Opinion

Felix Salmon

John Cassidy vs bipeds

By Felix Salmon
March 9, 2011

Aaron Naparstek has a masterful demolition of John Cassidy’s bizarre anti-bike-lane rant, but he somehow skips over the most wonderful bit of all:

I view the Bloomberg bike-lane policy as a classic case of regulatory capture by a small faddist minority intent on foisting its bipedalist views on a disinterested or actively reluctant populace.

Yes, you read that right: the New York populace, it seems, is basically comprised of cars, to the point at which bipeds are “a small faddist minority”.

Now it so happens that I’ve met Mr Cassidy a few times and he’s always looked perfectly bipedal to me. And for all that he enjoys parking his Jaguar XJ6 on Manhattan streets — he’s just written 1,250 words on the subject, after all — I’m quite sure that he always gets out and saunters happily among the other New York pedestrians as he makes his way to his dinner in the West Village.

It can hardly have escaped Cassidy’s notice, on his regular peregrinations from car to restaurant and back, that New York’s streets are positively bustling with bipedal life. There’s good reason for this: New York is a very dense city, in which 8 million or so bipeds — birds not included — cram themselves into a rather small area. His Jaguar XJ6 takes up about 100 square feet of street space; if everybody in Manhattan was so greedy, we’d turn the city into something more akin to Manhattan, Kansas.

And so New Yorkers turn to other modes of transportation. Primarily, we walk, taking up very little space while doing so. When we don’t walk, we cram lots of people into efficient vehicles like subways or buses. And sometimes we bike, since doing so makes a great deal of sense in a pretty flat city where space is at a premium.

Driving a car, on the other hand, is an enormously expensive thing to do, with most of the costs being borne by people other than the driver. Yet here’s Cassidy, the economics correspondent of the New Yorker:

From an economic perspective I also question whether the blanketing of the city with bike lanes—more than two hundred miles in the past three years—meets an objective cost-benefit criterion. Beyond a certain point, given the limited number of bicyclists in the city, the benefits of extra bike lanes must run into diminishing returns, and the costs to motorists (and pedestrians) of implementing the policies must increase. Have we reached that point? I would say so.

Well yes. If indeed the limited number of bicyclists in the city was a given, then Cassidy might have a point here. But it’s not. Bike lanes attract bikes no less effectively than roads attract cars and the number of cyclists in New York has been growing just as fast as the city can create new lanes for them. See if you can follow Cassidy’s logic here, because I can’t:

From San Francisco to London, local governments are introducing bike lanes, bike parks, bike-rental schemes, and other policies designed to encourage two-wheel motion. Generally speaking, I don’t have a problem with this movement: indeed, I support it. But the way it has been implemented, particularly in New York, irks me to no end…

Thanks to these four-wheel friends, I have discovered virtually every neighborhood of the city and its environs, and I would put my knowledge of New York’s geography and topography up against most native residents…

Let us have some bike lanes on heavily used and clearly defined routes to and from the city—and on popular biking routes within the city and the boroughs. But until and unless there is a referendum on the subject—or a much more expansive public debate, at least—it is time to call a halt to Sadik-Khan and her faceless road swipers.

The message here is that cars can and should be able to go anywhere in the city they like — that’s part of what makes them so great. Bikes, on the other hand, should be confined to a few “heavily used and clearly defined routes”, which would probably run parallel to existing subway lines. If you want to use a bicycle to explore the city, then you’re just going to have to take your chances in traffic, like Cassidy did in the 1980s.

In those days, there were few cyclists on the roads, and part of the thrill was avoiding cabs and other vehicles that would suddenly swing into your lane, apparently oblivious to your presence. When I got back to my apartment on East 12th Street, I was sometimes shaking.

Sorry, John, but the purpose of biking is not to “thrill” you so much that you end up shaking. And you surely know, even if you’re loathe to admit it, that traffic expands to fill the roads available: if you build more road space, you don’t reduce congestion, you just increase the number of cars. And similarly, if you reduce the amount of road space, you don’t increase congestion so much as you reduce the number of private cars. Which is a feature, not a bug.

