I Am Not a Bicyclist
“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
—UCLA basketball coach John Wooden
I’ve spent the past two decades trying to figure out how make bicycling work better for people. Perhaps instead I should have been trying to figure out how to make our communities work better. As John Wooden implied, when it comes to cycling, I’m a know-it-all, but when it comes to what really counts…
I’ve found I have to refute a number of things I used to believe, or at least wanted to be true. That’s a fancy way of saying I was wrong.
This year the “bike lane wars” have really heated up. The war stories keep coming through my web feeds. New York City is the front line. Florida’s legislature felt the need to control cyclists by passing a mandatory bike lane use law last year. Why so much rancor about something that’s supposed to be so wonderful and benign?
The book “Community: The Structure of Belonging” by Peter Block is helping me get to the root of the problem. Block’s book explores the all-too-common dysfunctions of our communities, showing why, in spite of immense affluence and ubiquitous communication options, we are unable to solve so many of our pressing problems. Reading it I came upon passages which could have been written explicitly for the “bicycling community.” But we shouldn’t feel too special; our problems are practically universal. Here are (for our purposes) the key statements from the most important passage in the book (underlines are mine):
“If we create a context of fear, fault, and retribution, then we will focus on protecting ourselves, which plants the seed of entitlement.
“The retributive context … is based on fear, fault finding, fragmentation … it is more about being right than working something out, more about gerrymandering for our own interests than giving voice to those on the margin. Other than that it is fine.
”The cost of entitlement is that it is an escape from accountability and soft on commitment. It gets in the way of authentic citizenship.
“What is interesting is that the existing public conversation claims to be tough on accountability, but the language of accountability that occurs in a retributive context is code for “control.” High-control systems are unbearably soft on accountability. They keep screaming for tighter controls, new laws, and bigger systems, but in the scream, they expose their weakness.”
We fixate on who is at fault, rather than on how conflicts and injuries might be best reduced.
Fear is the foundation of much of what bicycling advocates are concerned. “We’ve got to make bicycling safer!” (Or at least seem safer.) Since “safe” is an inherently relative term, it’s the grounds for endless argument. We’ve managed to get people so afraid of bicycling that recently a “bicycle planning professional” on the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals email list was asking about how one might create a designated pedestrian and bicyclist space, segregated from motor traffic, in an alley.
We fixate on who is at fault, rather than on how conflicts and injuries might be best reduced. Once again, this leads to endless argument and finger-pointing. Nobody wants to be seen as being at fault, so each focuses on the faults of the others. Since everyone else is at fault, we become the victims. And since we’re “doing god’s work” (being so green and healthy and all), we must be entitled to special treatment by everybody else: motorists, officers, planners, engineers…. We hold them all accountable for our safety and comfort.
How do we hold them accountable? By enlisting government to control them.
99.999% of motorists do not want to hit us or hurt us. But we try to control them anyway, through laws and engineering; the 3-foot passing law, a vulnerable user law, and bike lanes which say “This is our turf, you’d best keep out of it.” To which some motorists reply, perhaps righteously offended, “That’s your playpen. I paid for it and you’d best stay in it for your own good.” So in retribution they try to control cyclists with a mandatory bike lane law. None of these attempts come close to achieving their intent, because they focus on blame instead of on how crashes actually happen.
Controlling with Paint?
Through my own use of bike lanes and observations of the behaviors of motorists and other cyclists, I’ve come to believe they create unnecessary hazards and conflicts on urban streets.
It’s time for some serious and honest research into the effectiveness of bike lanes.
For many years I tried to find the evidence that bike lanes increase cycling without compromising safety. That was my belief, but I’ve yet to find definitive data supporting it. Now I’m finding the validity of that hypothesis to be increasingly unlikely. While they do produce some modest increases, through my own use of bike lanes and observations of the behaviors of motorists and other cyclists, I’ve come to believe they create unnecessary hazards and conflicts on urban streets. They’re particularly problematic on lower-speed streets where bicyclists are often going as fast or faster than the motorists. The reports involving crashes due to conflicts created by the bike lanes are starting to come in. From my informed perspective, the negatives of bike lanes now outweigh the modest benefits.
“Generally speaking bicyclists are going to stay in bicycle lanes because of public pressure, the same way that smokers aren’t going to smoke in this park; we’re not going to give out tickets, it’s public pressure — the same way you pay your taxes. Most people in America, unlike other places in the world, pay their taxes, and that lets us go after the handful that don’t.“
Block’s pattern of community dysfunction predicts it all. Everybody else is wrong, except us.
