Stop framing transportation and bicycles as identity politics

Hello Mr. Mason,

I just read your article For the Danes, city planning is all about the bike.  As a daily bicycle user and advocate in automobile dominated southern California, I couldn’t help but be disturbed by the tone which was set in the first two sentences:

From his second-floor office overlooking a Baltic-fed canal, Andreas Rohl ponders a daily question: How can he make life hell for the car drivers of this Scandinavian capital? Mr. Rohl, you see, is the bicycle program manager for the city government of Copenhagen.

Based on the quotes you took from him throughout the rest of the article I have a hard time believing that this is really how Rohl thinks about his job.  It seems like a much more North American perspective on bicycle planning to me. Making these the first words in the article creates an antagonistic lens through which the reader sees all the examples you point out of resources being shifted from cars to bikes, especially if the reader uses a car as their primary means of transportation, as I suspect most of your Canadian (and US) readers do.  It would be a very different article if instead you’d said “How can he make life easier for the bicycle riders of this Scandinavian capital?”  (I’m really curious, do you primarily drive, or ride a bike to get around?)

When there is a finite resource that has to be shared between cyclists and cars, such as lane width or timing priority on the “Green Wave” streets, a rational transportation planner would ask themselves “How can I allocate this resource between the competing modes to most effectively meet my transportation goals?”.  What cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam and Groningen have decided, I think correctly, is that quite often transportation goals can best be met by
allocating more of these finite resources to bikes than we do in the US and Canada.  In an urban environment, per unit transportation utility, bike infrastructure is much cheaper than automotive infrastructure to build and maintain.  The vehicles it supports (bikes) are also cheaper, safer, quieter, do not pollute or rely on imported fuels, and contribute to the health of the general population, reducing health care costs.  Parking for bikes takes up an order of magnitude less real estate and money, making multi-modal public transit much more feasible.  All of these are functional, dispassionate reasons to shift planning priorities toward bikes and away from cars.

The antagonistic framing that your introduction sets up, and which unfortunately also permeates a great deal of bike culture and bike advocacy in the US, does not help anybody make rational, dispassionate transportation decisions.  It encourages the reader to pick a side. It turns transportation choices into issues of identity.  Am I a driver, or am I a cyclist?  Really, we’re all just people trying to get somewhere, and I think the Dutch and the Danes understand that better than anyone, as your final sentence makes clear.

Sincerely,
Zane Selvans

CC: Andreas Rohl (Copenhagen Bicycle Planner), Mikael Colville-Anderson (Copenhagenize), Dale Benson (Caltrans District 7 BAC)

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One Response to Stop framing transportation and bicycles as identity politics

  1. Ryan Bacon says:

    This is exactly how I feel about cycling and how it fits into transport issues. Multiple use streets (http://www.wired.com/autopia/2009/10/complete-streets/), focusing on moving people instead of just cars, show how much more efficient we can get transport of all forms, even driving. I feel pretty lucky living in a walking/biking friendly city (even with the hills), and our buses and trains are viable for getting around.

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