Searching for Truth in a Bike Lane

Searching for Truth in a Bike Lane

Evan Wedsworth


The freedom of movement would seem to be a fundamental human right, judging by the Gazette’s Community Discussion, “Battle of the Bike Lanes.”  A snappy title for a snappy issue, evidenced by the crowd’s reaction. A panel of five debated the merits of the bike lanes added to Cascade Ave while the crowd teetered between polite civility and rowdy dissent.  And although everyone in the room could agree that ideas like “safety” and “data” are important, how we measure such things is up for interpretation. Truth, in the bedrock sense, is hard to find when it comes to transportation.

The issue at hand was, essentially, are bike lanes and other road dieting measures good for us?  Whether on Cascade or throughout the city, changing our streets digs at private, deeply-held convictions.  Even though each of the panel (and the public, presumably) has access to the same pile of facts, these facts serve at emotion’s whim.  Data are supposedly objective, but here they’re just the rational tail on the emotional dog.

Depending on your position, the fact that 0.7% of commuters use bikes either means we need to expand our current bike network or that we need to stop inconveniencing the other 99.3%.  The fact that average speeds are down on Cascade means the bike lanes are succeeding; the fact that traffic on Nevada has increased means they’re failing. The fact that Pittsburgh has revitalized itself with a bike plan means we should follow that path; the fact that Seattle has only seen bike commuting decrease means we shouldn’t.  The buffered nature of the lanes and the 15% bump in riders on Cascade shows that cycling is safe; the fact that roughly 25% of traffic fatalities in 2017 were cyclists (again, even though those cyclists make up less than 1% of all commuters) shows that it’s not.

On the panel, Edward Snyder of Restore Our Roads framed the argument in more of a “it’s not what you did, it’s how you did it” sentiment.  “I’m not arguing we shouldn’t do it...but to suggest that just by throwing bike lanes out there and adding bike infrastructure you’re going to get people to bike is not correct.  And the city’s own plans show this.” Based on the timbre of muttering in the crowd, the citizens in Studio Bee that night were split evenly on yays and nays to his view. Corey Sutela of Bike COS disagreed, citing studies and public meetings done before adding the bike lanes.  “I want to refer to the recently released Planned COS document, passed unanimously by the council, following 270 public meetings...It was a process with extensive public input...and really strongly directs us toward preparing for the future.” Cue more muttering.

Tim Roberts, the city transportation manager and winner of the Mr Congeniality award at the bike lane battle, reiterated that transportation is a briar patch.  “This can be a challenging task. We have to navigate political waters, we have to make decisions with opposing views, and you can see just how controversial and just how intimate transportation is to everybody and their livelihood.”  Arguing over bike lanes means arguing over the city’s future and identity. Each person has an anecdotal experience that might pale in comparison traffic statistics, but the transportation problem can’t be resolved with logic alone when anecdotes feel sacred.  One individual’s emotional experience as a commuter can outweigh years of study. If you’re opposed, arguments about slower average speeds along residential roads hold no water compared to the frustration of single lane roads when you’re trying to get downtown. If you’re for, no stacking of the minority of cyclists against the vast majority of drivers will change the relief of sailing along in a protected bike lane.  

I went to the Community Discussion thinking that someone would present data that would reveal the truth.  Such-and-such study shows that bike lanes are ultimately good for us. But, listening to the crowd boo and hiss, break out with internal arguments, and generally ripple with the kind of frisson I associate with a church ceremony, I realized that this kind of truth doesn’t exist.  The objective is at the mercy of the subjective. Battling over the city’s future depends less on what we know then on what we believe.

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