Andrew Smallman

Andrew Smallman works at a non-profit and is completing a Master of Urban Planning degree from Hunter College-CUNY. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

The Two-Wheeled Commute

This article originally appeared in The Curator February 19, 2010.

On an unseasonably warm day in Brooklyn last December, a bike lane on Bedford Avenue was sandblasted into oblivion, its bright white lanes buffed down into near-invisibility. It wasn’t a particularly newsworthy event if you weren’t a cyclist in Brooklyn, but in New York bike lanes are taken very seriously by a small but vocal contingent of cyclists. Though most bike lanes only consist of two painted lines on one side of the street, they improve safety, but also give cyclists a sense of belonging – an understanding (hopefully shared by motorists) that bikes have as much right to the street as motor vehicles.

So when the Bedford lane was removed, rumors swirled as to why the city had stripped it away. The most common story floating around was that upon re-election, Mayor Bloomberg had a cut a deal with the Hasidic Jewish community that lives on Bedford to remove the lane. The community was said to be upset about scantily clad women riding through the neighborhood, though no one was sure just who had expressed that complaint.

A bicycle lane on Manhattan's East 91st Street

Protests were held and others, including a naked bike ride through the neighborhood, were planned but never materialized. Cyclists were outraged. A few cycling activists even attempted to confront Bloomberg in Copenhagen when he traveled there for the UN conference on climate change. All because two strips of white paint had been removed by the same agency – the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) – that chose to put them there in the first place. As of this writing, the DOT has yet to provide an explanation.

As the fury over Bedford Avenue refuses to die down, and angry fixed-gear riders threaten to take their pants off and ride through Brooklyn in protest, it’s important to remember just how far New York and other large cities have come in their transportation planning. In the 1950s and 60s, planners were looking for ways to bring more motor vehicles into cities and to speed their travel once they got there – a movement that led to a long period of expressway construction in American cities, often requiring the bull-dozing of entire neighborhoods. It wasn’t until the 1990s that city officials began looking for ways to minimize the presence of the automobiles in cities, hoping to improve the flow of pedestrians, mass transit systems and, increasingly, bicycles. Embracing this change in planning philosophy, Janette Sadik-Kahn, the commissioner of the NYC DOT since 2007, has installed over 200 miles of new bikes lanes on New York City streets, laying down the best bike lane network in the country this side of Portland.

I started biking in New York around the start of Sadik-Kahn’s tenure. For me and for many others who previously viewed cycling as too dangerous to be a legitimate means of transport, biking was a revelation. Liberated from crowded subways and the restrictions of mass transportation, the bike allowed me to move freely through the city for the first time, without checking a system map or bus schedule. I discovered parts of the city I had only traveled through underground. Entire neighborhoods that would have required two transfers to reach on mass transit were now a breezy 25-minute bike ride away.

Riding through the city is transportation but also sport, a physical and mental challenge with an inherent risk (bike lane or no, you are still sharing space with two-ton vehicles) that can make arriving to work feel like something of an achievement. A half-century after Robert Moses tried to carve New York City into a series of interlocking expressways, Janette Sadik-Kahn was inviting claustrophobic subway commuters up onto the street and telling us to pedal our way to work down special lanes painted just for us. Taking notice, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, and many other cities initiated their own plans for carving out space for bikes, leading the writer Jeff Mapes to author a book declaring a Pedaling Revolution.

This is great news for those of us who love our bikes, but is a pedaling revolution really underway? Despite the nationwide movement towards urban sustainability (a buzz word used to describe an ever-widening set of initiatives) and the role the bicycle plays in that movement, a sustained swell of bike commuters is still needed to fill those new lanes. If that doesn’t happen, transportation commissioners will inevitably begin to listen to city dwellers who’ve yet to get religion and just want a place to park their car.

As progressive as Sadik-Kahn may be, she is still a city commissioner with the power to enforce policy decisions as she (and the mayor) see fit. If Bedford can disappear, so can the whole bike lane network, if cycling advocates and city officials can’t convince more commuters to get on a bike. And to stand on many of the newly painted lanes in New York, or the new lanes along Pine or Spruce Streets in Philadelphia, is to see a steady stream of cars and merely a trickle of bikes – a reality that is not lost on a growing body of opponents.

