Hipsters, Hasidim, and My Bike Lane

The December 19th "panty ride" pauses at a stoplight in Hasidic Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

A couple weeks ago I was riding my usual route from home in Clinton Hill to the Williamsburg Bridge when I saw that the ground had shifted beneath my bicycle gears. As I crossed Flushing along Bedford Avenue, into the heart of Hasidic Williamsburg, Brooklyn, my bike lane was gone. Only a faint, sandblasted remnant remained.

That’s an excerpt from a new essay of mine in The Huffington Post, one of two pieces I published today on the controversy about the lane’s removal. Since it’s a corridor I bike along regularly, and since I’ve long been curious about the religiosity of those who live along it, I did what I could to understand what happened and why. Most of my fellow cyclists believed that religious prudishness was mostly to blame, but what I learned from conversations with Hasidic men on Bedford convinced me that we cyclists have to share some of the blame for the lane’s removal as well. I write in my piece for Religion Dispatches:

That’s what nearly everybody walking up and down Hasidic Bedford in daytime says as well. When asked directly about it, they concede that they believe many cyclists to be inappropriately dressed, even while insisting that that alone was not reason enough to remove the lane.

An ambulance driver said that there had been a lot of accidents with children, though he had never personally seen with one. A man named Moshe, however, said he did once see a child hit by a bike. “It’s terrible,” he said. A yeshiva school bus driver complained, in an extended conversation aboard his bus, “bikes don’t obey any laws.” He doesn’t think religious concerns about clothing were the motivating force at all. “It is a free country,” he said.

“The problem is how they ride on it,” added a Hasidic man named Abraham while checking his mailbox on Bedford. “They don’t care about the kids.” Both a bicyclist and a school bus driver, he enjoyed using the bike lane but now is glad, for the sake of safety, that it is gone.

I go on to call for a new sense of responsibility among bicyclists for their own behavior, especially where neighborhoods provide lanes for us on their streets—both for myself and my fellow cyclists. Again, in HuffPo:

The city has added hundreds of miles of bike lanes in recent years, and bicycle commuting has more than doubled since 2000 as a result. I see new lanes being added all the time and feel grateful every time I do. Each one lowers my chances of getting whacked by a taxi.

As the city finally starts investing in keeping us safe, it is time for cyclists to do our part. “There is not a single community board meeting about bike lanes where cyclist behavior is not an issue,” says Wiley Norvell of Transportation Alternatives. His organization has launched Biking Rules!–a program to encourage more responsible riding in New York City.

The rules are simple and, from now on, I’m going to do my best to follow them: Pedestrians come first. Stop at red lights, and don’t ride against traffic. Obey the laws. Wear a helmet, and use a light in the dark.

Read the rest of these at Religion Dispatches and The Huffington Post.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.