In June, the city of Columbia, MO passed an anti-harassment ordinance to address problems of motorists intimidating cyclists. The law would make it a misdemeanor to:
- throw an object in the direction of a cyclist,
- threaten or purposely frighten or disturb a cyclist,
- honk or shout at a cyclist in an attempt to frighten or disturb,
- intimidate and make cyclist fear injury, or
- knowingly endanger a cyclist.
I’ve experienced all 5 of those at one time or another over the last 20 years. The most scary stuff has happened while riding with other cyclists. As a solo utility cyclist, #3 is the typical harassment. Occasionally, someone has made a lame attempt to intimidate me with his vehicle.
I’ve been curious to see how Columbia enforces the ordinance and what the outcome might be. If it will change anything. But that experiment may be delayed. The city is now reconsidering the law.
Councilman Jerry Wade, who initiated the move to suspend the ordinance, has written a statement on why it should not have passed.
1. It is inappropriate to craft an ordinance concerning harassment for the relationship of just two specific groups. Harassment is unacceptable in any context. If a new ordinance was needed, it should be written to encompass harassment on our city streets between whoever was involved.
2. It is questionable if this ordinance will work or make any difference. It is based on proving intent. Furthermore, it may not even be necessary except to give symbolic recognition to the rights of bicyclists. That is not a justification for a new ordinance. Perhaps the bicyclists’ harassment was already covered by existing ordinances or could be with a minor amendment.
3. There is a significant polarization going on between bicyclists and drivers. The ordinance will substantially contribute to that.
His next paragraph is one I find interesting because it resonates with something I’ve observed in communities which have pushed hard for large investments in special facilities.
The polarization is part of a broader backlash that has been building for some time against the strong focus bicycle projects. The reaction to this ordinance is not just a few disgruntled folks, but a broad based response of people frustrated with the Council. There are many who feel the Council has pandered to the wishes of a special interest group with little consideration of others.
On the other hand, (from the article linked above):
Pednet Education Coordinator Robert Johnson said the backlash Wade perceives might not be a majority of Columbians but outspoken people who post comments on newspaper Web articles or call radio shows.
“To the average person, I don’t think” the ordinance “makes much of a difference,” Johnson said today. He said he thinks many people are learning about the ordinance from people who don’t understand it or haven’t read it. Soon, the police department will post a section on its Web site listing the myths and facts about the ordinance, he said.
What is harassment about?
There’s a larger picture of bicyclist harassment. It’s connected to social, cultural and behavioral factors that need to be addressed.
One thing I’ve discovered in my years of riding is that harassment rarely has anything to do with inconvenience to the perpetrator. The majority of harassment I experience happens in situations where the perpetrator could not possibly perceive that I was delaying him—it happens on multi-lane roads where the other lanes are clear or two-lane roads with not another car in sight (<–there’s a clue).
Since, it’s not inconvenience, it can’t be chalked up to run-of-the-mill selfishness. It’s a combination of power (militant territorialism), prejudice (we’re different) and general ugliness (they’re miserable, unhappy people).
Most harassers are pathetic cowards who need to vomit their misery on others and run away. We’re the perfect targets because we’re exposed and we can’t catch them. However, there is a subset of sociopaths who are looking to pick a fight. Sometimes you can tell who they are, but this subset is the reason it is best to always keep both hands on the handlebars and pretend you didn’t notice the abuse. Not reacting will almost always make them go away. A reaction will lead to escalation.
A certain amount of BS is going to come your way no matter what kind of vehicle you drive. We live in an angry culture. Our transportation system is a constant source of stress and aggravation for people. As cyclists, we’re exposed, and the anger and frustration of others feels more personal and intimidating. But we also escape the misery and boredom those poor souls suffer. We have to keep things in perspective.
What can we do?
When you do encounter a sociopath, your first obligation is to stay safe. If someone does threaten you with a vehicle, try to get the plate, pull over and call the police. You can keep the non-emergency number for your local PD in your phone for this purpose. (Here’s a PDF of the metro area numbers.)
There are already laws against assault and intimidation. The difficulty enforcing them will not be solved with new laws. Nor do I think new laws will correct the problem, because they don’t address cultural influences.
It comes back to norms, again.
Bullies justify their actions with the belief that they are acting on feelings shared by the majority of their peers.
We live in a society that does not respect us as equal road users. Despite the fact that the road is the safest and easiest place to ride, the majority of cyclists ride on the sidewalk. Despite that bicycles are vehicles with an equal right to use the road, riding on the road is not normative. Part of the reason for that is the belief that roadway cycling is dangerous—a belief reinforced by cyclists. And no one has sympathy for fools with a deathwish.
In addition to that, we all get cast into the stereotypes of the hated scofflaw cyclists. Again, the harassers feel their actions are upheld by a common belief system. I experienced this last year after that Godawful WESH story about the pack riders in Seminole County. The following weekend felt like open season on cyclists. The small, law-abiding group I ride with was assaulted 4 times in 2 days. And reports came in from cycling clubs all over the metro area that harassment was off the charts.
If anyone needs to confirm their belief that no one likes cyclists, they need only visit the comments section of any newspaper article about cycling. While that may not be reflective of the majority’s actual point of view, it is an excellent means of justifying one’s own prejudices.
So, what happens when you legislate what appears to be special treatment for a group of people that bullies believe no one likes? Do the bullies see the error of their ways? Or do they become emboldened by the polarization?
Like with bad infrastructure, getting laws wrong can have consequences far worse than doing nothing at all. Sometimes the consequences are the opposite of what lawmakers envision.
It’s very tempting to reach for external solutions, but I think the best thing the cycling community can do for itself is work from within—educate and empower. When I look around, it’s impossible to avoid the reality that most cyclists are their own worst enemies. What if confident, courteous cyclists were multiplied to become the majority and not the anomaly? What if we could change the image and perception of cycling by changing the normative behavior of cyclists? Oddly enough, we’d probably end up attracting more people to cycling, as well.
Oh and, cyclists who are empowered and exude confidence get harassed WAY LESS than those who cower. Bullies love capitualtion.