Defending my post on cycling

This is quite the photograph.

I had some pretty harsh words yesterday for what I see as the often excessive and self-indulgent culture of cycling. My criticism certainly went against the grain and drew some strong criticism of its own. Some is legitimate; some less so. And much of it seems based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what I was trying to say — perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I should have been. A full defense of my post after the break.

Here’s what Fred McNulty at Bloody Shrubbery had to say:

Izzy Kornblatt recently disappointed me with a post condemning bike-friendly public policy… Cycling is to transportation what solar power is to energy. No one would argue that solar power will be able to power all of the United States. However, that does not mean that solar power is not a worthwhile investment. Quite the opposite – solar power’s benefits much outweigh the issues of the status quo. Cycling is the same way: it will never replace driving automobiles altogether, but it can help the situation.

My intent in the post was not to condemn bike-friendly policy. In the post I clearly stated that I am an avid bicyclist (I’ve gone on several 100+ mile rides), and I praised Janette Sadik-Khan’s push for expanded bike lanes and paths in New York, saying that it is “one I generally approve of.” I also agree with Fred’s solar power comparison. I believe cycling, as well as the infrastructure that has begun to accompany it, is important and worthwhile.

So what was I trying to criticize? I was trying to criticize what I see as a cultural problem. I feel that the attitudes that surround cycling, at least in my experience, are often short-sighted, fanatic and self-righteous. So yes, I do think cycling is a positive thing, but it shouldn’t be blown into something it isn’t. What worries me is when it’s used to take the focus off of real problems in the way that New Urbanism and local eating have. Sure, eating locally is fun and healthy (and I do it!). Communities should organize farmers’ markets and perhaps create a label for locally grown food. But they shouldn’t treat it as a massive, wide-scale solution for our food problem. That’s a dangerous attitude, and, unfortunately, it’s one too many cyclists take. It’s also one that I think often clouds thinking about urbanism — that’s why I put my cycling post in my “The ways forward for urbanism” series. Looking back now, I think I wasn’t explicit enough in explaining the specifics of my viewpoint or in relating it to urbanism.

Fred also criticized my point that many cyclists ignore traffic laws and even cause accidents, particularly in New York, writing that “the evidence points to the opposite conclusion.” Again, I meant this as a cultural criticism, not as evidence for an argument against bike-friendly policy. I do stand by my point, however, even if it’s difficult to quantify exactly what I’m saying. Fred points to interesting evidence saying that as the number of cyclists in an area increases, the number of cycling  injuries decreases. I don’t think that necessarily goes against what I said — that cycling fanaticism often has the effect of making cyclists arrogant and causing them to disobey traffic laws. There’s certainly ample evidence for the fact that irresponsible cyclists cause some serious accidents (as do drivers, for sure), but outside of that, I don’t think there’s a statistic I could cite to make my point, due to the subjective nature of my cultural criticism.

The biggest irony of this disagreement is the amount of agreement in it. Both Fred and I do clearly favor bike-friendly policy. And hopefully we can both enjoy this relevant clip from The Office:

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