“Undemocratic, hippie, Disneyland schemes, the pipe dreams of DOT hipsters with degrees in urban planning who really would prefer to live in Copenhagen or Portland,” was how one commenter on the news blog Gothamist.com described the new DOT agenda. At a community board meeting I attended in Greenwich Village, a large NYU auditorium was filled to capacity with residents angrily complaining about a new bike lane on Carmine Street. Variations on the question, “Why should we give up parking when nobody even bikes down the bike lane?” were shouted again and again at a DOT representative.

Again, cycling in large cities is, for all its merits, a challenge. Sucking down exhaust fumes as you maneuver around a city bus or a double-parked delivery truck is not everyone’s idea of a fun, healthy commute. And where planners are choosing to place new bike lanes often reflects the assumption that only younger and more affluent residents will be biking regularly. In New York, a large percentage of the new bike lanes have been placed in the high-income or gentrifying neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Manhattan; in Philadelphia the newest lanes connect the high-rent districts of Society Hill and Rittenhouse Square. If you feel like everyone you know rides a bike, there’s a fair chance you live in Park Slope, Jamaica Plain, Queen Village or a similarly youthful, hipster- or yuppie-filled neighborhood where the average resident has some time and money to burn. It’s not surprising that “Bicycles” ended up on the Stuff White People Like blog, not far down the list from “Gentrification.” And even within those neighborhoods, a disproportionate number of men are riding; for whatever reason, women have been slower to embrace the bicycle as a means of transport.

This has the unfortunate effect of allowing some politicians to claim a populist stance in opposing bike lanes. Speaking in Chinatown during his campaign against Bloomberg, mayoral hopeful Bill Thompson denounced “bike lanes that are doing damage to local businesses” and suggested that the Grand Street lane in Chinatown had been put in “without speaking to the community.” Watching a Democratic mayoral candidate depict bike lanes as an elitist tool causing harm to the common man is a conflicting experience for the urban cyclist, who may like to think of himself and his chosen form of transportation as progressive (I know I do). But until the new cycling movement develops a broader appeal, the pedaling revolution runs the risk of petering out before it has a chance to develop into a real paradigm shift in urban transportation. If urban highway building could fall out of fashion despite having widespread support for nearly two decades, how much faster could poorly-used bike lanes disappear?

Time will tell, and for now, what matters most is that – minus Bedford Avenue – the bike lanes are out there and beckoning us all to ride. And in spite of the risks, in spite of the aggravation of trying to maneuver around colossal SUVs that seem better suited to desert warfare than urban transportation, I’ll continue to take full advantage of bike lanes, and my hope is that a growing and diverse body of city dwellers across the country will start to do the same. Maybe it’s a bit early to call it a pedaling revolution, but it’s a lot more fun than expressways.

Re-examining the Suburbs

It’s a hot day in the middle of August and I’m speeding through suburban Philadelphia in a borrowed Honda. The windows are down, the sunroof is open, and the Rolling Stones are blasting on satellite radio. As I wind through Dresher, Abington, and Willow Grove, PA I hit tree-lined residential streets before turning onto a four-lane artery lined with aging strip malls. I pull into a parking spot in front of the bank and take some money out, get back in the car, drive down to the grocery store to pick up some things for dinner, and then hit the road again, easing a few minutes later into my parents’ Clinton-era town house development. It’s freeing to speed around in their car, and it feels like a return to my roots in suburban Mclean, VA. No crowds, no problems.

The suburbs are the default mode of American life, the place middle and upper middle class people live when they’re not consciously choosing to live somewhere else. As they have since the 1950’s, the suburbs appeal to Americans’ desire for space (for themselves and for their cars), local governmental control over their neighborhood public spaces and institutions (as opposed to the city-wide dispersion of tax dollars and land use decisions that characterize local governance in large cities), and the desire to have ownership not only of one’s living space but of a piece of land as well. Two generations of children have now grown up in the suburbs, and for most Americans life without driveways or drive-in windows is nearly inconceivable.