There you have it; the retribution cycle in action. Fearful cyclists push to get the government to control the “at-fault” motorists by creating bike lanes. Motorists, who see cyclists as unpredictable fools, show their disdain for that control (and loss of operating space) by parking in bike lanes. Bicyclists have to leave the bike lanes for valid reasons, then get ticketed by police who side with the motorists. One cyclist gets retribution by creating a very successful video, and the rest of the cycling community piles on. So the Mayor gets defensive and equates uppity cyclists with smokers and tax cheats. Block’s pattern of community dysfunction predicts it all. Everybody else is wrong, except us. Where will it end?
We try to control traffic engineers with “bike-friendly” policies, and take them to court when they don’t adhere to them, such as in the A1A case.
Of course the 3-foot passing law is not enforced, because officers don’t respect us (hmmm, why is that?). The mandatory bike lane law is enforced (at least socially). And increasingly across the country advocates and planners are saying bike lanes aren’t enough, because they don’t control motorists enough; so barrier-separated bike lanes — “cycle tracks” — must be the answer.
“The concern about street safety and increasing the comfort and quality of the urban experience is of course legitimate. What limits us and undermines our quest for authentic community is the belief that fault finding, legislation, and enforcement can give us the security we seek. … We think more watching improves performance. All evidence is to the contrary, for most high-performing communities and organizations are heavily self-regulating.”
Who is Accountable?
And where is the accountability from the bicyclists? It’s rather hard to find. See them knocking down our doors to take safe cycling courses? Nope. Indeed, the most socially visible bicyclists are hardly accountable at all: Critical Mass riders, pack riders, hipster/fixie riders. Responsible cyclist behavior is so rare that I’ve heard stories of motorists going out of their way to thank cyclists for acting predictably. (Full disclosure: I used to ride with packs, and I’ve attended a handful of Critical Mass rides. Past tense. But I’ve never been hip or ridden a fixed gear.)
All these attempts at control, whether of motorists, bicyclists, planners or engineers, as they get increasingly specific in their intent, are also increasingly subject to challenge by the ones being controlled, because each party finds valid reasons to question the control. This only leads to more conflict, ultimately ending up in our courts. The only solution to this downward spiral is accountability, and accountability must start with me, not you. Us, not them. So that’s why I say, “I was wrong.”
Accountability must lead to commitment. In order for cyclists to be released of the control being imposed on us by others (mostly by the State), we must make the commitment, without condition, to change our ways so control is no longer necessary. That doesn’t mean we do what others want (because what others want of us is based on retribution, not fairness or reason), it means we do what’s best for all involved, including ourselves.
For many years I’ve argued that it’s unfair to expect bicyclists to “police our own,” since pedestrians, motorists and motorcyclists don’t. Now I believe it is our responsibility. Maybe not to “police” our fellow cyclists, but we must figure out how to influence and encourage them to strive to reach a higher standard. Not just to be conspicuous, predictable and the most polite of roadway users, but to work for the safety of all road users as well.
Capacities, Not Deficiencies
“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.”
—Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
While there may be a few exceptions, it is possible for any reasonably competent person to bike safely on virtually any road. We know it’s possible because people are doing it. These people are not super-fit or fearless daredevils. They are individuals who have simply learned how to drive their bicycles in a predictable, defensive and strategic manner. If they can do it, most any adult can. Not only does such cycling eliminate the vast majority of hazards and conflicts with motorists, it is also appreciated by many, if not most motorists. Motorists know what to expect of such cyclists.
What should we call such cyclists? I suggest we avoid “vehicular cycling;” while it’s objectively correct, it’s loaded with too much political baggage amongst cycling advocates. Florida Bicycle Association calls its traffic cycling course CyclingSavvy, but a more generic term is probably needed. While it’s essentially defensive driving for bicyclists, the term “defensive” can have a negative connotation. What motorists need from us is to be polite and dependable. So I am proposing we use the term “dependable cycling.” Keri Caffrey likes to tell the story of how she used to have to deal with so many stupid motorists, but after she learned to ride properly, all-of-a-sudden those drivers got so much smarter. By being polite, defensive and dependable, we encourage motorists to be polite and dependable as well.
