Smugness Is Not A Conspiracy

Words eventually lose their original meanings. Consider, for example, the word “literally,” which now literally means the opposite of what it once did. (“I’m sooo tired of walking, my legs are literally falling off!”) Another word that has lost its original meaning is “consipiracy,” which now means…well, nothing, really. Take the headline of this article, which alludes to a “conspiracy” between the ride share companies and New York City’s smugness advocacy group:

If you live in New York City, you are a pedestrian or you are a driver, and you’re enmeshed in a war over streets that hits everyone’s wallets and time. Now, an extraordinary alliance has emerged: a militant local bike lane group, backed by Uber and Lyft, is battling car owners over hundreds of free parking spots. Some suspect a massive conspiracy by rideshare companies to scoop up the streets for themselves. They may be onto something.

Wow! Sounds serious!

Now, obviously the “in New York City, you are a pedestrian or you are a driver” statement is simplistic to say the least:

As for the “militant” local bike lane group, it’s Transportation Alternatives, and clearly “militant” is yet another word that has lost all meaning…unless you consider smug people holding up signs to be militant:

There’s nothing particularly militant about old guys in fedoras, although I suppose they do evoke Leonid Brezhnev:

So what’s the big conspiracy? Well, hold on to your Vision Zero giveaway helmet: Uber and Lyft give Transportation Alternatives money!

Here’s where Uber and Lyft come in, and the local skirmish potentially takes a more broadly relevant twist. Meeker Ave Neighbors, the group behind the petition to halt the refurbishment, learned that Transportation Alternatives (TA), the muscular, decades-old bike lane advocacy group behind the plan, accepted a combined $125,000 from Uber and Lyft in 2020, along with donations from Revel, Bird, and Lime.

You don’t say:

Fundamentally this is a story about people freaking out over parking in New York City, and in that sense it is wholly unremarkable. Sure, there was a time when I’d have been tempted to make fun of the people stressed out about how to get to their guitar string factories, but that time has passed:

Similarly, Stephen Griesgraber told me over coffee that he used to bike over the bridge to work; he only started driving when exorbitant rent hikes forced him to move his guitar string factory a three-legged journey by subway and bus with 20 minutes walking on either side. If driving didn’t cut that time in half, he’d otherwise take the subway or bike, the same way he usually gets around.

At least he’s making guitar strings. What the hell am I making? If he wants to drive to work that’s his business.

No, what’s remarkable about the article is that it’s such a great example of a story that can be written any way you want depending on which side of the bed you happen to have woken up on that particular morning. Sure, you can write this as, “Ride Share Companies and Bike Advocates Are Conspiring to Take Over The Streets!” Or, you can write it as, “Ride Share Companies Give Money to Bike Advocates Because Some of Their Goals Happen to Align,” though of course you’re not going to get as many clicks. So we get the former, and we’re all a little bit dumber–and angrier at each other–for it.

The fact is, anybody who pays even the tiniest bit of attention knows that in New York City the bike advocates and the ride share companies are totally hot for each other and have been since the early days of the ride-hailing revolution. The bike advocates like the ride share companies because they have a naive belief that their twisted vision of a future in which nobody owns anything and every single person is an independent contractor will somehow benefit us all:

Yep, it’s been five years since that tweet, during which everyone in Los Angeles absolutely got rid of their cars.

More crucially, the ride share companies have money, and when was the last time bike advocates had companies with money on their side? Before the whole tech revolution, the only corporate support bike advocates got was when bicycle companies gave them swag to hand out at charity rides. Now they’re like the 98lb weakling who, after years of getting sand kicked in his face, shows up at the beach with a bodybuilder, his bulging, oiled pectorals glistening in the sun. Suddenly whole sections of beach that were inaccessible to the bike advocate are fair game. “You really should ride a bike instead of drive a car,” the advocates once said through mouthfuls of sand. Now they can evoke micromobility and transit equity and other haughty concepts in the same way the car companies once promised us an automotive utopia:

Meanwhile, the ride share companies like the bike advocates just as much, because why wouldn’t they like a bunch of nerds who are dedicated to getting private cars off of city streets–so dedicated, in fact, that many of them work for free! Moreover, advocates push municipalities to accommodate tiny electric vehicles with wheels, a mode of transport ride share companies have also cannily adopted.

Mine is obviously a cynical take on the advocate/ride share relationship, and while I’m obviously in favor of bike lanes and micromobility and reduced car dependence I’d argue a little cynicism is warranted whenever groups with a vested interest in a certain policy want to tell you what’s good for you. But is this a conspiracy? Not even close. A conspiracy is when people plot in secret to advance an agenda, and you’d have to have your head lodged pretty deep in your posterior not to be aware of this relationship or this agenda. It’s been three years since Lyft bought Citi Bike, and two of Transportation Alternatives’s most visible “militants” have long since decamped for ride share and micromobility companies. It’s like saying there’s a conspiracy between AAA and the auto companies. The Transportation Alternatives/ride share dynamic not so much a conspiracy as it is a daisy chain of money and smugness.

Even as someone who is “militantly” pro bike I believe it’s fair and even necessary to question an organization like Transportation Alternatives, which is ultimately a politburo composed of a board of directors and a handful of wealthy donors who want to tell the rest of us what’s good for us, even if I happen to agree with decent chunk of it. As for the tech companies, at this point it’s trite to say that they have undue influence over our lives, but as we contend with Big Tech censorship it’s probably necessary to wonder if they’ll throttle our streets the same way. Ultimately though, I think it’s more important to understand why, at this moment, these entities have the city’s ear: they’re the only ones putting forth anything like a workable plan for the future. There’s no more room for cars, it takes decades to build a single subway stop…thinning the herd with bikes, ride share, and zany electric contraptions is all they’ve got left.

The city’s streets are shaped in equal parts by idealism, pragmatism, selfishness, stupidity, and greed. It’s fascinating and frustrating to pick it all apart. But there’s a difference between a conspiracy and something you simply haven’t taken the time to understand.

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