And yet something changed with the second generation of suburban natives, those of us who were born in the 70’s and 80’s and spent half our childhood watching the world go by from the back of a station wagon. For many of us who grew up during the Reagan or Clinton eras, the idea of driving less and walking more started to seem like a good idea. Seeking out a different way of life, recent college grads following in the footsteps of artists and other urban pioneers, bypassed the suburbs for a place in town. Eventually every city wanted its SoHo or Greenwich Village. A recent apartment posting on Craigslist captured the new urban ideal: “Imagine waking up in a cozy apartment home within walking distance to your favorite latte shop to grab a coffee and muffin.” The posting was for an apartment in Missoula, Montana.

This new embrace of urban life corresponded to an increasing dismissal of the suburbs as soulless and deadening, home to “cookie-cutter” housing developments and chain stores lacking in character. In the eyes of many, suburbs like Abington, Dresher, Willow Grove, and McLean were not places at all, just a few squares in the endless quilt of sprawl.

Of course, hating on the suburbs is nothing new. In 1961, after the first wave of post-war suburban flight, Jane Jacobs, patron saint of urban pioneers, wrote “each day, several thousand more acres of countryside are eaten by the bulldozers, covered by pavement, dotted with suburbanites who have killed the thing they thought they came to find.” In 1979, David Byrne sang of the suburbs, “I wouldn’t live there if they paid me to.”

But over the last couple of years, anti-suburbanism, perhaps bolstered by the ranks of young people re-inhabiting cities, has reached a fever pitch in popular culture. In a March 2009 article in the Atlantic, Richard Florida suggested that “suburbanization-and the sprawling growth it propelled-made sense of a time. But that was then; the economy is different now. A new geography is required.” Florida’s idea of a new geography is a return to the density of old cities, in short, “packing in more people.”

In Jonathan Franzen’s much-hyped new novel Freedom, an anti-sprawl advocate rails against suburban development and exalts in the density of New York City: “This is the way human beings are supposed to live! High density! High efficiency!” The Curator’s own Thomas Turner, referencing Danielle Dutton’s novel SPRAWL, suggested, “the end of the world is when all the world has become suburbia.”

The problem with such criticisms is that they are too often true. Of course, there are old, walkable suburbs like Wayne, PA outside Philadelphia, and Brookline, MA outside Boston; uniquely beautiful towns that are no less unique for being suburbs. But the suburban towns that were developed in the post-war years were built quickly and cheaply, in an era when walkability and access to mass transit were no longer necessary.

My own experience growing up in a post-war suburb was not altogether positive (I was prone to car sickness, for one thing). After graduating from high school I happily left the suburbs behind, eventually settling in Brooklyn, where I’ve lived since 2004. If I glory now in my drives through suburbia, it’s largely because the experience has become something of a novelty.

But just as anti-suburbanism is hitting its stride, I’m starting to wonder whether I can avoid ending up there again in a few years. As any perusal of apartment listings can attest, the newfound popularity of older, denser cities and inner-ring suburbs have made safe and desirable neighborhoods in the urban core unattainable for the average citizen. A tanking economy had a minimal effect on housing prices in gentrified urban neighborhoods, while freshly built developments on the exurban fringes were often the first to drop in value. This represented a clear reversal from the long post-war pattern of emptying cities and booming suburbs.

This isn’t necessarily bad for city-lovers like myself, and few people in New York or Washington or other rejuvenated cities are pining for the bad old days of the 1970’s, when apartments were cheap but muggings were the norm and regular street cleaning a pipe dream. But the new popularity of city living (and the corresponding rise in urban housing costs) demands new compromises from those of us with moderate incomes and children. The prospect of watching your children grow up in a cramped, rent-stabilized apartment you can never afford to move out of will change your perspective on urban living. And schooling is another problem; large cities from Washington to Chicago have been unable to rejuvenate troubled school systems, even as their middle and upper income tax base has grown.

Lacking a realistic alternative, it may be time for some of us to re-examine suburbia – with the hope of improving it. Retrofitting the newest batch of exurban subdivisions to resemble Wayne or Brookline is not possible. But as Thomas Turner noted in his Curator article, “there are people taking back the suburbs from the infestation of Hummers and fast food joints.” People working collectively in neighborhoods they feel invested in may yet have the power to overcome the bad urban design and the single-use zoning of low- density suburbs.

