Monthly Archives: September 2018

Bikes: A Proxy For Change

Appearing on Eye On Annapolis, September 13, 2018

All the brouhaha around the Main Street bike lane has a very strong cultural component that is bubbling just below the surface of the discussion about the project. Sure there are issues of cost and process which are certainly understandable, but most of the visceral dislike revolves around the cultural perceptions of people riding bikes. These same reactions are occurring with bike infrastructure in Washington DC and Baltimore and around the country, so are not limited to our corner of the world. Cultural change is hard and when it happens, there is always a sense of loss.

The cultural change that I see people reacting to is two-fold: first, the perception of a “DC-ification” of Annapolis and second, that bikes are a recreational toy. The more the bike lane is discussed, the less it is about the lane itself, but the change it represents.

The popular local view that “Yuppies” have invaded and taken over the city since 1980 is very prevalent. People have called me a “carpetbagger” even though I have been here 20+ years, raised two kids here through public schools and been actively involved in the community in a variety of ways. People, especially of my generation and older – I am at the end of the boomer years – resent popular hipster culture and those they perceive as part of it, as it waters down the “Annapolitan” identity. Biking by young people for transportation and by “MAMILs” (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) on expensive bikes is viewed as the canary in the coal mine for a litany of undesirable changes from urbanization and traffic to increased costs of living and the death of traditional mom/pop retail, typically expressed in the coded phrase “destroying our quality of life”.

In the 1970s biking was marketed as a recreational activity and not for transportation. Cars are for doing serious work and we have all graduated to “big boy underpants” by driving cars to get around. There are many reasons for this, but suburbanization and its reliance on the automobile is seen as progress in the post-war era and is a predominant attitude of baby boomers. This along with the mom and pop retail stores, muscle cars, a working waterfront and the old Market House is emblematic of the pining for the “real” Annapolis of the 1970s before the “Yuppies” came.

The cover of the 1971 Schwinn Catalog showing the kids riding bikes on vacation strongly markets cycling as a recreational activity, not as a means of transportation.

Deep down, people know change is coming. We see it everywhere. The retail industry has been turned on its head. People are moving into the area. New things are being built. The city is urbanizing. Values for public space and transportation differ for younger people. These are all regional and national trends not specific to Annapolis. When these changes happen, especially disruptive economic ones, the fear is more change can only be bad so we need to keep the status quo to prevent losing more. There is very little credence given to the possibility that change can be economically positive. So much of this was expressed in public testimony at the City Council meeting on September 10, 2018 where there was an ad hoc hearing on the temporary bike lane experiment. It was always about losing something, parking, customers, historic value and the underlying “our way of life”. The resulting reaction is all what’s called Loss Aversion (from Wikipedia):

In cognitive psychology and decision theory, loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains: it is better to not lose $5 than to find $5. The principle is very prominent in the domain of economics. What distinguishes loss aversion from risk aversion is that the utility of a monetary payoff depends on what was previously experienced or was expected to happen. Some studies have suggested that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.

The ban on smoking in restaurants mentioned at the hearing is a great example of this. Restaurants claimed loudly that their business would be dead in a week if the ban was passed. The reality ended up being that it greatly improved restaurant business because it brought out all the people who refused to go because of smoking. Ultimately, there is pent up demand the status quo suppresses. This is also true for local recreational trails such as the B&A, Poplar and the trail around the Navy Stadium. These were all opposed because of the perceived negative consequences, but are now seen and sold as “amenities”. With respect to protected bike lanes, NYC has shown virtually no negative consequences of reducing vehicle lanes in lieu of protected bike lanes. At the time the conventional wisdom was this would result in gridlock and be an economic catastrophe.

There are changes happening in Annapolis that people do not like, I certainly get that; even some I may personally not like. But change is inevitable. Are these changes good or bad? That’s obviously a matter of opinion, but think of it this way: would you rather have an Annapolis that is experiencing severe economic distress like many of the small towns throughout the country that have been depopulated over the last 30 years, or a town that is experiencing distress at the opposite end of the spectrum where population is increasing and there is economic vibrancy? I certainly would like more of the later than the former. I don’t want Annapolis to be known as the place that always says “no” when it requires us to change our habits.

Everyone wants change until it requires us to change. From ifunny.com

And finally, some parting words on the changing attitudes towards cycling in the United States. Eben Weiss, known as “Bike Snob NYC” an acerbic commentator on cycling culture hopes we can just make cycling seem normal in this country as is common place in other parts of the world.

We’re able to comprehend riding bikes only as a means of recreation; confounded by the practical; aghast at the notion that women and children should be exposed to this high-risk action sport. Hey, I’ll take being told I’m doing the coolest thing somebody’s ever seen, and it sure beats having things thrown at me from car windows (this has happened to every cyclist), but what I’d like even more would be if what I was doing was so commonplace as to be utterly not worth mentioning.

For Annapolis, I too share this hope.