Shakedown Street: Creating an intermediate infrastructure.

A recent cartoon by New York Times cartoonist Bruce McCall parodies some of the recent squabbles over New York City's bicycle lanes.

On December 18, 2010, a cartoon by Bruce McCall appeared in the Opinion Pages of The New York Times. The cartoon, entitled “Shakedown Street,” made light of New York City’s bike lane controversy by offering a fanciful depiction of Mayor Bloomberg’s “vehicle-free paradise”: a seven lane road serving every purpose except for driving. The road makes separate provisions for traffic agents, dog-walkers, bicyclists, joggers, and even segways.

Size, Speed, and Dimension

Though McCall’s purpose is parody, he touches upon one of the most important, yet overlooked facets of the bicycle lane controversy. However much there appears to be a debate between car-drivers and bicyclists, at an elemental level, the debate is actually a controversy of size, speed, and dimension. Bicycle lanes, for all the controversy they have stirred up, represent at their core an attempt to better categorize and more efficiently separate two vehicles whose size, speed and dimension do not mesh. Broken down, the debate boils down to whether or not society is content for its transportation streetscape to be polarized into automobiles and pedestrians, or if we and our environment require another notch in the hierarchy- between the car and the pedestrian- with a separate infrastructure, set of rules, and right of way.

The Scooter and the Electric Wheelchair

For any visitor who hops onto a bicycle in Amsterdam, one of the most striking, yet under-recognized elements of Amsterdam’s cycling paths is that they are not only for bicycles. Scooters, electric wheelchairs, and the occasional tiny car makes use of these ways as well. Though many in the Netherlands see scooters (especially) and other “minority” users of the bicycle lanes as a nuisance (and they really are trouble for cyclists), their presence opens new avenues  of debate that may potentially stimulate a more multi-faceted conversation over what “bike lanes” are trying to accomplish and how their current concept may be re-staged to the public.

Tiny autos of this kind are allowed to use certain bicycle paths.

Though I would gladly call myself a booster for better bicycle facilities, I hesitate to accept the notion that bike lanes should be only for bikes. Bicycles, though beautiful, self-sufficient, elegant engines of self-liberation, are not suited to all climates and conditions. What society calls for at the street level is a more multi-faceted street- perhaps not so absurd as McCall’s seven lane road- but one that more adequately accommodates existing street functions, while speculating on innovative, efficient, and alternative modes of transit for the future.

An Intermediate Infrastructure

An “intermediate” infrastructure of this kind would certainly cause problems of its owns, in speed differences, conflicts, legal designations, and continuity. Still, the creation of separated ways for cyclists may have the effect (if properly fostered and designed) of creating a space for innovation in which vehicles between the automobile and the pedestrian are permitted a free and efficient passage. After all, in spite of the absurdity of its general appearance, the disappointment following its hype, and the failures of its business model, perhaps the most palpable reason that the Segway failed, was a lack of infrastructure. Moreover, if one looks at how existing bicycle lanes are used in New York City, one of the most uncharted (though illegal) user populations, is actually joggers. In New York, where park space can be minimal and street life enticing, the bike lane provides a floating greenway that entices runners to enchant in the theater of the city while avoiding dens of treadmill claustrophobia.

As New York City’s bicycling population and infrastructure continues to expand and offer more and better connections, perhaps one question that needs to be put forth is whether or not these facilities should accommodate more than bicycles. Perhaps the real answer to the bike lane controversy has nothing to do with bicycles at all, but boils down to the need to innovate and enhance personal transportation options- at both a vehicular and an infrastructural level in order to better and more comfortably create new means and ways of getting from point A to point B.

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