On a governmental level, the smaller size of municipal suburban governments creates more opportunities for community involvement and incremental change than would be possible in a large city. In my parents’ town of Dresher, PA, there is now a bike lane connecting their development to the nearest commuter rail station, suggesting the possibility (for the first time since the development was built) of a car-free commute to Philadelphia. This was the product of a small municipal government making a seemingly minor decision to paint some white lines on the street, but it represented a significant first step towards gradually reducing car dependence in their suburb. And reducing car dependence is arguably the first (and most difficult) step towards making a community more livable.

Cities are flawed in their own ways, of course, but there are solid lessons to be learned from urban revitalization. Access to alternate modes of transportation, a flowering of local businesses, and an acceptance of higher population density are elements of urban life that can translate to the suburbs. But to get there a new breed of suburban residents will have to become active in their community and support a new suburban aesthetic. It will take residents who have already experienced the benefits of biking for transportation and shopping at local businesses.

The good news for those of us who end up being grudgingly pushed out of urban neighborhoods is that more space really can be a good thing, backyards actually can be helpful when raising children, and speeding a Honda down a leafy street with the radio on is still a good time. The better news is that there’s strength in numbers, and as those of us who learned to hate the suburbs start to inhabit them, we can and should take the initiative to push them in a new direction.

The Two-Wheeled Commute

On an unseasonably warm day in Brooklyn last December, a bike lane on Bedford Avenue was sandblasted into oblivion, its bright white lanes buffed down into near-invisibility. It wasn’t a particularly newsworthy event if you weren’t a cyclist in Brooklyn, but in New York bike lanes are taken very seriously by a small but vocal contingent of cyclists. Though most bike lanes only consist of two painted lines on one side of the street, they improve safety, but also give cyclists a sense of belonging – an understanding (hopefully shared by motorists) that bikes have as much right to the street as motor vehicles.

So when the Bedford lane was removed, rumors swirled as to why the city had stripped it away. The most common story floating around was that upon re-election, Mayor Bloomberg had a cut a deal with the Hasidic Jewish community that lives on Bedford to remove the lane. The community was said to be upset about scantily clad women riding through the neighborhood, though no one was sure just who had expressed that complaint.

A bicycle lane on Manhattan's East 91st Street

Protests were held and others, including a naked bike ride through the neighborhood, were planned but never materialized. Cyclists were outraged. A few cycling activists even attempted to confront Bloomberg in Copenhagen when he traveled there for the UN conference on climate change. All because two strips of white paint had been removed by the same agency – the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) – that chose to put them there in the first place. As of this writing, the DOT has yet to provide an explanation.

As the fury over Bedford Avenue refuses to die down, and angry fixed-gear riders threaten to take their pants off and ride through Brooklyn in protest, it’s important to remember just how far New York and other large cities have come in their transportation planning. In the 1950s and 60s, planners were looking for ways to bring more motor vehicles into cities and to speed their travel once they got there – a movement that led to a long period of expressway construction in American cities, often requiring the bull-dozing of entire neighborhoods. It wasn’t until the 1990s that city officials began looking for ways to minimize the presence of the automobiles in cities, hoping to improve the flow of pedestrians, mass transit systems and, increasingly, bicycles. Embracing this change in planning philosophy, Janette Sadik-Kahn, the commissioner of the NYC DOT since 2007, has installed over 200 miles of new bikes lanes on New York City streets, laying down the best bike lane network in the country this side of Portland.

I started biking in New York around the start of Sadik-Kahn’s tenure. For me and for many others who previously viewed cycling as too dangerous to be a legitimate means of transport, biking was a revelation. Liberated from crowded subways and the restrictions of mass transportation, the bike allowed me to move freely through the city for the first time, without checking a system map or bus schedule. I discovered parts of the city I had only traveled through underground. Entire neighborhoods that would have required two transfers to reach on mass transit were now a breezy 25-minute bike ride away.

