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The New York Times‘ sprawling profile of the NYC Department of Transportation director Janette Sadik-Khan—one of many, but the first to really illuminate the backlash she’s fighting among the city’s political elite—has engendered a rash of introspection among urbanists. Why do they hate us? goes the refrain.
Matt Yglesias chimes in with one of his favorite urban arguments: It’s a problem of lingering partisanship in otherwise staunchly Democratic cities. “Bloomberg is for bike lanes. The bike lanes are controversial. And Bloomberg’s not a Democrat. So someone has to take the anti-Bloomberg side on bike lanes, and those ‘someones’ wind up being the Democrats.”
I’m really pretty sure that has nothing to do with it, and distracts from the fundamental issue: New York politicians have a very highly developed sense of turf, and undiplomatic efforts to alter “their” domain without their consultation will encounter resistance. I learned this very well while writing about a neighborhood powerbroker in SoHo who fought a bike lane on Prince Street simply because Sadik-Khan—whom he called “Robert Moses in a skirt”—wanted tried to put it in without asking him first.
“We defeated Moses, and we’re going to defeat Sadik-Khan. I’ll be around and she’ll be gone. Got it? Quote,” he told me. “She’s not been nice to me. …” My editor, in his wisdom, didn’t let me include the last line: “And she’s gonna get fucked.”
With those kinds of personal power dynamics, you don’t even need partisanship to create a wall of resistance. I think Yglesias has it backward: People hate Bloomberg because of how he puts in bike lanes, more than they hate bike lanes because of what party Bloomberg (sometimes, when politically advantageous) belongs to. Now, here’s something Adrian Fenty would ask: Could Sadik-Khan have achieved the radical change she sought without busting up egos and shooting herself in the foot? Maybe not as quickly—but now she runs the risk of having her change undone once Bloomberg finally exits.
For more nuanced analysis, read this Observer piece, which calls the fight “New York’s last culture war.”
For the local angle, read David Alpert, who transposes New York’s bike hate to D.C.
Photo via flickr user adrimcm.