The bikelash paradox: how cycle lanes enrage some but win votes

Every politician knows the word “bikelash”. From Milan to London, from Sydney to Vancouver, reallocating public space from motor vehicles for people to walk and cycle will inevitably send some residents into paroxysms of anger.

But a persistent theme is that voters have time and again reelected the mayors responsible for ambitious road reclamations, often with overwhelming majorities. Although many presume these policies are toxic, projects that make cities more liveable have been shown to be good urban policy and good politics.

Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala, earlier this month won reelection after reclaiming 22,000 sq meters of vehicle lanes to create 38 neighbourhood plazas over three years and 22 miles (35km) of cycling and walking space on main travel corridors during the pandemic. This citywide reordering of streets put half of Milan’s 1.35 million residents within walking distance of new public space. The measures were strongly opposed by some residents concerned about the loss of parking and driving space, but Milanese voters ultimately rewarded Sala with 56% of the vote.

“It’s easy to argue about parking,” said Sala. “But it’s difficult to dispute a new city space filled with people and with signs of life commerce and a sustainable purpose where there was nothing before. It’s critical to act to meet the climate and sustainability moment with something meaningful that people can see, feel and use.”

Next month, the mayors of two cities in North America – Mike Duggan in Detroit and Valérie Plante in Montreal – will test whether voters reward their pedestrian and bike-friendly policies.

London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, won reelection in May after creating or completing 160 miles (260km) of new bike routes. Faced with an opponent who vocally opposed improvements for cycling and walking, the Labour mayor won 55% of the vote in the runoff.

Voters in Paris last year returned the socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo to a second term after a radical remaking of the city’s landscape before and during the pandemic. Hidalgo has spurred a cycling golden age, building hundreds of kilometres of bike lanes, turning the crosstown Rue de Rivoli into a churning bike- and bus-priority corridor, and pedestrianised a highway along the right bank of the Seine. Intense opposition and driver protests did not translate into votes: Hidalgo won by a margin of 18 percentage points in the second round of voting.

The Barcelona mayor, Ada Colau, in 2019 was reelected by the city’s council after expanding citywide biking corridors and creating innovative “superblocks” – pedestrian-priority neighbourhood streets that are furnished with chairs, tables and playground equipment to calm traffic and create community space. She and her government have gone on to more than double the bike network and reallocate 30,000 sq metres of road space from cars.

And in Oslo, the city council reelected mayor Marianne Borgen in 2019 after introducing policies that removed most of the city’s downtown parking spaces to ease pollution. Clover Moore in Sydney has already won three reelections despite strong blowback to her pro-cycling agenda; she is now running to win a fifth term in December. Tel Aviv’s electorate reelected Ron Huldai partly owing to his bike-lane and pedestrian space actions.

Voters consistently remind us that it is they and not the pundits, tweeters or headline-writers who decide elections. Though road reclamations reliably serve as public-relation challenges for cities, experience shows that residents adapt quickly to road changes and predictions of traffic nightmares and business failures do not come to pass.

The authors of this article experienced this directly as New York City’s transportation commissioner and department spokesperson under mayor Mike Bloomberg, who won a third term in 2009 just months after pedestrianising Broadway at Times Square and after building 200 miles (322km) of bike lanes in two years.

The improvements to street space won over residents. In the final New York Times poll of the Bloomberg era in 2013, 72% of New Yorkers supported the creation of plazas across the city, 73% supported the city’s new bikeshare system and 64% supported the bike lanes. If these margins were votes, bikes and pedestrian space would be elected mayor in a landslide.

Experience often overtakes fears after projects have time to become part of daily life in cities. Studies of New York, London, Toronto, San Francisco and other American cities determined that pedestrian and cycling infrastructure increased retail sales by making streets and the stores along them better for shoppers on foot, bike and public transport.

In Detroit, Duggan will be hoping to see similar support after he oversaw the largest one-year buildout of protected bike paths in the US and created a network of plazas and downtown pedestrian space. Plante’s path to reelection in Montreal on 7 November is being challenged by Denis Coderre, who has criticised her bike- and pedestrian-friendly policies. Critics have portrayed Plante as out of touch with ordinary residents, but even her opponent is careful to promise that he would not reverse her signature protected bike lane on St Denis Street.

Bikelash can be exhaustingly repetitive, to the point where even media writers are tired of the ritual of discussing bike lanes solely in terms of controversy.

Reflecting on a decade of bike controversies across Canada, Toronto’s the Globe and Mail this month asked: “Is the war against bike lanes finally over?

Perhaps not quite yet, but the editorial took the view that bike lanes had “grown from political flashpoints – and ideological signifiers – to standard-issue civic infrastructure”.

It added: “The arguments over bike lanes are settled. They’re becoming what they should have long been: an ordinary way of getting around our cities.”

They are also an increasingly ordinary way for mayors to win elections.

  • Janette Sadik-Khan is a former commissioner of the New York Department of Transportation and a principal with Bloomberg Associates. Seth Solomonow is an adviser and strategist with Bloomberg Associates, specialising in public space and sustainable transport infrastructure. The authors provided pro bono advice to Sala and Duggan on their public space plans.

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