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Posted by on May 23, 2012 in Uncategorized | 41 comments

Bigotry is Blinding

The image below shows Primrose Dr. on the approach to Robinson St. South of Jefferson there is a wide bike lane (only wide for a block). At Jefferson, that space becomes a general use lane as Primrose goes from one lane to two. It works out pretty well since it puts the cyclist in position to control the right lane. And because motorists are already in what becomes the left lane, they have to change lanes if they want to use the right lane.

This evening, my friend Marcus and I were taking Primrose from Central to the Cady Way extension north of Colonial. We crossed Jefferson with no traffic behind us, rode double to the intersection and stopped at the red light.

The first driver who queued up behind us did so by changing lanes into our lane, with us in full sight. Typically, only right-turning drivers queue up behind me at this light because mindful drivers don’t queue up behind bicyclists (or buses or amish buggies) if they have a choice.

When the light turned green, we continued riding and having a conversation through the intersection. The lanes on Robinson are about 9ft wide. As you can see from the street view, they are barely wider than a car. A car cannot pass a solo bicyclist on Primrose without changing lanes. It makes no sense to ride single file for the sake of illusion.

Well, we were barely across the intersection when the driver behind us started honking. Without breaking stride, I indicated the existence of the adjacent lane. It didn’t take him more than 5 seconds to change lanes, but as he passed he yelled something about us being f$#%^& a$$holes. A half mile later he was waiting one car ahead of us at the red light at Colonial (which turned green within seconds of our arrival).

This is run-of-the-mill incivility. It doesn’t get under my skin and it doesn’t happen to me very often in the urban core. I’m writing about it because it’s a good example of a core dysfunction in our traffic culture — entitlement and complete lack of perspective.

First of all, he didn’t have to queue up behind us but he did. Why? Wasn’t paying attention? Or thought we’d just get out of the way?

Was he more incensed by the fact that we were riding next to each other? Probably. A lot of people (including bicyclists) think it’s uppity to ride side-by-side, even when it makes no difference. I have never had anyone honk at me there when riding alone. But it would not have been any different if we were single file — on the edge of the road, even. He still would have needed to change lanes. The left lane would have had to be clear for him to pass, even if it was a straddle pass. He didn’t notice that. Didn’t care. He only saw two people who he believes don’t belong on the road — second class citizens. We violated his sense of superiority. Even moreso, I’m sure, by not skittering out of his way like rats.

What’s at play here is nothing less than bigotry. Yes, bigotry.

The notion that a bicyclist shouldn’t be on the road is bigotry.

The notion that two bicyclists should not ride side by side, when doing so makes zero difference, is bigotry.

The inability to recognize that having to wait 5 seconds to change lanes was a result of you choosing a lane that had bicyclists in it to begin with (or a result of you not paying attention), is bigotry.

The inability to recognize that the extra 5 seconds to change lanes makes zero difference to your trip time because the red light at Colonial is 1:30, is bigotry.

The inability to recognize that the two people in front of you were, well, PEOPLE! on their way home — just like you — just using different vehicles, is bigotry.

Every lame excuse about bicyclists delaying motorists is bigotry. I-4 looks like this —>
every afternoon and there are no bicyclists there.

The reason this is on my mind is yesterday’s kerfuffle over 60 high school students being suspended for riding bikes to school. The reasons cited by the principal (despite the kids having a police escort which included the mayor!) was that it was unsafe and they were causing a traffic jam. The principal, who I’m sure was horrified to find her 15 minutes of fame involved being the center of a national hatestorm, has apologized. But I think the initial reaction is telling. Because it is bigotry. Anyone who has ever witnessed traffic near a school knows motorists cause massive traffic jams all by themselves. I also wonder if the public reaction would have been as intensely in their favor if the students hadn’t enlisted the police to help them.

Bigotry against bicycling exists because it is a product of our culture. Militant bigots act out because they feel they are supported by their peers (but just in case, they have the anonymity of their cars). Why do they feel that? Because for almost 100 years we’ve been indoctrinating people into a dysfunctional belief that roads are for motor vehicles and anyone not in one is an interloper. And yet that’s only 100 years of dysfunction, superimposed on a public space with centuries of history that did not traditionally include cars or the speed, throughput, fear, selfishness and entitlement that came with them.