Riding through the city is transportation but also sport, a physical and mental challenge with an inherent risk (bike lane or no, you are still sharing space with two-ton vehicles) that can make arriving to work feel like something of an achievement. A half-century after Robert Moses tried to carve New York City into a series of interlocking expressways, Janette Sadik-Kahn was inviting claustrophobic subway commuters up onto the street and telling us to pedal our way to work down special lanes painted just for us. Taking notice, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, and many other cities initiated their own plans for carving out space for bikes, leading the writer Jeff Mapes to author a book declaring a Pedaling Revolution.

This is great news for those of us who love our bikes, but is a pedaling revolution really underway? Despite the nationwide movement towards urban sustainability (a buzz word used to describe an ever-widening set of initiatives) and the role the bicycle plays in that movement, a sustained swell of bike commuters is still needed to fill those new lanes. If that doesn’t happen, transportation commissioners will inevitably begin to listen to city dwellers who’ve yet to get religion and just want a place to park their car.

As progressive as Sadik-Kahn may be, she is still a city commissioner with the power to enforce policy decisions as she (and the mayor) see fit. If Bedford can disappear, so can the whole bike lane network, if cycling advocates and city officials can’t convince more commuters to get on a bike. And to stand on many of the newly painted lanes in New York, or the new lanes along Pine or Spruce Streets in Philadelphia, is to see a steady stream of cars and merely a trickle of bikes – a reality that is not lost on a growing body of opponents.

“Undemocratic, hippie, Disneyland schemes, the pipe dreams of DOT hipsters with degrees in urban planning who really would prefer to live in Copenhagen or Portland,” was how one commenter on the news blog Gothamist.com described the new DOT agenda. At a community board meeting I attended in Greenwich Village, a large NYU auditorium was filled to capacity with residents angrily complaining about a new bike lane on Carmine Street. Variations on the question, “Why should we give up parking when nobody even bikes down the bike lane?” were shouted again and again at a DOT representative.

Again, cycling in large cities is, for all its merits, a challenge. Sucking down exhaust fumes as you maneuver around a city bus or a double-parked delivery truck is not everyone’s idea of a fun, healthy commute. And where planners are choosing to place new bike lanes often reflects the assumption that only younger and more affluent residents will be biking regularly. In New York, a large percentage of the new bike lanes have been placed in the high-income or gentrifying neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Manhattan; in Philadelphia the newest lanes connect the high-rent districts of Society Hill and Rittenhouse Square. If you feel like everyone you know rides a bike, there’s a fair chance you live in Park Slope, Jamaica Plain, Queen Village or a similarly youthful, hipster- or yuppie-filled neighborhood where the average resident has some time and money to burn. It’s not surprising that “Bicycles” ended up on the Stuff White People Like blog, not far down the list from “Gentrification.” And even within those neighborhoods, a disproportionate number of men are riding; for whatever reason, women have been slower to embrace the bicycle as a means of transport.

This has the unfortunate effect of allowing some politicians to claim a populist stance in opposing bike lanes. Speaking in Chinatown during his campaign against Bloomberg, mayoral hopeful Bill Thompson denounced “bike lanes that are doing damage to local businesses” and suggested that the Grand Street lane in Chinatown had been put in “without speaking to the community.” Watching a Democratic mayoral candidate depict bike lanes as an elitist tool causing harm to the common man is a conflicting experience for the urban cyclist, who may like to think of himself and his chosen form of transportation as progressive (I know I do). But until the new cycling movement develops a broader appeal, the pedaling revolution runs the risk of petering out before it has a chance to develop into a real paradigm shift in urban transportation. If urban highway building could fall out of fashion despite having widespread support for nearly two decades, how much faster could poorly-used bike lanes disappear?

Time will tell, and for now, what matters most is that – minus Bedford Avenue – the bike lanes are out there and beckoning us all to ride. And in spite of the risks, in spite of the aggravation of trying to maneuver around colossal SUVs that seem better suited to desert warfare than urban transportation, I’ll continue to take full advantage of bike lanes, and my hope is that a growing and diverse body of city dwellers across the country will start to do the same. Maybe it’s a bit early to call it a pedaling revolution, but it’s a lot more fun than expressways.