In his piece “The Public Interest Reconsidered”, Frank J. Sorauf attempts to make sense of the ever-slippery concept of the public interest, offering five different possible meanings for the term and systematically reducing them to their flaws. His eventual conclusion seems to be that although the idea of the public interest can be misleading, ineffective, and at times limiting, it is important that planners and policy makers still incorporate it into discussion as a way of maintaining the democratic process itself. The intangible and divided nature of the public interest as described in this essay is evident when looking at it through the lens of the introduction of pro-bicycling projects to urban areas, a topic that affirms how important consideration of it is.
When an initiative is put forward for the creation of a bike lane on a major road the public is usually split in terms of its support. Pros of bike lanes are plenty: they will lighten the burden placed on the environment, they come at a cheap cost in comparison to maintaining other forms of infrastructure, they make it easier and cheaper for those who prefer bikes or who don’t own cars to traverse the city, and they improve safety for bicyclists and drivers alike. However, just as there are those that see the above reasons as cause enough to argue in favor of new lanes, there are of course others that disagree. The middle class, who are more likely on average to own cars, as well as those outside of the central business district where the lanes are usually prioritized, often believe that funding would be better spent on improving bus networks and other transportation. Some people perhaps erroneously believe that bike lanes will be disproportionately used by the upper and lower class; indeed, they do add value to gentrified neighborhoods, attracting the young and wealthy to buy luxury housing in the city. And sometimes citizens are unsure themselves whether a new project is good for them or not: Californians who had initially voted for a plan that would lead to the construction of 1,684 new bikeways eventually withdrew their support once work was actually slated to begin, realizing that they would be losing space for their cars.
This divide over a piece of planning or policy is the public interest or democratic process at work. Every party involved has something to either gain or lose, and it is up to planners to ensure that the “right” interests are protected. Samuel Stein of Planners Network evaluates bike lanes in terms of their benefits for each socioeconomic class, and believes that an increase of support for bicycling only poses a problem for the public interest because it has as of yet been a part of the general pattern of class displacement in the city, in this case New York. If the Department of Transportation focuses on areas that need more support, then bike lanes will be a positive new project. Stein is suggesting that there has been a misbalancing of interests that could be potentially damaging for the city and many of its inhabitants. This sounds much like Sorauf’s moral imperative argument, especially when he talks about transportation injustice, as well as the wise, superior interest, which historically has been used to stand with those who are less wealthy or whose interests may run against the market. Regardless of which perspective one takes when advocating for the public interest, ultimately what matters is that people with quieter voices have the opportunity to be heard and make change in their communities. In the case of bike lanes, this has sometimes been possible, but the overall pattern is for the already privileged to receive the most attention. Hopefully in the future that reality will slowly change.