To hear it from the tabloid trolls, we live in a dystopian hellscape where cyclists pedal lawless through the streets, terrorizing grannies and innocent drivers alike. Cyclists have been branded as "terrorists on wheels," "assassins in Spandex," and villains with "curses on their lips — and blood on their hands." And that's just one column.
The demonization of bikers was on full display over the weekend, after cyclist Jason Marshall struck and killed 59-year-old Jill Tarlov in New York City's Central Park. Marshall was swiftly cast as yet another heartless "speed demon," even though we still don't know the full circumstances of the crash. The case is tragic, but the simple truth is we don't know exactly what happened.
That hasn't stopped a rather unhinged backlash toward bikers of all stripes, part of a disturbing trend of painting cyclists as deadly scofflaws, replete with an "all-powerful" bike lobby" supporting them from the shadows.
In fact, cyclist-on-pedestrian accidents are a perfect tabloid fodder precisely because of their rarity. In the past five years, there have been only two fatalities from cyclists striking pedestrians in New York City. Meanwhile, motor vehicles in the city injured 16,059 pedestrians and cyclists and killed 178 more in 2013 alone, according to city data.
So why aren't the tabloids up in arms over this deadly epidemic of cars, trucks, and cabs?
One factor is the popular animosity toward cycling — dubbed bikelash — that has bubbled up in recent years, as bikes have staked out a more prominent place on city streets.
As bike lanes spread, many non-cyclists fumed. Take New York City, where ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg established more than 300 miles of bike lanes in a five-year stretch. In response, an outraged group of well-to-do citizens sued (unsuccessfully) to remove an arterial lane in their neighborhood; a smug New Yorker essay derided the city's "faceless road swipers;" and wannabe mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner told Bloomberg his first action, if elected, would be "tearing out your fu--ing bike lanes."
That was before the city's bike-sharing program gave rise to complaints about supposedly ugly docking stations sullying posh neighborhoods, and to hand-wringing about a new wave of deadly cyclists. (For the record, there have to date been zero fatalities from any bike-sharing program in the U.S.)
In its worst manifestation, bikelash descends into glib homicidal musings. But even the more tame outrage is still misguided — and misinformed.
Contrary to urban legend, bike lanes do not snarl traffic when implemented effectively. A study from New York's Department of Transportation found that the addition of protected lanes actually reduced gridlock during rush hour. (A FiveThirtyEight analysis supported the claim.) In part, that's because increased cycling infrastructure encourages more biking, easing vehicular traffic.
There's a safety component, too. That same city-funded study found that pedestrian injuries had dropped by 22 percent since 2007, while cycling accidents overall dropped by 17 percent. In other words, promoting cycling made streets safer.
Aren't safe streets the goal of the anti-bike scolds? If boosting urban cycling can work toward that end, isn't establishing a vicious us-versus-them battle ultimately counterproductive to their interest in harmonious, safe streets?
Sure, some cyclists can be short-tempered lunatics. But though their bad behavior is memorable, it is rare. The biker who flips the bird is held up as an example; the queue waiting at the light is not.
Cycling is a healthy, cheap, fun mode of transportation. For many poor people, it is their only viable form of transportation.
And a little exercise is a great way to alleviate stress. Maybe the apoplectic anti-bike crowd should give it a try.