Sharing is Hard

We often work out proxies for fairness; you buy the drinks, I’ll pay for dinner. That’s what bike lanes are — proxies to enable a division of historically shared resources. No wonder they cause debate, because sharing is hard.

This is a longer, expanded version of a short op/ed that appeared in the New York Daily News on Sunday, October 4, 2015.

We humans are not naturally skilled at sharing. It’s a fact known to anyone who has ever had to split a check, share a bathroom or divvy up rent and utilities. We often work out proxies for fairness; you buy the drinks, I’ll pay for dinner.  Or in particularly contentious negotiations, we fall back on masking tape applied to the carpet to divide the living room.  In the most potentially-fraught battleground, yellow post-it notes mark ownership in the office mini fridge.

In the same way, painted reminders, “share the road” signs, crosswalks and protected bicycle lanes are imperfect but necessary proxies for attempts to share a common resource: our streets.

Downtown street, Seattle Washington
Downtown street, Seattle Washington

Streets are for everyone, not just cars, trucks and buses. But when Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg announced last month that the city had hit a historic mark — 1,000 miles of bike lanes across the five boroughs — the anti-bicycle fireworks commenced.

In fact, the city was celebrating something slightly less impactful: not 1,000 miles of bike lanes, but 1,000 miles of bike network access, including 247 miles of city streets sporting only the occasional sign marking them as a bike routes. This meant that fully a quarter of the mileage consists only of “Shared and Signed Routes,” meaning regular city streets with signs or painted arrows.  These are not actually lanes, and hardly constitute a territorial land-grab. In fact, only a third of the total consisted of protected bike lanes, where parked cars or physical barriers shelter people who bike from people driving.  

Newly installed sharrows — not a lane, but would have been counted toward NYC’s 1,000 mile total.

The distinction, carefully made in the press release, was quickly lost. The caricature of bike lanes overtaking the city’s streets proved too good a hook, triggering the usual comment battles, Facebook rants and accusations of a war on drivers.

This overreaction is unsurprising. Re-introducing bikes in the 21st century has proven incredibly contentious. Los Angeles recently announced a sweeping plan to promote mobility for all, triggering political fights and promises of lawsuits.

Boulder, Colo., installed bike lanes on one major street this year, only to immediately backtrack in the face of driver unrest and immediately plan to rip them out.

The list of New York’s conflicts is breathtaking: Williamsburg, Prospect Park West, Times Square and basically all of Staten Island have seen backlash against new infrastructure. Each announcement that biking, walking or transit seems to be laying new claim to a piece of the physical roadway triggers an outsized response.

I believe that it’s not that important that the city now has 1,000 miles of bike lanes of one form or another. It’s far more important that it possesses 6,000 miles of streets and highways — all of which should function as shared public resources.

For millennia, humanity’s public roads have been a common resource shared between many different, sometimes conflicting, needs. The famously-engineered roads of the Roman empire were enshrined in civil law so that people walking, riding horses or guiding oxcarts were protected for the good of commerce.

In early modern Britain, the King’s Highway was granted legal easement on other’s property rights only when it permitted the free movement of all users. That common-law protection came to 18th and 19th century American streets, which were legally used as marketplaces, playgrounds, droveways, public squares, venues of protest, trolley car lines, freightways, promenades and thoroughfares.

While municipal code regulated them, the city streets were broadly recognized as shared spaces, without much infrastructure to divide users — no center line, painted lanes or signs directing behavior. Sidewalks were the nineteenth-century exception, built to raise pedestrians out of the unpaved and befouled streets.

Increasingly crowded 19th-century New York City pioneered ways to control the competing users of this public space in the early 20th century. The booming popularity of automobiles was seen as a terrifying crisis. City busybody William Phelps Eno suggested in his 1909 “Street Traffic Regulation” that standardized road signs, lane widths and enforcement could help.

William Phelps Eno, creating and promoting a professionalized concept of traffic control.
William Phelps Eno, creating and promoting a professionalized concept of traffic control.

Painted lanes appeared by the 1930s. But whatever the design implied, they were not a territorial claim of that part of the road for the car; they were an attempt to control unruly automobile traffic. The entire width was still to be shared between different users, just in a more rational and controlled way.

Bike lanes and routes do not represent encroachments on a space that is supposed to be exclusive provenance of the automobile. They are imperfect reminders of the underlying historical reality of this inherently shared space.

— James Longhurst is associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and author of “Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road.”