The Paranoid Style in Bicycle Politics: A Bicoastal Freak-Out

When Dorothy Rabinowitz implied that New York's bikeshare program is totalitarian, she was channeling rhetoric heard on the West Coast, too.

bike green full.png
James D. Parker/Flickr

Wall Street Journal editorial-board member Dorothy Rabinowitz is the object of deserved mockery this week after arguing that New York City's new bike share program is evidence of an "autocratic" mayor with a "totalitarian" mindset who has "begrimed" the best neighborhoods in the city.

If only she weren't representative of a larger trend.

There is no one in America who objects more consistently than me to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's initiatives: This is a man who favors stop-and-frisk, racially profiling and spying on innocent Muslims, restricting the size of soda New Yorkers can buy, salt limits, a trans-fat ban, and a pervasive surveillance state. Left up to me, no one like Bloomberg would ever exercise political power. My disdain for his paternalism and disregard for civil liberties is what inclines me to defend his bike initiative. It is the least "totalitarian" major initiative that Bloomberg has undertaken, yet is denounced with some of the strongest language. If the critics were merely expressing their personal displeasure at the prospect of cities better suited to bike travel (or doubts about the efficacy of a particular policy aimed at making cities more bike friendly) that would be fine. Instead they co-opt the language of freedom and oppression, as if orienting cities toward automobiles is natural and libertarian, while bike shares and bike lanes are harbingers of tyranny.

That is vapid, paranoid, philosophically incoherent nonsense. By frivolously trafficking in it, I fear that Rabinowitz and friends will diminish all warnings about liberty and government overreach. Even the boy who cried wolf was invoking the specter of an actually frightening creature.

Rabinowitz is crying bicycle.

* * *
Earlier this spring, a Los Angeles non-profit held the sixth annual CicLAvia, an event intended to give Angelenos an opportunity to enjoy their city by bicycle. A 15-mile stretch of Venice Boulevard was closed for half a day, permitting an easy ride from downtown all the way out to the beach. An estimated 150,000 riders took part. I was one of them. A friend of mine lives in the Pico/Robertson neighborhood. The ride to the beach from her house was flat, pleasant and took about 30 minutes. On a regular day, it would be a miserable, car-choked, and somewhat dangerous ride. Seeing the masses out on bikes hinted at how a safe system of bike lanes could improve Los Angeles, a city with temperate weather, a fitness obsession, and gridlocked traffic.

The car remains king in Southern California, and will for the foreseeable future. It dominates the landscape in Los Angeles, and if the city meets its relatively ambitious goal of adding 1,600 miles of bike lanes over the next 30 years, automobiles will continue to dominate the landscape, though bicycle traffic would certainly encroach on a small percentage of lanes now dedicated to cars. In theory, even drivers could come out ahead, if enough people used alternative forms of transportation. (As if there will be "drivers" anyway 30 years from now, but that's another post.) Let's assume, however, that people who know they won't ever bike really would be a bit worse off under the current bike plan. The faction that argues as much straightforwardly, guarding their self-interest, is engaged in legitimate politics. But the anti-bike fanatics?

Southern California's most popular drivetime-radio hosts, John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou of "The John and Ken Show," are quintessential examples. If you're imagining Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, that isn't them. These guys disdain right-wing ideologues and Team Red hackery as much as anyone, and usually do a better job than most talk-radio hosts conveying original information about controversies going on in the state, however intemperately (very) or offensively they cover them. The essence of their show isn't movement-conservative outrage but populist outrage. They've been successful because they channel the pet peeves of their audience. So ponder their reaction to L.A.'s bike efforts knowing that they're channeling a faction: *
John: Look at these bicyclists, as if they belong to a bizarre cult that worships two-wheel transportation, not a traditional God, not Jesus or Allah, or Jehova, not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they're like a pagan group, but they don't even worship trees. Or nature. But they worship two-wheel transportation. And they have their vestments that they wear, their skintight brightly colored clothing, that you don't see anywhere else, just like in church ... you only see this kind of clothing when they're on the bike in the midst of their worship. They want to be in a special cult. They want to set themselves apart. They're also are very moralistic. They're very self-righteous, the way devout religious people sometimes get. They're better than you are, because they have found the perfect way to live. And they expect us to respect their religion, their point of view.

