style bike and it was as close as I could get. Even with internet research, it was the best I could find. Since my hips changed, I can't use it anymore. I have been looking for alternatives and now I have been able to find them. They may be out of my price range, but at least they are there.

    Transportation biking is reaching small prairie cities where it has never been before. Suburban moms (myself included) are even considering how to go car light or car-free. To me, that is a sign of significant change.

  27. BTW: Just to be clear, I do not pretend to know the specific situation in NYC in depth, and so I am not commenting on that aspect of it. It is not my place to judge to what extent due process had been followed there, and whether the 'backlash' is justified. Taken together, neighbourtease's, Justine's, and all the other New Yorkers' points of view make it clear that there are many layers to this.

    But what I am saying is, that this has become a national issue now and it has become a symbol of sorts. In many - if not most - American cities where cycling infrastructure has been rapidly established over the past 2-3 years, there has been conflict brewing over these changes, and the nation-wide publicity of the NYC situation has brought that out in the open.

  28. the night rider, the wobbler, the traffic-dodger... - they are all back:

  29. Velouria said...
    "Think about it objectively. Since when has society embraced sudden change? Since when have the values of a minority been unquestioningly accepted by the majority? Since when have people welcomed ideas that they believe threaten their own lifestyles? Since never."

    A lot said in a few words that is spot on! :?))

    I've been posting bicycle related threads on a forum I visit daily only to be greeted by hateful intolerance since the more vocal there still believe that bicycles are kids toys that belong on the sidewalk.

  30. Thinking about what went wrong in the case of Prospect Park West is interesting. I would hold that in the case of PPW, the lane that's gotten national (and international!) press no amount of outreach nor PR campaigns, nor understanding of psychology, would do anything at all to stop these particular wealthy and powerful people from suing to remove a lane they feel erodes their privilege to park easily.

    So, I would say what went wrong in this case wasn't the process but rather the high profile of the lane dissenters meant that their opposition got a disproportionate amount of coverage in the press -- national coverage for the first time. And their desire to remove the lane fused with the general interest of the tabloid press, which is to oppose anything they can label bourgeois or green or against the interests of their readership, which is overwhelmingly white, older, car-driving and suburban. So, the bike lane opponents were able to gleefully latch their arguments onto this allegedly populist undercurrent and feel like they were nobly defending the little people instead of agitating for more parking for themselves.

    What went wrong, in my view, was this. In this case, there was nothing anyone could have done on an outreach level because of the nature of the opposition. The successful and non-political completion of CLASS 1 (separated) bike lanes in other neighborhoods (Hasidic neighborhoods) indicates to me that DOT is actually doing an ok job with outreach. The lane on Kent was amended at the request of the Hasidim and was installed and everyone is fine. The lane on Columbus was, too, to accommodate more loading for businesses. This is not about outreach, not here.

    What I find unsavory about this, and downright offensive, is that the disingenuous populism of the New York press f*cks the people who need a safe bike lane the most. The people who can't even afford a metrocard, let alone a car, and ride rickety bikes in all weather conditions -- well, I'd really like to see someone coming to THEIR defense. And believe me, nobody is.

    I think the complexity of this stuff makes your point about an alternative public relations push (and less smugness by advocacy groups) all the more important. Ezra Klein had a good and sane piece about this -- it was a rejoinder to John Cassidy's New Yorker blog post that ignited this fire in the mainstream press.* Ezra's title was "Like to drive? Buy your Neighbor a Bike." I think we should start there!

  31. John Forester (Effective Cycling) believes that bicycle lanes do not make the road safer for cyclists and may make it more dangerous, because drivers do not learn to accept cycles as part of vehicular traffic but quarantine them to these lanes.

    I think it would go a long way to improving relations between drivers and cyclists if we accepted that, when traveling the same road, we need to follow the same rules.

  32. V -- I think it's probably best to say that cycling advocacy has reached a tipping point, where all of the past efforts have coalesced into a critical mass of visible initiatives and improvements, then can then support more rapid and widespread growth, but has been the product of years of work.

