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The Materiality of Complete Streets

Few cities could be more friendly to cars than Indianapolis, which long had few pedestrian-friendly streets and sidewalks, only a few isolated bike lanes, and a terribly under-supported mass transit system.  Much of that has not changed significantly, but it is still a little surprising that city administrators and now the normally conservative Indianapolis Star are championing the Complete Streets initiative, which aspires to design new streets and renovate existing roadways to accommodate various modes of transportation in addition to cars.  Hoosiers are apt to champion fiscally conservative strategies, including Star columnist Andrea Neal, who argued in March, 2012 that mass transit “doesn’t work” anywhere, because “Urban mass transit is the most expensive form of travel in the United States at 72 cents per passenger mile. That compares to 23 cents per passenger mile for auto travel, 15 cents for air travel and 60 cents for Amtrak.”  Neal somewhat condescendingly argued against letting the issue even reach voters, concluding that “Letting voters weigh in on a bad idea doesn’t make it better. In terms of ridership and revenues, mass transit is a losing proposition. Wishful thinking will not change that.”

Neal seemed willing to ignore that the state funds many services that are not “profitable,” including the highway system itself : in 2011 an ambitious US Public Interest Groups report found that “Since 1947, the amount of money spent on highways, roads and streets has exceeded the amount raised through gasoline taxes and other so-called `user fees’ by $600 billion.”  The state is compelled to subsidize highway construction and maintenance because user fees cover only 51% of their cost and are not even remotely close to being “profitable” in Andrea Neal’s terms.  The federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993, and even Ronald Reagan acknowledged that failing to raise the tax (which he did in 1982) would gut any capacity to maintain the highway system.  Mass transit is a vastly less painful subsidy.

Speaker of the House John Boehner has launched similarly self-serving attacks on mass transit and bike paths, audaciously suggesting in February, 2012 that 25% of Highway Trust Funds were “being siphoned off for non-economic projects—such as beautification and bike paths.”

Boehner is among a wave of conservatives who wield the specter of bike paths as a rhetorical mechanism invoking the fear of urban yuppies, but this debate really revolves around the materiality of mass transit.  The move to embrace a breadth of transportation options is routinely rhetoricized as yet another intrusion of the state into everyday freedoms that threatens to strip us of cigarettes, high-fat foods, cheap gas, and variety of other consumer acts, but the threat posed by bike lanes and mass transit are slightly different than that posed by smoking codes or “twinkie taxes.”  Bike lanes, sidewalks, bus and train routes, pedestrians, and cyclists and buses are part of public space shoulder-to-shoulder with cars, so their appearance is often viewed as symbols of the state.  Cars have become oddly invisible: despite having colonized urban space, drivers in cars are paradoxically invisible to themselves until they are actually illuminated by alternatives like bikes and buses.

In Indianapolis the privately funded Cultural Trail was the first indication of a shift in the unquestioned primacy of cars, and the funding of the Cultural Trail entirely based on the generosity of Eugene and Marilyn Glick has muted some of the criticism of the Trail.  Indianapolis has a rich tradition of private philanthropy addressing community social challenges, and the Glicks represent the best of that tradition.  In October 2011 The Corresponder was a little skeptical of the economic impact of the Trail but admitted that it seemed like a “wonderful new addition” to the city.  Construction inconveniences in places like Fountain Square have led to some grumbling, albeit less about the Trail than about its short-term impact on businesses and access.  American Dirt reported optimistically on the Cultural Trail in 2009 while recognizing that it was but a small strip of Indianapolis pavement (compare A Place of Sense and Complete Streets flick’r page).

The road is at least symbolically shared with this “sharrow” marker.

Now bike lanes and multi-use roadways are extending outside downtown alone (e.g., Meridian and Westfield) and into postwar suburbs (Urban Indy follows the growth of bike lanes very closely).  Even my closest thoroughfare has a “sharrow” marking leading to a bike lane and a series of very rideable streets, all of which seem to inspire quite overwrought and impressionistic tirades against cycling and the primacy of cars (compare the comments linked in my piece on the politics of bike lanes).   Yet in Indianapolis—a bastion of fiscal conservatism zealously committed to protecting personal freedoms—the increasing acceptability of bike lanes and urban redesign can only reflect a sea-change in how the community views bikes, pedestrians, and mass transit.

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.