The Wall Street Journal v. Bicycles

by Benjamin Studebaker

New York City has recently started up a bicycle program, similar to the ones that already exist in many European cities like Paris or London. However, the Wall Street Journal is none too pleased. They made a video, which you can find here. The video makes some rather odd claims.

Here’s are the most relevant bits, for those of you who can’t watch internet videos or don’t wish to:

Do not ask me to enter the mind of the totalitarians running this government of the city. Look, I represent the majority of citizens, the majority of citizens in this city are appalled by what has happened, and I would like to say to people who don’t live in New York that this means something much more than the specifics of this dreadful program. It means envision what happens when you get a government that is run by an autocratic mayor or other leader and a government before which you are helpless. We now look at a city whose best neighborhoods are absolutely begrimed, is the word, by these blazing blue Citibank bikes, all the  finest most picturesque parts of the city. It is shocking to walk around the city, to see how much of this they have sneaked under the radar in the interests of the environment…

Before this it was dangerous, before this every citizen knew, who was in any way sentient, that the most important danger in the city was not the yellow cabs, it was the bicyclists, who veer in and out of the sidewalk, empowered by the city administration with the idea that they are privileged because they are helping, they are part of all of the good, forward-looking things…

We have a mayor who is a practiced denier…

If the mayor had had any guts, he would have undertaken a study and said ‘What do we think?’…but he knew, he knew that they were against it. The bike lobby is an all-powerful enterprise, but even without it, even without this ideology, the mayor’s stamp on this city, which he intends to leave, is permanent, unless an enterprising new mayor undertakes to redig all of the streets and preserve our traffic patterns, and this is a serious matter. The fact that the city is helpless before the driven person and ideological passions of its leader in the interests allegedly of the good of the city. This can take many forms but we’ve seen the most dramatic exposition of this in our city.

The mayor in question is, of course, Michael Bloomberg, who has a history of undertaking nudge policies to improve public health or reduce the city’s environmental footprint. New York is not the first American city to emulate London or Paris, however, and it won’t be the last. Washington DC already has a bike-sharing program, and Chicago and San Francisco both plan to initiate programs in their respective cities this summer. The rationale? At present, 40% of trips undertaken in American cities are over distances of 2 miles or less, but 90% of those short journeys are taken in cars. If a substantial portion of those short trips were converted from cars to bicycles, several advantages stick out:

  1. Improved health for the new bicyclists.
  2. Reduced carbon emissions for the city as a whole.
  3. Improved traffic flow for both bicyclists and drivers.

Of course, it’s very true that traffic laws need to apply to bicyclists as well, that bicyclists need to be aware both of what the laws are and of what is considered polite behavior, and that, in some cases, some bicyclists have been known to sneak up on people without alerting them to their presence, to swerve among lanes, or to make other dangerous maneuvers. However, it is unreasonable to tar all bicyclists with the same brush, just as it would be unreasonable to do the same to motorists. And, while improved manners from bicyclists as a group is desirable, it does not in itself provide any reason why bicycling should not be encouraged, or, at minimum, provided for by cities that experience traffic difficulties.

Of course, the WSJ goes well beyond pointing out the need to better enforce traffic laws for bicyclists. It strays into the territory of accusing Bloomberg of totalitarianism merely for putting the bicycles there in the first place. Bloomberg is not an autocrat and the people of New York are not “helpless” against him. He is not Kim Jong-un, Bashar al-Assad, or some other variety of nefarious boogie man. New York has a mayoral election in November, and Bloomberg is limited by a term limit and cannot run again. Even if New Yorkers had no immediate recourse to an election, if they hated these bikes they could take to the streets, the courts, any number of venues and demand an end to the bicycle program. They could probably storm Bloomberg’s house and have his head on a spike tomorrow, if they wished it. There are an awfully large number of New Yorkers, and they’re presumably reasonably deadly when roused to violence. Or, as a somewhat less violent means of protest, they could take the Citibank bicycles and dump them in the East River. The city does not have enough police to stop them, if they really wanted to. The fact of the matter is that New Yorkers are not under totalitarianism here. They have many options, they’ve just decided not to exercise them, either because they like the bike program or don’t hate it enough to do anything about it. For the WSJ to compare a bike sharing program to autocracy is beyond unreasonable. It’s bordering on madness.

So why did I draw your attention to this madness? The WSJ has gotten continuously more emotive, more rage-filled, and less rational since its acquisition by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in 2007. There are many cases in which its irrationality is difficult for a lay person to pick up on, because it refers to complex issues of macroeconomics, the federal budget, or what have you. What I wish to make clear is that if the WSJ is comfortable tossing around words like “autocrat” and “totalitarian” in reference to a bike program, its hysteria likely spreads elsewhere. When the WSJ raves about debt and deficits, when it rages against stimulus, when it attempts to fear-monger about inflation or bond vigilantes, it is engaging in the same kind of behavior it engages in here. To a competent person familiar with any of the economic issues the WSJ frequently references,  the views they express on those broader, more complicated issues are just as silly, just as ridiculous, as the view they’ve expressed here about bicycles. They are unworthy of the trust that is still placed in them on the basis of a reputation they formerly possessed but make no effort to maintain. Their standards are low, their tendency to hyperbole great. When engaging in the dangerous and potentially disinforming task of reading the WSJ, question what passes for fact or sound argument within its pages.