    In Boston, it's convenient to use 2-3 years as the shorthand since that's the duration of Nicole Freedman's tenure as the local bike czar, and she has definitely taken that position as far as it can go, but even Menino's decision to appoint her wasn't some kind of overnight decision. The implementation of cycling infrastructure throughout the state, from the Minuteman Bike Path, to the Cape Cod Rail Trail and the MBTA's policy around permitting bikes on off-peak trains are all old bits of 'traditional' bike advocacy and have been the work of persistent campaigns. It just seems more noticeable now because the public is paying attention to all of it, and because enough of it has been established to get it in the public eye.

    With that said, I think that the most noticeable difference is that public demand and attention has shifted. An increased sense of environmental consciousness and the rise of New Urbanism is making people generally think about making cities more pleasant to live in, and so bikes are getting a renewed sense of consideration. I think, if anything, the 'surprise' isn't within the world of traditional cycling advocacy -- they're all too familiar with the pushback. The need to enter in discussions respectfully and without sermonizing was one of the prime points of Nicole Freedman's State of the Union speech (and also one of the points that she was getting continuously prosecuted on from others who sniffed at it as appeasement) -- the surprise was with folks who were in the echo chamber of New Urbanism who just took the shift for granted and figured that it was representative of some kind of zeitgeist.

    It probably is a zeitgeist of some form, and the way we'll interact with our cities twenty years from now will, indeed, be different and better and more sustainable than the way we do now; but it won't come easily and it certainly should not be taken for granted.

  33. Anne: the problem with that, is that in many places I have to share the road with vehicles traveling 25-30mph. If I have to follow the same rules, I cannot ride on this road, because I cannot ride above 15mph for a sustained period, and that is obstructing the reasonable flow of traffic, as written in the law book for motorized vehicles.

    I do appreciate that when we have to share the road with automobiles, we should behave rationally and consistently and *in general* follow the same types of behavior as the people driving, when it is possible and makes sense to do so.

    However, there are a lot of cases where my bicycle just does not, and never will, allow me to really behave in traffic as if I were in an automobile. I can kind of imitate it, but it's a pretty poor imitation, even when I'm trying, and it makes life a *lot* more stressful for me.

    Some separated infrastructure and law really *is* needed to properly accommodate bicycles.

    Now, what types of infrastructure are and aren't effective, and whether simple painted bike lanes, as we're used to in the U.S., really help or harm things is a whole other discussion.

  34. "So, I would say what went wrong in this case wasn't the process but rather the high profile of the lane dissenters meant that their opposition got a disproportionate amount of coverage in the press -- national coverage for the first time."

    Precisely my opinion from the outside looking in.

  35. Adequate research was not done to determine whether neighbourhoods through which bike lanes were planned wanted them or not in order to gauge possible resistance or hostility.

    This is where I quote Sir Humphrey Appleby:

    The role of the government isn't to give people what they want! It's to give them what they don't want, but ought to have!

  36. Also, I think the backlash is a result of the U.S. Department of Transportation's bicycle and pedestrian design guidance choosing the most revolting shade of green imaginable. Okay, I'm kidding partially; but seriously, gag. That green is what nearly killed the bicycle track on Pennyslvania Ave. in D.C., and caused a redesign that severely limited its effectiveness. Either Netherlands brick red or Copenhagen blue would have been vastly superior.

  37. I think this all has something to do with the so-called "fear-based society" we are part of, along with how the general public is more or less "sold" on whatever idea is presented to them by the media.

    If cycling is presented as something so dangerous that a helmet must be worn at all times, then it is perceived to be genreally a dangerous thing ... and fewer people are drawn to do it. If the media "advertises" bike lanes as being somehow dangerous, then the general non-cycling public will agree and see them as bad. If, on the other hand, the media promotes that NOT having bike lanes is dangerous to EVERYONE (cyclists, motorists, and pedestrians), then perhaps the fear shifts to the other side.

    Of course, where there's fear, there's also money to be made. I think helmet manufacturers are doing well, as are those currently selling "anti-radiation" medications. Why would NYC want to have fewer bicycles on the streets? Think about who might benefit financially from that scenario, and you'll have your answer.

