Special Report

Complete Streets Occupiers

Eco-bikers are in no mood to share the road.

By 11.19.13


If you’ve not heard of the “Complete Streets” movement, count yourself lucky. You’ve managed to avoid the acrimonious Bike Lane Wars. And don’t ask about them at social events. “Bike lanes, I put that now in the category of things you shouldn't discuss at dinner parties,” a New York City Councilor tells us. “It used to be money and politics and religion. Now you should add bike lane.”

So what are “Complete Streets”? According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, these are streets that accommodate “all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.” Looking out of the front window of my house on King Street, the main street in Alexandria, Virginia, I might easily be misled into thinking that I live on a complete street: pedestrians stroll along the sidewalks, some pushing baby strollers or walking their dogs; and two narrow traffic lanes accommodate 15,000 cars a day, as well buses, trucks, motorcycles and bicycles. Further west on King Street, near a local assisted living facility, one can see senior citizens being pushed or propelling themselves along in wheelchairs. For the 23 years I’ve lived here, this street seemed to work beautifully for everyone. It gave our neighborhood a welcome diversity.

Neighborhoods are not what the Complete Streets movement is about, however. Instead it’s an exercise of raw power by the politically well-connected to mandate their vision about how we ought to live. For the activists of the movement, our streets won’t be “complete” until cars are eliminated entirely or, for the less doctrinaire amongst them, radically reduced. Goodbye Alexandria, Hello Amsterdam.

All this is to be done on the model of the frog in the boiling pot, with the temperature raised by small degrees until the frog is quite cooked. Step 1 is to convince City Hall to paint “sharrows” on a road, indicating that the road is to be shared with cyclists. Only the road is already shared with cyclists, so what’s the point? Step 2 occurs when the road is repaved by the City. At that point, the sharrows are replaced by dedicated bike lanes. Where the street is too narrow for both on-street parking and bike lanes, the parking spaces disappear.

Step 2 is usually opposed by businesses and homeowners. For some reason, shopkeepers don’t think their custom will increase if they remove customer parking. Homeowners want to invite their friends over for coffee, set up play dates for their children, and accommodate the carpooling arrangements that transport them to and from school. They want to be able to say “yes” when the roofer, plumber, or electrician asks if there is parking near the house. That’s when the “Bike Wars” start, and that’s also when Step 3 is invoked. Parking is merely the symptom and cars the disease, and the goal is to cure the disease. Kevin Posey, Alexandria’s Transportation Commission Chairman, asks, “If a community can’t replace empty parking lanes with bike lanes on a dangerous street, what chance do they have at replacing travel lanes?”

We have great bike lanes in Northern Virginia, perhaps the nicest in the country, a 35-mile stretch along the Potomac River from Mount Vernon to Great Falls. That’s for recreational bicyclists, and these aren’t the people who’d be pedaling down my street. Instead, we’re talking about cyclists who commute to work or school, and they’re only one percent of American adults. Like the Occupy Wall Street people, they want to occupy our streets, except this time it’s the one percent who claim the mantle of social justice.

Ever hear of “guerrilla tactics”? One “PM” suggests on a bicyclist blog what’s to be done if they don’t get their way:

Any bicyclist using King Street to go uphill could always just make a point to ride slowly and smack in the middle of the lane, especially at peak times*. Then, frustrated motorist [sic]will complain to the City that they want the bikes “out of their way” and the motorists and bicyclists will be fighting the neighbors together. Seems like a win.

A number of King Street residents have experienced this, me included. I can tell you that it’s frightening on a dark night to have a cyclist dressed all in black lycra and helmet, only a small tail light visible, suddenly pull out in front of your car to pull off this stunt. I’m not enamored of these guys, but I don’t want to hurt them either.

