Photo by somervillebikes on Flickr.
Expanding bicycle infrastructure requires political support. That means showing residents and elected officials that cyclists are not some strange, alien species, but fellow people just like them.
Since people who ride every day are currently a small portion of the population, advocates must work with those who don’t ride bikes to show why expansion is in the local community’s best interest.
There are, of course, issue-based arguments, supported by facts and numbers. We hear these arguments all the time: cycling is good for the environment, good for public health, good for congestion reduction, and good for the bottom line. Even most bike lane opponents won’t disagree.
But there’s another line of argument that bike advocates employ less often. It’s an empathetic appeal that demonstrates that cyclists are just like you. They’re everyday citizens, getting around town. Failure to show this reality to decision makers, the press, and the public at large can have adverse consequences. In the absence of a positive or even neutral image of cyclists, an alternative, more explosive narrative can gain steam.
This negative narrative has two parts. First, because there is not much of a social contract between cyclists and other road users, it’s easy to believe that cyclists are reckless scofflaws who don’t deserve respect because they don’t give respect. Cyclists become aliens on two wheels who run red lights and play chicken with you as you try to guess their next unpredictable move. This thinking transforms cyclists into something that is nothing like you.
The second part comes into play when governments begin providing bike lanes or other provisions for cyclists. It starts to look like the road is being taken away from responsible users like you and given to a reckless minority. This is where the backlash begins, as citizens speak up against this perceived injustice.
There is an alternative to this acrimony, though. DC bike advocates are already making the case that people riding bikes are no different than anyone else, and deserve a safe way to get around.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of Capital Bikeshare in showing the general public how hopping on a bike can become an easy part of everyday life. The bikes are comfortable, steady and ubiquitous. The only things that would make it even easier to use for the general public are more stations and integration with SmarTrip.
It’s easy for non-cyclists to imagine taking CaBi for a short trip across town. Once they do, they’re more likely to see the importance of bike lanes.
It’s also important to cultivate advocates from every DC community who can talk to their community leaders about why they should support cycling. Shane Farthing cited this as one of his priorities when he took over at WABA.
Keeping DC’s black population involved with cycling is especially important in order to keep bike infrastructure from becoming a wedge issue, as it did during the recent mayoral election.
A negative narrative can lead to opinions about cycling like that of ANC 8C03’s Mary Cuthbert, who told the Washington Post that “we don’t need no bicycle lanes.” A more positive narrative, on the other hand, can build upon the advantages that good cycling infrastructure brings.
A great example is the outlook from Edgewood residents near the Metropolitan Branch Trail who now have a safer connection to downtown. Anybody can hop on a bike, no matter their race, income, gender or age. Let’s work to keep it that way.
Finally, cyclists must become known as road users in good standing. While it garnered some controversy within the cycling community, WABA’s Resolution to Ride Responsibly strikes a better tone than a similar effort being undertaken by New York City’s DOT, called Don’t Be a Jerk.
The New York campaign reinforces the idea that cyclists are dangerous road users in need of reform, instead of everyday people trying to safely get around town. While WABA’s pledge and its related ride held on Saturday could have been more affirmative by noting the many cyclists who are already responsible road users, it’s a step in the right direction. After all, it’s not often you see transportation advocacy organizations ask their members and supporters to behave responsibly.
DC deserves credit for staying civil instead of devolving into a bike lane war, but there are steps we can take to ensure the discourse about cycling is as good as, if not better than, the facilities being installed. Demonstrating and recognizing that people on bikes are just like us is an important first step.
Stephen Miller works for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which does work to promote the Metropolitan Branch Trail.