    By the way, I'm not anti-helmet. I wear one on every ride. But I believe it's a choice, and shouldn't be mandated. My choice to wear one is mostly due to the kind of falls I've experienced, which have nothing to do with traffic ... twice from forgetting to unclip in the driveway, and once from turning badly through a puddle into the same driveway ... silly mistakes that resulted in my head hitting the concrete. Thank you helmet!

  38. Perfect! Agree wholeheartedly. Thanks.

  39. Thank you for condensing this to the issues, without all the frequently associated drama. Not only did you point out the problems, but you provided solutions. Your analogy is bang on!

  40. Such a good and timely post. I've been following the PPW kerfuffle ever since I read John Cassidy's ridiculous rant in the New Yorker but we've definitely had similar issues here in Boston. And I do worry sometimes at the meetings I go to--Livable Streets, etc. that there's a growing them/us mentality that harks back to the worst days of Obama vs the Tea Party. I think the emphasis needs to be more on creating better streets for everyone--cyclists, pedestrians, drivers, and especially older people and children who are the most vulnerable and yet often the liveliest signs of a happy, healthy street.

    Just a note--I spent yesterday biking around Jamaica Plain and Dorchester, two adjoining Boston neighborhoods that include very diverse populations and streetscapes, including manjor streets with and without bike lanes (there are quite a few in the works in Dorchester). We noticed such a difference between the bike-laned seas and those without--the pace of the traffic, the aggressiveness of drivers, how comfortable and safe we felt. The interesting thing too is how many cyclists we saw in the neighborhoods without bike lanes--young and old, but almost all slightly unguided, riding against traffic or on the sidewalks, etc. all without helmets. So good to see people on bikes, especially kids, but you couldn't help wondering whether more visible bike accommodation wouldn't help them ride more safely and comfortably, instead of practically in combat with cars.

  41. PS--just a comment re the photo of the PSW protest--I always mistrust a protest where all the signs are written in the same style and with the same handwriting or printing. People who are really passionate make their own damn signs.

  42. jens – like the link.
    Anne Welch – Yes and Yes
    Anonymous – agree about fear-based society
    Portlandize – couldn’t disagree more

    Out here in eastern Kansas, there are no bike lanes or separated infrastructure. So when I replace a car trip with my bicycle (as often as I can) I ride on the roads. I have never been yelled at and only rarely honked at (always by old women, go figure). The police wave at me and I back to them. And I think it’s because I ride like I’m traffic.

    I ride to the right. I signal my turns. Usually wear a helmet but agree that it should always be a personal choice. I take the lane to make left turns. I make eye contact with drivers. I am predictable. I AM TRAFFIC. And I seem to get as much respect as I give.

    For the most part, I’m not for separated bicycle specific infrastructure (except maybe bike racks to lock up to). I think every state allows bicycles to use the roads. As slow traffic, there are specific rules for us. Ride to the right. No more than two abreast. How to signal. Etc… But we are legitimate traffic using the roads our taxes pay for. Bike belong.

    Bob Mionske of has written on this numerous times, here’s one of his articles from last August.

  43. @Anne Welch: Forester's theories have gained much currency, but he also never went to Holland to see how well separated lanes work. You can read about it in Jeff Mapes "Pedaling Revolution," or in my derivative post, Forty Years Later.

  44. @davidrestes: I might note that the original comment which I was replying to said we should follow "the same rules" as those in automobiles, which you seem to have just agreed is not a good idea ("As slow traffic, there are specific rules for us").

    I'm also not saying that every road needs separated infrastructure; in fact, in Portland, I think most streets don't need it. But I think on certain roads, it is going to be a necessity if we want more than the current group of people who ride bicycles to ride, because there is nearly no chance that those roads will be calmed enough to make them rideable for the average person.

    Remember, when talking about what is needed to make someone comfortable riding a bicycle, we're not just talking about what *you* need, or what *I* need - not everyone will feel as comfortable riding in the road as you or I (and I don't think we should expect them to just buck up and do it).

    Anyway, this is kind of a big rabbit trail from the topic, I think, so I'll leave it at that :)

  45. You are absolutely right that we need to emphasize the positive (for everyone) aspects of cycling. However my gut reaction to your points (1), (2), and (3) above is that the attitude you advocate gives up too much ground and implicitly accepts cyclists as second-class users of the road. While many people are critical of Critical Mass in terms of goals, attitude, tactics, and just about everything else, it is worth remembering for all cyclists that "We are traffic".

