Janette Sadik-Kahn

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.