How Bikes and Bike-Share Threaten a Way of Life

Why is so much anger directed towards cyclists? They’re the vanguard of a great—and frightening—inversion.

Rahm rides into the future.   Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

John Kass issued another anti-bike emission the other day, something I continue to find perversely fascinating. Streetsblog Chicago’s John Greenfield captured his rhetorical dispatch in all its spittle-flecked glory:

“This is the problem with the Divvy bikes, with all the bikes,” Kass says in the video. “This is a city made for people who want to go from point A to point B. This is not some Seattle coffee, grunge, pothead experiment. This is Chicago… Shut the whole Divvy bike thing down. Get off Dearborn. I’m tired of you people.”

(He doesn’t like coffee either, at least not good coffee. Or the people who make good coffee: “When I go for coffee, I want a cup of coffee. What I don’t need is some kid wearing a sweater and his shirt tails sticking out because it’s the style, pointing to a list of coffees, each of which are described sensually, in language that would have caused my mom to wash my mouth out with soap.")

“It’s like starting a war,” Kass told the Tribune’s Jennifer Weigel. In short, he belittled the “little bike people,” and was faux-horrified to get a few nastygrams from them. (When he’s politely and reasonably called out by a cyclist and dooring victim like Dustin Valenta, Kass maintains a low profile. This is the logic behind not fighting fire with fire; there’s no wet blanket like dignity.)

I don’t want to start a war; I want to get from point A to point B safely, which in many cases I can do faster on a bike, and at considerably less expense (as I was reminded by the auto shop today). Like Bill Lindeke, who wrote a brilliant piece on why conservatives should love biking, I’m always a bit faux-offended myself when conservatives look down at my self-sufficent mode-shift.

In that context, cycling is a strange target for this screamo chest-beating. (Kass: “you want to dance, let’s dance.") And I don’t think it’s just clickbait, at this point, and it’s a bit mystifying.

I got a clue, though, from outgoing CDOT comissioner Gabe Klein. Yesterday I conducted a wide-ranging interview with him; it’ll be up in a bit, but I wanted to highlight one exchange, in which Klein talks about the future of cities and suburbs:

Transportation’s going to be a problem. Cities will get so dense over the next century that you won’t be able to drive 30 miles to a job, anyway. So you’ll have to work in place.

The suburbs will densify and urbanize. When we did the 2050 plan in D.C…. D.C. was going to grow explosively by 2050. And what they figured out is that you might not be able to drive from Adams-Morgan to Fairfax for your work anymore. There won’t be enough capacity on the trains, you won’t be able to drive anywhere, because it’ll be too busy.

So what they said in their plan is that more people are going to work in place, produce their own energy and food in place, and basically neighborhoods are going to become little mini-cities again. Like they used to be.

What’s interesting, as we re-urbanize and densify, and the technology continues to escalate, I think the irony is that we might end up more where we started.

Do you think this feeds into the pushback we’re getting for funding urban transit in Congress? You have a lot of rural and exurban congressmen who are seeing population loss in suburbs.


They’re scared. They’re seeing what happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s in cities happen in their suburbs. They’re seeing McMansions boarded up, and homeless people living in them. They’re seeing people fleeing the suburbs back to the cities, massive amounts of foreclosures. Not everywhere, but this is a pattern that we’re seeing, and it scares them.

Whether that is leading to their support or not support for cities I don’t know, but that certainly makes some sense that it could be part of the problem.

I’m skeptical that Klein’s predictions will come to full fruition, but his job is contingency planning, and he has to extrapolate out from existing trends. And if you live in the suburbs, like Kass, it’s a hell of a thing to be told: that suburbanites, at least those with means, are returning to cities; that the suburbs themselves are coalescing around new-urbanist downtowns and, in the process, linking those suburbs to the big cities many residents fled along mass transit lines.

Klein’s hardly the only person saying it, and consider the future it portends for suburbanites, especially the well-off:

This is why Alan Ehrenhalt called his recent book The Great Inversion: what’s happening now is as much about people with money leaving the suburbs for the cities as it is about people without money moving to those suburbs. The suburbs aren’t being abandoned, but in places like Atlanta and Houston—where suburbs are growing fast—they’re increasingly becoming places for low-wage workers and new immigrants.

And transit is at the dead center of this shift, perhaps literally—in 2012, economists from Berkeley and Oregon State argued that rising gas prices popped the housing bubble, as the quick, steep mid-2000s increase pushed families past their financial breaking points, forcing them to reconsider or involuntarily abandon long, expensive commutes.