THAT, my friends, is what we have to tackle if we want bicycling to become normal, accepted and respected as a mode of transportation. We won’t tackle it by avoiding and reinforcing it with facilities that get us out of the way at our own expense.

41 Comments

  1. Primrose is my shortest route from home to the Cady Way Trail — I hate both the narrowing of the street and the attitudes of some Orlando drivers. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Well said Keri!

  3. Keri,

    I don’t think the motorists are honking because you are riding 2 abreast. They are honking because they know you are required to use the shoulder, sidewalk, or occasional bike lane. If these facilities are not continuous, you are supposed to get the #$%^* out of the road even when 3 lanes in your direction are empty.

    I’ve had many city drivers in DE and in Philadelphia pull up behind me when I’ve been waiting at a red light and call me an a$$hole for being in the middle of the lane. This occurs when there is very little traffic (i.e. 2 empty lanes to pass me on the left), when traffic is heavier (when I’m waiting behind a bus, a truck, and 2 cars in 12mph traffic), when I’m the only one waiting and I choose the left lane because a SEPTA bus is blocking the right lane on the other side of the intersection.

    This to me is the clearest evidence that bicyclists are not upsetting motorists by running red lights (the swear at us when we wait) or by slowing them down (abuse is heaviest in slow traffic). Many are furious because I ride on roads with no bike lanes, while for others it seems to be just because I’m breathing; either way I don’t intend to stop either activity.

    • Angelo,

      Yeah, it’s possible that guy would have behaved the same if it was just me or if we were riding single file. Though it does seem like bigots are more provoked by cyclists riding double.

      Over the years, I’ve experienced most of the circumstances you describe. Fortunately that kind of stuff doesn’t happen very often. If it did, I’d not have nearly as positive an outlook on cycling, or on Orlando. Most drivers I encounter are courteous, so the rare asshat doesn’t rub a raw spot. I think it’s worse for cyclists who live in the suburban areas.

      Lisa and I had an encounter with a jerk when we were riding in the left lane of a 6-lane suburban road. There was no other traffic and we were about to enter a left turn lane. He stayed in our lane, despite the 2 other empty ones, and honked. As we entered the turn lane, this elderly man, who couldn’t be bothered to change lanes to pass, swerved into the left turn lane to buzz us before continuing straight. Clearly a deliberate, hateful act — driven by bigotry. You just don’t do that kind of thing to another person in a public space unless you feel entitled and superior… and supported by cultural norms.

      • You had a witness. Around here we call that “Assault with a Weapon.” I presume Florida has similar laws. Why didn’t you call the police before this violent, dangerous criminal kills someone with his violent, dangerous criminal behaviour?

        • I didn’t get the plate. Nothing the police can do without the plate. And they can’t do anything anyway if a sworn officer didn’t witness it. The best you can get is to have them contact the driver and give him a lecture.

          • So if somebody shoots you, stabs you or rapes you and a police officer doesn’t see it then they will only get a lecture? Bigotry is right if the police ignore one class of crime victim.

            Here’s an example of how the police treat these sort of violent, dangerous criminal car drivers in my neck of the woods. See:

            http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/article/845967–gta-man-convicted-of-careless-driving-after-bragging-online-about-speeding

            Short summary: Someone bragged on an internet forum about driving 100 km/hr over the speed limit. Fortunately, there was no crash and nobody was killed or injured.

            One of the readers complained to the police, who immediately sprang into action. They canvassed the neighbourhood and knocked on doors until they turned up a witness to this crime.

            Then the police charged the driver with the Criminal Code offence of “Dangerous Operation of a Motor Vehicle.” This crime is punishable by up to five years in jail.

            The criminal pled guilty to the lesser offence of “Careless Driving.” He was sentenced to 12 months probation, banned from driving for six months and a $1,000 fine was imposed. If he wanted to get his driver’s licence back after the six months were up, he was required to take a remedial driving program.

            What the article doesn’t say is that with a conviction for “Careless Driving” it will be very difficult and very, very expensive to ever again get car insurance. So until the criminal becomes very wealthy, his car driving days are over.

            Here is a discription of the Criminal Code offence of “Dangerous Operation of a Motor Vehicle”:

            http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Canadian_Criminal_Law/Offences/Dangerous_Operation_of_a_Motor_Vehicle

        • If all someone did was yell and honk, and maybe throw things, and there was no _independent_ witness, then there’s no evidence beyond the statement of the victim. Yes, officers could pursue it legally, but it would get nowhere in criminal court.