    I don't mean that you are intentionally suggesting that cyclists are not legitimate road users, Velouria. I just think that backing down in the face of unthinking or badly reasoned opposition can give that impression. Democracy and mob rule are not the same thing. Strategic compromise differs from backing down from someone just because they oppose you.

    I also think one of the most important things to emphasize both to those who don't ride and some who do is this: "Bikes are fun!" That said, I view getting people interested in cycling as a mostly separate issue from gaining appropriate consideration and facilities for those who already ride.

  46. apophasis - I think I understand what you mean in a very general sense. But I do not think that being aware that (most) others in our community have different values and priorities than us is at all the same as "implicitly accepting cyclists as second-class users of the road".

    I also cannot agree that "bikes are fun!" is the most important thing to emphasise if we want cooperation from the non-cycling community. As it is, part of the problem is that drivers over-perceive cyclists as pleasure-seeking recreationalists who are out having fun while they're trying to get to work. "Bikes are fun!" is a good point to stress if you're trying to persuade someone to ride a bike, but not if you respect their decision not to ride a bike and are trying to get them to respect you as a fellow road user.

    What I am ultimately suggesting at the end of my post, is that an effective message to motorists would be one that communicates how the existence of cyclists and cycling infrastructure benefits them, the motorists. This is not backing down and at no point do I suggest either backing down or strategic compromise. More like strategic effectiveness for reaching a given target audience.

  47. I have been encouraged by Michigan's "Smart street initiative." While it is not a firm doctrine or an attempt to force cycling infrastructure into the mainstream, it requires street departments,county commissions and the DOT to consider all forms of transportation when planning any change or improvement,not just moving the most cars as quickly as possible. Legislaion like that can quietly change the infrastructure in the next generation. Remember, Americans see cycling as recreation-not transportation. Forcing bike lanes onto a community is like making them pay for our country club. They ain't gonna like it. Gradually integrating cycling intothe infrastructure at a time when fuel and environmental costs are escalating may be successful.
    Don't bet your Mazi on it.

  48. Okay, we may be more on the same page than I initially thought. I think I was thrown off by those numbered points I referenced, especially the ones emphasizing cyclists as a "weird" minority. And I may not have made my point well at all in the "bikes are fun" part; I was leading into emphasizing that getting people on bikes is a mostly separate issue from increasing safety for those already on the road--except in the fact that a greater number of cyclists makes us all safer by changing drivers' behavior. Sorry for the confusion there.

  49. I haven't had a chance to read everyone's comments yet, but I wanted to say to you Velouria that your message here is so well versed and wriiten that I wish more people other than just our blog community could read this post. You hit all the right notes and ideas without offending as you stated "the community at large:" residents, motorists, and cyclists. A couple of weeks back I was listening to a Boston radio station where they had the Director, I believe of the Boston Cyclist Union, Pete Stidman, who wanted to discuss the benefits of cycling and road infrastructure and he got clobbered by the radio host who went on a rampage about how cyclist should register their bikes in case they hit a car and damage the car in order to be held accountable for the accident. I felt bad for Pete, because he was not able to recover and the whole point for him being on the show got sidetracked by the rampage. I wish you had been on the show - you would have set them straight.

  50. Veloria, your post is well-organised and extreeeeeeemely polite, as I have come to expect from you. However, it does not entirely make sense to me...

    I am not at all a fan of bike lanes, but i feel I need to defend them when non-cyclists protest the existence of bike lanes, and cycling advocates behave as if it is reasonable for non-cyclists to protest the bike lanes.

    I'm not going to get into why I don't like bike lanes, but I am going to say that no one user-group owns the roads. The roads are public property, and they are governed by elected officials. Bikes have been present on US roads longer than automobiles have. Motorists who protest bike lanes sometimes do so if they compromise parking spots, but most of the time, they protest them b/c they dislike anything that will encourage more cyclists *on the road*, b/c they feel bikes belong on trails, paths, sidewalks-- anywhere but the road.

