From the people who gave you the War on Christmas… it’s the War on Cars.
Okay, there is no war on cars (we might not have launched an actual Christmas offensive either). But if there were, we won!!!!!!!!!!
…says this headline in New York magazine. This month, they published an excerpt of the book Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, by the former NYC transit commissioner under Bloomberg, Janette Sadik-Khan.
Sadik-Khan gives us a fascinating look at the inside of the wonkiness of transportation planning, and the surprising passion and virulence that goes into fighting change, even at the street level. It was personally illuminating for me to see the fearful, angry backlash against the bike lanes that I both used and took for granted as an excellent and advisable part of NYC when I lived there.
But Sadik-Khan describes the battle for a bike lane on Prospect Park West as the “biggest controversy of all.” This is a two-lane bike corridor that allows you to bike along Prospect Park without biking through it. I used it to get from my house, a few blocks away, to the protection of the Park’s car-free 3 mile loop. Many others use it to reach North Brooklyn or Manhattan from South Brooklyn in safety.
When it was proposed and implemented in 2010, it was a site of contention, and the fight’s not over yet. The residents of the tony, park-adjacent street bitterly fought the proposed bike lanes, fearing congestion or traffic. Or perhaps their bogeyman was something left unsaid, since none of their stated nightmares came to pass and yet residents kept fighting for its removal until high opinion polls and traffic calming grew too clear and too convincing to oppose.
Five years later, Gothamist reported that last month the wealthy anti-bike lane group Seniors for Safety (membership: apparently three?) once again hauled Sadik-Khan, retired from government but not from Bloomberg, who she works for in the private sector, into court over the unwanted (by increasingly only them) bike route. And what’s more, as a nominally charitable organization (or at least as an organization with a really nice sounding name), they got represented for free– that’s right, they were a pro bono client.
As we know now, New York would evolve from 2010 to today into a relatively bike-friendly place (pending lawsuits and the scariness of trying to bike in Manhattan besides the Hudson River Park Bikeway withholding.) Sadik-Kahn describe the change:
It became clear that we didn’t win the public debate by outwitting the opposition. The battle was won by the projects and by New Yorkers themselves. New Yorkers were way ahead of the press and the politicians. They took to changes on the street with an enthusiasm immune to the government that built them, to the advocates pushing for the changes, and to the opponents arrayed against them. They were just looking for new ways to get around and saw in the transformation of the streets the fulfillment of a long-dormant promise. Change is possible. They weren’t Lycra warriors or ideologues out for blood, and in fact there was less blood on the street than there was at the start of the process. And it wasn’t about bike lanes. It was about an idea about our streets and who they are for.
We succeeded in building as many bike lanes after the bikelash as before it. The number of riders doubled from 2007 to 2013, representing a fourfold increase measured over a decade. We launched Citi Bike in the final months of our time in office. The system is in the process of doubling in size and has surpassed 25 million rides in less than three years, part of a quadrupling in bike ridership citywide since 2000. New York now has more than 1,000 miles of bike lanes, and Bicycling magazine named us the nation’s best biking city for the first time ever.
In Seattle, the war grew so heated that The Stranger published a Das Kapital-inspired satirical manifesto declaring, that, as long as the Powers That Drive insisted that people who bike and want to stay alive until (at least) reaching their destination were starting a war, then they might as well put out some demands.
Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, a small bike advocacy organization, looked to the power of spinning more than wheels, fighting the catchy fire of ‘War on Cars” with other catchy word fire.
Here is their “say this, not that” cheatsheet for activists:
You can see a number of goals in this revamped vocabulary. For one, they want to make the conversation easy for people who don’t often talk about transportation to get involved and understand. To do this, they try to avoid jargon (“bioswales” are basically trees planted on the side of the road to help give rainwater a place to go besides the street but I only know this because I interned in local government) and acronyms.
They also are working to make the stakes clearer, by not referring to biking as the dismissive “alternative” transit mode, and by being more explicit about the grave consequences of car-bike interactions (“collisions” instead of “accidents”), and placing deliberate blame (“the person driving the car” instead of “the car”).
Lastly, what you see here is an effort to separate people’s identities from their current method of transportation. You can only have a war with multiple camps if you have multiple firm groups– but people are just people, who can travel by car, bike, foot, boat, airplane, subway, and any number of other transportation methods. “Bicyclist” is an identity, “biking,” a temporary action.
“When you start thinking of somebody as a ‘driver’ or somebody as a ‘cyclist’ or somebody as a ‘pedestrian’ – which is actually my least favorite – it’s easy to think of someone as part of a tribe,” Tom Fucoloro, publisher of Seattle Bike Blog, told Streetsblog. “Just because you’re riding a bike doesn’t mean you’re in epic opposition to everyone who’s driving a car.”
Somebody (okay, a transportation advocacy group) even made a film about Bikelash and what to do about it. You can maybe view it here, depending on whether it’s working. It wasn’t when I checked, but they have other videos about biking, so it’s not a useless click.
Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, told CityLab that Bikelash, for lack of a better word, was good. After all, you’re nobody until somebody hates you, right? “It’s a high-class problem to have,” he said. “Because it means that we’re actually making a difference. It means we’re actually forcing difficult decisions in a good way, in a constructive way, on communities as they decide what they’re going to look like in the future.”
In 2016, we’re well on our way into that future. We’ve won the war, but we’re still losing
soldiers people who bike to accidents collisions with cars people who drive. So if you are on Team Car someone who drives sometimes, please look out! We’re all on the same side here.