"The Great Debate" Goes Mainstream?

Cycling advocates have been hotly debating vehicular cycling and segregated cycling since the 1970’s, or even before. And while the debate has raged on cycling forums, among academics and infrastructure geeks, the casual cyclist, motorist, or pedestrian, has been largely unaware.

That might be changing now thanks to–you guessed it–New York City.

Still life with bike lane and baby
"Still life with bike lane and baby," Chinatown, September 2010.

New York is making progress with its ambitious plan to complete 1,800 miles of bike lanes by 2030, but not without opposition. (See here, here, here, and here for some previous posts on New York.) With such an ambitious plan, and with such vocal opposition, it’s inevitable that the rumblings would begin to be heard by a normally oblivious audience (i.e. those outside the insular world of cycling advocacy).

It’s a good thing that more stakeholders are now being drawn into the discussion, right? Or does it carry the risk that the media’s reductive tendencies will paint the various sides of the debate into grotesque caricatures, such as equating cycling infrastructure to a “war on cars?

The New York Times has published a series of editorials representing five, count ’em, five perspectives on the city’s plans, and the efforts so far: Are New York’s Bike Lanes Working?

The five debaters make some good points, bad points, obvious points, and silly points:

Alex Marshall takes a vehicular position:

Promote biking on regular streets, and thus avoid ghettoizing cyclists into bike lanes. One problem now is that the bike lanes are usually put on larger streets and avenues, which means that cyclists are mixing with higher speed traffic and higher volumes of traffic. One solution is to make clear that bikes are appropriate on most city streets, even those without bike lanes.

Felix Salmon appeals for patience, acknowledging that New Yorkers are not known for that trait:

Did these people really think that New York would become Copenhagen overnight? The fact is that changing the fast-paced culture of New York is going to take time. As more people start making use of bike lanes, the average speed of cyclists is going to slow down, cycling is going to become safer, and both drivers and pedestrians are going to be more aware of the cyclists with whom they are increasingly sharing precious macadam.

Robert Sullivan lets loose the cyclist sarcasm (deliciously, I must say):

On the idea that mad bikers are the out to destroy everyone: We need to get those jerks off of bikes and put back in automobiles where they belong.

Sam Staley is the standard bearer for car culture:

Bike networks represent concentrated, subsidized benefits for a small portion of the commuting public.


Regular bike commuters are a hardy bunch, and those committed few have often already overcome the psychological and practical hurdles necessary to integrate their preferred transportation mode into their lifestyle.

Caroline Samponaro is solidly an infrastructurist:

Before it was built, it was common for New Yorkers to be wary of the Brooklyn Bridge. The press chronicled every growing pain in its design and construction — and every skeptic was proved incorrect at every turn. Bicycling is set to be New Yorks next iconic marker. Lets take a deep breath and see where the lanes take us.

So this is what it looks like when cycling advocates take their arguments to the general public. Some bluster, some bile, but largely civil, I think. Will it last?

Post navigation