Mark Lamster | Essays

It’s Not (Just) About the Bikes

Let me state, emphatically, that I am a supporter of urban cycling. I grew up in Manhattan, and the bike was not only how I commuted to and from school, but how I came to learn about the city, to explore the remote areas and industrial spaces that still are a fascination to me. With a bike, I found, you could travel not just in space, but in time, back to parts of the city that seemed frozen in history. As an adult, I have been an occassional bicycle commuter. Which is all to say, I applaud the extraordinary expansion of biking infrastructure undertaken by the NYC DOT, under the leadership of Janette Sadik-Kahn.

Progressive members of the design community love cycling, and I think not just because it is a healthful and environmentally sustainable mode of transportation. Designers, I suspect, are attracted to bikes because designers love making objects—it is what they are trained to do—and the bike is an object that is simple enough that anyone can tailor it to their own specifications. It promotes engagement with itself. You can build your own. You can modify your own. And then you can go out and campaign for more biking infrastructure in your neighborhood. 
There's a class aspect at work in this interest in cycling, as well: commuting by bicycle is a lot more attractive if you can live close to your workplace, and this often means expensive real-estate that designers can afford. 

I wish designers cared as much about mass transit as they did about their bikes. We don't get very many articles in the design press about our decayed subway system, nor does there seem to be much of a galvanized movement within the design community to do anything about it. (I'm speaking here primarily about New York City.) Transportation Alternatives, a wonderful organization, bills itself as an "advocate for bicycling, walking and public transit," which seems bizarrely out of order to me. When the design (and architecture) press covers mass transit here, it's often to wax nostalgic about Massimo Vignelli's map of the system—wonderful, I admit. 

New York is never going to be Amsterdam. Commuting by bicycle may work for some people, and the more the better, but for the overwhelming majority it's not going to be a viable option most of the time. New York is a city of public transit, and that's where the vast majority of our attention should be directed. It is the single most important urban design issue facing the city and its residents. By far. More than 5.1 million rides are taken on the subway on an average weekday. Bus service adds another 2.2 million. Service cutbacks loom. Last week I renewed a Metrocard for a month. The fee was $104. The fee for renewing my driver's license for ten years? $80. Our priorities need to change. 

The problem, of course, is that fixing the subway system is not like adding a bike lane here or there. The MTA is an onerous authority with little accountability and not much accessibility. How do you interact with that behemoth? The answer is political engagement. But first we have to care. 

Comments [8]

As a long time bike mechanic, commuter, and general bike hooligan this article intrigues me. I often think of cycling as a form of finding community with both others on two wheels and the city itself. But, now I wonder if the bike is somewhat of an extension of the individualism that plagues modern life. Does public transit reinvigorate the imagination for a communal life? Isn't that what living in a city is all about: pooling resources, finding neighbors, and existing in community? There are, of course, many different factors but I wonder...
Mr. JP

Whew, Mr. Lamster, you are a brave man indeed - best be even more careful as you cross the bike lanes along the west side highway!

But it must be said: biking has about the same relationship to mass transit as private aviation does.

It works ok to get some place for the privileged few who can afford it (the bill includes the bike parking, showers upon arrival, place to change clothes or flexibility to wear your bike clothes on the job, etc.) but practically ceases to function in the dark, bad weather, or when you just don't feel like it.

Which isn't to argue against a bike infrastructure, only to place its proper perspective as, principally, a recreational pastime that has an emphasis, for many, on going fast and purchasing expensive, esoteric gear.

But to the degree that these recreational accommodations interfere with mass transit (ala bicyclists bringing their ride onto the subway, taking up the space of 6 people) and pedestrian safety (the "traffic calming" canard does not justify the permissiveness surrounding light-running or sidewalk riding) its fair to ask if the money being spent on providing and maintaining some of these recreational measures is not only unfair, but in some ways counterproductive.
Mr. Downer

Lovely article, thank you!
Mayank Bhatnagar

I sort of appreciate the sentiment, but I think you could go a lot further while you have our attention.

