The announcement is making the rounds.
A Minnesota city making a heralded list of 20 Most Bike-friendly Cities on the Planet has now made news on Wired.com, Minnesota newspapers, and on my Facebook feed.
As I saw Facebook friends sharing the article, I thought about why they did so and why in the excited manner in which they did.
One senses out there in the social ether an unconditional support for biking. Many of these folks will tout the health and environmental benefits. But generally, such benefits aren’t the reason for bike-friendliness. They are justifications they come up with after the fact.
There exists a predisposition to cheer for biking. This is because, for many, biking isn’t about biking. Biking is a proxy for that which humans are susceptible: hype, myth, and morality tales of good vs. evil. One of these in the US is the myth that cars are evil and bikes are good. Thus, anything we can do to help bikes–more paths or bike riding programs or any bike lists we can make–is a win irrespective of the cost or inconvenience to the majority of people who don’t bike.
According to the US census bureau, less than 5% of people in Minneapolis bike. According to some recent numbers from the University of Minnesota, that number is just over 9%.
This isn’t insignificant, but biking progress doesn’t seem to warrant the attention it gets. What about lists on “car friendliness?” Way more people drive, roads are more vital to our modern existence, and traffic is a much bigger problem than a lack of bike lanes.
But biking has a become a symbol, and people respond to symbols in binary. (This has a flip side, of course: those who don’t like the symbol. This reaction equally flies in the face of reason, but “anti-bikers” aren’t trendy or significant these days.) I’d like to see fewer people caught up in this dichotomy. Pro-bikers draw the ire of a reactive anti-biking movement. Vice versa. They feed off each other as people in arguments do.
Off to the side, we can see that biking truly is great. There are indeed health and environmental benefits, and it’s fun. It’s just not as important to society as a whole as everyone seems to think. (If you’re truly concerned about environmental health, you should be cheering on Tesla and other electric car makers.)
We should become conscious of bike hype–not because bikes are bad, but because any such lack of awareness opens the doors of bad decision-making. And ultimately, people can suffer–or at least not as much good will be done as could be.
Are the millions spent each year on bike paths in a city like Minneapolis the best way the city could spend this money? A reasonable assessment may agree. But blindly supporting any cause can come at the expense of more pressing needs. Yet if the Minneapolis mayor would reduce bike spending, you can bet that headlines would read “Mayor Cutting Support for Bikers” in the same way that calls to reign in school spending result in “Mayor Reducing Support for Schools,” and people gasp at the audacity of hurting children.
Such thinking is an open door to waste.