Chicago's incoming mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is promising to build 25 miles of new bike lanes. Emanuel understands that reclaiming road space from cars is not only good environmental and public health policy, but also plain good urban governance. Quality of life improves when we cut down on dangerous and noisy car traffic and make it more pleasant to be out and about on the street, meeting our neighbors and spending money in local stores.
But although the majority of New York City residents do not own a car (we're the only major American city where that is the case), three out of the five leading New York Democratic mayoral hopefuls are either wishy-washy on bike lanes or in outright opposition. The Times reports:
When I become mayor, you know what I’m going to spend my first year doing?” Mr. [Anthony] Weiner said to Mr. Bloomberg, as tablemates listened. “I’m going to have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes.” …
“Even if one appreciates some of Janette’s goals, it’s clear the approach has been very alienating all over the city,” said Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate. “There is a needless level of conflict. A lot of communities have become distrustful of the approach that the mayor and Janette have taken.”
A third potential mayoral candidate, Comptroller John Liu, also has a history of opposition to cycling legislation. To be sure, the politics here can be tricky. Liu and Weiner hail from districts that encompass suburban-style neighbohorhoods in Queens and Brooklyn where many residents do, in fact, drive. De Blasio, meanwhile, has tried to compromise on the issue. Brooklyn's Hasidic Jews–a powerful voting bloc–complain about cyclists breaking traffic laws and dressing immodestly. In 2009, de Blasio told an Orthodox Jewish news site:
“I think there [are] many places where the bike lanes make sense. I think there’s a great argument environmentally for more bike lanes, but not everywhere. There’s some places where their presence really does hurt; a commercial strip, there’s some places where there are cultural realities that need to be taken into account and there’s nothing that says you can’t have those conversations with the community up front and decide whether it makes sense or not, and really listen to a community."
There has been no city-wide poll on bike lanes, but in Park Slope, home of the controversial new Prospect Park West bike lane–and where de Blasio lives–a survey found only 22 percent of residents in opposition. Unfortunately, some of the opposition are pretty powerful.
Two other Democratic mayoral hopefuls, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, have supported bike lanes and–unlike Weiner, de Blasio, and Liu–were also in favor of Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan, which would have charged cars a toll for driving in Manhattan below 60th Street, in the process raising money for the cash-strapped Metropolitan Transit Authority. That plan died in Albany in 2008, in large part because Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver opposed it.
Good public space policy should be a cornerstone of the Democratic urban agenda. It's sad to see so many of the party's New York City standard-bearers continue to cede ground on this issue.