Ken: Well, whatever it is, they are a growing force in the city of L.A.. The master bike plan for the city over the next 30 years, they plan to install 1,600 miles of bike ways. And if you learn by now, some of those will reduce the car lanes, because you can't expand wider every road you plan to do this on in L.A. because there isn't the money or the desire, so they have to reduce some of the car space to put in a bike lane.

John: It stops when the people who drive cars stop putting up with this nonsense. Like the people in San Pedro a couple weeks ago, starting to rebel against this garbage... there comes a tipping point where drivers are going to stop putting up with this garbage. Toll lanes. Carpool lanes. Bike lanes. Everything but lanes for cars where we can drive freely. There's only so much, and then people are going to say, you know what, f this. They're gonna start driving down these bike lanes. What are you gonna do? There's not enough cops in the world to police if everybody in the public did the right thing and started rebelling against this nonsense. We don't have to live under this tyranny. The tyranny of the bike cult. The tyranny of religious fanatics who worship cycles. It's absurd.
Here's another part of their exchange:
Ken: People are not going backwards. Give this up. A bike is something that people do for a little exercise and enjoyment. They're not going to do it to get the groceries or go to work. It's not going to happen.

John: Ever.

Ken: Who the heck wants to ride back from the grocery store with 10 sacks on their back? Get out of here.

John: Cars have superseded bikes, and they will forever .... You can't bike in Los Angeles. It's absurd, it's stupid, and car drivers don't have to put up with this. You just have to stop feeling intimidated by these people. People who act religious, who act holier than thou and moralistic, tend for a short time to have the upperhand because people are intimated by them. We're bigger, there's more of us, and we have to live this way, so your little bike fetish is going to hit a wall eventually.
And one last excerpt:
John: This is oppressive. I mean, we're being held hostage by a minority. It's the tyranny of the micro-minority here.

Ken: Let me tell you what is the number one email every time we talk about this. "When these people are tested, licensed, and charged a registration fee like we are for cars, they can have the roads."

John: No, I don't want them on the roads. They're irritating. They don't stay in their lanes. We've got bike lanes where I live. And these cyclists don't stay in their lane. There's a lot of arrogance, because they go a lot slower than a car, and they bike right down the middle of the car lane. So they're not in the bike lane anymore, they're in my line. And they're going slow. And then they stick their hands out, like hey slow down, hey back off a little bit. And there's only so much of that you can take. They drive in mobs now. And boy, if you go at the wrong time to the bagel shop on a Sunday morning, there's 42 of them backed up at the register and I can't even get to my breakfast.

Ken: They're powerful people, and they're coming up with master bike lane plans all over Los Angeles County, in fact, all over California. The bike people have joined with the people who want you out of your car, and now they're working together.

Jon: It's an unholy alliance.

Ken: It is, and it's strong.

John: There's gotta be blowback. They don't have money. They can't achieve success through the traditional way of bribing people, because if they're riding their bikes this much they're not working very often, are they?

Ken: They're the same people who don't want you to work in the suburbs. They want you to work downstairs from where you live.

John: This is religious fervor. They're getting there way not in the traditional way of bribing the politicians, they've just joined in with the religious fervor of these left-wing kook politicians who hate cars.

Ken: The same people who don't like you to live in the suburbs. They want you to actually work downstairs from where you live.

