The Rahmfather on a Bike

Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, flying against all conventional urban planning wisdom, proposes making it harder to ride a bike in the city. He puts forth a plan to tax bike riders in every way they could possibly be taxed. Details are here, but don’t bother reading because he’s not serious about the proposal as a revenue source. Here is his real point: 

How can anyone argue that the city should spend cash to create bike lanes for pedaling One Percenters while not having the cash to hire enough cops to protect neighborhood folks dying in gang wars?

The Rahmfather isn’t the mayor of Portlandia. He’s the mayor of Chicago. But his sucking up to bicyclists seems less about serving Chicago and more about appealing to hipsters on the East and West coasts as he stokes his national political ambitions.

Kass is a conservative posing as a swaggering populist in the Mike Royko mold. He calls bicyclists the “One Percenters of the Commuter Class,” appropriating Occupy Wall Street language to serve the phony anti-elitist ends of the Republican Party. Kass complains Mayor Emanuel wants to build 450 miles of new bikeways by 2020, but Kass never mentions the benefits of bike lanes–benefits that extend well beyond the relatively small number of people who use them. His column is all about the mayor and Kass’s campaign to position himself as Emanuel’s antagonist. It’s about reducing a complex urban issue to a clash of egos.

Kass is completely wrong about the cost-benefits analysis of urban bike lanes, but his column is a cautionary lesson about the gap between urban planners and the populations they serve, particularly the shot-and-a-beer crowd of older American cities–Kass’s intended audience. Community involvement is a new buzzword in architecture and urban planning, but it’s more complicated than handing over the pencil to residents. Urban communities can be riven with factionalism and parochialism, but these divisions can be overcome, or at least tip-toed around. The manipulation of these divisions for political ends, however, is much harder to overcome. 

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4 Comments

  1. John Kass is often seen standing outside the front of the Tribune Tower having a smoke. I’d like to see you approach him and discuss these issues. (BTW, i’m on the biker side)

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  2. I think you underestimate our city residents and community organizations. People like Kass want us to think there’s a big gap between planners and average residents. Despite what Kass would have us think, it’s not just “elitist” planners and “hipsters” who see the benefits of biking. Community-based organizations and groups like AARP get it: http://www.activetrans.org/blog/tvillaire/kass-characterization-people-who-bike-and-protected-bike-lanes-way-mark

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  3. Hi Lee:
    Thanks for making that point! You’re absolutely right: Loop bike commuters are only a segment of the urban bike population. Bike around the city and you will see dishwashers, cleaning women, factory workers, waiters, and store clerks peddling around the streets of the city.
    Biking reduces congestion and pollution, saves fossil fuels, and offers health benefits to all who ride. For the good of all Chicagoans the city should encourage bike riding.
    That said, Kass does have one valid point: bike riders should obey traffic rules just like everyone else. You can’t claim a right to the road without accepting the responsibility to follow the rules.

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