Magazine article The American Prospect

The Bicycle Grief: In the Quest for Bike-Friendly Cities, Are Snobby Cyclists Their Own Worst Enemies?

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Bicycle Grief: In the Quest for Bike-Friendly Cities, Are Snobby Cyclists Their Own Worst Enemies?

Article excerpt

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Celebrity is an odd thing in Washington. Typically, it s defined by an honorific, a motorcade, or maybe a bungled appearance at a state dinner. So it was a rare moment when New York City's transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, remarked at a Brookings Institution-sponsored event on urban cycling in December, "We do have a rock-star panel," and meant it literally.

To her left sat David Byrne, the Grammy-winning former front man of Talking Heads. Skinny trousers, blood-red shirt, mad-scientist hair: This was the look that the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) sought to give its newest initiative, a program called Cities for Cycling, designed to highlight good transit policies and eventually take them federal. Byrne had agreed to speak alongside Sadik-Khan and Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, who hails from the bike mecca of Portland and frequently sports a bicycle-shaped lapel pin. It was a dream come true for any urbanism wonk with a well-tended record collection.

Having spent the past two decades touring the world on his collapsible Montague CX, Byrne pointed out the transit problems in certain cities and the fixes found elsewhere. He also demonstrated how bike tourism could provide great blog-to-book fodder; copies of his new travelogue, The Bicycle Diaries, were sold at the door.

The arguments for bikefriendly policy are straightforward and compelling. Cycling emits no carbon, curbs obesity, and reduces traffic congestion. And, as long as you're not buying a Lance Armstrong-quality bike or high-end Lycra gear, it's also a cheap way of getting around--as populist a mode of transit as any. Rightfully, the panelists were evangelical about these talking points, stressing how cycling promotion makes metropolitan areas more inhabitable and sustainable. As someone who practically lives on my bike, I'm with them.

The driving principle behind most cycling policy is supposed to be inclusivity. Or as Blumenauer put it more colorfully, the goal is to help "all ages, all communities" get around--everyone from "400-pound sixth-graders" to "aging geezer baby boomers." As head of the Congressional Bike Caucus, Blumenauer has pushed tax credits for bike commuters and introduced legislation that would make it easier for teenagers to bike to school. Meanwhile, Sadik-Khan has helped carve out 200 miles of bike lanes, added more bike parking, and organized family-friendly biking events in New York City. Since she became transportation commissioner in 2007, bike commuting has increased 66 percent.

Byrne, Blumenauer, and Sadik-Khan all stressed that they just want to make it possible for people to choose how they get around, an objective that should be uncontroversial. Yet the urbane cyclists pushing for these changes may be their own worst marketing problem. Bike culture is just too cool and clubby for its own good.

Case in point: this very event. Many attendees wore trendy messenger bags slung across their shoulders. Near the refreshments table, bearded hipsters chatted about a recent local group ride in which participants donned tweed suits, argyle knickers, and other dandy regalia. Big screens played cutesy clips of everyone from Meg Ryan to the Muppets riding their bike. Images of idyllic Portland received nods of approval; jokes were made at sprawling Houston's expense. ("How many people right this moment are stuck in traffic on their way to ride a stationary bike in a health club? …

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