  4. Love this post. Have I thanked you lately for all you do to make the world (not just the cycling world) better for the rest of us?

  5. And sometimes the bigoted behavior goes beyond simple nastiness and makes your life very difficult.

    • Like when the police enforce bigotry.

  6. I drove to work this morning and observed Biker Rick, just in front of me, make a flawess ride up Primrose. I know we write a lot about Primrose, which sees heavy use and quite a bit of bicycle traffic. It has just about everything to deal with, except on-street parking. Thank you, Keri, for teaching me how to ride this road, which has truly been liberating.

  7. I had a driver scream at me to get on the sidewalk on that exact stretch of Primrose a year or so back. (He also tail-gated me and revved his engine.) I followed him into the parking lot of the Florida Safety Council, where I was already headed to teach. He dropped off a passenger. I spoke to the passenger (a young adult male) who told me the driver was his father, an Orange County Sheriff Deputy. (Would have been great if the kid had been in my Alternative Transportation class.)

  8. Perhaps if Alternative Transportation Education was a prerequisite for obtaining ones motoring license, there would be much less incivility and traffic bigotry. I had many sidebar discussions with ATE students who had no idea a bicycle driver was allowed to take the lane.

  9. This is an interesting psychological effect of street design; I’ve also noticed it at a couple of particular spots in my city. The yelling and abuse always happens in places where motorists are _not_ impeded from passing.

    In fact, it almost always happens at intersections where, after the light, a passing lane exists and it’s no trouble at all to use it. It does not happen, for instance, in intersections where the road enters on one side with two lanes (straight and turning) and emerges on the other side with one lane — but it does happen in intersections that go from one lane to two. My favorite variation, in fact, is when somebody moves into the left lane to pass me — and then, when I catch up with him (it’s always him) at the next red light, starts yelling at me from the left lane as I roll up in the right.

    You’re right that the motorist’s perception here has nothing to do with what he has actually just experienced in physical reality — but I’d like to see a psychologist’s explanation of what’s going on here. I’m not sure that “bigotry” quite nails it; I think it has something more to do with assertion of power — it’s when the driver _does_ have the power of free movement that he feels most disempowered and aggrieved. There might be an analogy to certain trends in right-wing politics here…

    • I agree that bigotry is a strong word, and it’s somewhat shocking to think of the problem that way. Here’s the Wikipedia definition:
      “Bigotry is the state of mind of a “bigot”, a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices, especially one who exhibits intolerance or animosity toward members of a group. Bigotry may be based on real or perceived characteristics, including sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, nationality, region, language, religious or spiritual belief, personal habits, political alignment, age, economic status or disability. Bigotry is sometimes developed into an ideology or world view.”
      I explored this concept in “Bicyclists, Motorists and the Language of Marginalization” (http://www.bicyclinglife.com/EffectiveAdvocacy/Marginalization.htm)
      When members of the religious right say “gay marriage” is a threat to marriage, they are doing the same thing. While sound reasoning tells us that the marriage of two people can’t, in and of itself, possible harm the marriage of another unrelated couple, there are those who insist it does. They do so strictly out of ideology.
      I’d say 80% of the motorists who give me grief on the road are not inconvenienced by my presence in the slightest. That we sometimes do the same thing that many others do — briefly impede the movement of other road users — while those others do not suffer the same wrath is indicative of bigotry.
      If a white bigot in 1950 Alabama stands patiently behind another white person at a “whites only” drinking fountain, but screams or resorts to violence towards a black person ahead of them at that same fountain, how is that different? The only difference is the characteristic of the “minority.” Some will say it’s different because African-Americans can’t choose or change their skin color, but bigotry has never been limited solely to immutable characteristics.

      • I have to differ on one point, and I think a lot of fellow bicyclists will agree with me. That is referring to bicycling as not necessarily being an immutable characteristic. I hope I don’t have to get a bicycle tattoo or something for others to permanently identify me as a member of this group. ;+)

        • Perhaps you misunderstood what I meant. African-Americans can’t choose to change their skin color (well, at least not without lots of money, like Michael Jackson). You or I can choose not to ride bikes. Skin color is (virtually) immutable. Being a bicyclist is not.

          • Said with tongue-in-cheek, with a touch of sarcasm. I’m surprised you didn’t catch it as you generally do.

