Sunday, 17 May 2015

A changing junction, a political bike ride - and the progressive case for cycling

As I ride home from work in the evenings, an intersection in downtown Brooklyn often prompts me to ponder New York City’s attitude to cycling. The southbound bike lane on Smith St at Fulton St used to move out gracefully round a waiting area for taxis and car-service vehicles. Then, recognising that the lane was constantly blocked by parked vehicles, the city decided to repaint the lane so that the parked taxis would no longer block it – though cyclists would have to perform a dangerous swerve out into traffic to round the parked vehicles. More recently, it’s been repainted yet again – and the lane’s now back to guiding cyclists smoothly through the junction – and once again perpetually blocked.
Smith St at Fulton: as it was before it became a symbol
of the city's vacillation about cyclists.

The intersection is a beautiful concrete – or asphalt – illustration of New York City’s equivocal attitude towards encouraging cycling. The city has been prepared to paint bicycle lanes on streets – although it’s now retreating even from that in favour of the dreadful “extra-wide parking lane”. But the city has been far less ready – particularly since Janette Sadik-Khan left as transport commissioner at the end of 2013 – to recognise that to accommodate cyclists well in a given road space it is also often necessary to inconvenience motorists. There has lately seemed to be a waning of the confidence under Michael Bloomberg, the previous mayor, that by promoting cycling the city was making progress towards being a better city.

A bike ride last Thursday prompted me to ponder further the politics of this change. I rode with members of New York city council’s progressive caucus from Brooklyn Borough Hall across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall to highlight the importance of cycling. A Manhattan delegation, having ridden from Union Square, met us at City Hall. As I rode with Brad Lander, Carlos Menchaca and other left-leaning individuals, I got into discussion about the “progressive” agenda for transport in the city and how intimately cycling is linked to making the city better for all its inhabitants.
Brad Lander addresses the bike-to-work ride outside Borough
Hall: a reliable progressive enthusiast for cycling.
I came away convinced that there are many progressive politicians in the city who recognise that the way people get about significantly affects how equitable and safe a city is for all its inhabitants. But I also left worried that some other progressive politicians fail to grasp what a big role changes to those patterns of mobility could play in achieving their wider goals.

Even the term progress is a pretty significant stumbling-block when thinking about these issues. The term implies that humans are learning from previous generations’ mistakes to make the world a steadily better place. It’s a view of the world that sits uncomfortably with the multiple areas where the world appears to be going into reverse. Among those are the rise of vicious Islamist radicals like the Islamic State and the takeover of the US’s Republican Party by groups that appear to reject the reliability of the scientific method for deducing facts about the world. The term also calls into question what “progress” is. Does it entail everyone’s growing steadily richer and buying ever more cars and consumer goods? At its worst, the goal of pushing towards “progress” has justified appalling acts of political repression.

Nevertheless, I’m confident that in most industrialised societies people’s political instincts divide fairly neatly into conservative and progressive camps. Conservatives tend to believe the past was better than the present and that society’s existing power structures are there for fairly good reasons. Progressives tend to think the future can be better than the present and question the power structures currently in place.
I don't know the politics of these people waiting to participate
in last week's ride with progressive city council members -
but it's a fair guess many would call themselves progressives.
It’s no surprise that many cycling activists, as I do, place themselves broadly in the progressive political camp. Since cycling currently accounts for only a small proportion of journeys in many rich countries, arguments for cycling are by their nature arguments for building a future that’s better than the present. Conservatives such as Boris Johnson, London’s elected mayor, are rarer – but often seem to value the bicycle as a symbol of how things were done in the past. Far more conservatives - including Jeremy Clarkson, formerly of the BBC’s Top Gear franchise – seem to identify with car culture.

But that point doesn’t fit with recent shifts in attitudes towards cycling in New York. Following the election in late 2013 of Bill de Blasio – a Democratic mayor about as far left as any conceivable mayor of the US’s main financial centre – it’s clear that cycling has moved well down the city’s list of political priorities. Compared with Michael Bloomberg, his far more conservative predecessor, the current mayor seems to see little reason to encourage cycling to work or the completion of the city’s cycling network. In fact, the fading paint on many of the city’s cycle lanes is a neat illustration of how fragile progress in such an area can be. With less active support for cycling promotion, the previous gains are almost literally fading away.

