Today’s Bike Wars, Yesterday’s Car Wars

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In New York City, an intense battle over new bike lanes has erupted into a fierce cultural war. But New York Press reminds us that this isn’t the first time a new mode of transportation has opened a schism in the city’s social fabric. Aaron Napartek, who founded the bike advocacy site Streetsblog, writes:

The tabloid ravings, harsh police tactics and political posturing aimed against bikes and bike lanes may seem intense today. In a historic context, however, the Bike Backlash of 2011 is nothing compared to the battle that took place during the decade after World War I when organized “motordom” carved out its place on New York City streets. …

University of Virginia professor Peter Norton details the early history of the car and the city in his wonky but fascinating book, Fighting Traffic. He describes the “blood, grief and anger in the American city” and the “violent revolution in the streets” of New York and other U.S. cities as automobile owners bullied their way on to city streets, literally leaving a trail of mangled children’s bodies in their wake.

In the 1920s, motor vehicle crashes killed more than 200,000 Americans, a staggering number considering how many fewer cars actually existed in those days. These days, 35,000 or so Americans are killed in car wrecks annually. Most of the dead are drivers and passengers on highways and in rural places. In the 1920s, most of the dead were kids living in cities. In the first four years after the Armistice of World War I, more Americans were killed in car wrecks than had died in battle in France.

Some critics of the time called the automobile “a pagan idol demanding sacrifice,” according to Norton, and street mobs sometimes set upon reckless motorists who’d hit pedestrians.

Now, the body count in today’s bike lane wars is admittedly no comparison. But the tenor of the rhetoric is often just as shrill. “Bike lanes have gone from simple strips of pavement festooned with green and white paint to sponges for a sea of latent­ cultural and economic anxieties,” writes New York magazine in a dispatch from the front lines, “Is New York too New York for bike lanes?”

Naparstek is ultimately hopeful about the outcome in Gotham: “Minds will change and the Great Bike Backlash will soon come to an end. … We’re just waiting for the culture to catch up to the infrastructure.”

UPDATE 8/9/2011: A new poll shows two out of three New Yorkers support the new bike lanes, the New York Observer reports–but only 27 percent believe more lanes should be added.

Source: New York Press, Streetsblog, New York, New York Observer

Image by BKLYN guy, licensed under Creative Commons.

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