How to Combat “Bikelash”? Embrace it.

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[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab]

There will always be those who are resistant to change.

These are the people who fight the Columbia Pike Streetcar despite credible evidence of its return on investment. These are the ones who use rhetoric like “war on cars” and are fond of excessive punctuation.

And lately, these are the people who write angry op-eds to their local newspaper, decrying bicyclists as out-of-control “terrorists” running roughshod over normal car-driving Americans and calling city officials who install bike infrastructure “totalitarians.” Oh, the humanity!

This phenomenon has a name: “bikelash” – a clever word used to describe the resistance and hostility some people demonstrate towards the growing presence of bicycles in their cities.

Bikelash is not always a bad thing. CityLab has said it represents a mainstreaming of the bicycle movement. But bikelash can result in some very real and detrimental outcomes, like the ongoing lawsuit to remove the Prospect Park West bike lane in New York City and the actual removal of such a lane in Toronto.

Aaron Naparstek, who founded Streetsblog, and Doug Gordon, the creator of Brooklyn Spoke, have spent time analyzing the symptoms of this phenomenon. In their “Bikelash!” presentation at this month’s CityWorks(X)po in Roanoke, Virginia, they described the rhetoric that serves as bikelash talking points:

  1. “This isn’t Amsterdam.” Or Beijing. Or Toronto. The implication of these statements are that bike advocates are un-American. Another problem with this statement is that it defines a city by what it isn’t rather than by what it is.
  2. “I’m not against bikes, but …” The disclaimer, a “pre-exemptive self-exoneration,” according to New York Times blogger Adam Sternbach, is invariably followed by the substance of the writer’s argument: that bikes and bicyclists are a menace. Gordon calls this phenomenon, “Some of my best friends are bikes.”
  3. “Nobody bikes, so we don’t need bike lanes.” Another argument fallacy, because this is like saying, nobody drives across this bridgeless river, so we don’t need a bridge. On the contrary, the well-proved theory of induced demand demonstrates that bike infrastructure results in more people biking.

To a person on the receiving end of bikelash, it’s tempting to respond reasonably, with data and facts. But as bike advocates and planners know, using logic to combat those who fight progress can be frustrating. Naparstek and Gordon said, “The minute you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

A better strategy, Naparstek and Gordon claim, is to get in front of the issues, through organization, particularly with the use of advocacy organizations. Their prescription for the treatment of bikelash:

  1. Organize and advocate. Bikelash is inherently a political fight, so organization is key. Advocacy organizations such as Transportation Alternatives in New York City, Washington Area Bicyclist Association in Washington D.C., and Bike Arlington in Mobility Lab’s back yard are essential.
  2. Highlight the problems that biking fixes. Installing bike lanes doesn’t just make the streets safer for bicyclists. Because bike lanes keep bicyclists out of the way of car drivers (and vice versa), they make the streets safer for everyone. Become an expert on the problems bike lanes address, and become adept at highlighting them.
  3. Have your own media channels. The mainstream media will sometimes focus on clickbait rather than telling the whole story. And many niche journalist beats have been lost in recent years. It’s important, therefore, to create your own media channels with high journalistic quality to get the messaging correct.
  4. Be a part of the political process. Change makers may feel this process is broken, but it’s important to be a part of it. “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re going to end up on the menu,” said Naparstek.
  5. Agree rather than argue. Replace the phrase “no, but” with “yes, and.” In this way you replace conflict with compromise, and add additional information to the discussion. This tactic will catch your opponent off-guard, and will keep the lines of dialogue open.

The spreading bikelash virus has a complicated epidemiology and unspecified origin, but the symptoms are relatively easy to spot. To learn more about ways to treat the virus, check out the short version (above) of Naparstek and Gordon’s bikelash talk on Vimeo.

Photo by Sascha Kohlmann.

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