I’ve made my commitment to make cycling better by first and foremost being a better cyclist. I hope you will do the same. No matter how long you have been cycling, you will learn valuable lessons from FBA’s CyclingSavvy course. The course is all about being accountable and committed, not about avoiding becoming a victim.
“Typically I ride my road bikes between 9,000 and 12,000 miles each year and I ride them anywhere I want to go in daylight or darkness. I enrolled in the three-part Cycling Savvy course. I learned fundamentals I don’t remember thinking about . . . no wonder I wasn’t very helpful to beginners. Convictions that I held resolutely were challenged and shown to be indefensible. This course is wonderful for timid cyclists and a must for those of us who know it all.”
—Larry Gies, Orlando
“I don’t think there are too many people in the world who have more experience with different kinds of cycling (recreational, commuting, touring and racing) in different parts of the world (five continents) than I have. …When CyclingSavvy came to the midwest in April and June 2011, I took both the Three-Part Course and the Instructors’ Course in St. Louis. I believe that I learned more in these few months about cycling safely and comfortably in traffic than I had learned from my previous 50 or so years of cycling.”
—Gary Cziko, new CyclingSavvy Instructor in Champaign-Urbana, IL
No bicycle facility, traffic law, t-shirt message, YouTube video, or protest ride can come close to the effectiveness of being a dependable cyclist.
Please don’t take these quotes as chest-thumping. Keri and I didn’t approach the development of this course with the thought of “We have all this game-changing information to share with cyclists.” Instead, we were focused on simply getting more people comfortable cycling in traffic by changing their beliefs and doing a better job of explaining key concepts. In the process we learned a ton of new things ourselves. It’s said one learns more by teaching than by being a student. I think one can expand that to: one learns more by developing a new curriculum than by teaching. And the most important thing we learned was that when we communicate politely and clearly, drive assertively, and act dependably, motorists treat us with respect. No bicycle facility, traffic law, t-shirt message, YouTube video, or protest ride can come close to the effectiveness of being a dependable cyclist.
Who Are You and What Can You Contribute?
This piece is entitled “I Am Not a Bicyclist.” Yes, I did that to grab your attention. Of course I am a bicyclist. I am also a husband, a reader, a gardener, and a number of other things; and somewhere near the top of that list is a Citizen. I used to believe the fact that we identified ourselves as cyclists was an advantage. It enabled us to come together to develop strategies and implement them to improve our standing in our communities. But by identifying ourselves as cyclists we also set ourselves apart. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, notable social psychologists have promoted the realistic conflict theory, which holds that groups which are segregated from one another — even ones that share core values and common backgrounds — inevitably develop prejudices and discrimination. The Robbers Cave Park experiment is a classic example. Capulets and Montagues. Motorists and bicyclists.
Let’s be citizens first, and cyclists somewhere down the list. Let’s be individuals who take accountability for the future, rather than entitled consumers waiting for the government to give us “our own space.”
“Bicycling community” is an oxymoron, a dysfunction, as is any “(insert interest group) community.” It’s an idea we should leave behind. Community is about integration and sharing. In functional communities people help one another do the “right” things far more often than they punish those who do the “wrong” things.
Let’s be citizens first, and cyclists somewhere down the list. Let’s be individuals who take accountability for the future, rather than entitled consumers waiting for the government to give us “our own space.” Once again, Block says it best:
“A citizen is one who produces the future, someone who does not wait, beg, or dream for the future. The antithesis of being a citizen is the choice to be a consumer or a client … Consumers give power away. They believe that their own needs can be best satisfied by the actions of others. Consumers also allow others to define their needs. If leaders and service providers are guilty of labeling or projecting onto others the “needs” to justify their own style of leadership or service they provide, consumers collude with them by accepting others’ definition of their needs. This provider-consumer transaction is the breeding ground for entitlement, and it is unfriendly to our definition of citizenship and the power inherent in that definition.”
The rationale for segregation is deficiency. The rationale for control is deficiency. We call for the segregation of bicyclists and motorists because both are presumed deficient and unwilling or unable to avoid colliding with one another. We call for our governments to control motorists and cyclists with increasingly prescriptive laws and enforcement for the same reason. If deficiency is the expectation we set and the story we tell, then that’s where we’ll go. While the deficiencies are real, so are our capacities for competence, politeness, and dependability. Which story shall we tell?
“What do you want from me — my deficiencies or my capacities?”
— Peter Block