Charles Komanoff

 

Letter to the New Yorker Magazine

In November 2006, The New Yorker published an essay that aspired to be a portrait of the city's bicycle activist community. Sadly, "Holy Rollers" wasn't up to this important task. A week after the article appeared I wrote a critical letter to New Yorker editor David Remnick. My letter was far too long to print but I hoped for a private reply. Almost two months later, none has been forthcoming.

-- C.K., Jan. 5, 2007
November 13, 2006

David Remnick
Editor
The New Yorker
4 Times Square
New York, NY 10036

Dear Mr. Remnick--

I'm not given to badgering magazine editors. But I feel compelled to sound off about Ben McGrath's "Holy Rollers" in last week's New Yorker.

I read the article as a subscriber, city resident, writer, and (I confess) cycle activist. I found it shockingly disappointing on every count.

Granted five thousand words, Mr. McGrath could have produced something substantive, and it's too bad he didn't. His topic, after all, connects with some increasingly urgent matters: transport policy, petroleum dependence, public-space battles and the livability of New York's streetscape. No one would want The New Yorker to read like a policy journal, but writers in your pages have shown often enough that engaging, lively, vivid prose need not be shallow and silly.

Ironically, the lede seemed to point in this promising direction, juxtaposing a 1971 cycle protest with Stonewall, Attica and Kent State, and noting the 120 New York cyclist deaths in recent years including that of Dr. Carl Nacht on the Hudson River Greenway. The lede also raised hopes that the article might consider whether large-scale cycling can alleviate the multiple crises of traffic congestion, oil dependence, climate change, urban alienation and physical inactivity; or at least it would convey cycle advocates' convictions that it can and must.

Alas, this was not to be. The article quickly devolved into a series of desultory and rather dreary vignettes of cycle advocates, in the tired and thoroughly Philistine genre of "oh-those-quirky-ideologues" -- an essay more suited to the famous little old lady from Dubuque than to my neighbors in lower Manhattan. McGrath seemed unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge, that the objects of his puerile snideness are agitating about something real and substantial, and in service to the public good.

The first wrong turn came in the fourth graf, when the cycle movement's "nominal constituency" was said to be "the hundred and twenty thousand New Yorkers who ride bicycles every day"; its true constituency is the million or more New Yorkers who arguably would ride a bike if conditions were tolerable. The death rattle arrived soon after, when a certain Tom Bernardin was made the voice for New York pedestrians aggrieved by errant bicyclists. There is a venerable roster of local activists against dangerous cycling -- Bette Dewing of Pedestrians First is one -- but Mr. Bernardin, whom I met years ago at an impromptu anti-noise summit, is a one-man band, not to say a tiresome crank, and his turn in the article was downright embarrassing.

A 5,000-word piece on the city cycling scene might have been expected to address questions such as these:
* Why are Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly making war on Critical Mass?
* What are the true risks of cycling in New York City? Are they inherent in our density and culture, or can they be reduced through enlightened governance?
* Can "real" bike lanes or "bicycle boulevards" be made to work in New York City? How?
* Why are mainstream planning and transport advocacy groups now, finally, making common cause with cycle advocates?

Who am I? I'm president emeritus and the "re-founder," in the mid-1980s, of Transportation Alternatives, the mainstream cycle advocacy agency mentioned in the article. Over the years I've published a dozen op-ed essays on cycling in The Times, The Daily News, Newsday and the New York Observer. I contributed the article on bicycling to the Encyclopedia of Energy and had a feature article on wind power in last month's Orion (both available at www.komanoff.net). I resumed subscribing to the New Yorker a year ago (I had a long recovery from the Tina Brown era). I've been enjoying the magazine immensely -- Alex Ross's appreciation of Morton Feldman, Adam Gopnik's of Darwin, and of course Seymour Hersh's reportage particularly stand out.

Bicycling's present and future in New York make an important subject, and a natural one, for The New Yorker. Please find a way to do better -- much better -- than Mr. McGrath's piece.

Sincerely,

Charles Komanoff