Saturday, April 2, 2011
The Wall Street Journal
Dear Urban Cyclists: Go Play in Traffic
From Dublin to Bogotá, bicycles are taking over city streets. What’s next, lanes for hopscotch and pogo sticks?
A fibrosis of bicycle lanes is spreading through the cities of the world. The well-being of innocent motorists is threatened as traffic passageways are choked by the spread of dull whirs, sharp whistles and sanctimonious pedal-pushing.
Bike lanes have appeared in all the predictable places—Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berkeley and Palo Alto. But the incidence of bike lanes is also on the rise in unlikely locales such as slush-covered Boston, rain-drenched Vancouver, frozen Montreal and Bogotá, Colombia (where, perhaps, bicycles have been given the traffic lanes previously reserved for drug mules). Even Dublin, Ireland, has had portions of its streets set aside for bicycles only—surely unnecessary in a country where everyone’s car has been repossessed.
Then there is the notorious case of New York City. Not long ago the only people who braved New York on bicycles were maniacal bike messengers and children heeding an abusive parent’s command to “go play in traffic.” Now New York has 670 miles of bike lanes—rather more than it has miles of decently paved streets.
The proliferation of New York’s bike lanes is the work of the city’s indomitable transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-(Genghis)-Khan. Her department has a horde of 4,500 employees and a budget nearing a billion dollars. The transportation commissioner’s job is—judging by rush-hour cab and subway rides and last December’s blizzard—to prevent the transportation of anybody or anything to anywhere in New York. Bicycles are the perfect way to go nowhere while carrying nothing.
The bicycle is a parody of a wheeled vehicle—a donkey cart without the cart, where you do the work of the donkey. Although the technology necessary to build a bicycle has been around since ancient Egypt, bikes didn’t appear until the 19th century. The reason it took mankind 5,000 years to get the idea for the bicycle is that it was a bad idea. The bicycle is the only method of conveyance worse than feet. You can walk up three flights of stairs carrying one end of a sofa. Try that on a bicycle.
Almost everything that travels on a city street, including some of the larger people in the crosswalks, can crush a bicycle. Everything that protrudes from or into a city street—pot holes, pavement cracks, manhole covers—can send a bicycle flying into the air. When the president of the United States goes somewhere in Washington, does he ride an armored bicycle?
Given that riding a bike in a city is insane and that very few cities need more insane people on their streets, why the profusion of urban bike lanes? One excuse for bike lanes is that an increase in bicycle riding means a decrease in traffic congestion. A visit to New York—or Bogotá—gives the lie to this notion. You can’t decrease traffic congestion by putting things in the way of traffic. Also, only a few bicycles are needed to take up as much space as my Chevrolet Suburban—just one if its rider is wobbling all over the place while trying to Tweet. And my Suburban seats eight. The answer to traffic congestion is lower taxes so that legions of baby boomers my age can afford to retire and stay home.
Bike lane advocates also claim that bicycles are environmentally friendly, producing less pollution and fewer carbon emissions than automobiles. But bicycle riders do a lot of huffing and puffing, exhaling large amounts of CO2. And whether a bicycle rider, after a long bicycle ride, is cleaner than the exhaust of a modern automobile is open to question.
If drops in pollution and traffic congestion are wanted and if discomfort and inconvenience are the trade-offs, we should be packed into tiny circus clown cars. These fit neatly into bike lanes and provide more amusement to bystanders than bicycle wrecks.
In fact, bike lanes don’t necessarily lessen car travel. A study by the U.K. Department for Transport found that the installation of “cycle facilities” in eight towns and cities resulted in no change in the number of people driving cars. Bike lanes don’t even necessarily increase bike riding. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Dutch government spent $945 million on bicycle routes without any discernible effect on how many Dutch rode bicycles.
“The bicycle is a parody of a wheeled vehicle—a donkey cart without the cart, where you do the work of the donkey.”
But maybe there’s a darker side to bike-lane advocacy. Political activists of a certain ideological stripe want citizens to have a child-like dependence on government. And it’s impossible to feel like a grown-up when you’re on a bicycle if you aren’t in the Tour de France.
All but the most athletic among us get on and off a bicycle the way a toddler goes up and down stairs. Wearing bicycle shorts in public is more embarrassing than wearing Depends. Exchanging briefcases for backpacks takes us from the boardroom to the schoolyard. And it’s hard to keep a straight face when talking to anyone in a Skittles-colored, Wiffle ball-slotted bike helmet that makes you look like Woody Woodpecker.
Bike lanes must be intended to foster immaturity or New York would have chosen instead to create 670 miles of bridle paths. Being on horseback has adult gravitas. Search plazas, parks and city squares the world over and you won’t fine a single statue of a national hero riding a bike.
This promotion of childishness in the electorate means that bike lanes are just the beginning. Soon we’ll be making room on our city streets for scooter and skateboard lanes, Soapbox Derby lanes, pogo-stick lanes, lanes for Radio Flyer wagons (actually more practical than bicycles since you can carry a case of beer—if we’re still allowed to drink beer), stilt lanes, three-legged-race lanes, lanes for skipping while playing the comb and wax paper, hopscotch lanes and Mother-May-I lanes with Mayor Bloomberg at the top of Lenox Hill shouting to the people on Park Avenue, “Take three baby steps!”
A good, hard-played game of Mother-May-I will make us all more physically fit. Fitness being another reason given for cluttering our cities with bike lanes. But why is it so important that the public be fit? Fit for what? Are they planning to draft us into forced labor battalions?
Bike lanes violate a fundamental principle of democracy. We, the majority who do not ride bicycles, are being forced to sacrifice our left turns, parking places and chances to squeeze by delivery trucks so that an affluent elite can feel good about itself for getting wet, cold, tired and run-over. Our tax dollars are being used to subsidize our annoyance.
Bicycle riders must be made to bear the burden of this special-interest boondoggle. Bicycle registration fees should be raised until they produce enough revenue to build and maintain new expressways so that drivers can avoid city streets clogged by bike lanes. Special rubber fittings should be made available so that bicycle riders can wear E-ZPass transponders on their noses. And riders’ license qualifications should be rigorous, requiring not only written exams and road tests but also bathroom scales. No one is to be allowed on a bicycle if the view he or she presents from behind causes the kind of hysterical laughter that stops traffic.
—Mr. O’Rourke’s many books include “Don’t Vote—It Just Encourages the Bastards.”