Call it bike rage. The simmering conflict between some cyclists and some drivers seems to have boiled over a bit this summer.
No less a revered source than the USA Today produced a long story about the issue. And even the usually sensible National Public Radio host Scott Simon took a shot at bike riders on Twitter when he found some bizarre way to link urban bike commuters to Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal.
On Monday the Bike Fed’s other Dave will publish a blog post packed with local and national studies that suggests people might actually be more law abiding when they ride bicycles than when they drive cars. Be sure to check back here for that, but so far this summer, in my own unscientific research, I have observed countless people in cars cheating on yellow lights and sometimes just blatantly blow through red ones. Red light running by cars has become an epidemic. If there’s rage to be had, it should be over that because a couple thousand pounds of glass and steel moving at forty miles per hour through a red light can do a whole lot more damage than a twenty-five pound bike traveling at ten or fifteen.
Now look, I’ll be the first to admit that there is plenty of irresponsible biking that goes on out there, but I am not convinced that it exceeds the amount of irresponsible car driving. Last week in just one edition the Wisconsin State Journal reported that three drivers had been charged with their fourth, fifth and (get this) ninth drunk driving citations, respectively, but certainly not respectfully. And Wisconsin remains the only state in the nation in which first offense drunk driving is not a felony.
So given the more or less equal amounts of irresponsibility on the part of both drivers and cyclists and given the fact that dangerous driving will cause a whole lot more mayhem than bad bicycling, what accounts for all of the venom directed at bikers?
A good theory is that it has little to do with biking at all. Bikes have become a symbol and neoconservatives pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Dorothy Rabinowitz in New York, Dan Maes in Colorado have made them a weapon in the culture wars. Politicians like Toronto’s now infamous Mayor Rob Ford have taken that political football and run with it all the way to public office. I guess it starts with bicycle lanes and then before you know it everybody’s got health insurance and we’re all sitting in cafes watching soccer matches or news shows about the good work the UN is doing around the world. Oh, wait, maybe that is actually happening.
By portraying everyone on a bicycle as entitled, urban hipsters or elite super athletes, they appeal to their conservative base, most of whom live in suburbs, exurbs or rural areas where single occupancy vehicles abound. One way or another the far right wants to portray bicycle riders as somehow un-American. It is shocking what a difference a few decades make, while our parents generation embraced gas rationing during times of war and driving alone was considered unpatriotic, today the far right sees no reason to encourage people to conserve.
In that USA Today article Shane Farthing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said it best: “In some cases, a bike has become a symbol for some folks of so many social, historical, racial, demographic and mobility issues that have been packed over so much time and space. At that point, the debate is not about bikes anymore.”
So what to do about it?
Well, let’s all start by taking a deep breath. I will admit that when I am driving I find myself getting irritated by bad cycling behavior. When that happens I breath deeply and remind myself that at that moment I am in charge of deadly force. I have a special responsibility behind the wheel to look out for other motor vehicles, and people walking and bicycling. Others may act badly but my job is to stay cool and focused. The computer piloted driverless car may someday take care of this problem, but for now it’s good to remind ourselves that driving should not be an expression of our emotions.
And when we ride bicycles, we need to be on our best behavior because people in cars are watching. I make it a point to stop at red lights even when there is no traffic, to signal my turns, to stay off of sidewalks where that isn’t allowed (mostly downtown) and to otherwise just be courteous on the street. Maybe the best thing we can do to cool the tension is just to take the thirty seconds and actually come to a complete stop when the rules call for it.
And finally, there’s a public policy solution as well, which is more safe bike infrastructure. By building more dedicated bike paths and clearly marked and protected bike lanes we are providing better facilities for both bikers and drivers so that we each know our space and we can live in harmony.
But one way or another this needs to be worked out not just in Wisconsin but in the whole country. The explosion in cycling is no fad; it’s the future. Bicycle commuting is up sixty percent nationwide. Bike lanes and other bike infrastructure is being added at a rapid rate and Millennials are biking a lot more than Baby Boomers.
The bike is not a symbol of anything. It’s just a bike. Don’t get mad. Go with the flow.
And be sure to check back here on Monday when Deputy Dave will overwhelm you with facts and figures that you can use to refute claims that people on bikes are scofflaws.