All this sounds like a nightmare scenario if you live in the suburbs. Gas prices rise and housing prices fall, eating into liquid capital and equity. Families with the ability to move return back to the city, depressing housing prices even further. Declining property tax revenues and a fleeing upper-middle-class undermine previously excellent schools. At best, suburbanites take a huge hit on depreciating houses; at worst, they’re stranded in decaying neighborhoods, cut off by isolating new infrastructure.

If you grew up in Chicago from the 1950s onward, it will look familiar. It’s probably why you moved to the suburbs in the first place, and the city still bears the scars of that flight. A great—and rapid—inversion is a fearsome possibility.

That’s where I see an undercurrent of Millennial resentment (we’ll spot Kass a decade or so on “grunge;” when you’re out across the county line, the news travels slower). The boomers escaped cities in decline, investing sweat equity earned in office parks into a house and two cars, the gas taxes they paid into epic interchanges, and their high property taxes into excellent schools.

And the little bastards who went to those excellent schools don’t want that inheritance. They want to ride their car shares from their rented apartments to mass transit, making the last-mile commute on shared bikes (they don’t even own bikes!) to virtual startups in work-share spaces.

From the perspective of postwar America, it looks like a whole lot of nothing, an unsettled and rootless future. Where they’re going, they don’t need… roads.

Again, I’m skeptical. A lot of policy has to follow to make Ehrenhalt’s vision, much less Klein’s, a reality. Cities have to claim a greater share of declining federal infrastructure money; urban schools have to attract Millenial children while keeping housing prices from driving them back out to the suburbs, no small feat for a system funded by property taxes and shrinking under austere budgets.

But it’s the future we’re being promised by a lot of people in position to make it happen, who threaten to reverse—to invert—what their parents spent a lifetime building. It’s scary, and not just on a merely economic level. And the people out there who are so angry about it aren’t just trying to outrun a few three-speed, step-through shared bikes; they’re trying to outrun the future, and you’re in the way.

 

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comments
8 months ago
Posted by cza

I don't bother reading Kass these days, but from the quotes he seems to be trundling along the well-worn path laid down by fellow proud dinosaurs Jack Lait, Lee Mortimer, and Steve Dahl. How soon do you think we'll see him leading Divvy Demolition at the Cell?

8 months ago
Posted by ktown

so this is why i nearly get mauled over by at least 17 cars while biking to work at a local coffee shop, then make about 8 bucks in tips over 6 hours. dicks.

8 months ago
Posted by brianfmorrissey

Two points:

Kass isn't a conservative. He's a reactionary. As is everyone who flippantly passes a cyclist too close or complains about them rolling redlights, even as they speed and text. Your last paragraph sums this up perfectly. The anti-bike backlash isn't about philosophies or politics - you can't argue with the numbers, and the growth in cycling and transit at the expense of the suburbs is at its heart an epochal market shift - it's about petulant, sociopathic reaction.

The part about Klein's vision that I am skeptical about is the inference of continued growth as urban areas redensify, as the slow diffusion from them reverses as our parents generation dies. As long as there's been economic theory, growth has always been pegged to energy use. And as we use less of it - sharing bikes, sharing cars, sharing living and working spaces - we're going to be producing, buying, and selling a lot less stuff. Generating less profit, paying off few loans - which pay for new growth - generating less capital to make new loans.

And that's fine. But the End of Growth will be painful for everyone. Deadly even, for perhaps billions of people. It's inevitable. And that's everyone is so scared of - even though they don't it yet.

8 months ago
Posted by brianfmorrissey

Simply put, suburbia doesn't work when oil costs $100+ a barrel. That's exactly why the bubble burst in 2008.

8 months ago
Posted by Jym Dyer

☼ While many people honestly do think their sweat equity built the suburbs and their gas taxes built their highways, it's not actually true. The "white flight" era was funded with a combination of tax incentives and outright subsidy, and the wealth for that came disproportionately from cities. All this spread-out infrastructure is very expensive to maintain, of course, and when those bills started to pile up, those with means moved even further out (or came back to the city as gentry). Property taxes are actually generally higher in cities, too.

Of course, those who lucked into their privilege are usually the ones most vehement in their insistence that they earned it.

7 months ago
Posted by Hithere

How dare millenials want to use a mode of transportation that is cheaper, environmentally friendly, and healthy. They even want to, god forbid, share transportation. Next thing they'll want is high speed rail. Socialism!

7 months ago
Posted by jchyland

today, with all that snow. just looking out from my highrise at kinzie street. at 10 a.m. the bike lane plow was in progress while my daughter was driving on kingsbury and larabee heading to Lincoln park and had not been plowed yet. dah.

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