It wouldn’t be surprising, in fact, if the mayor were a little distrustful of those of us who lobby for cycling. The mayor fought the election on the basis that he would campaign for the second New York that had been neglected during the Bloomberg years. From the perspective of poor neighbourhoods far out in Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx, those of us from brownstone Brooklyn and nice parts of Manhattan who lobby for better cycling provision must seem like representatives of the elements in the city that are already well catered-to.
Poverty-stricken Coney Island after Superstorm Sandy:
cycling promotion probably wasn't on many locals' minds after
this catastrophe.

It must also make a great deal of sense looked at from poorer neighbourhoods for the mayor to focus much of his transport energy on the Vision Zero programme of reducing road deaths. A disproportionate number of those who die on the roads are people like Noshat Nahian, an eight-year-old child of Bangladeshi immigrants killed by a turning semi-trailer truck on Northern Boulevard in Queens, or Amar Diarrassouba, the six-year-old son of immigrants from Cote d’Ivoire killed by a truck in February 2013 as he walked to school in East Harlem. There’s no doubt that trucks and cars – which predominantly support the lifestyles of New York’s richer people – exact a disproportionate toll in death and injury on poorer New Yorkers. The mayor is quite right to try to address that.

Yet it’s a significant failure of imagination not to try to do more than that. Because New York state’s gas tax and other fees for driving cover only 56.1 per cent of the cost of providing the state’s road system, poor state taxpayers without cars are forced to pay much of the cost of maintaining the road system. That’s even before considering all the other costs that the road system imposes – the costs of crashes, congestion, atmospheric pollution and noise, all of which are shouldered by ordinary taxpayers. Any effort to make New York City less car-dependent is inevitably a progressive step away from the regressive effects of the current system of funding for roads. It would also make perfect sense for a progressive mayor to support Move New York’s sensible plans to charge all vehicles entering lower Manhattan a fee that would be used to support the city’s subways and other alternative means of transport. The higher charges would fall predominantly on the city’s wealthiest people, while a great many of the benefits would flow to the city’s poor.
The Manhattan Bridge bike lane on bike-to-work day:
I don't want to see more bike traffic jams like this - but there's
a clear progressive case for encouraging these people
to keep riding their bikes.

An increase in the number of people cycling would serve many of the political goals for which the mayor and many other progressives purport to be aiming. It would reduce the cost burden of maintaining the road system, reduce pollution – another ill that disproportionately harms the poor living by arterial roads – and improve New Yorkers’ overall health. Despite some high-profile incidents, it's also far safer for pedestrians to be around people using bicycles than people using cars.

There is no good reason either why, with better cycle provision, people in some of New York’s more central public housing projects should not take to cycling far more than at present.

Yet the scene at the corner of Smith and Fulton illustrates the challenge. The Department of Transportation was prevailed upon to change the bike lane arrangement at the corner in the interests of preserving a single parking space. The city’s willingness to get people cycling has melted in the face of a backlash by those who see parking spaces as their own private property. There could scarcely be a more reactionary force than groups determined to preserve the right to store their private luxury items on-street for free, but their indignation seems for now to have intimidated many progressive forces into leaving parking spaces well alone. Vested interests can also push the apparently progressive side towards reactionary stances. Both Ben Kallos and Robert Cornegy, council members who turned up at last weeks’ cycling event, have backed a bill supported by transport workers exempting them from legal penalties if they hit pedestrians and cyclists who have the right of way.
Whatever the precise politics of Jay St's cycle lanes,
they certainly feel regressive
Such equivocation about improving conditions for cycling explains a great deal of what the ride from Brooklyn Borough Hall experienced on the first section of our ride to the Brooklyn Bridge. We left the Borough Hall by way of Jay St and found ourselves jostling among heavy traffic, including at least one double-parked car in the bicycle lane. It wasn’t hard to see, taking in the scene, why only 1 per cent of New Yorkers’ commuting trips are currently by bicycle.

