The only way to get people to see that a better future is possible is to make sure they see themselves in it.
It may sound weird to say it given the many challenges of the past year, but there’s never been a better time to be a New York City bike advocate. I should know. When I began my blog, Brooklyn Spoke, in 2010 and started getting involved in what was then called the livable streets renaissance, the small group of people who saw the potential for our streets to be places for cycling — rather than the sole dominion of motorists and daring delivery cyclists and messengers — were dismissed as fringe weirdos, strident zealots or radical activists whose views stood far outside the mainstream orthodoxy of New York City politics and culture. Take parking to protect people on bikes? As they say in my neck of the woods, fuggedaboutit!
Today, the many years of hard-fought advocacy that resulted in such victories as the first protected bicycle lane in Manhattan (2007) the launch of bicycle sharing (2013) and the expulsion of cars from Central Park and Prospect Park (2018) are practically ancient history. A recent poll commissioned by Transportation Alternatives showed that record percentages of New Yorkers support adding bike lanes and expanding access to safe cycling, even if it means reducing the number of parking spaces. The idea that cycling could not just move to the mainstream but actually be popular is something the 2010 version of me couldn’t have imagined in a million years.
But despite the progress we’ve made installing bike lanes and winning over hearts and minds, the project of making our streets safe, equitable and sustainable has a long way to go. In fact, I believe we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of New York’s potential as a great cycling city. Think about it. Work commuting distances may vary, but many of the trips we take — from dropping off kids at school to picking up groceries — happen fairly close to home. A lot of our neighborhoods are flat. Long walks to the subway in transit deserts can easily turn into short connections to transit via bike. Sure, it can get hot in the summer, but a quick ride on a bicycle in July and August is often a lot more pleasant than a long wait for a subway.
What will it take for more New Yorkers to take advantage of bicycling? Better infrastructure that’s inviting to all ages and abilities and more equitably distributed to neighborhoods that have historically been neglected would get us most of the way there. But advocacy efforts and communications strategies that are inclusive of New Yorkers of all backgrounds are also key components; the only way to get people to see that a better future is possible is to make sure they see themselves in it.
Some have said the global COVID-19 crisis represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make it easier for people to get around by bike. While that may be true, it sounds, well, opportunistic and could lead some to think that when the pandemic ends, so too will the desire for people to take to two wheels and the need to provide them with the space on our streets to do so. Instead, I like to say that the pandemic has exposed our obligation to rethink our streets for reasons that aren’t limited to this moment in time, as historic as it may be. After all, we have an obligation not just to address public health concerns surrounding the virus, but to tackle the public health crisis of inactivity and lessen the looming catastrophe climate change, obligations that will not diminish once we all are vaccinated and comfortable gathering in restaurants, offices and each others’ apartments again. We have an obligation to help our fellow New Yorkers access good jobs, affordable housing, great schools and green space. We have an obligation to keep people safe and alive whether they’re a student biking to public school in the Bronx, a nurse biking to work on Manhattan’s East Side, or a senior citizen just out for a ride in Prospect Park. In my mind, such obligations are what it means to be a New Yorker. We look out for each other.
Can cycling fulfil these obligations? Not all by itself. But as I’ve known for a long time and as a growing number of New Yorkers understand, bikes are powerful tools for a better city. Let’s keep moving together.
The War on Cars Podcast
Doug Gordon is a writer, TV producer, safe streets advocate and passionate believer in cities for people. He is one third of the co-hosting team behind the popular podcast The War on Cars. Doug has also written about safe streets for walking and biking in The New Republic, Curbed, The New York Daily News and Streetsblog. He is frequently quoted in the press about New York’s livable streets revolution and has appeared on NY1’s Inside CityHall, NowThis News and an upcoming series for Netflix on the future of transportation. As a TV producer with credits for PBS, ABC, Discovery, History, Travel and NatGeo, Doug knows how to tell a good story. He has advised nonprofits and mobility companies on video, media and communications strategies that make the case for safer, smarter streets. People for Bikes called him “a master of images that subvert anti-bike stereotypes.” Known online as Brooklyn Spoke, Doug has used his platform to urge city officials to create a safer, sustainable and more equitable streetscape by expanding the bike lane network, installing bicycle parking and investing in bikeshare. He was also an instrumental part of a team effort to establish New York’s “LPI bill,” which makes people on bikes safer at intersections. Doug lives in Brooklyn with his wife Leora and their children Galit and Zeb.
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