Peter Knight reports from the drivers versus cyclists frontline
If only bicycles were more like trucks – they and their riders would be so much better liked. If a three-speed Schwinn throbbed like a V8 and smoked like an old Mercedes diesel, it would be far more welcome on the streets of New York.
This is where an increasingly vicious bicycle war is raging. On one side are the green modernists who want to make the city cycle-friendly. Facing them are the Chevysaurs: modern fossils who see cycle lanes and anything silent with pedals as a serious threat to their American dream.
The war is partly about civic responsibility (NYC riders are mostly impolite), but mainly a manifestation of the anguish felt by those who see their society and economy in decline. The ascent of the bicycle – strange as it may seem – is a symbol of unwanted change.
First, a report from the frontline. Mayor Michael Bloomberg sees the bicycle as part of a greener future. His transport commissioner has introduced bicycle-friendly options, including protected and unprotected bike lanes and signed cycle routes. These have come as part of a package of improvement in public transport and a squeeze on the car.
The city buzzes with recreational and sport cyclists. A path that almost circumnavigates Manhattan is shared by cyclists and pedestrians (which causes its own stresses) and is filled with cruising cyclists in the summer.
Sport cyclists have the seven-mile circular drive in Central Park for their exclusive use in the early morning and weekends. And for the Mamils (middle aged men in lycra) it’s an easy hop over the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey and an invigorating 70-mile roundtrip to the river-side town of Nyack.
But compared with London and some other European cities, there are very few commuters on two wheels in NYC. That’s partly because most car drivers treat cyclists as vermin and, until recently, cyclists did not feature in city planning.
Bloomberg’s encouragement of cycling – especially the bike lanes – has brought a vicious backlash. The ultra-orthodox Hasidic community in Brooklyn used its political clout to get a bike lane removed because the community was supposedly affronted by scantily clad women cyclists riding through “their” streets in the summer.
A former city traffic commissioner – Iris Weinshall – is part of a group that is lobbying the city to remove a cycle lane entering Prospect Park in Brooklyn, arguing that it is little used. Ironically, Weinshall is married to the much-loved US senator for New York state Chuck Schumer who is known for cycling around the city.
The war is partly about responsibility but mainly, I would argue, about the pain felt by those who see their country in decline and are searching for simple symbols to destroy.
First, as always, responsibility. New York cyclists are notorious for their anti-social behaviour. I learned early always to look both ways when crossing a one-way street. They cycle the wrong way up the fast-flowing avenues (a practice called salmoning), they ride on sidewalks, seldom use lights when it’s dark, never stop at traffic lights and get very tetchy and self-righteous if you should impede their way.
This is partly understandable because you really have to assert yourself to keep alive on the streets. But the unfortunate consequence of this irresponsibility is that cyclists are unloved, even by some cyclists.
But there is something far deeper behind the bicycle backlash than bad PR.
The US is, unfortunately, in decline and has essentially mortgaged itself to China (which owns much of the government debt) and the next generation who will have to pay off the deficit created by their parents. The US infrastructure is crumbling and there is little money to fix it.
Rich, mainly white, mainly right-wing Americans realise that the good, wasteful times are over. And they are looking for someone to blame. Instead of reds, they see glowing greens under the beds.
That’s why the right is refusing to believe the science of climate change; why they see any new regulations to control emissions as a threat to commerce; why they dismiss high-speed rail as socialism.
Rather pathetically, the Chevysaurs see the bicycle as symbolising the commercial threat to their freedom to own the road and drive big, thirsty cars. Their right to be what Americans were but can no longer be.
Perhaps, too, they see a frightening world where the Chinese drive all the big, bold American cars while the Americans wobble around on Chinese-made bicycles.
It’s called the American nightmare.
Peter Knight is president of Context America.