New York and many other cities would be a better, fairer place if more of its citizens were getting about by bicycle. Increasing the share of journeys made by bicycle should, consequently, be part of the progressive agenda alongside more obvious causes such as improving urban education and housing. But, if progressives continue to lack political courage when tackling car-dependency or conservatives stay entrenched in power, it’s hard to imagine conditions improving dramatically in the immediate future.


  1. Without sincere and earnest action along with honorable and meritable intentions all we're ever left with are Machiavellian mantras and rhetoric and grandiose expectations.

    1. Tal,

      That is an excellent tl;dr summary of what I'm saying. Thank you,


  2. Equating cycling with a "progressive" (or "conservative") ideology is a good way to make it a convenient scapegoat when the other retakes power. Like Rob Ford or the lefties behind the Seattle helmet law. Mostly, cycling isn't ideological at all and gets persecuted by left and right - who are united by their view from behind their windshields.

    1. Steve,

      You're right insofar as there's a reluctance to back cycling on both sides of the political divide. Rob Ford is a good example of how a backlash can work. But I guess my point is that any politician needs a set of principles that guide his or her responses to events. New York is currently run by progressives. I'm arguing that I think those progressives' neglect of cycling runs contrary to their professed principles.

      All the best,


  3. BTW, Ron Paul cycles. Does Hillary?

    1. Steve,

      I think precisely that progressives are neglecting how cycling can meet their goals - though I also doubt Hillary can reasonably be described as a progressive. She's at least holding an event in a bicycle shop in Ohio today.

      As for Ron Paul, cycling could absolutely be a rallying point for anti-government libertarians. We don't need subsidies anything like as big as those for motoring.

      The fact remains that most cyclists seem to be of a broadly progressive bent - and yet progressive politicians aren't backing cycling as their principles suggest they should.

      All the best,


  4. Cycle schemes in a city don't get anywhere without political leadership.

    In the case of London and Boris Johnson, I hesitate to analyse what is going on in Boris Johnson's mind, but I think there are a couple of reasons why he has pushed through the cycle superhighways schemes.

    Firstly, he does appear to want to leave a legacy of his mayoralty. Too often these are useless vanity projects (cable car, new Routemasters, Garden bridge...) but the redesigned cycle schemes may have lasting impact once they are finished.

    Secondly, Boris does actually ride a bike for everyday trips in London. How many politicians do that? Compare this with, say, Kate Hoey, the Labour MP for Vauxhall whose constituency is just across the bridge from Westminster, and she still insists on driving everywhere.

    1. Anonymous,

      As you'll see if you follow the hyperlink on "Boris Johnson" in the post, you'll see that I once took quite a long bike ride with Boris Johnson, so I know he gets about by bike.

      You're quite right that his transport legacy has mostly been a mess. I'd add to your list of disasters the removal of the western extension of the congestion charging zone.

      On cycling, he started out supporting the on-road superhighways as a counterpoint to Ken Livingstone's London Cycle Network. Those superhighways were always doomed to fail and in a sense he's been boxed into doing something better. I'm glad that by a roundabout route he's come, despite himself, to the right conclusion.

      All the best,


  5. Invisible, great stuff as per usual. An interesting thing about Bloomberg is that his physical changes to the city (bike lanes, waterfront parks, rezonings) were meant to improve the image of the city as a destination and place to live work and do business. Bike lanes were genius because they were low-cost, low-impact, high-visibility, high-approval. Progressives are more about high-impact, which is why De Blasio is more willing to talk about pedestrians, subway lines, and SBS routes. I don't fault him for it, but would definitely hope he continues building out bike infrastructure in transit starved areas of the city. -AZ

    1. AZ,

      Thank you.

      The bike lanes have opened up whole areas of the city - such as Red Hook and Wallabout - to development in a way that would have been impossible quickly with any other means of transport (except, perhaps, that perennial favourite, the ferry). It's clear that Bloomberg liked bikes because they were seen as modern, attractive to hip young people and cheap to provide for. But I've written this blogpost precisely because I think there's a sense now that it's not an issue for the new, progressive leadership. I think it should be an issue for them. Sure, the bike lanes possibly should be more focused on public housing than new condominiums. But this is a Bloomberg policy that wasn't wrong.

      All the best,



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