The Material Politics of Bike Lanes

Bike lanes along New York Street (image from NUVO)

One of the most politicized pieces of material culture in America is bike lanes, those ephemeral strips in the street that for some reason summon forth class tensions, nationalist ideology, and consumer and environmental politics (albeit concealed within rants on the inconveniences and economic injustices imposed by bike lanes and cyclists). INDYCOG, a non-profit Indianapolis bicycle advocacy group that promotes bike commuting and recreational riding, today came out with a thorough and measured analysis of a series of new bikes lanes that has been greeted locally with emotional letters-to-the-editor and complaints that apparently were made directly to INDYCOG as well. Some drivers are justifiably a little confused by the bike lanes and a little uncomfortable with the idea of bikes alongside their cars, and some of the lanes could use better signage and spacing. Some cyclists are not big fans of bike lanes either (e.g., see this blog from an Indy rider or the BikeNoob blog). But much of this discussion is really an emotional dispute over the public space that cars have long ruled over without question in cities like Indianapolis, and it involves politics that would seem to have nothing to do with otherwise innocuous painted lines, bikes, or how we get to work.

On December 5th, The Indianapolis Star had a relatively measured analysis of how bikes lines have been received, but it was greeted with a burst of online responses, and emboldened by their anonymity those commentators prophesied the imminent likelihood that cars would soon be outlawed and replaced by ill-behaved yuppies on carbon frames. The day before Salon did a thoughtful piece on the presumption that cyclists are all elitist snobs, musing over the arguments made in a New Yorker piece that lamented the ever-expanding swath of bike lanes carving up New York roadways. The New Yorker essay was greeted by a rush of cranky blog responses (there are an enormous number of cycling blogs) that took offense at the economic implications of bike lanes, the environmental dimensions of riding, the presumed traffic snarls created by the cycling hordes, and similar sorts of issues (for instance, see The Economist response). The New Yorker piece by John Cassidy repeated a commonplace caricature that cyclists apparently all see drivers as “Suburban, reactionary, moron[s]” and opposed to cyclists, who are “Urbane, enlightened, sophisticate.” Cassidy also sounded the tired suggestion that cyclists are all intent on replacing cars with bikes. Comments on the Indianapolis Star piece spent much of their time lamenting the behavioral shortcomings of cyclists, who have sometimes viewed the rules of the road as suggestions; in Philadelphia, a crackdown on cycling scofflaws netted 600 tickets over two months this summer. But in the end the tenor of much of this public discourse on bike lanes devolves to overwrought and ambiguous caricatures by drivers who feel threatened by bike lanes and cyclists who are unable to see how to co-exist on the road in a car culture.

One of the comments responding to Cassidy suggested “Honestly, if you love driving so much, please move to the midwest. You can get all the driving in you want out there, killing the environment all the while. Plus, there are lots of parking spots for any sort of heap you want to drive.“ This somewhat stereotypical picture of the Midwest is perhaps rhetorical, but it is certainly true that Indianapolis is firmly married to car culture, and bike lanes seem to be perceived as a frontal assault on the primacy of cars in the most public shared spaces in the city. Bike lanes in Broad Ripple, for instance, have become flashpoints among observers who accept the money youth bourgeois pump into the neighborhood’s bars and shops, but they seem less excited about the politics and behavior of the bikers who pass through or live in Broad Ripple. Bike lanes are routinely reduced to the favored vehicles of a young intelligentsia resisting car culture if not all American values, and in Indianapolis that stereotype has been greeted with a bitter reception. Bike lane critics constantly harp on cyclists’ boorish on-road behavior (often in overwrought and truly idiotic terms), and some riders certainly do get defensive and over-react; if you ride enough you’ll deal with aggressive or distracted motorists whose effort to clip a few minutes from their commute puts a cyclist in real danger, and sometimes cyclists do get a little touchy. Some cyclists have responded creatively if in modestly rude terms, such as the Toronto page Look at the Asshole in the Bike Lane or a New York cyclist who was ticketed for leaving the bike lane and made a film on his subsequent rides in the bike lane. But the broad-brushed rejection of all cyclists (or for that matter all drivers) is shortsighted.

Cycling in Indianapolis is actually in pretty good shape: a NUVO article on cycling in 2011 inventories the new bike lanes, the growing racing scene, and support for commuters like the downtown bike hub. The concrete number of people who actually cycle commute in Indianapolis or anywhere else remains pretty modest, with an The Atlantic Cities report placing Indianapolis’ number of bike commuters in 2009 at 0.5% of the population, although that was a 150% increase over a decade earlier. So it is interesting that such a small number of people and nothing more substantial than painted lines sharing the roadway with a slow-moving bike can strike such apprehension in so many drivers.

Posted on December 31, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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