            However, can you imagine yourself without a bike to ride? Try, and then tell me it’s not an immutable characteristic. :)

    • Interesting observation. I have noticed that most harassment is akin to territorialism, in that the motorist wasn’t inconvenienced in any significant way. Many times honks and yells come from a car 2 lanes over – I’ll look at video later and the car will have been in that inside lane the whole time.

      Here’s why I consider it bigotry:

      It’s actually easier to get stuck behind a bus because it comes to a complete stop, necessitating much more of a gap in the adjacent lane when a driver gets caught behind it and needs to change lanes from a stop. If a guy isn’t paying attention and gets stuck behind a bus, he may have a pity party or a temper tantrum inside his car, but he probably won’t honk at the bus and he certainly won’t roll down his window and call the driver a f$#%^& a$$hole when he is able to pass. Likewise, no one honks and yells at a bus from two lanes over, just because it’s there. Because buses are accepted as part of traffic.

      Speaking of buses, no white man today would get on a bus and demand a black woman give him her seat, but 60 years ago that disgusting, bigoted behavior was common in the South — backed by social custom and law. It’s not that different from the sense of entitlement a motorist has when he comes up behind a cyclist and expects that cyclist to get out of his way. That entitlement comes from the belief that a person using a bicycle is an interloper or lower class user of the public space. Whenever a group of people is given class-based superiority over another group of people, they can hold any member of that group in contempt for even the slightest perceived inconvenience, while ignoring or excusing much more significant inconvenience caused by “equals” or the system itself. Anti-bicyclist bigotry doesn’t come close to the ugly treatment of brown-skinned people (which continues, still, in both blatant and insidious ways), but it IS a civil rights issue when transportation independence is inhibited by ugly behavior, social taboos and discriminatory laws.

      Incivility stifles bicycling. And it will until we address its root causes head on.

      • You’ll have to excuse Keri and I for writing similar responses at the same time. We sometimes share the same brain.

      • Keri,
        I am very pleased to read your article and your later comments. You have chosen to use the word bigotry; for decades I have commonly used superstition, others prefer taboo. These all mean the same thing,emotional advocacy of the idea that cyclists have legal status inferior to that of motorists, which is the basis for the laws limiting cyclists to the edge of the roadway and the bikeways that do the same.

        I think that it is important, even vital, that those who are working to get more cyclists obeying the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles openly state their recognition that the opposition is emotional motorist-superiority as much as anything else. I know that this brings politics into the discussion, but politics is always in this discussion just as much as are traffic engineering and human factors. There were those who criticized Effective Cycling because it also considered politics, but, I think, their view has been proved worthless by the political events since then.

        Good for you, Keri.

        • Wow John, thanks for that insight — that “bicyclist inferiority complex” (or taboo, or whatever) and “motorist superiority complex” are two sides of the same coin. I truly hadn’t thought of it that way before!

          I’ve long had trouble with the idea of labeling cyclists with an inferiority complex because it just divides cyclists and makes us (trained cyclists) sound elitist to untrained cyclists.

          How an issue is framed is so critical. Instead of saying bike lanes increase cyclist inferiority, we should say they aggravate motorist superiority.

          But even here we have to tread carefully with our language. Most motorists do not have a superiority complex (or perhaps is just a matter of degree); they just don’t understand the real needs of cyclists.

    • I second Brian here. The most abuse I receive is when riding on Corrine (a four lane road) late in the evening, when there is little traffic. Last week for example some clown drove right up my ass and laid on the horn for about three blocks straight. Never mind that there was noone in the other lane and he could have easily passed. I finally waved (all five fingers) and pointed at the next lane. It seems it was just an affront that I was even on the road!

      On that same stretch, I often have people go by in the other lane and honk, yell, etc., at me, almost always when there is little traffic. Maybe the ‘free time’ of not having to deal with other cars gives the bigots the time they need to harass bicyclists?

      • I used to get that on Corrine, too. One morning I had a guy start laying on the horn 1/4 mile back. He opted to do that instead of changing lanes, then got trapped behind me for a few seconds before huffily changing lanes.

      • If the only two people on the road are me and the tailgater, I’ll sometimes merge to the left lane and wave the tailgater through. Apparently, only one of us is capable of changing lanes, so I consider it an act of mercy. ;-)

        • I like this a lot.