Another, more widely copied tactic is something called Critical Mass. Let’s say you’re part of the 99 percent, one of the forgotten Americans driving home from work on a Friday evening, looking forward to a drink with your spouse, a family meal with the kids, maybe then watching a movie together. To the Critical Mass folks, you and your way of life are the enemy. Your life-style is inimical to the way life should be lived in a moral Complete Streets utopia, and Critical Mass is determined to wreck your plans for a pleasant weekend.

The San Francisco branch describes Critical Mass as “traffic-blocking bicycle advocacy.” They announce where and when to meet, usually during evening rush hour. And then they tell motorists what’s up. “Hey, folks. This is your friendly reminder that, because this morning's commute wasn’t bad enough, Critical Mass happens tonight.” The idea is to get enough cyclists to occupy the entire roadway and bring all traffic to a standstill, with the goal of blackmailing motorists to yield to their demands. Like maybe giving up their street parking. The group’s philosophical bent can be seen in a mock-apologetic poster distributed by its members:

We're sorry that we all go on reproducing this silly and self-degrading way of life, instead of throwing it over and making a life worth living. Why should we do jobs which make our lives worse due to toxic waste or pollution? Why are our best intentions always corrupted by the need to “make a living”?

Why indeed? Perhaps it’s just our stage of evolution. Karl Marx’ theory of historical materialism identifies five stages of history, from a benighted Slave Society at the bottom to an enlightened Communism at the top. We’re in the middle: Capitalism, with its democracy, private property, market economy and the like. One step up is Amsterdam and two steps up promises to be cyclist Heaven. Only something’s not quite right; pieces of history aren’t fitting they way they should.

Under Chairman Mao, the Chinese got around by bicycle, but now an increasingly middle class Chinese society has ditched its bikes for cars. We, richer than they, are asked to give up cars for bicycles. It’s a puzzlement! Happily, one Oyeketto—a cycling activist inclined to political theorizing—explains it all for us:

It's a progression of evolution. Primitive countries gain wealth, pass through their materialism phase, grow beyond it. China is in the materialism phase big time. Denmark and the Netherlands are somewhere past it. Returning to bikes is part of a higher level of evolution.

The result is an upside down U-curve. First more cars as the Chicoms get wealthy, then fewer as they reach Dutch levels of enlightenment. We Americans tread a path in between them. I can only speculate that Oyeketto is a millennial for whom history started on the day he or she was born, and doesn’t know that none of this makes sense in Marxist terms. The Chinese, it appears, have defied historical necessity by moving backward from Communist enlightenment (no cars) to Capitalist materialism (cars).

Social justice can indeed be confusing, as Monty Python discovered. Where do the bike wars fit in, from the perspective of race, class and gender? To understand, one must realize that the cause de jour on the liberal horizon is something called “traffic justice.” Not getting that can be a problem, as we saw in 2011 in Washington, D.C. where ungrateful African-American voters failed to appreciate Mayor Adrian Fenty’s bike lanes and denied him a second term. Fenty, they thought, was more interested in white twenty-somethings in Dupont Circle than he was about homeowners in North-East or Anacostia. The same racial split happened in Portland, with an attempt to create bike lanes through the former African-American neighborhood of Albina. The area was gentrified about 50 years ago, and bitter feelings were reawakened by the proposal of protected bike lanes without soliciting participation from the African-American community.

Young white professionals versus African-Americans. Whatever happened to “why can’t we all get along?” Cyclist Sarah Goodyear traced the anti-bike sentiment to “the destructive urban renewal policies of the ’50s and ’60s.” The problem, however, is that liberals were on the wrong side of that one as well. The urban renewal movement of 50 years ago that destroyed African-American communities was also promoted by preening liberals who wore their convictions as halos. Then as now, they despised suburbia and its means of transportation. They wanted to take African-Americans out of neighborhoods that worked and put them into instant high-rise slums populated by crack dealers and murderers. Now the same impulse to improve the life of the lower orders can be seen in their dedicated bike lanes. If the lower orders balk at being improved in this way, why we just have to nudge them, don’t we? And until then, it’s our lot that gets to use the bike lanes.

