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Not Quite Copenhagen

In the prevailing spin, the bike-lane fight has two sides: the blue-collar New Yorkers who have to drive to work and the coddled creative-class types who live close enough to commute on their Bianchis. But the class dynamics are actually far more complicated, and the allegiances often defy expectations. The bike-lane opponent, for instance, is just as likely to be a well-to-do Manhattanite, and his main gripe the deliveryman who just pedaled the wrong way down a freshly laid bike lane, in a rush to unload a wood-oven pizza (which, on another day, that Manhattanite himself might have ordered). Simple nimbyism can’t entirely account for the feud in Park Slope, home to Paul Steely White, executive director of the cycling and mass-transit advocacy­ group Transportation Alternatives, as well as pro-bikers like Naparstek and his Park Slope Neighbors co-founder Eric McClure. Meanwhile, Hainline, a Brown and Harvard grad worried about global warming, considers herself a progressive. The battle lines blur until it becomes almost impossible to guess which side someone’s going to come down on. “[The cyclists] think that we’re a bunch of old, crotchety rich people that don’t understand that they deserve to have a bike lane on our street,” says Hainline. “That’s not it at all.”

One thing that does seem to unite bike-lane opponents is an accrued resentment toward nine years of Bloombergian smoking bans and nutrition-labeling and all-around overreach. The most important common denominator, though, may be a strong preference for the city that was over the city that may be. In his long New Yorker harangue, John Cassidy recounts the cars he has owned since moving to New York: a Thunderbird, a Mercedes 190E, an Oldsmobile Delta 88, two Cadillac Sedan DeVilles, and a Jaguar XJ6. It’s not for nothing that these can be considered nostalgic models, meant to signify that their driver is of the old school.

To critics like Cassidy, bikes—the older, cheaper technology—are the privileged interlopers, and bikers are a “small faddist minority” bent on changing New York into something it’s not meant to become (not to mention making it harder for him to park). “We will never be Amsterdam, never be Copenhagen,” says Hainline. “We are never going to be Portland.” The thing about how cities work is that just by saying those kinds of things often enough, opponents have a way of making it so.

We have been through all of this before. In 1980, Mayor Ed Koch took a trip to Beijing, a city thick with cyclists, and returned to New York “swept away by the thought of what could be.” Over the next year, his administration spent $300,000 creating a pair of six-foot-wide bike lanes, which rolled south from the lip of Central Park and into the heart of the Village. The timing was propitious. As one columnist noted at the time, “the bicycle, formerly a Christmas-tree item or a Sunday diversion, has become a serious vehicle of transport in some American cities.” An early survey conducted by transportation officials showed that 3,000 cyclists a day were utilizing the path on Sixth Avenue.

“Bikers really think they’re doing work for the environment if, instead of taking the car a block, they take the bike to the food co-op. That’s touching. But it’s silly.” — Louise Hainline, Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes

It didn’t take long for the cracks to appear. Workers in midtown wandered bleary-eyed into oncoming cyclists and walked away with fodder for furious letters to their congressmen. Governor Hugh Carey jeered that Koch had a “fetish” for bikes. Trash began to accumulate in the bike lanes (as it does today). Business associations lobbied for their removal (as they do today). Four months later, the city announced it would pave over the lanes. A group of protesters smeared themselves with fake blood—it was ketchup—and attempted to lie down in front of the oncoming bulldozers; Koch went through with the demolition anyway.

For cycling advocates, the defeat was a lesson, proof that they would have to fight harder, organize more effectively. By the mid-aughts, a vibrant lobby of pro-bike groups was proposing additions or alterations to city streets. Those groups, in turn, were supported by sites like Naparstek’s Streetsblog and by the members of the Critical Mass movement, who were already notorious for jamming streets with bikes to draw attention to cyclists’ rights. “It’s like Martin Luther King said in his letter from the Birmingham jail: You have this creative tension that’s created where you have people working the direct-action angle, as well as people doing the boardroom stuff,” says CUNY professor Benjamin Shepard, a longtime Critical Mass supporter. “That’s where the real power came from.”

Others have argued that the group’s pugnacious tactics mostly helped further unhelpful stereotypes about city cyclists. With few bike lanes to draw out everyday two-wheeled commuters, for a long time about the only people you saw on bikes in New York were messengers, deliverymen, and extreme hobbyists. Biking in New York was for the reckless; it was not, as it is in the rest of the country, something done by a cute kid on a Huffy. (The activists these days eschew the tactics of yore. Pro-biking posters now pointedly feature children and families.)