John: They're the super control freaks. You have to live the way they want you to live... I can't stand the whole ideology. This is the kind of ideological stuff that makes me crazy. All the other stuff I put aside. It's when these people are trying to tell me how to live. And they're throwing obstacles, or they're charging me money, or they're closing down lanes -- they're considering me that I'm second class because I drive a car. Or I have a commute to work. Or I live in a suburban neighborhood. And they have to change my life. And they're going to make my life more and more difficult until I finally surrender and say, 'Oh, okay, I'll live over the grocery store like you ask, and I'll bike to work. I surrender.' It's like, f you, I'm not. I like my life, and my life is just as moral and goodly as yours.
These men are as exquisitely sensitive to feeling as if their lifestyle is being judged as any liberal undergraduate they've ever mocked; and in their overblown, defensive reaction, they build bicyclists up absurdly, as if "mobs" of them are holding car owners "hostage" in Los Angeles, of all places! They're extremely talented broadcasters, too. Many a listener was doubtless nodding along as they sat in their cars on the multibillion dollar network of freeways that bicyclists are legally prohibited from riding on. Listeners on surface streets began to feel under siege by cyclists pedaling along at 10 miles an hour on the shoulder as they whizzed by at 60 mph surrounded by steel.

Maybe John and Ken will be defeated, and spend an extra 10 minutes in traffic on occasion, because their preference for road use loses out to the preferences of other Angelenos with different wants. That's politics. No one lives in a major city and gets their way all the time. To regard bike lanes as "oppression"? That's the sort of goofy mindset they usually mock on their show. Here are two guys who ostensibly disdain the victim complex, yet feel beset upon by people in Lycra.

Spare me.

* * *

Another thing neither Rabinowitz nor John and Ken seem to understand is that the relationship between cars and bikes, as it currently exists in American cities, isn't a spontaneous order that arose under laissez-faire rules, expressing the natural preferences of the masses; the status quo is the product of central planning by government (some of it, like the removal of L.A.'s streetcars, influenced by automotive-industry lobbyists) that shapes preferences. And as it turns out, new access to bikes and an infrastructure of reasonably safe bike lanes has caused people in lots of major cities to voluntarily decide to transport themselves by bicycle in greater numbers. Unlike cars, which I love and wouldn't give up myself in L.A., their trips by bicycle don't impose negative externalities, like noise and pollution, on anyone; and for many kinds of short trips, they are, assuming safe bike lanes, a more pleasant means of transport for many people.

I'd love to take some crosstown trips by bike.
Nor is the impulse to make biking viable as a transportation option a sudden fad, inseparable from concerns about obesity or global warming, except perhaps in the minds of progressive reformers and their conservative critics, who need not politicize everyone else's reaction to everything. "The bicycle is noiseless, clean, and a non-consumer," Isaac B. Potter proclaimed in The Century Magazine in September 1896, long before any of the present controversies. "It does not herald its own approach by a verse-wearing ding-dong on the hard stone pavement, nor does it wear out or soil the streets, or occupy an undue amount of space in the thoroughfare."

That holds up rather well.

Quoth Lillian Genn and Ruth Carson in Collier's Weekly, circa 1939, "Since highways were built for motor traffic, safety is one of the prime concerns of the cyclist, and the separate bicycle path his idea of heaven .... In the New York City area Park Commissioner Robert Moses, a bicycle bug himself, is enthusiastically laying out fifty-eight miles of private paths." No harm was done.

Admittedly, bike critics have complained about cyclists riding on the sidewalk since at least 1894. All these years later, they're still due more space on the streets. If efforts in New York and Los Angeles succeed, and those cities become more like Paris or London or even Copenhagen, it will still be the case that people drive cars, and that many times more resources are dedicated to servicing the motorists (as is true in Paris and London and Copenhagen). Whether that future sounds awesome or awful, to describe the first steps toward it as totalitarian, authoritarian, or oppressive is to sound like a ninny who hyperventilates about... bicycles.

The riders of which still have a lot more just cause to complain than motorists.

*It's useful to know that John plays bad cop against the outrage of the day; Ken plays the more fair-minded voice of reason, but like the Washington Generals playing the Harlem Globetrotters.