    In reality, bike lanes don't actually change anything for motorists. They're just lines on the shoulder, reminding ppl that bikes might sometimes be there. The cyclists will be there with or without those lines. The rules for motorists remain the same whether there's lanes or not: don't run over the ppl on bikes. Pretty simple.

    Now, I've seen different bike lane approaches taken at intersections, and these can become complicated at time, but this still does not present an actual "change": motorist/cyclist interaction at many intersections have ever been complicated. With or without lanes, the approach will be the same: the motorist should avoid hitting the cyclist, and the cyclist should avoid hitting the motorists, and they will cuss and holler at one another depending upon their mood.

    The sad fact is, many motorists think that bikes are not legally allowed on the road *unless* there are bike lanes. That is what they're protesting, in large part. But, regardless of their reasons, anyone who protests the construction of bike lanes is going to have to deal with the fact that, as of now, bikes are allowed on most roads, and that more roads are getting bike lanes all the time. Motorists don't like red lights, speed limits, and parking meters either, but no amount of protesting is going to remove these from our roads. Similarly, non-progressive motorists are going to have to deal with cyclists on the road regardless of their "feelings", and they're going to have to take the bike lanes until that fad fades out again.


    ps- I'm not at all surprised at the backlash, but I'm surprised that so many cyclists are acting so understanding. This has been on-going in my area since long before I started commuting. The backlash is old, but the vigor is renewed with the creation of bike lanes. Bike lanes are unpopular with many, both motorist and cyclists. spending $$$ on unpopular projects is never well-received, especially in a recession/depression/"new normal" situation.

  51. In the case of the suburban areas, bicycling "infrastructure" might be as simple as painting a white line down the middle of a sidewalk to delineate pedestrian v. cycling traffic. I, for one, am absolutely terrified of riding in the streets of my town (having been nearly run down several times) and I imagine that few families would consider taking their children on a bike ride when the threat of being hit by a car is a very real consideration. And yet we still have the arcane municipal laws that prohibit cycling on the pavement and the seemingly inconsistent approach to promoting cycling safety that stresses helmet wearing while ignoring the fact that you can hardly get from A to B safely without the use of a sidewalk. Infrastructure indeed.

  52. One of the unspoken truths among cyclists of any self-awareness is that a lot of our fellow cyclists can shall I say it, not good vehicular citizens. I have been cycling as a main method of transportation for the past 10 years and have been attending cycling/transportation seminars in the Seaport district, Southie and JP over the last 5 years and one of the things that amazes me is this concept that there is some sort of conflict between being a cyclist and commuting in other manners. Critical mass will only be reached when it is the most pleasant way for all involved to get around. Until that time, I will understand the resistance to cyclists who disobey traffic rules (including riding on the sidewalk) and make the act of cycling a statement of combat.

    The time for those who needed to harbor a deathwish in order to brave the urban American roads is over and I think that there are actually a number of folks who lament this fact. We are making progress but it takes time. And it takes understanding.

  53. I find it kind of hard to justify the back lash, I mean how terrible can bike lanes be? The first paved roads were meant for bicycles and pretty much everybody got around by bike until cars were more affordable and we moved farther and farther into suburbia. I do worry about the moral conservatives making an issue out of cycling just as North America needs to integrate cycling into infrastructure. Even right winged nuts can ride bikes and discover what fun those crazy cyclists have been having.
    It's about the future, about the environment, community and building better neighbourhoods.
    Even in Vancouver with it's high rate of cyclists and bike agenda city counsel, the new awesome separated bike lanes are being attacked and people are in a huff. It makes absolutely no sense to be against bike lanes.
    As for ticketing cyclists- if you want to be taken seriously as a cyclist, you have to follow the rules of the road. It is dangerous to ride after dark without lights, it is rude to blaze past people without ringing a bell to warn them and if the law requires helmets, then just wear the damn helmet or else discover how much trouble you'll be in if you are in an accident.
    Critical mass gets alot of negative attention an I have never been in one because: I bike every dayand don't need to bike with others to prove anything And, on friday night after a week of work I just want to go home. Some people were confused that Victoria, BC didn't really have one. But, Victoria has the highest rate of cycling in Canada and maybe they didn't feel the need to advertise themselves.
    And families can bike together! If they chose to live close to where they work, shop, do stuff, then there's no reason why they can't get on their bikes. There was a brasillian movie about a family-a huge family that biked from the interior to Rio to find work. It was nuts that it was based on a true story.
    I saw a cute movie the other night "Made in Dangeham" and everybody rode bicycles in the 1960's-and they were biking to work in a car factory!
    I am reading alot about bike culture this bike culture that and Momentum magasine has gotten a bit pukey about it. Many people bike and have for years without being part of a biking community and feeling smug. I mean, yes, we are amazing, but no need to draw the ire of the 'no' people. Just bike and be safe!

