The street fight over bicycles, in NYC and SF


[Ed Note: SF State Professor Jason Henderson, whose work we've covered for years, wrote this op-ed for the New York Times and customized this version for us]

A few weeks ago Wall Street Journal editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz inflamed the contentious street fight over urban cycling in America. Decrying bicyclists as an all-powerful enterprise and New York’s Mayor Bloomberg as an autocratic ideologue, her immediate target was the new bike share program rolled out in New York City in late May. 

For San Franciscans familiar with bicycle politics, Rabinowitz’s charges are nothing new and invoke a long tradition of anti-bicycling rhetoric from the right, even in the Bay Area. Over the last fifteen years working as a transportation scholar, I have heard conservative politicians and pundits from Atlanta to San Francisco charge bicycle advocates of having dangerous political intentions and dismiss urban cyclists and their concerns. 

But if there is one thing about Rabinowitz’s rant that was compelling, it was her suggestion that bicycling can be ideological. She’s right, although somewhat misdirected in explaining her point.  Perhaps we can use Rabinowitz’s grand intervention into this ongoing discussion as an opportunity to consider and deconstruct the ideologies behind urban cycling debates.  It’s worth considering, because ideology does matter in the politics of urban mobility.

For example, policies supporting bicycling come from all kinds of folks, and sometimes lead to strange ideological bedfellows that merge the interests of real estate with more progressive, green viewpoints. In the last decade real estate interests in cities from New York to San Francisco, from Atlanta to Chicago, have embraced bicycling as a key part of economic development. From an entrepreneurial angle, a successful city is one that has a youthful, fit, “creative class” that can chose to bicycle. Ideologically, this is the “neoliberal” stance, wherein access to bikeable streets is also useful for marketing the city. New York’s Citi-Bike is a great example:  the bikes are draped in corporate logos and yet make dense urban space more functional and attractive for investment. And if you have a Citibank credit card, you can get a discount.

This neoliberal, market-oriented bicycle politics is very different from the last forty years of progressive bicycle advocacy in San Francisco and around the United States.  Progressive bicycle advocacy is steeped in an ethos stressing that social responsibility requires less driving and more attention to how one moves around cities. It is not about marketing real estate, or banks. Progressives see bicycling as part of the solution to global warming, reducing oil consumption (and averting the need for the Keystone Pipeline) and a myriad other environmental and social problems. A progressive framework conceptualizes mobility as a systemic problem that requires deep social commitment and responsibility. How we get there matters. It posits that there can be too much mobility, as exemplified by high levels of driving in our cities, and that excessive mobility results in both environmental degradation and major social inequality at a local, national, and global scale.

The conflation of a neoliberal politics of bicycling with a progressive politics of bicycling contributes to a confusing conservative backlash against cycling. The pronounced conservative discourse vehemently opposes re-allocating street space toward other modes like bicycling or public transit (progressive policies) and also invokes a populist outcry that car drivers are victims of schemes to price gouge them and make driving more expensive for all but the wealthy and chauffeured (neoliberal policies).  Instead conservatives advocate that new development in cities should have abundant and inexpensive parking for automobiles and that government should preserve easy and inexpensive automobile access throughout cities – even in Manhattan and San Francisco.  Conservatives balk at creating cycle tracks by removing car space on city streets, and when bikeways are implemented conservative activists protest that the “bike lobby” (a term Rabinowitz used, resulting in a rather hilarious Twitter handle, @bicyclelobby) controls city hall – when in the case of New York AND San Francisco, it’s actually neoliberals.

At the national level, Rabinowitz’s conservative claims of an all-powerful bicycle enterprise and totalitarianism speaks to the broader conspiratorial anti-Agenda 21 screed often heard from Glen Beck, Tea Party activists and Republican allies. Drafted in the early 1990’s, Agenda 21 was an innocuous set of United Nations recommendations for environmental sustainability, but right wing activists have twisted it to suggest that efforts to provide public transit, encourage bicycling, and build communities that are walkable are part of some sort of grand plot to overthrow America.  This kind of backlash rhetoric dangerously resonates with a not-insubstantial portion of the electorate. In San Francisco we’ve heard conspiratorial rants in dozens of public meetings about the proposed “Plan Bay Area” – so much that planners have diluted the plan such that 80% of all future trips will still be in cars and there’s no real ambition for bicycling or transit-oriented development that reduces driving. The fear-mongering on the right has worked and now progressive San Franciscans are asking if Plan Bay Area is worth it.    

