Communication breakdown: Bikers and critics just can’t see eye to eye

BY KEEGAN STEPHAN  |  Bicycling has become one of the most volatile subjects in New York City. Almost no other topic inspires such passionate responses from both sides; few people have no opinion on the issue, and there are virtually no “middle-of-the-road” points of view. Some of our most esteemed writers have spent countless column inches trying to convince people one way or the other.

About a month ago, Randy Cohen, the original “Ethicist” for The New York Times Magazine, came out of retirement to write a column about why he believes the way he and thousands of other New Yorkers commute on their bicycles is ethical, if illegal. Two weeks later, in his review of the new movie “Premium Rush,” Will Leitch, founding editor of Deadspin, posited that almost all cyclists, even if they are perfectly pleasant and normal in the rest of their lives, become rude and dismissive of everyone else the moment they mount their bikes.

These are two succinct summaries of the diametrically opposed opinions on cycling in New York City. Bicycle advocates argue that bike infrastructure makes streets safer for all road-users and reduces carbon emissions. They point out the enormous ratio of pedestrians killed by cars versus bikes and that bike lanes have decreased all types of traffic accidents on every street where they’ve been installed.

Critics of cyclists and bike lanes point out that bikers routinely break traffic laws in ways that surprise them, and they express fears of being hit.

But despite how often and articulately these arguments have been repeated, I’ve never heard a single person on either side of the issue change his or her opinion. This is a strange phenomenon for a city that contains a diversity of intelligent perspectives on almost every other subject. All of this begs the question: Why? Why is there such a breakdown of communication on this topic, and is it worth the amount of discussion it receives?

Personally, I think cycling deserves all the attention it has gotten, but the caliber of the conversation needs to elevate, and it must do so quickly or we are going to miss an opportunity to unite New Yorkers around an important cause and bring about sustainable change.

Cycling advocates need to realize that the critics’ fears are never going to be assuaged with statistics. Fear is rarely grounded in facts. People typically fear the things least likely to harm them. Yet fear is real. Fear plays an incalculable role in both our personal and political lives, and cyclists have not discovered a good way to address this. To my knowledge, no pedestrian has ever been told that he or she is several hundred times more likely to be killed by a car than a bike, and then suddenly stopped fearing every near-miss with a bicycle.

On the other hand, most cyclists honestly believe they are doing something good by riding their bikes — for themselves, for their community and for the environment. Statistics support their beliefs — so when they are vilified disproportionately to the dangers they pose, they do often grow rude and dismissive, as Leitch suggests. To my knowledge, there is also no cyclist who has been told he or she is the deadliest thing on the street, and then vowed to never again hop a curb when a car nearly makes a right-hand turn over top of them.

As long as critics routinely have their fears dismissed as irrational, they will grow more oppositional to increased numbers of cyclists and bike lanes; and as long as cyclists are scapegoated for the dangers of our city’s streets, they will ignore the hyperbolic criticisms hurled their way. This is an unfortunate impasse at a crucial moment. The premise of both Cohen and Leitch’s articles is that they want livable streets. Automobiles have dominated our public spaces and our culture for generations, and both Cohen and Leitch’s pieces indicate that most New Yorkers are not happy about that. They want infrastructure that creates a safe environment protecting pedestrians from both bicycles and automobiles, and that also protects cyclists from automobiles without infringing on spaces for pedestrians.

And for the first time since Robert Moses, the city government is sympathetic to these desires. That is, at least until the 2013 election, when a new administration could make every positive change of this administration go the way of the bike lanes installed by Mayor Koch. Remember those? I didn’t think so… .

The two camps need to put aside their divisive rhetoric and form a coalition while this sympathetic administration is in power. If they work together to advocate for infrastructure that fulfills their needs, that infrastructure will be implemented. If that infrastructure is implemented, the benefits will be too obvious to be rolled back, and their coalition will grow too strong to let it happen. If not, a historic opportunity will be lost.


Stephan is a member of Time’s Up!, a New York City-based cycling advocacy and environmental organization.

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