“Bikelash” is a snappy little word that names a condition quite familiar to anyone who’s been following the politics of city streets in the United States over the past few years. It describes the resistance and hostility that the increasing presence of bikes on city streets sometimes produces in people who don’t ride bikes. That hostility can take many forms: drivers who honk and throw trash at people on two wheels, talk radio hosts inveighing against “the tyranny of the bike cult,” politicians (looking at you, Rob Ford) who remove bike infrastructure to theoretically ease the way for cars.
An early (hyphenated) use of the word shows up in The New Republic atop a 2010 discussion of the push for more active transportation infrastructure by then-secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation Ray LaHood. But the term really gained traction in 2011, when New York magazine used it on a cover for a story about anti-bike sentiment in the city.
That feature focused on a lawsuit seeking to remove a protected bike lane bordering Prospect Park in Brooklyn. (The plaintiffs, a group paradoxically called Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes, are still pressing their case in the courts despite numerous defeats, an analysis by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight showing that the lane has not caused tie-ups for car traffic, and lots of cute kids who enjoy pedaling there in safety.)
NBBL’s quixotic legal quest became emblematic of the animosity some New Yorkers felt toward a Department of Transportation, then headed by commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, that systematically took street space away from cars and gave it to bicyclists and pedestrians. In that conversation, people on bikes were monolithically cast as law-breaking, dangerous, selfish, and out of touch with ordinary New Yorkers.
The word “bikelash” caught on, like any useful meme, and since then people writing about cities as far-flung as Seattle, Philadelphia, Columbus, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., have used it. Advocates Aaron Naparstek and Doug Gordon gave a humorous presentation on “Moving Beyond Bikelash!” at the 2014 National Bike Summit this past spring. It advised those encountering bikelash to “be gracious toward your opponents.” Arrogance, the presenters suggested, is not a great tactic, nor is anti-car vitriol.
Now Clarence Eckerson of Streetfilms has made a video interviewing bike advocates from around the country at this year's Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place conference, held earlier this month in Pittsburgh, about their response to bikelash. The consensus seems to be that bikelash is an inevitable part of the evolution of bicycle transportation in North America, a phase that most be gotten through with patience and positivity. (I would argue this should also be done through compliance with existing traffic laws, even when they don’t always make sense for people on bikes.)
Samantha Ollinger of San Diego’s BikeSD says she often responds to people expressing anti-bike sentiment by urging them to remember riding bikes when they were kids. “Everyone has typically a very positive association with their first ride,” she says. “So once you get people in that space, when they’re thinking about what it was like to ride as a kid, you’ve got them primed and ready and willing to listen to your message.”
Kit Keller, executive director of the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, says that bikelash is part of the cycle that happens along with any big societal shift. “We say there are three stages of social change,” says Keller. “Ridicule, violent opposition, and then acceptance. And sometimes there’s a fourth stage, too, where someone who has been opposed to it from the beginning will say, ‘Oh, that was such a great idea, I was really for it from the start.’ And it makes all of us giggle and be happy, and we just go on doing good work.”
“Bikelash, I think, a little counterintuitively, is a great thing to be dealing with,” says Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. “It’s a high-class problem to have. Because it means that we’re actually making a difference. It means we’re actually forcing difficult decisions in a good way, in a constructive way, on communities as they decide what they’re going to look like in the future.”