Ironically, conservatives preach unfettered markets and entrepreneurialism, which is what CitiBank and New York’s mayor are doing in their neoliberal bicycling strategy. Yet Rabinowitz and her local and national conservative anti-bicycling cohort are lashing out at bicycling and conflating neoliberal politics with the progressive hue. Perhaps we can start to disentangle this and move forward when we look more closely at the ideologies in the urban mobility debate. 


Jason Henderson is Associate Professor of Geography at San Francisco State University, and author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco (U Mass Press, April 2013)


That means they know how to lobby and advocate, and achieve success way beyond their relevance.

But in SF a significant proportion of the people are totally sick of their arrogant, entitled attitude, and their seeming unwillingness to obey traffic laws. In addition, two pedestrians have been killed by rogue cyclists in the last two years, further souring public opinion.

And the cyclists solution to every problem they meet is "take away the parking" or "take away a traffic lane". They take but never give. And of course the very young, the very old, and the disabled cannot bike anyway, so it's an elitist form of travel.

So I do not expect SF to turn into Copenhagen any time soon.

Posted by anon on Jun. 25, 2013 @ 6:15 pm

How many pedestrians have been killed by motorists? What should cyclists (the majority of which are also motorists and car owners) give? The very young are prohibited form driving as are some of the very old via doctor's orders and/or family interventions. If anything in this world is NOT elitist, it's cycling.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 25, 2013 @ 10:13 pm

The way to get people out of their cars is to build rapid reliable transit.

Posted by anon on Jun. 25, 2013 @ 10:31 pm

Muni is slow, unreliable, uncomfortable, filthy and sometimes unsafe.

Posted by anon on Jun. 26, 2013 @ 6:15 am

Actually, that sounds just like my car! (come to think of it, also my bike!)

Posted by Guest on Jun. 27, 2013 @ 9:43 am
Posted by Guest on Jun. 27, 2013 @ 10:18 am

1) Need to move several people
2) Need to move heavy items
3) Need to go where Muni doesn't go
4) Need to travel at night or Sundays when service is sketchy
5) Need to feel safe and comfortable
6) Dirt and health issues
7) Speed and reliability

and so on

Posted by Guest on Jun. 27, 2013 @ 10:20 am

have more affluent white individuals than the cycling community. I'll now argue against every point you made:

1. This week alone I've witnessed two car accidents on Van Ness, from DRIVERS not obeying traffic laws. The implications of a driver not obeying a traffic law are much more dangerous than a cyclist ignoring a traffic law.

2. ***964 people were hit and either injured or killed by DRIVERS in San Francisco in 2012 alone*** That is exactly 1,928% (yes percent) higher than your rate of cyclists injuring pedestrians each year.

See article here:

3. Bike lanes to not take as much space as a driving lane, so when a driving lane is "taken", the space is created for people who ride bikes AND people who walk, sit, and eat on the extra space provided. It is not only people who ride bikes who are "taking" away from cars, it's also, in your opinion, the thousands of pedestrians and customers of businesses who use the extra space (for their safety and enjoyment).

4. The very young, the very old, and the disabled ALSO CANNOT DRIVE A CAR.

Thanks for considering these points.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 25, 2013 @ 10:18 pm

illegally, dangerously and inconsiderately, cyclists always whine that "well car drivers are worse".

That's like a child who, caught out doing something naughty, tries to retort that "well other kids do it too".

No, fix your own house first and then we'll listen to you.

Disabled people can drive in many cases, which is why we issue thousands of disabled stickers. Cycling is elitist because you have to be young, fit and fearless. If you're a 70 year old woman, you're just SOL.

Posted by anon on Jun. 26, 2013 @ 6:18 am

What do you expect them to give when the automobile already has it all?

Guess what? The very young, the very old, and the disabled generally cannot drive either. You want to talk about elitist? Driving gets even more elitist because under-16s can't drive but they can certainly ride a bike. Of course it gets more elitist yet because a car will set you back $20,000 just to buy it, let alone filling the tank.

Why don't you stop being pwned by the Saudi Arabians and ride a bike for America?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 26, 2013 @ 1:47 am

20 miles of freeway with four bags of shopping and two kids with me?

How do I pick up my ageing mother and take her shopping on a bike?

How do I move furniture around or go to the city dump on a bike?

Will all my deliveries arrive on a bike rather than a FedEx truck?

Bikes are the opposite of public transit. They almost always only carry one person. Even a car can be used as a taxi or be pooled for commuting or errands.

