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Posted by on Jun 16, 2010 in Uncategorized | 11 comments

It’s not about cyclists vs motorists, scofflaws simply use the tool at hand.

(Helmet tip to Danc for posting the video on Yaybikes.)

Recent articles about the MBL law and the Jacksonville stabbing have brought out the anti-cyclist comment trolls. I typically avoid the comments, but even that isn’t working anymore. Now some of these people feel so emboldened by their righteousness, they’ve even taken to joining cyclist groups on Facebook to spew their rants. According to the trolls, all bicyclists are responsible for the ones who don’t follow the rules. Apparently, no bicyclists are worthy of respect or equal treatment since some bicyclists run red lights and stop signs. Yet, somehow the same standards don’t apply to them.

Scofflaw motorists kill over 40,000 people a year in the U.S. because they are inattentive, careless, aggressive or fail to follow the rules. The finger-pointing and claims of how dangerous we are seem awfully absurd in that context.

I’m not done.

Of course, none of this excuses the blatant disrespect for the rules we see exhibited by our fellow bicyclists. Part of what makes the trolls so infuriating is that while their accusations are disingenuous and motivated by pure selfishness (they perceive bicyclists as an inconvenience and don’t want to share the road with us), they cannot be dismissed as fiction. And we know it.

Let’s not let the finger-pointing obscure the truth, this has nothing to do with what vehicle we drive. Ignoring the rules isn’t exclusive to people who ride bikes. It’s an attitude endemic to our entire traffic culture.

This cyclist froggers across an intersection in DC because he can.

Most cyclists are also motorists. When people drive cars, they are mostly constrained by a system of expectations, and by the physical limitations of the car itself, from doing many of the annoying things people do on bicycles. Nonetheless, motorist stop sign compliance is just as bad (albeit less blatant), and people in cars do other illegal things the power and anonymity of the car affords them (like drive 10-15mph over the speed limit, violate pedestrians’ right-of-way, text while driving and harass other road users). When the same people get on bikes they often don’t feel bound by the traffic laws at all. This is because our culture doesn’t respect or treat cyclists as drivers of vehicles. Yes, the very same disrespect that motivates the comment troll comes full-circle! In addition, the bicycle affords the enhanced visibility and maneuverability to circumvent the system. While a person on a bicycle isn’t as likely to kill a fellow citizen while violating the rules, s/he is still contributing to the degradation of a community system.

It comes back to the culture of me.

If it’s all about you, there’s no impetus to be a responsible member of a bigger system. In a system where most of the players are exhibiting self-centered behavior, there’s very little external reinforcement for community-centered behavior. Those of us who follow the rules of the system have a broader view of, and respect for, the system itself and how it relates to the overall civility and livability of our community. That’s not altruism, though. A livable community benefits the individuals supporting it far more than the instant-gratification behaviors that undermine it.

All through my 20s and into my early 30s, I drove my car and my bike like I was the center of the universe. Get out of my way! Learning to drive a motorcycle in my mid thirties was my first introduction how it felt to be vulnerable among aggressive drivers. But when I started using the bicycle a lot more than the motorcycle or car, I became fully infused with a different point of view on the frustration caused by other road users behaving with the same level of self-centeredness I was. I wasn’t in a position to complain about others without cleaning up my own act.

What surprised me was that when I did change my style of cycling (and driving), my stress level went way down. Most of the things I was doing to get ahead and beat the system were causing me a LOT more stress than it was worth. Oddly, my perception of other people’s behavior actually improved—especially from the saddle.

This slowing down, reduction of stress, reordering of priority created an even broader shift in my life. It created a cascade of reordering a lot of other things unrelated to transportation.

Human-scale engagement with people in the traffic system opens a portal to a sense of belonging so many people are missing. The simple, positive interactions are self-reinforcing: exchanging smiles and waves with other drivers at a 4-way stop (nothing makes a motorist smile like a cyclist stopping 😉 ); greeting people who are walking their dogs or pushing strollers; kids selling lemonade in the neighborhood; the FEDEX driver who delivers a package to my house and recognizes me from seeing me on my bike and the friendly wave I give him when he passes me.

There is no escaping our interdependence. At their core, the rules of the road are simply a structure for a system of civility. When we slow down and respect a system of civility, we discover we are a part of something life-enhancing and worth nurturing.


Others have recently written good posts on similar topics:

Motorist Frustration, The Poor Dears and The Culture of Impatience on Tulsa Alternative Transportation Examiner

Stop, Collaborate and Listen on Let’s Go Ride a Bike

Traffic Suggestions, Sort Of on Carbon Trace

Reaching Out to Motorists on R A N T W I C K

11 Comments

  1. You make a good point about the Culture of Me. The government cannot really legislate “civility”. Assholism is not a crime, but it also doesn’t get you invited to parties 🙂

  2. “This slowing down, reduction of stress, reordering of priority created an even broader shift in my life. It created a cascade of reordering a lot of other things unrelated to transportation.”

    Yes, it sounds like a chapter of the Tao 🙂

    About a dozen years ago when I worked for the UNC Highway Safety Research Center we had an annual pow wow for funding ideas. I suggested an awareness campaign showing how speeding in urban areas was less than fruitless. My colleagues thought I was some kind of alien. So glad I no longer am with that striving-for-mediocrity organization.

