Here in America, we take it for granted that the bicycle is a form of alternative transportation. For this reason, we also automatically accept that bike lanes and similar projects are, as the media often terms them, “controversial” and should be subject to lengthy debate before we implement them—if we implement them at all. I mean, hey, we’ve got to think long and hard before we take space away from cars and cede it to the tiny minority of people who ride bikes, right?
In the most short-sighted and simplistic sense this may be true. Nationwide, the percentage of commuters who cycle to work was a paltry 0.63 percent in 2017. Even in Portland, Oregon, which has the highest percentage of bike commuters of any major American city, bicycle mode share in 2017 was a mere 6.3 percent. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen that same year, more than 40 percent of trips were made by bicycle. Certainly then it’s easy to argue that taking away space from the many to give to the few is counter to American values, and that these smug bike people are nothing more than a bunch of entitled avocado toast-munching socialists who should just move to Europe already.
But now let’s take a few steps back for some perspective. While Americans may not be big bike commuters, according to PeopleForBikes’s Bicycling Participation Study, they’d really like to be. Thirty-two percent of Americans rode a bike at least once in the past year. Moreover, almost 50 percent of Americans say they’d like to ride more, and that they see bicycling as a convenient way to get around. But over 40 percent of Americans say they want physically separated infrastructure before they ride—and 50 percent of them are worried they’ll be hit by a car.
(None of this is even taking into account the popularity of riding bikes as a leisure activity in the United States: according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, cycling is among the 10 most popular sporting activities here in America, just behind golfing and right ahead of yoga.)
The truth is that, even in America, there’s nothing particularly alternative about riding bikes at all. And yet whenever there’s a news story about them, even in 2019, the word “controversial” invariably appears before the words “bike lane,” just as surely as the descriptor “disgraced cyclist” always precedes the name “Lance Armstrong.” (Go ahead and plug “controversial bike lane” into your search engine of choice if you don’t believe me.)
So how long can the media keep saying that Americans don’t want to ride bikes, and that the idea of building separated infrastructure for them is unpopular? Well, it’s tempting to say that this ruse is on borrowed time. Last week, people all over the world took to the streets for the Climate Strike. Car ownership is becoming an antiquated concept. Studies continue to show that bike lanes are good for business. Bike share keeps growing; in New York City alone, Citi Bike is now doing over 100,000 rides a day. And e-bikes are making cycling more accessible and attractive than ever. Basically, bike lanes are about as “controversial” as vaccines: sure, there are people out there who are against them, but it’s a relatively small number because it requires expert-level mental gymnastics to convince yourself that they don’t work.
At the same time, bicycles and bike lanes do remain one of a dwindling number of subjects about which you can say whatever you want in the media—no matter how baseless, stupid, or transparently provocative—and this makes them an irrestible subject of derision for newspaper columnists in search of cheap clicks and other attention-seekers. Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe regularly checks in to say that bicycles don’t belong in cities and that cyclists are on a killing spree. New Yorkers can always count on Steve Cuozzo of the New York Post to say something ridiculous about cyclists, whom he regularly trolls in order to increase his Twitter follower count. Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy has some of the most impressive bike-baiting bona fides in the industry. And absurd op-eds about bikes from people with absolutely no knowledge of cycling in particular or transit policy in general are too numerous to count. (Linda Stasi of the New York Daily News recently wrote that “a child might die” because of a bike lane in front of her building—the day before a driver killed a 10-year-old boy on a Brooklyn sidewalk.)
This is where we get stuck. Of course a committed cyclist doesn’t care what any of these yutzes has to say. But if you’re one of those Americans who see bikes as convenient, and would ride if only there were physically separated infrastructure, all it takes is an anti-bike column or two to reaffirm for you that decision not to ride is right. You’re also not going to question whether that bike lane they’re talking about for your neighborhood is “controversial.” Well sure it is! After all, bike lanes just cause more traffic, don’t they? (Actually, an NYC Department of Transportation study found that they help traffic move faster.) And yeah, bikes are nice in theory, and you really are concerned about the environment, but this is America and that’s just not how things work here, is it? So why go against the grain by speaking up for something "controversial?”
In this sense, bike lanes now are where the Internet was in 1998; no forward-thinking person could deny its potential, but it was still nascent enough that your parents wanted nothing to do with it, and Paul Krugman could get away with saying its impact on the economy would be “no greater than the fax machine’s.” And as far as bicycles being an “alternative” or “niche” form of transportation, this is only true in that ultimately they’ll follow the same trajectory as that band you liked in high school: you thought you were a weirdo for listening to them, by the time you got to college everyone else liked them too, and now they’re doing commercials and movie soundtracks.
So if you’re thinking about getting into bikes, and supporting more bike lanes, now is the time. You don’t want to be the last person wearing the t-shirt.