Sunday, 3 February 2013

A dead mayor, a live cycling boom - and why cycling might be back to stay

For new residents of New York City like me, there has been something almost mind-bending about the last couple of days. Ever since Ed Koch, the city’s mayor from 1977 to 1989, died in the early hours of Friday, obituaries have been transporting us back to an unrecognisable city. Drug addicts lie prone on Manhattan streets, looting breaks out when the power fails and the subway is celebrated mainly for the range and inventiveness of its graffiti. It’s hardly surprising that the person who pitted himself against this chaos had a personality as pathologically extroverted as our current mayor’s is buttoned-up and controlled.
Sixth Avenue: bike-lane-less, as Ed Koch
preferred it on mature consideration

But, for a newcomer who’s a cyclist, one detail of the Ed Koch saga highlights a particularly striking change in the city. In 1980, at the height of the second oil price shock, Koch ordered the installation of segregated bike lanes on Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Avenues and Broadway in Manhattan. Then, only weeks later, having been ridiculed for his bike lane “fetish,” Koch had the lanes torn out again. He went on, in 1987, to try to ban cycling altogether from mid-town Manhattan. While that set-back took years to overcome, Koch nevertheless died in a city criss-crossed by a growing network of bike lanes. Installation is moving – despite setbacks as Nimbys in some neighbourhoods oppose new lanes - so fast that my 2012 NYC cycling map already feels quite badly out of date.

Thinking about that sharp turnaround – a tribute to the commitment of Michael Bloomberg, the current mayor, and Janette Sadik-Khan, his transport commissioner - has linked up in my mind several hopeful signs for cycling over the last couple of months. In both the US and the UK – the countries where I’ve done most cycling – cycling numbers are going up and official acceptance of cycling appears to be growing.

The question is whether this is a fundamental, long-term shift or just another short-term bit of faddism like Ed Koch's.

A Detroit Madison Street: borrowed chic for Lincoln
The question brings to my mind a mental picture of a copper-and-black Detroit Bicycle Company fixed-wheel bike. As someone who likes both gears and highly practical bikes, it’s not a machine I aspire to own. But I came across the bike – a Detroit Madison Street, trivia fans – in the unlikely setting of the Lincoln stand at Detroit’s annual North American International Auto Show. It was being held up as an example of the kind of finely-made luxury product of which Lincoln – which is trying to relaunch itself as a desirable luxury marque – approved.

Still more remarkably, it was one of quite a few bikes I spotted around the show floor.  The Smart stand boasted an E-Bike, which the manufacturer will be selling, while Toyota displayed a concept for a conventional bike. Kia was showing a small-wheeled bike that it sells in Korea, while Hyundai had a fixed-wheel bike sticking out the  back of a coupe. Subaru had stuck a couple of mountain bikes on the roof rack of one of its vehicles.

The unmistakeable impression was that carmakers thought bikes now had a certain cachet – which they wanted to borrow. Compare that with how the UK’s Raleigh in the 1960s felt it had to ape motorbike design to get kids to ride bikes.

The bikes’ presence on the automakers’ stands struck me all the more forcibly because of an article I’d written in my day job just before Christmas. It detailed how all the Detroit Three big automakers – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler – were struggling to reverse or live with recent years’ steep decline in young people’s learning to drive and subsequent buying of cars. Part of the carmakers’ problem stems from a gradual revival in recent years of the US’s inner cities – which are less littered than they once were with unconscious drug addicts - and, for some of the residents, a drift away from cars and towards bicycles. It’s the kind of gain for cycling that would have been scarcely imaginable in most industrialised countries 25 years ago when Mayor Koch was trying to ban cycling altogether.

A YouTube video posted by Gaz, a keen helmet-cam user reminded me that the process has already gone far further in the UK. His video – shot one recent January day – showed 50 cyclists on one short stretch of Cycle Superhighway 7 (a former Roman road, as it happens). If so many people are cycle commuting in January, Gaz suggests, the spring and summer are likely to see London’s highest cycle commuting numbers in many years.

