A New Détente in the 'War on Bikes'

Gavin Anderson/CC BY-SA 2.0

This month's Bicycling Magazine lays out the state of the bike-lane battle that has been brewing in New York city since the Brooklyn neighborhood got lanes in the Park Slope area and a group of opposing citizens took the issue to court (they lost).

While in the media these kinds of clashes fuel the meme that there is a war on city streets between cyclists, peds, and motorists, in real life many cyclists are motorists, and all of us at one point or another are pedestrians.

So the question is, can we get along with ourselves?

You would think the answer would be a simple yes, but the issue is complex. As a pedestrian, you are the most vulnerable road user, and that helps you internally adjust your behavior to be more defensive when you are on busy city streets.

As a cyclist, your agility to dart in and out of traffic makes you less willing to lose momentum and more willing to take small (and often illegal) risks.

As a motorist, you are the least agile in this mode share maze, and yet, you are the most powerful and deadly.

Matt Seaton, who wrote the Bicycling Magazine article entitled "We Have Met the Enemy," seems to think that after the heated atmosphere following the protests about the Park Slop lanes, now the mood in New York City is nearer to détente, or a relaxation of hostilities and an attitude of accommodation.

Seaton quotes Gabe Klein, now Chicago transportation commissioner, as saying that bike lane backlash is more or less a normal reaction to a city infrastructure change. And Tom Vanderbuilt, the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says about Us) is also quoted describing a Harvard researcher's hypothesis of the four stages of social norm change - first changes are silly, then controversial, progressive, and finally obvious.

"I think we're somewhere between the second and the third stage when it comes to cycling in New York; opponents are finding they can't make viable arguments against cycling as a transportation mode on safety or traffic-flow reasons, so now it's more about the left-wing, Copenhagenizing cabal." - Tom Vanderbuilt, from Bicycling Magazine

However, others in the article speculate that backlash against bicycles and bicyclists is the fault of the cyclists themselves and their propensity to bend, and even flagrantly break, the rules.

An infamous Portland, Oregon study found that while only 22 percent (average) of motorists made a full stop at residential stop signs, only 7 percent of cyclists did. Which would signal that cyclists are in fact, at least a bit more prone when they are on their bikes, to take more risks and break more laws that impede their forward motion, than either pedestrians or motorists.

So can we build a culture of 'self-enforcement' among cyclists without completely squelching that lovely sense of freedom that cycling can bring?

I think, and hope, that the answer is yes. In Portland, where the bike culture is just a little older than in New York, I would say we are in the 'progressive' or stage three of the four stages of social norm change. In the nearly twenty years that I have been in Portland, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists have gotten more accommodating of each other, with infrastructure improvements helping, and with some well-publicized steps backward and some still-tragic occurrences.

So, what is the secret sauce of self-enforcement?

In my view it's the women and children cyclists. As a very general rule, women are more risk-averse when on the bike lanes – that's been indicated in studies. We tend to ride slower and be more cautious, and while that's not always in our favor, it does bring a new, civilizing element to bike lanes that generally start out or are traditionally male dominated.

© April Streeter

With more women on paths there are also more children, in cargo bikes, and trailers, and eventually riding themselves. This bicycle acculturation is a slow process.

But it's nice to know that, according to this one New York observer, it is happening.

Tags: Bike-Friendly World | Bikes | Biking

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