As Simple as Riding a Bike

Although I currently live in Allentown, attending Muhlenberg College, I am originally from the New York City area. Therefore, I follow a smattering of NYC-based blogs, newspapers, and Twitter accounts.  Over the past year or so, particularly the last few months, I’ve watched a furious debate engulf the city. The impassioned arguing and intense ideological clashes have reminded me of heated arguments over the most complex hot-button political topics. Surely, something revolutionary, dreadful, life-changing, must be happening in the city, right?

Wrong. The issue driving New Yorkers to take up positions on opposing front lines? Let’s say it’s as simple as riding a bike.

While bicycling is by no means a new phenomenon to urban centers, it has recently become the focus of renewed attention in New York. This is largely due to Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City’s transportation commissioner. In her four years in that position, Ms. Sadik-Khan has gained international fame for her aggressive attempts to “transform the car-clogged streets of New York” by making the city more navigable for cyclists and pedestrians. She has directed the addition of about 250 miles of bicycle lanes and added pedestrian plazas in parts of the city, including Times Square. Keep in mind: bike lanes are installed only with the consent of local community boards. In other words, if there is a bike lane, elected officials approved it.

While many are elated with the increased focus on biking and walking, some are opposed. The controversy in New York City comes down to the usual obstacles that progressive policies run into; a resistance to change in the status quo, and political posturing.

For example, New Yorker columnist John Cassidy wrote an essay applauding the anti-bike lane lobby and supporting those who frequently drive within the city. Cassidy, who rode a bike when he lived in the East Village in his 20s, reminisces that:

Those days, there were few cyclists on the roads, and part of the thrill was avoiding cabs and other vehicles that would suddenly swing into your lane, apparently oblivious to your presence. When I got back to my apartment on East 12th Street, I was sometimes shaking.

Meanwhile, politicians have chosen to use the issue of bicycling in an attempt to gain support. Representative Anthony Weiner, who ran for mayor in 2005, considered doing so again in 2009, and will likely run again in the future, is quoted in the New York Times as telling Mayor Bloomberg last year that:

“When I become mayor, you know what I’m going to spend my first year doing? I’m going to have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes.”

Representative Weiner, a Democrat who has previously positioned himself as a progressive, has been a staunch critic of Mayor Bloomberg, and has been known to reach out to conservatives in the past.

Meanwhile, legislation has been introduced by a NY City Councilman and a NY State Assemblyman to require adult cyclists to carry licenses, register their bikes, and even add license plate. The bill proposing the last measure was eventually withdrawn.

By now, you’re probably wondering why Crossroads, a Lehigh Valley blog, has published a post focusing on a different city.

While New York City is over a hundred miles away, with a very different political and social climate from the Lehigh Valley, the virtual culture war that has erupted over urban biking has major implications for smart growth around the nation, including right here in the Valley.

RenewLV supports the idea of “complete streets;” streets that are “for everyone, whether young or old, motorist or bicyclist, walker or wheelchair user, bus rider or shopkeeper.” Such streets are vital for the rise of vibrant, healthy urban core communities. A strong city, even a strong neighborhood, allows residents to easily get around, whether to go to school, work, shopping, to meet friends, and so on. A sole reliance on cars inhibits these neighborhoods: roads become over-congested with traffic, parking spaces run out quickly, and an abundance of inattentive drivers leads to accidents.

While I am not necessarily arguing for bike lanes to be installed throughout the Lehigh Valley, I strongly support efforts to make biking a more practical method for navigating the cities, which can include the installation of bike-friendly infrastructure. In addition to a handful of recreational cycling groups, there are a few area organizations which promote biking as a means of transportation.

Bike Allentown advocates “city planning that ensures that all residents can cycle and walk safely through their neighborhoods and communities.” The group supports various efforts including the strategic placement of bike racks in and around Allentown, shared lane markings to alert drivers of cyclists, and a “Safe Routes to School” initiative. The organization also supports the proposed Greenway plan which will, among other actions, connect bike trails in the city’s public parks to streets, in order to make safer biking routes.

The Coalition for Appropriate Transportation is a Bethlehem organization which encourages alternative transportation throughout the Northampton-Lehigh county areas: specifically, walking, biking, and use of LANTA busses. CAT supports a complete streets approach; their website has a wide range of resources for walkers, bikers, and riders — definitely worth a look.

If you support cycling in the Lehigh Valley, try reaching out to one of these groups. Everyone, including motorists, can benefit from an emphasis on safe biking and complete streets. Bike Allentown has a meeting tonight (Tuesday, 3/22), 7:00 PM, at Ringer’s Roost. Newcomers are welcome; if you can, stop by!


Update, 3/23: John Cassidy has come under fire from all corners of the blogosphere for his New Yorker blog post (cited above), but the criticism from economists is perhaps the most acute.

Cassidy, an economics writer, uses brief, vague cost-versus-benefits arguments against the bike lanes. Here are two articles countering Cassidy’s flawed reasoning with their own economic analyses: a blog post by Olaf Storbeck, an international economics reporter (thanks to Matt Tuerk of the AEDC for the link), and a blog post on The Economist‘s site.

Posted on March 22, 2011, in Health, Neighborhoods, Transportation, Uncategorized, Urbanism. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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