  54. Thank you so much, Veloria for writing such a wonderful bicycle advocacy article. You are right, we should not be surprised by the backlash we are seeing, particularly now that there are many more real "paint on the ground" impacts in significantly more communities that car-only drivers are seeing every day in their commutes.

    Many of the arguments I'm seeing on the interwebs are economic - "we pay much more than those cyclist for infrastructure, and yet, the more visible signs of road improvements seem to be bike lanes, rather than pothole filling. What's up with that?"

    We definately need to focus more of our energy on a "complete streets" approach. Where we stress the safety and efficacy of all users, car drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclist, rather than focusing just on bicycles. After all, the street improvements in New York have resulted in the lowest level of traffic fatalities in over 100 years. That should be the lead in any story rather than the simple application of paint to create new bike lanes.

    This safety has an economic benefit. Each fewer traffic fatality means a $5.8 million dollar credit in economic activity to the community where that reduction has taken place ( For "conservatives" concerned about the supposed loss of economic activity or cost of bike lanes, that should be statistic number one to cite.

  55. Having visited the US regularly over the past 15 years I can see a mirror image of the situation here in Sydney Australia. Bike lanes have been built in the centre of the city and the reaction has been exactly the same as in the US. Intollerance is being fanned by rabid radio shock jocks and newspapers.

    After doing a 300km. ride in Austria in 2009 I was amazed at how well the bike lanes worked there. Vienna has a good network of bike lanes that appear to be well accepted by the community.

    Australia has followed the US model of huge shopping malls, without a car doing the daily shop is almost impossible. Austria has many smaller neighbourhood shopping centres. Many of our friends in Vienna actually use their bikes to go to the shopping centre or to commute to train or tram hubs on their way to work. It's a very different world and the percentage of people who have discovered that bikes really are a good alternative to cars is much larger than here or the US. As a result bikes are not seen as a fringe activity.

    One of the mistakes I think we have made here is that local governments have tried to force bike lanes into places where they just dont work, busy city streets. A better choice may be the Austrian model where cyclists are encouraged to do part of the journey by bike, before taking a train or tram or even walking to their final destination. Bike lanes are built in the outer suburbs connect transport hubs and it works.

    Bike parking stations at train stations on the outskirts of Vienna are filled to capacity.

    I know that any system can never perfect but having seen the European model compared to the Australian model I can see some of the reasons why ours is not working.

  56. @Heather: Please do not paint this as a "left" vs. "right" quarrel. This "right wing-nut" family of 4 owns 12 bikes, and ride regularly for exercise and transport. We, too, are facing many of these issues in Chicagoland -- and this is Schwinn's birthplace. For Velouria's sake, let's continue on with a polite discussion on the issues.

    @Velouria: Thanks for a great entry! Couldn't have said it any better.


  57. why do i cycle in cities? because being locked in a traffic jam or inside a bus/subway are simply no options to me. it takes too much energy to overwrite either the latent aggressiveness of being stuck in traffic or the numbing dullness of public transportation.
    i take a bike as mood enhancer. cycling my mind is not only at ease, it is part of a self feeding loop of all kind of positive things like creativity, improvisation, flow, awareness, intuitiveness etc...
    especially attractive to me is also the fact that my role as part of traffic is somehow fluent - not clearly defined - and in so far to a large extend open to my own interpretation. i can change from cyclist to pedestrian within a second. i can cross a street as pedestrian, can hop on a train with my bike when necessary, can ride against a one way street (at least in most parts of europe) etc etc
    so in the essence cycling of course has something pretty much guerrilla-like - it has an air of self defined freedom - you take the given infrastructure and interpret it - and use it - in your very own way. and if you do so responsibly, no harm is done.
    so of course cycling in its essence is a thing for free spirits. or as my old latin teacher used to say: "cycling is progression of/for the educated mind."
    'loco-motion' as some call it. and they are right.
    as the 'loco' about cycling - the fun and craziness -, its overall fluidity, the gradual openness to personal interpretation etc etc... is what makes it what it is.

