Bike Lanes, “The City of the Future”, and the Actual Past

Disclaimer: this isn’t really connected to teaching at all, but does have to do (as I supposed the last post did as well) about popular conceptions of history and the way it plays into contemporary political discourse. In this case, the issue isn’t about the Tea Party’s notion of the Founding Fathers, but is instead about a very local battle over the presence of bike lanes in Arlington, TX — the city directly to the east of where I live.

For something that seemed so commonplace on the streets of Salt Lake City, where I grew up, bike lanes evoked deep passions on both side of the issue amongst Arlington’s citizens, spawning the anti-bike lane group, Save Our Streets, and the pro-bike lane group, Bike Friendly Arlington.

Bike Lanes on 200 S in Salt Lake City -- image courtesy of In this case, the mid-nineteenth century city planning wisdom of Brigham Young has paid off for Salt Lake, as Young's desire to have streets wide enough for a team of four oxen and a wagon to make a U-turn, has created plenty of real estate for bike lanes, traffic lanes, and on-street parking.

Additionally, bike lanes have also gained meme superstardom status in recent weeks thanks to this YouTube video:

Now, I’m firmly in the pro-bike lane camp. Bikes, and the additional construction of lanes and parking to accommodate them, have been a huge part of revitalizing and popularizing Magnolia Avenue in Fort Worth, which is the northern end of my Fairmount neighborhood. (For details on these developments, and all other things urban-related in Fort Worth, check out Kevin Buchanan’s excellent FortWorthology blog).

Bike lanes have been a boon for the businesses on Magnolia and they’ve also fostered some really wonderful bike-centric communities that have been incredibly friendly and welcoming. In short, I think they’re a great thing and I find the opposition to them pretty perplexing and rooted in an unappealing notion of what makes a “good” community.

So, last night was the big Arlington City Council meeting where the vote took place to decide on whether to approve a $55 million bike and hike master plan that would expand and improve the bicycling amenities in Arlington. By a tight 5-4 vote, the plan passed, and while I didn’t make the meeting, many of by bike-community friends did and played an important role in advocating on behalf of this infrastructural element that makes cities more livable, friendly, recreation-oriented, and open to forms of commuting and transportation other than the automobile.

In reading the article about the meeting and the vote, I found myself bemused by Arlington Councilman Mel LeBlanc’s attack on bike lanes:

“The city of the future is not the city that puts bike paths in,” LeBlanc said. “It’s the city … that has a very low tax rate and a very low debt ratio. The city of the future is the city you can move to and not be robbed by taxes.”

As I read this, I found it vexing for a few reasons. Firstly, who describes the city of the future in a non-visual way? When we think about cities rarely (I hope) do we wax eloquent on the financial mechanism by which those municipalities cash and then write checks. That’s a pretty limited and boring notion of what a city is. How about considering the way the built environment fosters human-to-human interactions? How about envisioning new and innovative ways to create and distribute services that improve the quality of life for the city’s residents? These notions lead (again, I hope) one to consider the city in spatial terms and not simply as a venue for issuing bonds and collecting revenue.
LeBlanc’s quote also made me think back to my studies of architectural history and the vision of the Italian Futurists, like Antonio Sant’elia, who were active and part of the cultural vanguard roughly a century ago.

Sant'elia - La Citta Nuova, 1914

Here the city of the future is represented in stark and visually striking terms. There’s nothing here about debt ratios or tax rates, but instead a vision of movement, circulation, and grandeur. The other reason I bring up the Futurists is that they also had some opinions about bicycles. In fact, there’s some recent scholarship that stresses the role of the bicycle in the Futurist movement.

The Futurist’s joy in the simultaneity of experience summarized the change which, as our own century opened, was pressing in upon all sides and was symbolized by the revolution of communications: railways, the automobile and even the bicycle – the culture of space and time was being transformed.

Additionally, very recent scholarship by Bernard Vere has honed in exclusively on Futurist representations of the bicycle.

Natalia Goncharova, Cyclist, 1913

So, perhaps LeBlanc needs to get into the 21st century (and learn something about the past hundred years) and recognize that even century-old notions of the future have always included the bicycle.


3 thoughts on “Bike Lanes, “The City of the Future”, and the Actual Past

  1. Pingback: Arlington Passes Bike Plan, and Thoughts on Bikes and Cities | Fort Worthology

  2. Pingback: Hike and Bike Plan passes (almost)! « Bike Friendly Arlington

  3. Pingback: How to be politically active in a new city within 2 weeks « SQUARE ROOT 7

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