Cassidy is convinced that the addition of bike lanes has increased the time he spends stuck in traffic, or looking for his beloved free on-street parking. (As Naparstek notes, his argument can basically be boiled down to “Street space should not be set aside for bike lanes. It should be set aside for free parking for my Jaguar XJ6″.) But the fact is that impatient motorists will always want to blame someone else for traffic, when, clearly, they themselves are the main culprit in that regard.

Cassidy has no problem with the vast number of parked cars which take up precious road space in New York because he regularly aspires to transcending his bipedal nature and becoming one of them himself. But if you replace those parked cars with a healthy, efficient and effective means of getting New Yorkers safely around town, then watch him roar. Jaguars — whether they have four wheels or four paws — are good at that.

Update: Adam Sternbergh piles on too, and Cassidy responds to us all.

Comments
23 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Not that this helps his case at all, but I think Cassidy means “bipedalist” to be a clever neologism synonymous with “bicyclist”, playing on the notion of using two pedals, rather than referring to bipeds. I suspect he overlooked the fact that “bipedalism” is already a word with the meaning you ascribe to it. His sentence is grammatical but not coherent otherwise. Of course, that incoherence forms the premise of your witty retort but I think the principle of charity does require some sacrifice from time to time.

Posted by tvcminnick | Report as abusive
 

Cassidy commits an even bigger affront to Eustace Tilley’s team of fact checkers: he claims there is a bike lane on Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue when in fact there is none. There are eight lanes for cars, however.

Posted by D_Go | Report as abusive
 

I think we should pool our money and buy John Cassidy a bike. Or a Metrocard.

Posted by maxchafkin | Report as abusive
 

I think we should pool our money and buy John Cassidy a bike. Or a Metrocard.

Posted by maxchafkin | Report as abusive
 

tvcminnick, you are narrowly correct but you are missing the big picture here. Cassidy is trafficking in the bogus premise that there are these different groups of people with conflicting interests: ‘drivers’, ‘cyclists’, and ‘pedestrians.’ In fact, there are only people who happen to be driving, cycling, or walking in the moment. Practically all of the people you see cycling or walking *have cars*, they just happen to find it more convenient to bike or walk at the time you observe them. The assessment of what is convenient is very elastic, easily modified by modifications to public space; a assure you that Paris was not a cycling city before the bike share program went, in, and that nobody wants to walk in an American suburb with 8-lane roads and no sidewalks. The “us and them” construction that Cassidy is peddling is meaningless because these group memberships are so plastic.

Posted by Greycap | Report as abusive
 

I will support bike lanes only when the police department enforces traffic laws against cyclists who violate them. I am sick and tired of having to watch out for cyclists who run red lights and go the wrong way on streets. All power to Cassidy!

Posted by HymanRosen | Report as abusive
 

Naparstek’s piece is rational, concise, and deadly accurate, but really, nobody slags a tosser like Cassidy quite the way BSNYC does: http://bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com/2011/03/ generation-gap-alleycat-down-memory.html .

Posted by Greycap | Report as abusive
 

HymanRosen: I’m still waiting for the police department to enforce laws against motorists and pedestrians who violate them. I am sick and tired of having to watch out for motorists who run red lights and pedestrians who jaywalk!

Why the double-standard? If you think that cyclists don’t deserve bike lanes because they break the law, why aren’t you suggesting ripping out crosswalks because pedestrians break the law?

Posted by ohhleary | Report as abusive
 

This might be the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever seen published it in the New Yorker. It’s the level of dumb that basically destroys his credibility on economics. After all, economics depends on things like facts, studies, statistics. Not lazy received wisdom. Doesn’t OneJag (as Atrios has taken to calling him: http://www.eschatonblog.com/2011/03/than k-me.html) have any loved ones in his life who could have kept him from publishing such a credibility-killer?

OneJag thought he writing about biking and cars, but was he was communicating was something entirely different and mostly about him. Oy.

Posted by ny60983 | Report as abusive
 

What’s this? — a John Cassidy ‘takedown’ (finally) . . . ??

Ohh, do I love that.

Posted by dedalus | Report as abusive
 

And shouldn’t an “economist” know what “regulatory capture” means? Whatever he paid for his education, he should demand a refund.