After a contentious public meeting, Portland decided to delay the implementation of the lanes to get more public input, especially from minorities. That’s how democracy works, right? People get a chance to be heard on matters of public importance. But Portland bike lane activist, Jonathan Maus, is willing to dispense with democracy when his interests are at stake. “There’s been too much emphasis on consensus,” Goodyear reports Maus as saying. “I’m all for public process, but I also want the smartest transportation engineers in the country on bicycling to have their ideas prevail.” That kind of thinking—life engineered by expert planners—made the 20th century a bummer for a lot of people. Ask the Chinese, for example.

As for the traditional liberal alliance with minorities, one has to prioritize one’s causes, and minorities are so yesterday. “The remaining black community is holding traffic justice hostage,” says Maus. It’s allowing injustice in the present because of injustice in the past.” Sad really. What’s the point of making an alliance with people who won’t do as they’re told?

The upshot saw the defeat of Sam Adams, Portland’s radically pro-bike mayor in 2012. Defeats do not deter bike activists, however, for they are sustained by a sense of moral superiority and historical inevitability. As with the adherents of any belief system, such as environmentalism—and indeed liberalism—they are impervious to facts and uninterested in practicality and rational discourse. Despite their small numbers, their audacity knows no limits: imagine trying to separate Angelinos from their beloved cars! Yet taking away car lanes in Northeast LA is precisely what the bikers there tried to do, causing over 500,000 people to sign petitions against the plan.

Like any respectable religion, the bike community has is martyrs, such as 24-year old Amelie Le Moullac who was struck by a food truck in San Francisco on August 14. Ms. Le Moullac didn’t see the truck’s blinker signaling a right turn and the driver didn’t get into the bike lane to make his turn. Trucks and bicycles are not a happy mix, bike lanes or no. In fact, Ms. Le Moullac would have been better off had there been no bike lane for then she would have been behind the truck rather than on its right. Nevertheless, her death is being exploited by the bikers, though not always effectively. The plan for the August 30 Critical Mass ride in San Francisco was to ride very and come to a complete stop at the accident site to pay homage to Le Moullac and to cause maximum traffic delays, but most sped by and few if any actually stopped, and if they did it wasn’t for very long. “It’s not exactly a revelation to speak about how poorly we Critical Massers have managed to transmit our culture to the new generation(s) over the past decade and a half,” laments sfcriticalmass.org.

How to transmit values to those who come after us is a difficult puzzle for everyone. I’m reminded of an early episode of the TV series Sons of Anarchy where Clay Morrow, 65-year-old leader of the SAMCRO motorcycle club—based on the Hell’s Angels gang—exchanges a look of disgust with his peers when his son Jax Teller asks whether an issue with a rival gang can possibly be resolved without resorting to violence. “What are you gonna do with this younger generation?” the look says. Kids just have different ways of going wrong.

Not surprisingly, whenever there’s a really bad idea, you can expect it to be promoted by the United Nations. Bicyclists have thus pointed to the UN’s “Agenda 21,” a land sustainability and development program, as a justification for their plans.

The Complete Streets movement is comprised of a number of clubs. Some of these, like Critical Mass, have spread worldwide, and gummed up traffic in cities as diverse as New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Toronto, Honolulu, London, Minsk, Vilnius, Porto Alegre, and Warsaw. My own city of Alexandria will face off against the local bikers at City Hall on November 25. So wish us luck and get organized before they seek to take your parking and car lanes, increase your property taxes, obstruct your Friday evening commute from work, and otherwise wreck havoc in your area.

As for the long run, I draw hope from the fact that a younger generation of cyclists is splitting off from their radical forebears. If Critical Masser Quintin Mecke is correct in his lament that the younger crowd “has decided to distance itself from the historic roots of its own community in the name of moderation, families on bikes and political expediency,” we have cause to be optimistic for the future. 

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About the Author

Esther Goldberg is a lawyer in Alexandria, Virginia.