NYC, following a trend among world cities, is working hard to present itself as fun, livable, and sustainable. Like others, the City has taken to promoting pedaled conveyance to achieve these ideals. Due to several initiatives, bike usage has exploded. It’s not surprising. Bikes perfectly fulfill the city’s “cool” criteria: individualistic, pseudo-outdoorsy, and riding them makes you feel like you’re in an H&M ad. They offer the freedom of a personal mode of transport without the burdensome regulation of traffic law and common decency. On top of everything else, they’re “green” (No biker will pass up an opportunity to tell you so). One may be hard pressed to imagine a vehicle better suited to the sensibilities of the New Yorker. It’s convenient, cheap, lets the rider rush through town with reckless abandon, and imbues the smugness that comes from saving the world.
Due to pressure to implement environmentally conscious transportation options and facilitate NYC’s hip bike culture, City Hall has blindly shown its support. Passing a raft of bike friendly legislation and instituting the massive CitiBike program to muted opposition. This political expediency comes at the expense of safety and common sense.
No example of bureaucratic idiocy aimed at pleasing bike enthusiasts is more poignant than the city’s bike lanes. It probably sounded good at the City Council meeting. “Data says it’s safer to separate bike and car traffic, so let’s build bike lanes.” Can’t argue with that logic. That is, until you see how it’s implemented. Sandwiched narrowly between parked cars and the sidewalk, they perfectly shield pedestrians and motorists from the sight of aloof riders until the moment of impact. This glaring instance of a hastily and poorly carried out initiative, seems representative of the city’s relationship with bike culture.
Most people who live and work in this city understand that getting around requires a certain amount of expertise. Driving in Manhattan is not for the faint of heart, and even walking the crowded sidewalks can be a challenge. Yet, there seems to be no concern that bikes can whiz through the city at high speed without regulation. Is it crazy to suggest that cyclists who choose to cruise along some of the world’s busiest streets have their knowledge of applicable laws and riding ability certified? This sounds like government overreach until you witness a first time CitiBiker, totally out of his depth, wobbling down Fifth Avenue through red lights to a chorus of screeching brakes, blaring horns, and violent profanity.
We penalize drivers severely for operating unsafely, yet cyclists do it regularly with impunity. It seems to take a particularly egregious violation for a biker to draw the attention of the NYPD. Even if a rider is ticketed, no mechanism exists to keep the habitually dangerous off the roads. At the least, safety seminars financed and attended by offending riders, could be a cheap and relatively painless way for the city government to address this public safety concern.
Another troubling aspect of the explosion of bike culture it that the MTA uses it as a crutch. Thousands of people opt for a two wheeled commute instead of squealing, packed subway cars or slow lumbering buses, slightly reducing pressure on the agency. They are also said to assist areas underserved by public transport. It has been a semi-effective band for the city’s authorities, but doesn’t seem to ease the canned sardine conditions in the transportation system nor adequately address the needs of the underserved. How many people will opt for a bike commute during the biting cold of winter? What about people in underserved areas who are incapable of safely riding a bike? The problems facing the city’s public transportation are extremely important. We shouldn’t be distracted, like children, by shiny new bicycles.
There’s also the unchecked self-righteous arrogance of the riders themselves to contend with. The first thing bikers will tell you is that they’re ecofriendly. I’m deeply skeptical of the “green” label. Many try to cash in on the distinction, though it’s mostly steaming and coiled bull shit. Even oil and coal companies get in on the fun (Google “clean coal” if you’re up for a chuckle). Anybody in marketing will tell you that with enough mental gymnastics any product can be billed as green. It seems that, like most claims of eco-consciousness, those of the city’s cycling community evade deeper scrutiny.
Biking is obviously an ecofriendly way to get around in and of itself. There is no carbon emission, aside from the wheezy huff of an out of shape CitiBiker. But like anything else, especially in NYC, they do not exist in a vacuum. If the green assertion is to be believed, essential questions remain: Are bicycles removing cars from the roads, as implied, or are they simply pulling people from the subways and putting pedestrians on two wheels? Are drivers spending more time in their cars, spewing carbon, in search of parking since many spots have been expropriated to CitiBike stations? Do traffic jams caused by errant riders negate the carbon conserved? Don’t allow the sanctimoniousness of green marketing to prevent a critical review.
You may be telling yourself that this author simply hates cyclists. I’m intellectually honest enough to admit that I have, on occasion, idly fantasized about clotheslining particularly smug peddlers, in the style of the WWF legends. Yet, I’m not so thoroughly biased by my prejudice that I can’t recognize the appeal of bicycles. Biking has done a lot to advance sustainability and quality of life in many world cities, but New York is not just another town. Imported initiatives don’t translate exactly. When foreign concepts are applied to this city, they must be tailored to fit her voluptuous and profoundly complicated frame.