This essay is not a rant about combative and misleading headlines, but when it comes to an orchestrated campaign to undermine one of the most well-received new bike lanes in the United States, that’s a fine place to start. Consider the story, written by Rachel Swan and published on February 3 in the San Francisco Chronicle, which was topped by a headline that has the even-handed personality of a Nextdoor tirade: “Bike lane causes traffic misery for teachers on Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.” (San Francisco’s CBS radio affiliate KCBS interviewed Swan later that day and ran with the slightly more annoying headline “The New Bike Lane on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge Makes Some Drivers Late for Work.”)
This is how efforts to build safe and convenient places for cyclists are demonized—as something that screws up the lives of motorists struggling to get somewhere important. This is how American car culture operates in 2020, when record numbers of cyclists are killed by drivers and efforts to do something about it are viewed as impractical and an attack on the driving public’s way of life.
Swan’s story is better reported than its clickbait headline might suggest, but upon close examination it reads like inadvertent propaganda. Though she name-checks the real problems plaguing miserable commuters, the central premise of her piece lends credibility to the absurd idea that the basic needs of embattled, working-class commuters are being trampled upon by people riding bikes. I presume teachers were picked as the focal point because they seem like sympathetic, unimpeachable victims, but the sources’ off-the-cuff reasons for not commuting by bike themselves (like fear of being mugged while riding an expensive e-bike) are parroted without question. To put a finer point on it, just because a few people don’t see themselves using a bike lane doesn’t demonstrate that the bike lane is a bad idea.
This sort of gullible populist journalism has become common, as many major news outlets spread anti-bike memes and the dubious mythology that bike lanes—rather than the millions of people sitting in huge metal boxes—cause traffic.
So let’s dig into some specifics. The 5.5-mile Richmond-San Rafael Bridge connects two important Bay Area communities—in the East Bay and Marin County. This contentious project is one that Bay Area cyclists have dreamed about for decades—a lifeline to connect two vast, populous, beautiful regions where riding is popular. People who don’t ride bikes often still imagine most cyclists to be recreational hobbyists, and thus underestimate the current size and potential of the transit riding community. There’s evidence from all over the U.S. (and the world) that building a quality network of safe cycling infrastructure leads to more people riding and fewer people driving—a winning combination for those who ride, those who drive, and those who are concerned about issues like climate change and public health.
As part of a four-year trial, authorities refashioned both decks of the span, which previously had been set up with two lanes for auto traffic and a breakdown lane. In the new configuration, the lower eastbound level allows three lanes of traffic during heavy commute hours and the upper westbound level has been redesigned with a protected, two-way bike lane. To be clear, the bike lane has not replaced an auto lane; it converted an empty shoulder into a long-awaited, legal conduit for riders.
In the run-up to the reconfiguration, the rhetoric on both sides was contentious; critics of the bike lane predicted only a handful of cyclists would use the bike lane. But just two weeks after the lane opened in mid-November, officials reported that roughly 10,000 riders had already crossed the span. And through the cold, wet winter months, bike commuters have continued to slog across the bridge. I’m certain that when spring comes, weekday ridership on the bridge will skyrocket. Over time, especially with the new and explosive popularity of e-bikes, the amount of bike commuting on the bridge could make a legitimate impact on auto traffic.
It’s worth noting that census data confirm that in the most populous cities on the eastern side of the bridge, between 10 to 25 percent of households don’t have a car. Car culture decrees it’s not fair for a bike-riding minority to have space to travel when motorists are stuck in traffic, but such dogma does not offer any real remedy to those who don’t have (or don’t want) a motor vehicle. Bike lanes on big bridges are equitable much like wheelchair ramps and other ADA accommodations are equitable—the point isn’t to do what’s desired by the majority but to provide fair access to everybody.
In moments when Swan's story pauses from itemizing how teachers scapegoat bike lanes, it mentions the actual causes of the ever-escalating traffic on this bridge—the same dynamics clogging traffic on highways around the country. As the Chronicle story reported, for instance, between 2010 and 2019, morning average rush-hour traffic on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge rose more than 28 percent—that’s a million more car trips per year. At the same time, there’s been little progress to build affordable housing in or near the places where teachers (and people in many other professions) work, and little or no progress to improve transit options. The focus has been on preserving a status quo that obviously isn’t working.
Let’s be frank. The congestion on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge (and roadways in every U.S. city) can really suck. But it doesn’t suck because of cyclists or bike lanes. The traffic sucks because of sprawl and cheap gas and Americans’ love of cars. The traffic sucks because cities and states don’t put enough effort into housing, carpooling, telecommuting, micromobility, and financial tools like congestion pricing (in which motorists pay a modest surcharge to use roads at busy times, a tactic that has decreased traffic in European cities). These systemic problems—less suited to cranky populist headlines—are the real cause of traffic.
Despite the coordinated groaning from people who live 20 or 30 or 40 miles from work, bike lanes are not the problem. At the core of Swan’s story, the sources she interviews complain about the impact of occasional fender benders on the bridge without a shoulder. (In one anecdote a teacher says that such problems have delayed him twice in the past three months, as if periodic delays from traffic accidents on freeways is a new plague brought on by bike lanes.) It seems stupid but essential to say this out loud: If a traffic jam forms because one motorist hits another on a bridge or runs out of gas, this is not the fault of cyclists. Likewise, if people choose or feel compelled to live far from work in a sprawling metropolis and commute in cars by themselves on roads that can’t handle the volume, the real problem is not people pedaling in a bike lane.
There are decades of research on this topic, and the only way to effectively reduce traffic is to reduce the number of cars on the road. Building more lanes always just leads to more lanes of traffic. This is not what many people wasting hours behind the wheel want to hear—they’d rather believe wider highways will solve their problems—so they view bike lanes and the people who use them as enemies. In fact, bike lanes are part of the solution.
In the end, commuters who are in bumper-to-bumper agony on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, or anyone who is paralyzed on a roadway in America, need to memorize this adage—you’re not in traffic, you are traffic.
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