Saturday, May 8, 2010

Post NYC Bike Culture Summit: A Rant

I went to the NYC Bike Culture Summit hosted by Transportation Alternatives on Thursday. On Twitter, the Summit has received some mixed reviews, mostly of the racial profiling variety. I have to admit, I was unsure what to expect and how fun and/or productive the event would be. They invited Bike Snob, so I knew it would be bearable because he would be making snarky comments all night.

Here's the deal: a room full of mostly white, self-righteous, middle-aged, progressive New Yorkers doesn't surprise me. When I first got there, I thought: these people are probably members of the Park Slope Food Coop! It kind of had that vibe like, "We work for organic groceries and you better believe we commute 15 miles by bike to work too." Taking into consideration the $15 ticket price and the Thursday evening slot, it's not shocking that the crowd wasn't more diverse. These are people who are already invested in biking, probably commuters, and they're angsty about the trials they face as cyclists. I'm okay with that - I don't think I'll survive in New York into old age, but hell, you have to give it up to the people who do. And if these middle-aged progressives want to make donations to a forward-thinking non-profit like T.A. so they can gripe, then let them gripe.

The format of the event was disorganized, but that was also to be expected. At first, I was like, "Oh wow, they actually chose a neutral moderator." But when the blond actress (still don't know her name) cut off TA's legal counselor when he was explaining the new laws about parking garages, I lost all appreciation for her. It's one thing to adhere to the 2-minute cut-off with the silly bike bell, it's another thing to disrupt an important conversation that everyone wanted to hear. Also, she wasn't neutral once she claimed she felt "raped" every time she went into a bike shop and suspected that someone was judging her rusty chain. Wow.

Despite it's shortcomings, the Summit raised a lot of significant concerns about cycling in NYC. The most important and provocative question was: are we, as cyclists, expected to obey all the rules of the road?

This is the crux of many cycling-related issues in New York. We're all too quick to condemn drivers for inching into the bike lane, but we're also the least likely to make a complete stop at a red light or a stop sign. (Or any stop for that matter). What does this mean? Well, I think the chef/messenger/dad/son/entrepreneur/cyclist said it best when he said, "This is not an issue we, as cyclists, can ignore." And he's right: this isn't an issue we can brush off. Perhaps if we institute traffic signals specifically for cyclists that work with a "wave signal" like those mentioned by Caroline Samponaro (*swoon*), the animosity between opposing means of transportation would be lessened.

But as the majority of traffic currently exists in New York, there isn't room for both bikes and cars to be happy. There is too big a dichotomy because NYC was built around cars. So, on one hand it's unfair to expect cyclists to adhere to a city plan that excludes them. On the other hand, we can't evict cars from a city that was built for them (unfortunately). This is an issue that remains unresolved, despite Biking Rules' efforts to promote positive attitudes between car drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. We still live in NYC and everyone is trying to get everywhere as fast as possible. That is a huge part of what attracts people to NYC and I'm not sure how easily that mentality can be changed.

Another issue raised at the Summit was the unfriendliness of bike shops. I took issue with the women who said they are totally intimidated by entering bike shops. OK. I am a woman (though perhaps not the most feminine) and I have a nice bike, but either way I would not feel horribly self-conscious about entering a bicycle store. Don't get me wrong: I have been brushed off my "too cool for school" bike dudes who really don't care at all if I spent money at their shop or even if I come back (hello, R&A Cycles). My response to these women is this: if you are mistreated at a bike shop, go to a different one. To say that ALL bike shops are full of pretentious dudes is not true and I know of more than one bike shop in Brooklyn that can attest to that.

However informal this event may have been, interrupted by babies, Bike Snob, stuttering dudes, and a "neutral" moderator, I think it was an important forum for biking in New York and I would encourage T.A. to do something similar, but more organized, in the future. To promote a more diverse population, perhaps the next event should be highly publicized, on a weekend, and free or based on a sliding scale donation.


  1. perfect. now i don't have to rant, just link to you! but seriously, i left that panel feeling a little disenchanted and upset about TA's lack of reach into the community. i agree that a sliding scale event would do more to attract a diverse crowd. the discussion however was sadly negative and should have been organized more thoroughly.

  2. How do you figure NYC was built for and around cars? I think it's the complete opposite.

    NYC is one of the most pedestrian friedly cities in the country in terms of its design, scale, and accessibility. On the other hand, unlike suburbs that WERE built around cars, there are no parking lots, strip malls, etc. Those types of concessions for cars have been added to the city in the form of elevators and large basements.

    NYC was designed and built long before the idea of a car existed. However I'm sure that most entitled car owners would conveniently ignore that.

    As for cars being happy in the city, they've never been happy here. It's miserable driving here and I still have no idea why people do it. Even if we took one avenue and dedicated it to cyclists as an expressway it wouldn't make traffic much worse than it already is, but combined with cross streets, would making cycling in the city infinitely better, and safer.

    Just my thoughts.

  3. I do believe saying "NYC was built around cars" was short-sighted. Clearly the city was developed long before cars. I think it is the sense of entitlement that cars in NYC have that make it feel like the city is built for them - the same animosity that was being described at the Summit. I agree that NYC is pedestrian friendly more than anything - I just wish it was more bike friendly and less congested with cars. I often wish for a car-free NYC. A car-free NYC would be cleaner, safer and less noisy.

  4. "I often wish for a car-free NYC. A car-free NYC would be cleaner, safer and less noisy."

    Mmmhmm that would be incredible!