Something happens when you put architecture and urban design critics on bikes; the tone of the articles change, they become almost poetic. Here we are in New York and Toronto, in the middle of the battle of the bike lanes, the war on the car in New York and the war on the bike in Toronto, and architecture critic Michael Kimmelman writes a lovely piece about the Pleasures of life in the slow lane. He describes the aesthetic possibilities:
I don’t mean they’re great to look at. I mean that for users they offer a different way of taking in the city, its streets and architecture, the fine-grained fabric of its neighborhoods. Decades ago the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown wrote about how we see cities differently at different speeds. Las Vegas was their example, and they wrote about driving versus walking (skipping over the bicycle). But the point stands. On a bike time bends. Space expands and contracts.
He concludes his ride, and his story, in Central Park:
Aesthetics aside, the bike lanes are about urban livability and about encouraging the sort of street culture that, as Jacobs reminded us, a healthy and democratic city depends on. The Central Park Lake was an echo of the Hudson at the start of the day, bringing the trip full cycle. This was the only way to travel.
It would be nice if this elegy brought out the best in readers, but alas, it just brought out the usual comments:
Too many cyclists are nuts and indifferent to the rules of road that they are supposed to follow. I hope that when King Bloomberg finally leaves office, he'll take Khan and her bike lanes with him.
Bloomberg has become an object of derision for many, if not most, New Yorkers, for having forced his will down our throats for far too long. If the opinion polls are accurate, the majority apparently can't wait to see him go, and, as one poster said, take Kahn with him.
Which is exactly what happened in Toronto; The suburban hordes rose up and elected Rob Ford, who famously has said about cyclists who get killed: "In the end of the day, it's their own fault." He has been pulling up bike lanes all over town. Elected on a platform of cutting spending, he is in fact spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to put things back the way they were before the bike riding pinkos messed it up. A lot of people have buyers' remorse these days, as this bull in a china shop is breaking everything that people love in Toronto, from libraries to museums. Former urban issues reporter and now book reviewer John Barber writes about the the war on the bike with its nastiness and vitriol, in the Globe and Mail.
The more bicycling becomes the “right thing to do,” it seems, the more that doing it becomes a dangerous provocation. Everybody is angry. Half the people who say “Good for you” at the sight of a bike helmet actually mean, “Bully for you, you planet-saving prig.” And once behind the wheel, they get their revenge.
That's one reason I rarely wear a helmet any more, which is bound to be the second thing newscasters will mention in the event that my legs are crushed under the wheels of a 12-tonne truck. When the Toronto Sun begins referring to cyclists as “helmet heads,” de-personalizing individuals to make them easier to hate, the uniform becomes uncomfortable.
Are there more idiots than ever riding bicycles in Toronto? It's undeniable. But God does not distribute His idiots disproportionately, according to their choice of transportation. And idiots on bicycles are largely harmless. The truly dangerous idiots – the ones Toronto is unaccountably willing to tolerate, given its disgraceful traffic safety record – are the ones driving.
As annoying as the proliferation of idiots on bicycles may be – both to motorists and to other cyclists who get lumped together with them – it should be seen for what it is: a simple function of more bicycles. A good thing.
Or not, if you prefer. Because in the end, morality doesn't matter. Bicycles will continue to swarm the city in ever-greater numbers. They are inevitable because they are useful.
And of course, the letters to the editor think otherwise:
All downtown cyclists should be required to pass a licensing test, just like motorists, and wear a vest with a license number on it over their clothes, just like motorists must display licence plates on their car.
Finally, just to back up John Barber's point, Joe Peach at This Big City actually documents the environmental benefits that make cycling so inevitable. They include
Embodied Energy, The amount of energy required to produce a bicycle is tiny compared to many other forms of transport. A 7.2kg road bicycle with a carbon frame uses 11,546,658,000 Joules of energy during its production compared to 118,284,466,000 for a ‘generic car’ produced in America in 2008 .
Air quality A bicycle’s environmental sustainability is about more than just low embodied energy. If enough people switch from polluting transport modes to a bicycle – a zero emission form of transport when in use – there is potential for reduced carbon emissions and improved air quality in our cities.
Noise pollution Pollution is about more than just emissions. Noise levels in cities can also be considered a pollutant, with associated long term health risks.
Add to the fact that every person on a bike is one less person in a car or on an overcrowded transit system that costs those taxpaying drivers a bundle to subsidize, It is pretty surprising that there is so much antagonism.