Kent Ave, Williambsurg: Denis Hamil wants
those bike lanes gone
The worry, of course, is that cycling also looked so much like the coming thing in 1980 that a gadfly populist such as Ed Koch briefly took the risk of backing it. If car companies thought there was a way other than sticking two bikes on the roofrack to show their car was associated with an outdoor, aspirational lifestyle, I’m sure they’d happily use it. Denis Hamil, a columnist in the New York Daily News last week said he would support any mayoral candidate who promised to scrap the current crop of bike lanes. One of the likeliest contenders for mayor – Christine Quinn, a Democrat – has sought to appease bike lane haters by saying lanes are “controversial” and advising people not to discuss them at dinner parties.

In London, even Boris Johnson, the mayor, who is a daily cyclist, fell before the last mayoral election into the trap of caricaturing cyclists as dread-locked red-light jumpers. As with road safety – where the current UK government has reversed years of steady improvements by cutting funding for speed cameras – there is always a risk that someone will take steps that reverse apparently inexorable progress in a positive direction.

It doesn’t, for what it’s worth, feel as if such a step is coming immediately either here in New York or in the UK. Concern about the environment, changes in living patterns, concern about health and cycle technology improvements are all conspiring to make this cycling boom feel far more solid and longer-lasting than the second oil shock one.

Yes, cycling's made progress. But, as long as FedEx drivers
think across one of  New York's busiest bike lanes is a good place
to park, it won't be mainstream
But it’s worth remembering that, even after recent years’ quadrupling of New York cycling numbers and the last decade’s doubling in London, riding a bike remains a fringe pursuit that’s far from winning mainstream acceptance.

That point came home to me particularly clearly one Friday night just before Christmas. Riding home around 10pm down W55th street from my office, I was surprised to find a limousine pull up next to me and wind down its window. Inside was a curious tourist who couldn’t understand what I was doing. No, I told him, I wasn’t delivering anything. Yes, I was just riding home from my office.

Recognising that he wasn’t going to get to the bottom of it, he finally said: “Just seems kind of… European.”

The incident set a new mental benchmark for me for cycling in New York and other big cities where it’s still not one of the main modes of travel. Cycling, I’ve decided, will finally be mainstream when an encounter with a commuter cyclist is no longer one of the “darndest things about New York” that a returning tourist recounts to his friends in Peoria.


  1. After an absence of several years, I've returned to SoCal. Two cycling observations stand out so far. First, cycling has increased dramatically. By at least an order of magnitude. Second, seeing the people on bikes, it is easy to see why they are fringe. Really poor practices are the norm. At least as bad as in DFW.

    1. Steve A,

      Thanks for your comment. I'll adjust my mental picture of where you're writing.

      I'm sorry to hear cycling standards are poor down there in Southern California. On the other hand, my two brief visits to Southern California several years ago suggested to me that driving standards down there were fairly poor as well. Has that changed?

      All the best,


  2. Driving standards ARE poor - in contrast to the past, not everyone drives very fast any more. There are those that will drive 45mph on the San Diego Freeway. Still, there are many capable drivers while I didn't see any real cause for hope amongst the cyclists. One has to wonder about people riding no-handed the wrong way down a sidewalk while lighting cigarettes. One also has to wonder about some of the #%^* cycling facilities. They'd be mainstream if part of the Warrington Cycle Campaign series...

    1. Fear not, Steve A. I guess the early(ish) adopters you're seeing cycling are the risk-takers. Give it some time, proof that cycling is safer than people think and you'll start to see others as sensible as yourself (I hope).

  3. To paraphrase Freud, the voice of reason is small, but very persistent. Bike lanes have been installed, stripped out and then re-installed in both London and New York because bikes are simply wonderful tools for personal mobility in cities. Allocating space for bikes makes it an even better tool.