The NYC Department of Transportation, which handles bike infrastructure and road markings, is local, (relatively) nimble, and accountable to a (somewhat) sympathetic mayor. Transportation Commissioner Sadik-Khan is able to be innovative because, as she has said, she "can do a lot with paint." Paint is cheap, and the existing laws make it easy for her to act unilaterally.

The MTA, which handles transit, is run at the state level, is accountable to our dysfunctional bicameral state legislature, and while not perfect by any stretch, is sabotaged by politicians who misallocate money designated for transit and then blame the MTA for "mismanagement." Rail transit requires billions of dollars for most major infrastructure upgrades, but our state is also trying to close a multi-billion dollar budget deficit... try to square that circle.

You can read some great voices who advocate for transit at the links below. Many of them apply more rigorous design criticism to transit than anything I see in the design press:

http://riderrebellion.org/ (A project of Transportation Alternatives)

Then you should tell your state senator and assemblyperson that you care about this. Not sure who they are?


And then VOTE. New York State is DEAD LAST in percentage of eligible voters voting in state elections (32.1%). This makes it very easy for politicians to get away with chicanery.

Rail transit doesn't need more poets (though maybe buses could use some help), and the MTA isn't short on great, expensive ideas. (The wish list is already long... countdown clocks on the letter lines, anyone? How about climate-controlled stations? Replacement cars for the 50-year-old C train?) We also don't need a false narrative of bikes vs transit, or bikes as toys for the rich. (My anecdotal evidence contradicts your intuition… how about some data?) What transit needs is watchful reality-based voters who demand political support at the state level for the true amount of funding it requires.

Policy, government, and budgets aren't pretty to look at, and don't intuitively feel like the purview of a design blog, but if we seek public influence, we ignore them at our peril.
Andrew Sloat

andrew: thanks for elucidating the argument here, and pointing out some useful places for information on matters mta (don't forget: http://www.straphangers.org/).

i don't think i've created a false narrative here of bikes vs transit—but i do think we should be focusing more attention on the transit system. i would say transit could use a lot more poets, as poets raise awareness, and that's what fosters a climate where there's more public pressure for change.

this evening it took me 1.5 hours to commute from grand central to south brooklyn. we can do better than this.
Mark Lamster

I'm fascinated by the dialogue here. Thanks Mr. Lamster and Mr. Sloat. I learned a lot just by reading your posts.

On a different front I've been playing with the NotableBooks list at designers and books blog (http://www.designersandbooks.com/books/notable/genre/all/covers/title-asc/all) and mostly learning a lot through osmosis on how we got here in the first place in urban design and (by extension) infrastructure (so many great books on the list about the origins of 20th century urban planning/design and future possibilities).

But the one that I thought might interest you here is Michele Castagnetti's self-published book about bikes...New York Bikes


here's the author speaking on his subject...

“Since moving to New York I have found these derelict bikes to be a symbol of the city. The city takes from you as much as it gives. I feel people glancing at them and quickly thinking: that’s New York. Imagine if all the bikes tied at poles were brand new and immaculate; it wouldn’t be The City. The toll the city takes on these bikes is so visible that you cannot help but wonder about the toll on people over the years.”

Derelict bikes as metaphor for the city and its tolls on people/infrastructure ? The ravages of the city made visible in this object that extends the self? Seems to square the circle poetically--as both public and personal transportation infrastructure deteriorates against the city's hard angles and edges (we are talking about the poets here....)

Yet I also think designers (and others) turn to their bikes not only because they are objects but because they are smaller/portable/and something we can personally affect (while the MTA seems out of reach and in some ways a part of the permanent landscape) and because for most people the first taste of independence comes from their bike (I can ride anywhere...no reference to parents, peers, siblings--full disclosure that's not me--I never learned till I was in my 20s and almost never ride)...

If the derelict subways feel beyond our ability to change (and yes through political work we can though that route often seems hopeless because of the deep dysfunction we all feel even when we can't see it), we'll focus on what's closer to home and within our grasp. So much of the city is beyond us and affecting us in ways we can't really see (till made visible by a creative thinker, poet or book...)

images from New York Bikes


An image within an image: a City Bus transporting a cyclist and their bicycle across miles of streets.
Emma Howard

Jobs | April 12