    There’s a growing disconnect between instant gratification in the virtual world and delayed gratification in the real world. The melding of the two worlds in motor vehicles (cell, texting, gps, internet this and that) in some respects leads to increased frustration behind the wheel where stopping is a fact of life. Of course, lots of inattentiveness playing with car toys results in not stopping when appropriate.

    There is also the fact that traffic engineering/lights is seemingly an ancient technology sorely in need of refinement. It IS foolish to have to stop at a light when nobody else is in sight and sit there for minutes, increasing frustration and the opportunity to be further distracted by internet toys.

    I wonder what the is distribution of causes for the red light running in the video.

  3. Good stuff Keri. I couldn’t agree more, and thanks for the link to my post.

  4. Back when it was my area of official expertise, I conducted a public meeting about roadway safety in an area with heavy cycling activity. A woman stood up and demanded “zero tolerance” for cyclists running stop signs (mind you, I believe that a lot “running” is really “rolling”, and that’s a different animal).

    I told her I agreed with her (cheers from the audience), but only if we didn’t stop at cyclists (cheers stopped). No “California Stops” by motorists (hesitant approval). And tickets for motorists going just one MPH over the speed limit (disagreement). “That’s going too far!” “Is it?”, I asked.

    Then we had a good discussion.

  5. Good post Keri. I’m tiring of the fixation on engineering as the only solution to the sharing problem. Pointing out to city staff and other community leaders that, you know what? Orlando is a pretty cycling friendly community, could go a long way (that’s the encouragement).

    I think a real vacuum in the 4 E’s of promoting bicycling is the education component. Both for users and non-users. Even if people never take a cycling savvy course, expose to good PSAs and other messaging that reinforces that bikes are legitimate users of the road (and we should look out for them, after all, they’re someone’s mom, daughter, son, dad, aunt, doctor, neighborhood homeless dude 😉

    We’ve done the engineering thing and there’s a plethora of information about roadway geometry and various solutions to various problems. I think one way to get better engineering/design solutions to those problems is by developing relationships, perfecting the elevator speech (that 30 sec sound bite when whatever cycling issue comes up) – in sum – education and encouragement.

  6. I think we should not, however, forget that these trolls represent an extreme and fairly rare fringe, albeit a very visible fringe.

    OVERWHELMINGLY, the motorists I interact with every day just want to get on with getting where they’re going, just as I do. Sometimes (actually, it’s more than just sometimes) they are ignorant, but their hearts are in the right place. Amazingly, they even put up with the craziness that passes itself off as typical cycling nowadays.

  7. I like Steve A’s comments. Most motorists aren’t interested in making a cause celebre out of class conflict.

  8. Never never never will you hear me spouting the oft recited meme that cyclist scofflaws don’t matter because their capacity to harm others is so much less. Never, …but as much as I loved watching that Springfield video, the fact is that the robot-cameras unthinkingly and in pursuit of municipal revenue generation record so many instants in which lives are ruined by the sheer physics of motor travel.

    You don’t recover from crashes like those with a simple call to the insurance company, and all because drivers thought they had more time than they did or spaced out behind the wheel or were just selfish and overconfident.

    I don’t have the answer. Rugged individualism is like a religion in this country, I don’t know how to impart the message that traffic and roads are a system for the benefit of all of us. The rules of the road don’t exist to punish you or slow you down; they’re there to get you there alive (and me too).

  9. Keri, you’re absolutely right about the stress reduction that comes with learning to ride a bike in traffic. Who’d a thunk it? The idea seems so contradictory that most people won’t even consider it, let alone actually try to ride their bike as they’d drive their car. For many, it’s an astounding revelation when they discover how easy it is.

    …and thanks for the link, darlin’. (I’m larning to speak Western. Bear with me!)

    • “…ride their bike as they’d drive their car.”

      Would cyclists drive their cars the way they drive their bicycles?

  10. For the anti-cyclist individuals, it’s just another reason for them to put down other people to make themselves feel more important. It’s like the school bully who needs to boost his ego by making others feel worthless. They feed on this, even though it only makes them feel good for a short time and then they must go on to demean someone else to boost their ego again.

    Keri, I’ve had a similar transition while driving my car. As a teenager and into my 20’s, I was into the thrills of driving a car (I’m now 34). I had to be the first one past the intersection when that light turned green. I thought driving 10-15 mph over the speed limit was ok. Some things that changed for me was getting my first speeding ticket in my mid-20’s and then getting hit by a red light runner. I was also practicing meditation and stress reduction, and found that slowing down helped me feel calmer, happier and better able to handle difficult situations, whether on the road or off. I’m still not perfect, but I’m trying (I do find that excess sugar shifts my mood at times to the worse). And yes, I am going to encounter the occasional rude person while on my bike or in my car, but find there are more courteous people out there, and I try to wave and smile at both.

    BTW, I can’t believe that some of those in the video intentionally ran those red lights. I want to say they were distracted in some way. I was a passenger when a red light runner hit the car I was in and it was because they were trying to beat the red light. That’s what I mostly see out there and that’s one thing I don’t assume anymore when that light turns green. I now cautiously roll out into the intersection looking both ways.

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