Alexandria street scene. (Image credit: Wall Street Journal.)
by James A. Bacon
The bicycle wars are coming to Virginia as cyclists literally fight to take back the streets.
For decades the issue was settled — the streets belonged to automobiles, with pedestrians confined to sidewalks as second-class citizens. Bicycles didn’t figure into street design at all. But those days are over as increasingly assertive cyclists agitate to carve out space for bicycle lanes and bicycle parking.
In an op-ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, F.H. Buckley conveys a flavor of the struggle for King Street in Alexandria. The City of Alexandria has proposed taking away the street’s parking spaces to make way for a bike lane. Buckley portrays his neighbors and himself as victims of politically organized biking activists who utilize blogs and Twitter to mobilize for public protests and City Council hearings.
Homeowners feel aggrieved because they are accustomed to having free parking on their streets. “We’re really attached to our parking spot,” Buckley writes. “We like to tell our friends to drop by anytime. We don’t want to send out plumbers to park a few blocks over, on streets that are already congested.” The city’s response — get visitors a special parking permit from city hall, or hire valet parking — is not geared to sooth homeowners’ distress.
Buckley sees this local controversy, not inaccurately, a part of a “growing national movement that pits local homeowners and businesses against cyclists and their trendy allies on city councils.”
The cyclist retort is that American streets once were open to all comers — cars, pedestrians, cyclists… even horses and buggies. But in the pre-World War II era, access was increasingly restricted to cars. Over time, urban transportation arteries took on an entirely new look as street widths, lane widths, turning radii and parking spaces were configured for the exclusive care and feeding automobiles. In a highly political process, local boards and councils advanced the automobile agenda street by street. Now the wheel (so to speak) is turning.
Sad to say, the King Street bicycle controversy seems destined to get emotional because the struggle over public space is a zero-sum game — space for bicycles comes from space formerly dedicated to cars. There seems to be little room for compromise.
Personally, I am a big proponent of making urban communities more bicycle friendly. But having been an urban homeowner in a neighborhood with a parking shortage, I am also sympathetic to homeowners distraught at the prospect of losing parking spaces. Homeowners feel that they have a “right” to parking in their neighborhoods — perhaps not always directly in front of their houses, but at least within a reasonable distance. No one likes parking a block or more away and carrying home grocery bags in the rain. (My wife cited precisely that reason as justification for moving to the suburbs to a house with an attached garage.) Likewise, bicyclists don’t want to pay for access to public streets. Cars drive for free (unless you count the taxes drivers pay), why shouldn’t they?
Here is the root problem: If an asset, such as space on a public street, is publicly owned, people will fight over that space in the political arena. One group’s gain means another group loses. There is no win-win here, only win-lose.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but there has to be something than better than one side triumphing over the other through raw political power. Perhaps there is some way to convert parking spaces into a form of property that can be bought, sold, traded, bartered and even condemned through eminent domain. In an ideal world, the space would evolve to its highest and greatest use as measured by how much people are willing to pay to use it. Of course, that won’t satisfy either homeowners or cyclists who think they have a right to access that valuable urban space for free.
If we don’t find a better way, neighborhood battles over cylists’ rights to the road will get ugly and bitter, and the ill feelings engendered actually could impede what cyclists desire, which is the integration of bikes into the fabric of urban transportation. Cyclists need to remember — there are a lot more homeowners and motorists than cyclists. If the bicycle wars get too polarized, the homeowners and motorists likely will win.
Update: Tanya Snyder over at D.C. Streets Blog blasts the Buckley op-ed. “When there are too many cars for the roads in your town, the problem is that there are too many cars — not that there are too few roads. Eliminating the one sliver of roadway where people are riding bikes is not going to solve motorists’ problems.”