Photo sashafatcat via flickr.
He doesn't mean it in a nice way, and he never did. P.J. O'Rourke is a satirist, using wit as a way to deliver social criticism, and in this week's Wall Street Journal he skewers cyclists, inviting them to "Go Play in Traffic." While it's a little sad that a respected humorist so excoriates the humble bike and those who go human-powered, cyclists should be neither alarmed nor offended by O'Rourke's words. O'Rourke always hated the bike (in print, at least), and now that it's becoming more of a needed transportation mainstay on crowded American city streets, reducing pollution and carbon dioxide emissions and improving health, O'Rourke is airing his feelings once again.
Cyclists definitely take over the streets in Portland's 2011 tweed ride. Photo by Bike Ranger via flickr.
In the WSJ article, O'Rourke says cyclists are "taking over city streets." That's a pretty big statement, but O'Rourke probably knows it's hyperbole - even in Portland, Oregon, bicycles' share of the commuting stream can't get above 10%.
O'Rourke seems offended by the build-up of bicycle infrastructure in New York City and elsewhere, though it costs a fraction of building new roads. He neither gives any historical context to his disparagement of the bike (after all, much road-building in the early part of the 20th century was due to pushing from the bike lobby's Good Roads movement) nor does he give cycling any credit to biking for reducing traffic congestion.
Only a few bicycles are needed to take up as much space as my Chevrolet Suburban--just one if its rider is wobbling all over the place while trying to Tweet. And my Suburban seats eight. The answer to traffic congestion is lower taxes so that legions of baby boomers my age can afford to retire and stay home. - P.J. O'Rourke
Of course, a satirist isn't worth anything unless he can gets some humorous mileage out of current social conventions. In that sense, O'Rourke is affirming that the bike is more a part of urban landscapes than it has been in some time.
A satirist also can't function unless people are at least aware of the subject he is poking fun at. O'Rourke's comments got a lot of people mad - at last count his article had stirred 167 comments, many of them defensive of cycling and disparaging of the author.
But if O'Rourke is dumping on the bike in the WSJ, it has re-entered public consciousness, and that's a good thing for those of us who depend upon it for transportation and like it for all of its other good qualities.
So there's no use hating O'Rourke for his knack at turning opinions into columns that the Wall Street Journal will pay for. What is strange is that WSJ didn't tag his column as an opinion piece, which it clearly is.
O'Rourke has consistently knocked bicycles. In his 1995 book, Republican Party Reptile, he called them "undignified," and added:
"Going about in public with one's head between one's knees, and one's rump protruding in the air is nobody's idea of acceptable behavior."
Women of "ample proportions" he continues, should never be seen on a bicycle. Bicycles, he concludes, are unsafe, unfair (because they don't supposedly pay for road taxes) and even unAmerican.
So, behind the satire, does O'Rourke not see cycling's benefits? Hard to say - from the driver's seat of a Suburban (his 2010 book was called Driving Like Crazy: Thirty Years of Vehicular Hell-bending) a bicycle can just seem like an obstructions. But then, so too can pedestrians.
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