08/23/2012 12:49 pm ET Updated Oct 23, 2012

New York City's Bike Lane Brawl

Here's the most politically important fact about New York: everything is occupied. Do anything that takes up space -- erect a building, widen a sidewalk, put up a dog run in the park -- and you are elbowing somebody else out of the way.

So, the bike lane battle.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a big fan of bike lanes, and lately we have been getting a lot of them. Store owners hate them, because they make it harder for delivery trucks to park and unload. Environmentalists love them, for obvious reasons. Bike riders are of course the loudest cheerleaders. Drivers of cars and taxis are the big losers -- those were their lanes that the peddling crowd is usurping.

The lanes have continued to expand, particularly in Manhattan and Brooklyn, mainly because, well, Bloomberg is a fan. That's the advantage of being in your third term as mayor in a city where two terms is the limit. There's nothing to lose, and if you've always wanted to ban big sugary sodas, or put bike lanes all over the city, you can just go for it.

But suddenly this week we heard a bleat of protest from one of the major candidates hoping to succeed Bloomberg two years down the line. Bill de Blasio, the Public Advocate, called the city's current race to make New York bike-friendly "radical" and urged a retreat to "incrementalism."

The bike lobby was deeply unhappy. Paul Steely White, the head of Transportation Alternatives, spoke darkly about "some well-connected, deep-pocketed people in this city who have an outdated view of our streets -- and all the mayoral candidates on speed dial."

DeBlasio said he was wanted the city to go slower, and get comment for the local communities, before the streets are bikified.

"The claim that there hasn't been community input is simply not true," bike advocate Caroline Samponaro of Transportation Alternatives told HuffPost. "Every bike lane has gone through a community process, and most of them are growing from a demand at the community level."

A New York Times poll out this week found that 66 percent of New Yorkers think bike lanes are a good idea. And a Marist poll conducted last year ago also found that two-thirds of New Yorkers support bike lanes.

Still, it's pretty clear that there's political method to de Blasio's madness. Another question in the Marist survey held less cheery news for bicyclists: 67 percent of New Yorkers oppose adding any more bikes lanes. That figure rises to 71 percent among women, and 74 percent among black people. (The greatest number of New Yorkers -- 44 percent -- want to keep the number of lanes at the current level. Some 23 percent want fewer lanes, and 27 percent want the lanes expanded.)

"Doesn't that strike you as more of a New York City having a hard time with change phenomenon than it does a bike lane specific one?" Samponaro said. "I think that New Yorkers in general initially resist change. But I also think that there is a growing acceptance of bike lanes as being a way forward, and that's what is coming through in the polls."

De Blasio's call to slow things up certainly sounds reasonable. But remember the rule about space in New York City. It's all used up. Some in the bike community believe, probably with good reason, that if the city goes slow, progress may stop altogether.

And would that be a bad thing? It depends on whether you believe New York can truly be transformed into a city where a large portion of the people now in taxis and cars can be converted into bikers. If the subway and bus riders convert to wheels it'll probably be good for their physical fitness, but it won't do much for the rest of the population.

So far, there's evidence that the relatively small number of bicyclists using the streets a few years back has grown larger. Maybe doubled. But they were starting from a pretty modest base. The bike community tends to speak glowingly about Copenhagen or Amsterdam. If you believe New York City is likely to become another Amsterdam in your lifetime, or the lives of your grandchildren, well -- I am impressed.

Opponents of the bike lanes complain that they create traffic congestion in the remaining lanes, and that's pretty clearly true. One of the big arguments in favor of the lanes is that the reduce traffic fatalities by slowing things down.

If the city really wanted to do something to reduce car traffic, improve the environment and make life better for non-driving New Yorkers, it would impose tolls on the East River bridges into Manhattan and use the money to improve mass transit. Actually Bloomberg tried that. Several times. The state legislature, which had the final say, wouldn't go along.

You can't blame the mayor, and the bikers, for trying to get as much turf as they can before the next election arrives and a new politician takes over City Hall. Whoever it is will be thinking about a second term from the minute he or she arrives, and a go-slow approach on bike lanes might look pretty attractive.