If you want to go and like like the Amish, then fine go ahead. But bikes will not work for the 99% of Americans who actually have a life.

Posted by anon on Jun. 26, 2013 @ 6:22 am

becoming dated. It has been official US policy for some decades to gradually reduce our dependence on all those whack jobs in the MidEast. And we have been quite successful through a combination of nuclear power, better fuel efficiency and of course fracking which is already turning the US into an energy exporter again.

Peak oil turned out to be another myth like Y2K and global warming.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 26, 2013 @ 6:44 am

that you're talking about and how do you propose that it be done?

Posted by MossyBuddha on Jun. 25, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

people who claim to speak for everyone because their learned speech pattern has them claiming to speak for "the people," although this "we" loses a lot of elections and alienates a lot of people through their antics.

Posted by matlock on Jun. 26, 2013 @ 12:11 am

And those who speak in the third person plural on behalf of "The People" often hold "The People" in the utmost contempt and wonder why "The Left" never gets traction.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 27, 2013 @ 10:46 am

The shared goal of both the progressive and neoliberal wings of the bicycle movement, after all, is to CREATE mobility for bicyclists. Mobility gives people options -- of jobs, housing, recreation.

The evil is environmental destruction -- from tailpipe emissions, production of fossil fuels, sprawling land use -- which driving either directly causes or strongly promotes. The reason why the bicycling movement reduces evil is it encourages people to shift their from highly destructive modes (cars) to far less destructive ones.

Posted by yaguri on Jun. 26, 2013 @ 9:11 am

concepts like good and evil into their politics?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 26, 2013 @ 10:39 am

Peace between bike riders and others (drivers and pedestrians) will begin when Critical Mass ends.

Posted by Richmondman on Jun. 26, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

Peace will only happen when both bicyclists and motorists have all of the same rights and are held to all of the same responsibilities.

Bicycles do not have all of the rights to the road because there is no enforcement that disciplines motorists not so inclined to uphold their end of the bargain. About half of motorists are awesome and show and get respect. Many now even wave us through 4 way stop signs because they realize that conservation of momentum is paramount.

If the law is to be enforced against cyclists disproportionate to the contribution of our law breaking to the injury and death counts, then that gives autos a pass. The law needs to be enforced as a public health intervention where scarce resources are dedicated to enforcing the laws most likely to damage the public health against specific conduct that actually presents a real, not theoretical danger. Running a stop sign at midnight in a quiet neighborhood is not the same public health threat as running the stop light at Van Ness and Market during rush hour.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 27, 2013 @ 10:51 am

If bikes what equal rights, access and usage of the roads, then I want to see training, tests, registration, licensing and insurance of bikes and their riders.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 27, 2013 @ 11:06 am

and still don't get it.

"The left" are for bikes, and "the right" are against. There are a bunch of other narrow positions built upon by the author but left versus right is the key there.

Not giving "the left" everything they ask for is because of "the right."

Not agreeing with "the left" is conspiracy addled from "the right."


This is why we(some of us) pay taxes to support colleges, this is why tuition at all the U's keeps going up. We tax payers finance these simple minded ravings of the professional experts who complain that they don't get their way because of the other extreme minority.

The author is in dire need of doing what our self described intelligentsia insist is a good thing. Get out and see the world, notice that there is this cross section of the world that doesn't hold to goofy left/right ravings.

And maybe seeing everything through a "if I don't get my way it must because of the far right" will broaden our self appointed transit expert.

Posted by matlock on Jun. 26, 2013 @ 5:39 pm

Bikes are part of the picture - not all of it. I think Mr. Henderson is just trying to get this type of conversation in the fore front - how we arrange our work & living spaces and how we get around.

The big challenge is trying to shift the way our modern society is organized. We can start moving to a better arrangement or throw up our hands. America has always been able to find solutions and not be defeated by foreign threats. The real test will be to see if we fail in these challenges due to our own internal lack of will/leadership.

Don't become a zombie.

Posted by RED STATE D on Jun. 27, 2013 @ 9:00 am

Wholesale leggings from China leggings Wholesalers. You can Online Wholesale tight leggings,Wholesale knitted Leather leggings and more, Best quality and Cheap price Jeggings in China.
Wholesale Jegging
leggings China manufacturer
leggings manufacturer

Posted by Wholesale Jegging on Dec. 16, 2013 @ 8:07 pm

I will advise this post to be able to my own pals likewise. Thank you

Posted by Guest on Apr. 23, 2014 @ 10:35 pm