The bike revolution and its backlash
The bike wars are still at fever pitch, with mayoral candidates tripping over themselves in the rush to reverse some of Mayor Bloomberg’s pro-cyclist policies.
A lawsuit against the city over a bike lane along Prospect Park captured international attention and turned well-heeled Park Slopers against one another. And even though the rubber hasn’t yet met the road, New York’s new Citi Bike bike-share program has already sparked a backlash.
We should not be surprised. The rise of bike culture in New York is typical of an insurgency — and the backlash is a quintessential counterinsurgency.
A new study I published in the journal Theory in Action makes the case. I interviewed dozens of city officials, residents and cyclists and pored over letters sent to City Hall. I found a pattern that’s typical of how resistance movements rise, mature, take power — and then themselves become targets of resistance.
In the beginning, social change is championed by underdogs, a group of aggrieved citizens motivated by an ideology. In this case, they’re cyclists challenging the hegemonic influence of the automobile. Whatever territory the movement controls — paths, lanes — is jealously guarded.
Then, we see a radical fringe of “spoilers” who refuse to obey the rules of the game (like stop signs), aggressively lobby for increased rights and adopt the warlike language of revolutions.
Indeed, diehard cyclists have their own insular subculture, an unacknowledged yet almost religiously followed set of shared beliefs, practices and symbols.
Just biking in the city, a place built for driving and walking, is an implicit form of resistance, a kind of performance-as-protest. “Bicycling,” writes Jeff Mapes in the book “Pedaling Revolution,” “once seen as a simple pleasure from childhood, has become a political act.”
This kind of solidarity is reinforced by cyclists’ sense of exclusion, as well as by the biases of noncyclists. Opponents of cyclists are painted as “haters” and tools of big corporations.
Add it all up, and the result is a near-religious devotion to the bike: “I really think I’m doing God’s work,” a biker told The New Yorker in 2006.
But here’s the crucial turn in our story: Amazingly, cyclists have emerged in recent years as the establishment.
The bike lobby has steadily grown in influence. Bloomberg, the ultimate establishment figure, is its figurehead. Many high-powered lawmakers either commute to work by bike or identify as pro-cyclist. (Perfectly symbolizing all this, new bike-share kiosks are emblazoned with Citibank logos.)
At the click of a mouse, cycling advocates can organize a flash mob. When, for instance, a councilman from Queens proposed requiring cyclists to register their bikes, his office was deluged with 4,800 faxes from angry cyclists. (He rescinded the idea.)
Such success has triggered an increasingly vocal countermovement that seeks to roll back cyclists’ rights. These reactionary counterinsurgents are as passionate as the insurgents. They invoke conservative rhetoric and paint their opponents as threats to their traditional way of life.
Very similar dynamics play out abroad. Take Iraq, where the overreach of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a radical wing of the Sunni insurgency, triggered a backlash among local Iraqis that successfully mobilized to push them out of Anbar and other provinces. In places like Tunisia, initial revolutions have given rise to conservative counterrevolutions, which have further inflamed passions and fractured their societies.
Yes, violence makes a difference. But insurgencies — whether peaceful or not, whether about transportation on urban streets or sectarian control of a country — follow patterns, and so do their equal and opposite reactions.
With New York about to be bombarded by thousands of new bicyclists, expect the fight to be protracted — and messy.
Lionel Beehner is a Truman Security Fellow. This article originally appeared on NY Daily News.