The future is four wheels, cyclists be damned

Cars are pushing out bikes and pedestrians to the applause of the influential and powerful.

The future is four wheels, cyclists be damned

Cars are pushing out bikes and pedestrians to the applause of the influential and powerful.

Late last month the New York Post, that renowned bastion of sober, not-at-all-hysterical reporting, published an item with the headline “NYC bicyclists are killing pedestrians and the city won’t stop it.” “Since 2011,” the paper reported, “bicyclists have injured more than 2,250 pedestrians — including at least seven who died — according to stats from the city Department of Transportation and published reports.” The article neglects to mention that there are roughly 10,000 reported pedestrian injuries every year in New York, so the number of bicycle-related injuries represents a miniscule percentage; those “seven who died” represent less than one percent in a city that sees upwards of 100 pedestrians killed in traffic each year.

Nevertheless, Maggie Haberman, who covers Trump for The New York Times and is best known for her clubby insider portraits of the goings-on within the close orbit of the first family and its various kooky retainers, retweeted the story, repeating its sententious headline in the body of her tweet. Bicycle and transit twitter — exceedingly dedicated corners of the broad political left online — pounced, excoriating her for amplifying the dishonest statistical framing of the message of Post story. She quickly deleted her tweet, and then announced the deletion with a chirpy follow-up: “Deleted a tweet about a NYPost article on cyclist-caused accidents and picking my battles! Happy Sunday, all.” (Apparently, Times journalists are supposedly held to a rigid code of political neutrality on public media, unless they are whining about bike lanes or homeless people on the subway.)

Quite contrary to the Post article, and Haberman’s subsequent cosign and uncosign, bikes are not terrorizing New York’s pedestrians: it is the city’s cyclists who have seen a tragic uptick in violence this year, with 19 deaths on the record. Most recently, a 52-year old man named Jose Alzorriz was killed while stopped at an intersection; a speeding driver ran a red light and catapulted a second vehicle across the street, landing on the cyclist and crushing him to death. About two weeks prior, Em Samolewicz, a 30-year-old artist and yoga teacher, died trying to avoid a man who had opened his car door in her path; she was subsequently hit and dragged by an 18-wheeler. And six days before that, Devra Freelander, a 28-year-old Bushwick-based artist, was run down at an intersection by a cement truck. The owner of the trucking company publicly blamed the cyclists for her own death. Though Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in July a $58.4 million “bicycle safety plan” to add more bike lanes and increase visibility at intersections, among other things, it seems like too little, too late.

Nationally, pedestrian and cyclist deaths have spiked since 2009. The ubiquity of cell phones and the growing preponderance of integrated screens in vehicles is a major contributing factor, as is the American preference for trucks and SUVs, with which their taller front profile makes them far more deadly in collisions than the lower, slanting hoods of normal cars.

There is also the unrelenting, often murderous hostility of drivers toward pedestrians and people on bikes. No cyclist I know has not been menaced by an enraged driver — brushed past within inches, bumped at an intersection, run off the road — and most of us have been menaced more than once. No pedestrian who has to cross at a mid-block crosswalk is unfamiliar with the experience of a driver actually speeding up when they see you; no one who has crossed at a regular intersection is unfamiliar with a turning driver laying on the horn and waiting until the last second to jam on the breaks as you scurry out of the way.

The car is a very specifically American symbol of freedom, but like so many instruments and symbols of American freedom, it is a tool of domination and control. A car is a missile and a castle, a self-propelled, multi-ton fortress, hermetically sealed against the intrusions of weather, environment, and, of course, other people. Drivers view the world through the lenses of speed and convenience — most of the anger at cyclists, in my experience, is at having to drive at something resembling a normal urban speed limit because there’s a bike in front of them — but also through the lens of ownership. Streets belong to cars. The rest of us are interlopers, invaders, invasive species.

In fact, most Americans, and certainly most of our political leaders, seem to view our car-based infrastructure as essentially organic and inevitable, and anything that impedes, slows, reduces, or provides an alternative to the circulation and storage of internal combustion vehicles is an engineered scheme to alter an essentially natural order. Newspapers relentlessly editorialize about massive road and highway projects as absolute fundamentals of economic wellbeing and development, whereas rail and bike lanes and other multi-modal transit options are generally treated as luxe amenities at best, or public menaces at worst.

Streets belong to cars. The rest of us are interlopers, invaders, invasive species.

But cars are not creatures and have not evolved to fit their environment; we have designed our environment around cars. This obviously applies to roads themselves, but it affects virtually every aspect of urban design. If you have never looked at your municipal building code or attended a hearing of your local zoning board, you really must! In the zoning and building codes for every district, for every type of building and land use, you will find requirements for minimum on- and off-street parking, and hearings are absolutely dominated by questions of parking and traffic. The density of residential neighborhoods; the number of storefronts on a city street: all dictated by an ability to squeeze in vehicles. We design our cities and towns, quite literally, to accommodate cars before we design them to accommodate people.

And here, curiously, we find a great undiagnosed cause at the root of our supposed cultural malaise. (Also, incidentally, a great undiagnosed source of national violence: cars kill as many people in America — around 40,000 a year — as guns.) These, too, are persistent bugaboos of op-ed writers and pundits: fragmentation and atomization; loneliness and disconnection; declines in communal values and an absence of interpersonal interaction.

Well, easy enough to blame it on the internet, but for a century now we have been putting things farther and farther apart and, more and more, traveling to and from everyplace in single occupancy vehicles, grimly zooming from garage to garage, interacting with no other humans along the way except for that fucking cyclist taking up the whole goddamn road! The interactions that presumably create the sorts of communities that conservatives and columnists so frequently lament losing require more than a front porch on which to sit; they require some strolling passersby as well.

Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, who has been on a great spree of road reduction and pedestrianization, recently said that she wants her city to become a place “where you can let go of your child’s hand.” (Paris’ renewal projects do not come without the normal attendant problems of gentrification and displacement and are not perfect. But it is a bit shocking to see a mayor — the city of Paris didn’t even have a mayor for most of its modern history — take so active and thoughtful a hand in her city’s design rather than, say, presiding over the opening of a useless new subway station and then running off to pretend to run for president.) Hidalgo was talking about the way a city is built, which is the most fundamental part of how its inhabitants live. And if you build for a city of infuriated hurrying, forever trapped between speeding and a standstill, leaving early to arrive late, alone and angry for long stretches of the day, then that is exactly the population you will produce. The French have an expression for hard work at the expense of life: métro, boulot, dodo — train, work, sleep. Repeat. Ours may as well be, auto, auto, auto, as we live, eat, and, hell, even sleep in our dumb, dangerous, and omnipresent cars.

I have little hope for change, though. For the last several months, I have been utterly haunted by an animated video. It shows a new highway interchange and traffic configuration in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, near Kansas City, a so-called “divergeabout” — a huge tract of blasted, arid land, easily 1,000 feet from side to side, occupied by a tangle of roads like pasta pushed from a child’s high-chair. There appears to be one weird, twisting sidewalk across the parcel, but you would sooner leap from a tall building and expect to survive the fall than voluntarily follow its harrowing path. It appears designed to be deadly to anyone not locked inside two tons of metal and glass. It is the most despairing vision of a future without actual, fleshy, vulnerable humans that I have ever seen, and so I expect to see more.

Jacob Bacharach is a contributing writer at The Outline.