The bicycle wars

A cheaply-painted, rarely used bike lane in Santa Monica, CA. Photograph by Christopher LeGras

According to SmartGrowthAmerica, as of last fall some 1,400 jurisdictions around the country had adopted Complete Streets as their official transportation policy. Complete Streets envisions roadways as communal spaces. It emphasizes transit, cycling, e-scooters, and walking over driving. Counties and cities have spent countless millions of dollars on everything from lane restriping to dedicated bicycle trails, and also have incorporated similar initiatives such as Vision Zero, Great Streets, Livable Streets, Safe Routes to Schools, and others. While they differ in details the programs share the ultimate goal of incentivizing (or, less charitably, forcing) people out of their cars and onto those other modes of transportation.

Massive investment, dubious outcomes

Yet even advocates acknowledge that despite the investment, despite the messaging and information campaigns, despite myriad policies, ordinances, and regulations, fewer people are using bikes as a regular means of getting around. Nor is L.A. unique in that regard. Around the country, the number of commuters who cycle or ride transit is decreasing (though because it can be difficult to measure people’s commuting habits, a few polls have found modest increases). Even in China, bicycle capital of the world, usage has plummeted. The number of people in Beijing that used bicycles for some of their transport needs fell from 60 percent in 1995 to 20 percent in 2010. Shanghai and other major cities have even banned bikes from some downtown corridors. That’s not to say the U.S. should emulate the Middle Kingdom, rather China’s experience suggests that so-called car culture is universal, that there is a human instinct to maximize individual mobility. And in terms of carrying the most stuff the farthest distances at the greatest speed, cars simply cannot be topped.

Which explains the growing national frustration with Complete Streets and other policies that prioritize other modes of transit. Americans generally are all for bike lanes and transit, so long as policies match actual need. Unfortunately, in too many cities officials are in thrall to a small but vocal and well-funded minority pushing an anti-car agenda. Rather than adapt policy to local conditions these groups force a one-size-fits-all approach. When the promised masses of cyclists and transit patrons fail to materialize, they double down and use it as justification for even more bike lanes and buses. People aren’t coming, so we need more incentives, q.e.d.

For example, a story in StreetsBlogUSA quoted Ken McLeod, League of American Bicyclists policy director, as saying, “We need leaders at the national and state levels to take action: adopt Complete Streets policies, draft and implement bike and pedestrian master plans, and build protected infrastructure.” The SmartGrowthAmerica list suggests that such leadership exists. Indeed, they’ve been successful with statewide laws such as California’s 2008 Complete Streets Act. That law requires counties and cities to incorporate complete streets principles into road design in order to receive state funds. Some might call it blackmail. California certainly does not lack for bike facilities these days. They built it, but no one’s coming.

Promises to the contrary, these changes to roadways and built environments have been disruptive, and not in the good, forward-thinking way. In city after city, town after town, residents and merchants tell the same story: Bike lanes, road diets, and other reconfigurations were installed with little to no community engagement. The outreach that is done is carefully crafted to produce the desired outcome, i.e., support for the changes. In New York, former U.S. Representative Joe Crowley wrote a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio asking him to reconsider certain bike lanes in his district, noting that he’d gotten many calls and emails from upset constituents. In Los Angeles a state representative wrote to City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, imploring her to revisit a road diet in her district that had impeded evacuations during 2017’s wildfires. Both missives were ignored.

Nevertheless, despite their overwhelming advantages in messaging, funding, and organizing, and their undeniable political clout in cities nationwide, the bicycle advocates seem to be losing ground. As noted, massive investment new bicycle facilities haven’t produced the promised masses of velocipedians. After spending billions on light rail Los Angeles has seen a drop in ridership. Moreover, more communities are coming together to push back. The activists’ and politicians’ arrogance could be their undoing, as they refuse to even consider alternatives to their top-down, ideologically motivated plans.

Which is unfortunate, because there are many reasons we should be moving to alternative forms of transportation. The problem is that activists and politicians insist on a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, aside from a few hardcore cyclists the vast majority of people will never ride down a busy boulevard, no matter how “protected” the bike lanes may be. People simply don’t want to ride down the street inches from giant buses. Yet from L.A. to Denver to New York that’s exactly where bike lanes are going in. The result is empty bike lanes and increased congestion. Everyone loses. The irony is that in the vast majority of cases there are parallel streets a block or two away that would be perfect for bike lanes.

People are getting fed up

From the biggest urban cores to the smallest towns, the movement to bring sanity to transit and urban planning is growing. Every week there’s a new story about a bike lane or road diet battle. In Tahlequah, Oklahoma citizens banded together and defeated a planned road diet on that city’s Main Street. In a town of 14,000 they received 3,200 signatures on an anti-road diet petition in just 10 days. A recent Seattle Times poll found people in that city have lost patience with bike lanes. To paraphrase LBJ, if the bike activists have lost Seattle, they’ve lost America.

It bears reiterating that the push back against road diets and other complete streets plans has nothing to do with being anti-bike (or anti-transit or anti-walking, for that matter). People simply don’t want poorly planned and executed projects on critical arteries and highways. In interview after interview, residents and business owners express frustration. They haven’t been part of the process. Elected officials talk a good game about community, then impose projects communities don’t want and didn’t ask for. There’s a strong whiff of paternalism, and that breeds resentment.

All of which is a shame. There are scores of roads around Los Angeles that would make excellent candidates for bike lanes. Rather than doing battle with Metro accordion buses and stressed-out commuters, cyclists on these streets would enjoy tree-lined scenery. Even the most vociferous opponent of a road diet on Wilshire Boulevard would support those alternatives.

Unfortunately, the orthodoxy of bicycle advocates brooks no dissent and can conceive of no compromise. Everything becomes an argument for more bike lanes and fewer traffic lanes. Show them a video of emergency vehicles stranded in a reconfigured street and they’ll say with a straight face, “That just means we need to do more, and do it faster.” Tell them businesses are suffering literally nationwide, and the response is the same. You gotta break a few eggs, after all.

So in our hyper-divided age we’re now at war over bikes. At this rate it won’t be long before we’re fighting over springtime, puppies, and tacos.

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3 thoughts on “The bicycle wars

  1. Good god man, give it a rest! There is no war! You’re decidedly on the losing side of this issue that you don’t appear to understand. You really want to add failed amateur organizer to your bio? Think about how you look when you put your name to this. You are protesting the response to a public health crisis. Wake up.

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  2. Cyclist and pedestrian advocates COULD work with the high majority of people who need or want to drive to work and shop – to achieve safety gains for all road users. But it isn’t happening in most areas.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

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