    1. Bill,

      Thank you for your wise words. My basic schtick on here is to emphasise the unreason of people's short-term decisions, while suggesting what the reasonable position would be. I do so mainly because I think that, in the long run, reason tends to win out, just as it tends to lose in the short run.

      I'm actually not as sold on infrastructure as some cycling advocates ( But separate facilities are undoubtedly needed on New York's avenues and along the rivers (I use the Hudson River Greenway to ride home). So it is a real pity that the Koch-era cycle lanes didn't survive to start the process of turning New York into a New Amsterdam of cycling.

      All the best,


  4. This isn't the 1980s and this isn't Ed Koch's NYC anymore. It will be difficult for the next mayor of New York City to rip out the bike infrastructure that Mayor Bloomberg has installed.

    Despite the delusional ravings we see in the tabloids about Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan forcing bike lanes on unwilling communities, there is a powerful grassroots movement and a large, diverse and growing constituency that supports the new bike infrastructure and is really willing to go out on the street and fight for it.

    For example: When a small band of wealthy, elderly, politically-connected NIMBY's tried to get rid of the Prospect Park West bike lane, 350 people rallied (at the last minute) in support of the bike lane. A few months later 700+ parents and kids showed up for, an event sponsored by local businesses. Who is the next mayor going to listen to -- hundreds of families or a couple of cranky tabloid columnists and washed-up hacks like Norman Steisel and Iris Weinshall?

    If Mayor Joe DeBLiusiQuinn tries to get rid of the PPW bike lane -- and I actually think there's a decent chance that s/he will because it's become such a symbol of Bloomberg/Sadik-Khan -- I would expect a minimum of 1,500 profoundly upset livable streets advocates on the steps of City Hall and children and parents blocking the bulldozers with their bodies, getting arrested. I'm not kidding. This would be a cause for major civil disobedience.

    Particularly if the next mayor is a Democrat and a "progressive," then tearing out this infrastructure will just be an enormous black eye -- and not just in NYC but on the national state. Presumably, these candidates are doing the same polling that everyone else is doing and they are seeing that, despite all of the kvetching, JSK's livable streets improvements enjoy broad popular support. It would be an extraordinarily irrational choice for the next mayor to reverse this progress.

    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I couldn't have put it better myself. You can see that above, where I didn't put it better myself.

      But I have one tiny disagreement. Go easy on the washed-up hacks. Some of us ride bikes.

      Invisible (a washed-up hack).

  5. Hey, hey, easy on Peoria! ;-) Peoria was actually held up as a model to copy at a cycling advocacy workshop I attended last summer. Apparently in recent years they have allocated some points for cycling and pedestrian provision in the scoring formula for deciding what transportation projects get funded. Nobody is willing to leave points on the table and have their project lose out, so suddenly all the proposals include cycling/walking provision.

    1. QMacrocarpa,

      Thank you so much for your comment.

      I suppose it's the fate of poor Peoria to be held up as a symbol of everything mid-western and average. And maybe it underlines my wider point if even such places are starting to push for cycling and walking provision.

      In my defence, maybe not all those schemes have yet been completed and the guy who spoke to me just hasn't seen any cycling commuters in Peoria yet. Then, in a short while, when Peoria is the Amsterdam of Illinois, he'll scratch his head and say, "Gee, all these people are just like that guy I saw on my trip to New York City."


  6. "Just seems kind of.....European". There's a mindset among some Americans that European ways are not for us. We don't pay much attention to soccer in general and the World Cup in particular. Our cars tend to be bigger and heavier (on the average) than cars in the rest of the world. Even our trains are bigger and heavier. And, while nearly all other countries have adopted the "SI" (metric system) of weights and measures, we stick with pounds, inches and quarts.

    1. You are right, Bobby Boy. By the same token, there are plenty of Europeans who reflexively don't want to do things the American way even when it's demonstratively better or more effective.

      People don't always have open minds...


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