Turtle Bay

When the U.N. takes over America it will storm the heartland on red bicycles, not black helicopters. Or maybe not.

Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes accused Denver’s Mayor John Hickenlooper, his Democratic rival, this week of "converting Denver into a United Nations community" through the advocacy of bike ridership, according to the Denver Post. The scheme — which involves a city program that promotes rentals of a fleet of 400 red bicycles at key ...

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Getty Images

Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes accused Denver’s Mayor John Hickenlooper, his Democratic rival, this week of "converting Denver into a United Nations community" through the advocacy of bike ridership, according to the Denver Post. The scheme — which involves a city program that promotes rentals of a fleet of 400 red bicycles at key transportation hubs — is "very well-disguised, but it will be exposed," the Denver Post quoted Maes saying at a political rally. "This is bigger than it looks on the surface, and it could threaten our personal freedoms."

Clearly, Maes hasn’t been to the United Nations lately. Last year, the U.N. tore out several rows of bicycle racks in its three-level parking lot to make way for a massive renovation of the U.N. headquarters building. While most of the parking space — about 75 percent — was preserved for the fleets of diplomatic limos that transport foreign dignitaries to work here, the bike section was eliminated entirely because of concerns of bikers being struck by falling debris, according to U.N. officials.

"It just vanished," said Louis Charbonneau, a U.N.-based Reuters correspondent and Vice President of the U.N. Correspondent’s Association who commutes by bicycle from his home in Astoria, Queens. "If somebody thinks the U.N. is trying to make everyone turn to bicycles, well it’s not quite like that over here. The U.N. just made life extremely difficult for bicyclists."

In May, Charbonneau protested the lack of bike racks on behalf of the U.N. press corps in an email to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon‘s spokesman’s office. "It is sad to see that the U.N. is making clean transportation more difficult at a time when the hosting city is laying miles of bike lanes and some companies are even installing showers to encourage their workers to bike to work," he wrote. "It definitely undermines the message of the Secretary General of making environment a priority of his mandate."

In response, Ban’s office said that the secretary-general "is aware of the situation and he is acutely aware that the renovation project is forcing everyone to make adjustments. He is also aware that work is underway to make sure the needs of cyclists like your-self are met. As you know, the Secretary-General is determined to make the renovated U.N. headquarters a much greener building that will reduce energy consumption by 50 percent and that will run the facilities in a much more sustainable way. Good and safe bike parking has to be part of this."

The U.N. subsequently informed Charbonneau and others that the U.N. had in fact moved the bike racks, setting them up on the far reaches of the U.N. compound, about four blocks away from their offices. One row was out in the open, leaving the bikes exposed to the elements during rain and snow storms. Another row of bike racks was stowed behind a barricade, mingling with piles of metal scraps. Bike riders had to navigate a maze of scaffolding and debris to get to the racks. Some had their bicycles subjected to sniffing dogs before they could enter the U.N. grounds. "It was a junkyard," Charbonneau said.

After months of negotiations, a compromise was reached and the bike racks were moved to a more convenient, and covered, location near the main entrance to the U.N. headquarters. Charbonneau praised a small group of U.N. officials who worked hard to accommodate the bicyclists. But the peace didn’t last.

Late last month, U.N. security guards blocked Charbonneau from bringing his bike onto the U.N. premises, saying they had been instructed not to allow bikes into the main entrance. "I told them let’s walk over the 50 yards and I’ll show you the bike racks," he said. "They refused." Again, Charbonneau protested the new restrictions, and the U.N. informed the security guards that bikes could in fact be parked in the new bike rack.

The controversy surrounding the bike program in Denver has little to do with the United Nations. In attacking the Denver bike program, Maes claimed it was part of a strategy by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, an organization he suggested was promoting bicycle use on behalf of the United Nations. "These aren’t just warm, fuzzy ideas from the mayor," Maes said. "These are very specific strategies that are dictated to us by this United Nations program that mayors have signed on to," the Denver Post quoted him saying.

Marty Chavez, a former Mayor of Albuquerque who serves as ICLEI’s U.S. executive director, says the organization supports the U.N.’s Agenda 81, which promotes the principle of economically sustainable development. But he says it has no affiliation with the United Nations. "We’re not a creature of the United Nations or a member of the U.N.," he said. His group advises most American major cities, including New York, Washington D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles, on how to reduce consumption of greenhouse gases. "We would prefer seeing the delegates riding their bikes to work in the morning. I could see the U.S. ambassador riding her bike from the Waldorf Astoria," he said. "As for this fellow running for governor we assume the next target of his attack will be unicycles and tricycles: they have an unnecessary additional wheel."

Editor’s note: The original version of this post mistakenly referred to the ICLEI’s executive director as Marty Perez. His name is Marty Chavez. Turtle Bay regrets the error.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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