Paradox: bikes cause protests but help politicians to win an election

    27 Nov 2021

    Cycle paths are considered dangerous. A politician who dares to take away even an inch of land from motorists in favor of cycling runs the risk of losing the next election with a bang. In reality, oddly enough, the opposite is true: unpopular measures make mayors popular.

    Former New York City Transport Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and a former press secretary for her department take stock of the election campaigns of the past years and make a clear conclusion: Cyclists are winning.

    This text was published in The Guardian. The author uses the English word “bikelash” a couple of times, meaning loud discontent with the emergence of bike paths.

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    Every politician knows the word “bikelash.” From Milan to London, from Sydney to Vancouver, the redistribution of space in favor of pedestrians and cyclists inevitably arouses righteous anger among some citizens. But here’s the surprising thing: mayors who initiate large-scale urban redevelopment projects receive support from voters over and over again, and are even supported by an overwhelming majority. It is believed that such initiatives can ruin a political career, but in reality, they turn out to be beneficial not only for cities, but also for politicians themselves.

    The mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, who at the beginning of the pandemic gave 22 thousand m2 of roads for the creation of 38 new areas and 35 km of bicycle roads, was elected for a new term in early October. As a result of the reallocation of space, half of the 1.35 million Milanese now live within walking distance of the new public space. Some residents, concerned about the loss of parking and the narrowing of the roadway, strongly opposed the measures, but in the end, Milan’s voters rewarded Sala with 56% of the vote.

     “Parking is easy to argue about,” says Sala. “But it’s hard to dispute the importance of a new urban space filled with people and trade, emerging where there was nothing before. We must act in the interests of the environment and sustainable development by offering people something they can see, feel and use.”

    Next month, mayors of two cities in North America – Mike Duggan in Detroit and Valerie Plant in Montreal – will test whether their constituents support pedestrian and cyclist-friendly policies.

    London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has paved 260 km of new cycle routes in the city, was re-elected for a second term in May. Faced with an adversary who openly opposed projects to develop cycling and pedestrian space, the Labor Mayor won 55% of the vote in the second round.

    Last year, Paris voters elected a second-term socialist mayor Anna Hidalgo, who has radically changed the urban landscape before and during the pandemic. Thanks to Hidalgo, the golden age of cycling began in Paris – she built hundreds of kilometers of bike paths, in particular, ensured the priority of buses and bicycles on the Rue de Rivoli, and gave pedestrians the former highway on the right bank of the Seine. Active opposition and protests from drivers did not affect the outcome of the elections: in the second round, Hidalgo won with a difference of 18% of the vote.

    The city council re-elected Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau in 2019. During her first term, she expanded her cycling network and created a “superblock” system – a network of routes with outdoor furniture and playgrounds to calm traffic and create public space. She and her government more than doubled the bicycle network, taking 30,000 m2 of streets from cars.

    In the same 2019, the Oslo City Council re-elected Marianne Borgen as Mayor, who removed most of the parking spaces in the city center to reduce environmental pollution.

    Clover Moore, from Sydney, had already been re-elected three times, although many were unhappy with her cycling development program; now, she is preparing to fight for a fifth term. Ron Huldai was re-elected by Tel Aviv voters, thanks in part to his initiatives to develop cycling and walking.

    They determine the outcome of the elections. Of course, street reconstruction requires politicians to be able to convey their ideas to citizens. Still, ultimately experience shows that people quickly adapt to changes, and all predictions about an imminent transport collapse and the imminent demise of business do not come true.

    The authors of this article have experienced this firsthand as New York’s Commissioner for Transportation and Department spokesman for Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who won his third term in 2009 – just months after pedestrianizing Times Square and Broadway, and built 322 km of bike paths.

    The city dwellers like the improvement of the street space. In a 2013 Bloomberg-era New York Times poll, 72% of New Yorkers supported the creation of pedestrian plazas, 73% supported the city’s new bike rental system, and 64% supported bike lanes. If these percentages were votes in an election, bicycles and pedestrian areas would be unconditionally elected mayor.

    As new projects become part of the daily life of the city, it turns out that everything is not at all as scary as it seemed at first. Research in New York, London, Toronto, San Francisco, and other American cities has shown that pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure increases retail sales by making streets and shops along them more pedestrian-, cyclist-, and public transit-friendly.

    In Detroit, Duggan hopes to receive similar support after he pioneered the most significant construction of protected bike paths in the United States and created a network of plazas and walking trails in the city center. Planté, who expects to be re-elected as mayor of Montreal on November 7, is opposed by Denis Coderra, who criticized her policies to improve cycling infrastructure. Critics say that Plante has lost touch with the townspeople, but even her opponent cautiously promises not to touch the “signature” cycle lane on rue Saint-Denis.

    Baiklash can be so grueling that even journalists get tired of writing about bike lanes as “controversial” projects. Summing up a decade of controversy, the Toronto-based Globe and Mail ask, “Is the war on bike lanes finally over?” Perhaps not quite yet, but the authors of the text agreed that cycle paths “have ceased to be a hot spot and an ideological indicator, having turned into an ordinary urban infrastructure.”

    The text also states: “The controversy over cycle paths is over. They are becoming what they were supposed to be: the usual way of getting around our cities.” Moreover, they become the usual way to win elections.

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    One day we’ve asked a question: why do city inhabitants need these bike paths and sidewalks? And we’ve compiled some answers here!

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