  58. cyclists who disobey traffic rules (including riding on the sidewalk)

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that in Massachusetts, it is legal to ride on the sidewalk outside of designated business districts. I don't necessarily support that as best cycling practice, but it's not officially against the 'traffic rules'.

  59. Portlandize

    I hope our discussion is germane to the blog post in that the post seems to me to be about how bicycling infrastructure is looked at as a them against us proposition and how the driving public needs to be approached to minimize this pushback to the bicycling public. And my take is that this is the wrong approach. Specific infrastructure is not needed, it’s not a them against us as we are allowed by law to use the roadways.
    After posting I almost immediately realized that since you had actually posted several items, my comment might not be clear. I apologize. BTW, I’d love to visit Portland and see how a bicycle friendly city actually looks.
    I disagree with your statement – “If I have to follow the same rules, I cannot ride on this road, because I cannot ride above 15mph for a sustained period,”
    I think the laws address slow traffic situations and bicycles are often going to be slow traffic. The slowest speed limits in my area are 20 mph in the center of town, so I’m always at a potential 10 mph or greater speed differential. My point is that doesn’t matter. The cars just have to slow down if I need to take the lane because the right side is hazardous or I’m preparing for a left turn. They have to do the same thing for any slower vehicle. It’s not special that I’m biking.
    As to the special rules, except for describing turn signals, they aren’t really different again from other slower traffic. Keep right, let faster traffic have an opportunity to pass, etc….
    Personally I think the greatest thing to drive up the comfort level with biking, will be far greater numbers of bikers. Studies have shown that the more bicyclists there are on the street, the rate of accidents goes down and the comfort level of riders goes up.
    Always appreciate reading your comments.

  60. Just relax. I remember my first pair of real riding shorts. Globe-Sport from Copenhagen. 1966. Wearing those in public meant an endless volley of beer bottles thrown out the windows of passing vehicles. Those shorts were also grabbed out the window. Car engines were basically louder back then, you learned to listen for the guy who was intentionally coming too close. Always an eye out for how to jump the curb, what sort of trip it would be on the shoulder.
    Ride your bike, more on the road makes it better.

  61. jens said...
    the night rider, the wobbler, the traffic-dodger... - they are all back:

    Thanks for the link, those are great!

  62. Screech / rob - Think of it this way: As a psychologist, I understand why people exhibit violence, why they mock each other, why they kill, why they lie, why they cheat on their spouses, and so on. To some extent, I am even able to predict what circumstances will result in those behaviours and to suggest what measures can be taken to prevent them. This is not the same as morally condoning any of those behaviours. Ditto with my views expressed in this post.

  63. Great blog and great post!

    Totally agree with most of your points. I think it would be helpful if folks looked to independent data on the mostly positive impact bike lanes and other Alt Trans projects have on a given community. It's hard to have a strong, intelligent argument on either side without at least some reference to facts.

  64. Very, very well put. Thank you for posting this.

  65. this was a great read and a great way to end the day. thank you again for another great post.

  66. Great post and I have been thinking the same over the years.

    Here in London, UK, when I started to cycle around 15 years ago, the most hated road users was the black caps (taxi) and the white van man.

    Now of days it is the cyclist, the reason for that is the cyclist themselves.

    We, as cyclist, need to take responsibility for ourself and turn this around so that people like to share the road with cyclist.
    the most hated road user

  67. Car use will continue to increase to fill the available space - just like bike lanes do. If you move more people onto bicycles you free up road space which will be rapidly filled with more cars.

    It's the reason why building roads never improves congestion - you just end up with more cars and the same congestion...


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