Sometimes I imagine myself as a real Tribune columnist, sitting in front of a window overlooking Michigan Avenue, looking down at the people scurrying by.
When it comes time to write a column, I just pull out a high-powered scope from a sniper’s rifle and start scanning the street for my next target. From my lofty perch I can spot city workers, beat cops, executives, trophy wives, students, vets, the homeless, mom’s pushing strollers, city politicians, state officials, cabbies, bus drivers, cyclists - whoever happens to be out. One by one as they come into my crosshairs, I'm obliged to squeeze the trigger – all in the name of a clever column, mind you.
As an added bonus, I would be able to hide my true passive-aggressive nature by referring to my work as satire.
I, too, could take an exaggerated position on an issue – any issue, really – and stoke the fire that’s smoldering in the embers of the average Joe’s consciousness. I could provoke cries of outrage and solicit high fives without doing anything more than typing on a keyboard.
It would be great to be paid money to be an instigator.
But it’s even better to forgo the cash and be the provider of actual solutions.
In yesterday’s column by John Kass, Introducing bike tolls and the Rahm-PASS, we saw yet another snipe at city cyclists. It contained the usual tripe – charges of elitism and widespread lawbreaking – and leveled a new allegation – welfare recipient. Kass has determined that the $4.7 million spent on 34 miles of bike lanes (his figures) is just another example of a politician taking care of a special interest group at the expense of all the hard-working taxpayers in the city.
At first glance, I can see how it might appear that way.
After all, we’re so used to seeing motorists receive the bulk of federal, state, and local tax dollars that we forget that they are actually a special interest group themselves. Revenues collected through fuel taxes and licenses fall far short of covering the cost of infrastructure maintenance and traffic enforcement, not to mention all the external environmental costs borne by society.
Kass’ carefully couched argument is that city cyclists are getting a free ride. Calls for licenses, licensing of riders, parking fees, stop sign camera-generated tickets, and street tolls are offered only half-jokingly as suggestions for recouping the cost of improving bicycling infrastructure. He’s floating a value-added tax – a tax on users that everyone should find fair – under the guise of satire.
What Kass fails to acknowledge is the basis for the investment in bicycling infrastructure. It’s done not merely to endear the Mayor to East and West Coast hipsters for future political gain. It’s a well thought-out plan to conserve fuel, reduce congestion, lessen road wear, and improve air quality.
While any of us can joke and call it the Field of Dreams strategy – "if you build it, they will come" – statistics from cities across the world that have implemented this type of urban plan show that investments in complete streets consistently yield across-the-board savings for taxpayers as more residents take up bicycling.
But as I said, it’s easier to take potshots at stereotypical citizens who are making a positive contribution than to publicly support their activities.
It’s easier to paint urban cyclists as “politically coddled” and the “One Percenters of the Commuter Class” than encourage more people to join their ranks.
It’s much more fun to start a bar fight and slink off into the corner to watch the melee than it is to keep tensions from flaring in the first place.
So much of today's politics involves pitting reasonable people against one another and profiting while they lose their cool and beat one another bloody. Almost always, it's a distraction from the true issues we face and a means for ensuring that no compromise will ever be reached. Perfect examples include abortion, gay marriage, and immigration reform. None involve a bipartisan solution for improving the economy, yet they engage and enrage us to the point that we forget about the biggest problem facing America.
City cycling, on the other hand, is a fiscally prudent investment that will not only lower taxpayer costs in the long run, but encourage economic development, as well.
Less cars driving in the city will lower fuel consumption, reduce congestion, improve air quality, and preserve road surfaces. A bike-friendly city will encourage health conscious and environmentally aware individuals to locate here and spend money in their communities. Employers seeking employees with these values will locate here or refrain from relocating elsewhere.
Bicycling infrastructure is a long-term investment and we'll all have to deal with changes as the plan rolls out. There will be hiccups. There will be frustration and aggravation. There will be times when some actions (or lake thereof) seem unfair. But in the long run, it's about making the city more liveable for residents and more desirable for employers. And it makes it easier for people to manage their own health. It's a win-win-win.
Kass can keep his ivory tower view. Maybe we can encourage him to come down to our level and experience what it's really like to see the whole city from the saddle of a bike and actually make a positive contribution toward change...
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Keep riding and be safe!