Posted by ny60983 | Report as abusive
 

The Atlantic Wire made a small feature about the bike lane war in Brooklyn. Cassidy is quoted as well as some other pundits and even Park Slope residents. Felix is completely ignored. Ouch! Talk about dwindling influence.

http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/ 2011/03/war-over-bike-lanes-hyperbole-gr ows-brooklyn/35703/

Posted by EmilianoZ | Report as abusive
 

increased traffic congestion associated with NYC bike lanes isn’t a result of increased motor vehicles on the road; it’s a result of streets narrowed (sometime by more than a full lane) to accommodate the bike lanes and associated “street furniture”. The lanes may or may not be a good idea, but they do slow traffic in NYC, in some cases dramatically, which of course increases carbon footprint of drivers going from here to there.

Posted by margon | Report as abusive
 

Maybe he’s really “Turbo Teen”.

(For those who don’t know or don’t remember — count your blessings — “Turbo Teen” was a really bizarre 80s cartoon about a kid who, thanks to an accident involving super-science, turns into a car whenever he gets hot. And really, should we be discriminating since someone with that particular handicap?)

Posted by Westwit | Report as abusive
 

@margon – your claims about congestion are incorrect.

It’s been studied for the Prospect Park West bike lanes ( http://www.xoxosoma.com/ppw/ ) and speeding was reduced, travel time (measured without speeding) was increased by less than 1%, and the throughput did not change.

On the positive side, the number of cyclists roughly tripled, the number on the sidewalk was vastly reduced, crashes and injuries (all kinds) were down, despite 3x the cyclists. No pedestrian injuries since the bike lane was installed.

Your claim about reducing the carbon footprint is also misleading. The best way to reduce the carbon footprint of a car, is not to drive it. Failing that, the best way in a city, is to drive a hybrid/EV with regenerative braking (that’s most of them), which gets far better gas mileage in stop-and-go, and when stuck in (hypothetical, imaginary) traffic, does not run its engine.

In a place like NYC, cars are really stupid. They take up far too much space, and are far too dangerous for other people, and the alternatives (bicycle, with or without electric assist) work really well. The #1 reason most people don’t ride, and the main difference between Old Amsterdam and New Amsterdam, is a lack of adequate facilities.

Posted by dr2chase | Report as abusive
 

margon: Anyone with a degree in traffic engineering would argue differently. It’s an issue of supply and demand: narrowing streets ultimately reduces traffic volume, as people seek alternate routes or simply choose not to drive. It’s the whole conundrum of “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

This is why when Prospect Park West was narrowed by one lane, travel times increased by only one second. Traffic volume is not a constant – it can, literally, disappear.

The same concept applies to adding road capacity: widening induces demand, and congestion eventually returns to its previous levels.

Posted by ohhleary | Report as abusive
 

ohhleary, every rules comes with exceptions. My town beautified the “downtown” (a five-block stretch of the main street), widened the sidewalks, built encroachments for the crosswalks, but really didn’t change much except for removing a right-turn-only lane on one street and adding a couple traffic signals. Net result? Massive traffic jams in one direction where there were none before.

Sometimes alternate routes don’t exist. Sometimes “choosing not to drive” is not a realistic option. This admittedly is a very different situation than NYC, but removing a lane can definitely reduce throughput.

If removing a lane *doesn’t* reduce throughput, you probably aren’t dealing with a natural bottleneck.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive
 

I have always like Cassidy’s economic reporting. His piece makes me wonder about that now.

Posted by TomLeon | Report as abusive
 

Yuppie is pissed because he can’t park his Jahg-yoo-ah wherever he likes. News at 11.

Posted by Ivan_Karamazov | Report as abusive
 

Ought not Cassidy spend some time cycling (now, not in the ’80s) on New York streets before recommending that the city remove lanes?

Posted by Brent123 | Report as abusive
 

I did the math. If 8 million people each took up 100 square feet with their car (4.5 x 20 = 90, plus a few here and there for trucks…) it would be 28.6 square miles.
Manhattan is 22.7 square miles

Posted by saianjuma1 | Report as abusive
 

‘Sorry, John, but the purpose of biking is not to “thrill” you so much that you end up shaking. And you surely know, even if you’re loathe to admit it…’

I think you mean “loath”, the adjective meaning reluctant or unwilling, not “loathe”, the verb.

Posted by archiegoodwin | Report as abusive
 

Love this! Can’t believe I haven’t read this till now…

Posted by sammydavisjrjr | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •