Tunnel Vision for the Streets

By guarding their own interests so closely, each group in the conversation is diminishing the final product.

CitibikeEmptyBike share (in the form of Citi Bike NYC) just launched in New York this week to much fanfare and derision. Although there is a bit more oxygen feeding the flames around road-use debates, the fundamental arguments have not changed. 

The auto advocates want their driving lanes and curbside parking spaces. The public transit junkies want more bus service and dedicated bus space, maybe even bus rapid transit! The bicycle crowd wants bike lanes everywhere. The various proponents seem to be at each other’s throats. Coming up with a progressive solution need not be so hostile.

“It’s a zero-sum game,” you might say. “There is only so much road space to go around.” Fair enough. However, to ignore or refuse to acknowledge possible alternative uses of roads—moving parked cars underground or into garages, for example—is to leave yourself out of the real conversation. There do not have to be losers in the reimagined use of city streets. Ample room remains to improve driving space and create space for public transit and cyclists all while making streets safer. There certainly may be losers, though, if hard lines are drawn and advocates for the status quo remain inflexible.

Some recent commentary has been along the lines of “bike share is costing buses road space!” This, however, is fundamentally misguided. Yes, everyone can see that a new bike lane would take a few feet of road space from buses (provided a dedicated bike lane—class 1 or 2—was what the city DOT decided to implement). However, to treat this situation as adversarial is cynical and backward-looking. Bike lanes, which take up significantly less space than car lanes, are reducing the number of people who commute both above and underground. To gripe about their invasion is to shoot oneself in the foot…unless one’s goal is to increase car traffic.

Similarly, advocates for alternative transit methods need to respect the need for cars on our streets. In addition, respecting the reality that cars still rule the road is step one in making progress toward more equitable usage (not to mention to enjoying a safe ride or walk). It certainly isn’t productive to have rogue DOT officers creating bike lanes that weren’t authorized, just as it isn’t helpful to have private citizens do the same. And to have the Transport Workers Union taking soft stances on regressive political decisions makes it harder for those with real interest in change.

It’s a good thing that the arrival of bike share to New York has spurred more conversation. Hopefully the debate continues instead of petering out. But this shouldn’t be about whether our streets are going to be overrun with bicycles. It should be about giving residents and visitors the options to get around safely, with the level of comfort, efficiency, and affordability they desire. It seems clear that advocates who are guarding against the tide of street-level changes are going to cost themselves in the end.

Note: this article appeared on Medium on May 31, 2013.

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