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:

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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.

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