THE BLOG
06/10/2013 03:49 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2013

Bike Backlash Quiets Down in New York and Elsewhere

Former New York mayor Ed Koch envisioned bicycles as vehicles for the future, and in 1980 created experimental bike lanes on 6th and 7th Avenues in Manhattan where riders were protected from speeding traffic by asphalt barriers. Some people immediately roared their disapproval and within a few weeks the bike lanes were gone.

Twenty-seven years later New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and his transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan saw the growing ranks of bicyclists on the streets as a key component of 21st century transportation, and began building protected bike lanes in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

These "green lanes" were an immediate hit with the public but a noisy reaction came from a small group of well-connected people. New York magazine declared the situation a "Bikelash" on its cover.

Pressure mounted on Bloomberg to sack Sadik-Khan and rip out the green lanes. Anthony Weiner, then a Queens Congressman and mayoral hopeful, told Bloomberg he would spend his first year as mayor attending "a bunch of ribbon cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes." Bicyclists everywhere braced themselves for a setback, which would once again slow progress toward safer streets in New York and around the continent.

Now two years later, Sadik-Khan is still commissioner and bike lanes continue appearing across the city, including 11.3 new miles of green lanes last year alone. Two-thirds of New Yorkers call bike lanes a good idea in the most recent New York Times poll, compared to only 27 percent who oppose them.

Another of Bloomberg's and Sadik-Khan's big ideas to improve New York is now sparking controversy: the CitiBike bike sharing system, with 6000 bikes available at 330 stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn. A member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board has called the idea--which is already up and running in Boston, Washington, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver, Chattanooga, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Houston, London and Paris-- "totalitarian" in an unintentionally humorous video interview: Judging from the popularity of bike lanes in New York and success of bike share in other cities, this brouhaha will blow over.

Tim Blumenthal, president of PeopleForBikes and the Green Lane Project stresses, "Bike issues need to be framed in the context of what they mean to the city, not just what they mean to people who bike. In New York City, for example, more green lanes, better bikeway networks, and the new CitiBike system will benefit all residents and visitors by reducing traffic, noise and air pollution--making city life a little less frenetic for everyone."

Other communities will no doubt face their own version of bikelash, but the high-profile debate in New York over bike lanes highlighted two key assets of protected lanes:

1. Bike lanes create safer streets for everyone. "It's the safety stats that carried the day," notes Ben Fried, editor of Streetsblog, which focuses on transportation in New York City. "They're pretty indisputable." Crashes for all road users (drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists) on streets with green lanes drop on average by 40 percent, and sometimes as much as 50 percent, according to a memorandum from Deputy New York Mayor Howard Wolfson. Green lanes also lead to significantly fewer bicyclists riding on sidewalks, Fried notes.

2. Bike lanes are good for business. Businesses on 9th Avenue, the first major green lane in the city, saw a 49 percent rise in retail sales, compared to 3 percent across Manhattan as a whole, according to research by the New York City Department of Transportation. Another study of consumer patterns by Portland State University researchers, found that shoppers who arrive by bicycle spend 24 percent more at stores per month than those who drive.

New, unfamiliar ideas like green lanes always spark opposition-- at first. "Push back is inevitable," Fried explains. "It doesn't mean the project is flawed. Once it's built, the constituency for it will grow."

Complaints about a "war on cars" have echoed around Seattle from a small but persistent chorus opposed to bike lanes. In response, the Cascade Bicycle Club commissioned a poll of Seattle voters (conducted by the independent research firm FM3 using a scientifically rigorous sample of 400 respondents), which found that 79 percent view bicyclists favorably, 73 percent want to see more protected green lanes, 59 percent support "replacing roads and some on-street parking" to build green lanes," while only 31 percent believe Seattle is "waging a war on cars."

Increasing numbers of Americans are embracing bicycles to commute, run errands, exercise, and have fun. Green lanes and other new bicycle infrastructure being built across the country are encouraging even more people to ride by making the streets safer for bicyclists of all ages and backgrounds.