November 26, 2013

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer

David Plotz, Emily Bazelon and John Dickerson of Slate. Photo by Steve McFarland.

Once in a while, the Internet hands street planning professionals the gift of mind-reading.

Sometimes, it's what American biking looks like in the eyes of a Dutch person. This month, it was what American biking looks like in the eyes of three Americans.

The hosts of one of the country's most popular podcasts — one a devoted bike commuter, one a concerned dabbler and one an avid car commuter – revealed, in one 17-minute exchange, a more or less perfect microcosm of the ways ordinary liberalish city dwellers think about bicycle transportation.

For people who live and breathe transportation, it's like an anthropological dig into the brains of the people we're trying to serve.

The exchange, on the Slate Political Gabfest, came out of what host (and bike user) David Plotz called "a wonderful series of debates going on in America about the proper place for bicycles on roadways," a debate he said is split between three perspectives: the "auto supremacists" who want bikes off the roads, the "vehicularists" who want bikes to use infrastructure designed for cars, and the "Danes" who want bikes to have dedicated, comfortable lanes and signals of their own.

Plotz categorized himself as a "Dane." (We would too.) But it's his co-hosts, New-Haven-based Emily Bazelon and DC-based John Dickerson, who have the most memorable reactions. The pair of very intelligent journalists (and parents) seem to be almost completely uninformed about this subject, which makes them perfect. The discussion starts at 34:34 below, and my condensed transcript of the most revealing passages follows.


Emily Bazelon: Nobody's arguing bikes should get the full lane. That's crazy.

David Plotz: I think that's perfectly reasonable.

Emily Bazelon: What? … You do not mean that a bike should be in the middle of the lane and all the cars should then drive at the rate of the bike.

John Dickerson: Yes.

David Plotz: Yes.

Emily Bazelon: Oh, my god, that's crazy. I don't believe in that.

David Plotz: If I take the right portion of my lane, cars think they can pass me in that lane.

John Dickerson: Yeah, that's not good.

David Plotz: Also, the right portion of lanes tends to have oil in it, grates in it, water pools. So it's dangerous to drive in the right part of the lane and share space with cars like that.

Emily Bazelon: OK, so how about this slight amendation to make room for reality. There are moments, if you regularly commute to work – I do this on my bike too, it's not a very long ride, but I do it – where the potholes and the oil slicks and the way the road are constructed – moments where you need the cars to treat you like a car, or you can get on the sidewalk. Those are basically the choices. And it's because that particular piece of the road is constructed in a way that doesn't accommodate bikes. It doesn't have you in it.

John Dickerson: Except, don't you want rules that you don't have to be figuring out on the fly all the time? Everybody stays in their one place. It's easy to remember. You don't have to make judgement calls.

Emily Bazelon: I'm not really a Dane, though. … In most cities, there should be some routes that are somewhat accommodating to bikes. I don't think that means we start taking, you know, much of the money we spend on road infrastructure and turning it all into bike lanes. It's very contextual. It depends on time and space and the city you live in and how much people are using it and how hard it is to make those changes. But the hard barricade you're hitting up against, David. Then my question would be, OK, how expensive and how hard would it be to change that particular spot if a lot of bikers are having a problem there?

David Plotz: There are not a lot of bikers. I'm biking on a major commuter artery, Connecticut Avenue in Washington. I do not ask for any quarter.

Connecticut Avenue in Plotz's hometown: Washington DC.

Emily Bazelon: You are. You don't want the cars to hit you.

John Dickerson: But that's not quarter, that's just, like asking not to be run over.

David Plotz: I would never let my kids bike that road.

Emily Bazelon: Could you get onto the sidewalk there?

David Plotz: With difficulty.

Emily Bazelon: So maybe that would be the thing, to have an onramp to the sidewalk to get you out of the way right there.

David Plotz: Maybe.

Emily Bazelon: Can I ask you a question in the meantime, David, before we get to be Copenhagen, since we're not that yet: How defensively do you bike? Because while I share your wish for more bike accomodation than I currently have in my city, I think that in the meantime I am likely to bike incredibly defensively and assume that someone is going to hit me or a car door is going to open every step I take.

Chapel Street in Bazelon's hometown: New Haven, Conn.

David Plotz: The older I get, the more defensively I bike.

John Dickerson: I bike so defensively, I don't get on a bike at all.

David Plotz: (laughs) You get in your car. That's the best defensive biking.

We think it seems obvious what Bazelon really wants when she talks about riding "on the sidewalk": a protected bike lane. As Bazelon suggests, it's valid for cities to debate the proper level of investment in this infrastructure. But though protected bike lanes, bike sharing systems and other infrastructure aren't free, the truth is that compared to almost every other option cities have for transportation, they're dirt cheap and they generate massive benefits to the economy from reduced parking, lower health premiums, higher productivity and lower gas costs.

And it's time for cities to count every person riding her bicycle on a sidewalk as someone voting for protected bike lanes — with her tires.

The Green Lane Project writes about the ways cities are building better bike lanes. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook, or sign up for weekly emails of our latest news here. Bottom photo by Marcio Cabral de Moura.

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