      • Corrine Drive and Virginia seems to have more rude drivers than average. Once, I was passed on the right when the driver used the parking spaces as a lane. Scared the bejeebers out of me.

        • I’ve noticed that Virginia and Corrine Drive have an unusually high percentage of outraged but unimpeded motorists. I wonder if it is because there are large swaths of on-street parking that are lightly used much of the time. Perhaps that gives drivers the impression that cyclists need to be riding there? There are certainly many cyclists that seem to believe that, and then have to swing back into the traffic lane when they encounter parked cars. I’ve experienced more hostile motorist behavior on Corrine Drive than anywhere else I’ve ridden. Just makes me want to ride there more often.

          • Those parking spaces are there as compensation for the taking of people’s front yards. This was done on many street widening projects in the 50′s and 60′s.

            Try taking those spaces away and watch how fast the old-timers remind you of their promise not to object too loudly if they received on-street parking.

  10. A lot of times I get very frustrated with exactly this sort of behavior, and I do agree, it is bigotry. And it really bothered me, but recently I had an experience that made me feel better about it. I have an awesome friend, she’s a smart, vivacious social worker who’s not afraid to rock the boat and stand up for things she believes in, even if they’re not popular. I adore her.

    Until you get her on the subject of cycling in the road… and she becomes a frothing bigot. She would never buzz or threaten a cyclist, but boy, does she become pissed off if she gets “trapped” behind one, and she’s not afraid to say so to my face (which I love her for, and then the debate begins!)

    But the lesson I learned is this: otherwise perfectly decent and wonderful people can be bigots when it comes to cyclists (or any subject I suppose). This somehow made me feel liberated, made it not seem so terrible to get honked at, because hey, maybe under other circumstances I could sit down and have a drink with this person and get along.

    Sure there are genuinely malevolent people out there, but I think they are fewer and farther between than people who are otherwise good-natured but uninformed or simply having a bad day.

    • That’s a very important observation Christina! Most bigots ARE nice people (or at least think of themselves as nice people; think Archie Bunker).
      Now let’s look at two different strategies towards that nice, bigoted person.

      In Strategy 1 we tell her that we would be better off if we were moved off to the side of the road — or off the roadway altogether — where we wouldn’t have to get in her way. And she’ll be the one who pays for those “improvements” through her gas taxes. While the fact that she’s paying for our bikeways irks her, she figures at least she won’t have to sit behind us any more. This makes her happy and reinforces her biases (while subjecting us cyclists to more conflicts and hazards). Then she encounters some cyclist who doesn’t believe we should be shunted to the side. Now that she’s had her bigotry validated by a cyclist she knows, isn’t she more likely to be nasty to that cyclist? (“I paid for that bike lane, so you damn-well better use it!”)

      In Strategy 2 we take the time to explain all the real hazards we have to deal with when hugging the edge or using the bike lane or sidewalk. Better yet, we explain how a more assertive lane position actually makes decision-making simpler for her and reduces her need to put her head on a swivel at intersections. Now her bigotry has been invalidated through both reason AND self-interest. How’s she going to treat that other competent roadway cyclist now?

  11. Great post, Keri. While I know I have my rights and know I’m in the right when I ride, I always cringe when I get cursed at. Something about it just bugs me. I’m still working on not getting so bothered, not easy to do.

  12. Good to see you this AM Diana. I ride that road everyday as my main North-South route and 98% of the time never have issues. I heard once that 97% of drivers want nothing more than to avoid me. It sounds like Keri and Marcus had an encounter with part of the 3%. I would love to have that conversation in strategy#2 with every motorist in Central Florida. How do you get it out there?

    Yelling and honking are annoying, but the close pass is what I cannot tolerate. How long before the close pass is too close? Most drivers have more confidence in their abilities than I do.

  13. Interesting.
    Last friday I’m on my home, stopped at a traffic light. There is a sign hanging under the light,”No Turn On Red”, guy pulls up behind me a just layes down on the horn. The light turns red, I turn right. As the lanes was too narrow I ride in the left side of the lane (as far to the right as is safe, Washington law). The honking guy turns behind me, againt starts with the horn, then swerves around me (not ‘At a safe distance’)honking and gesturing.
    On the back window is lettered ‘FLORIDA BOY’.
    I’m sorry Keri.

  14. When I’m riding with someone else, it’s typically on narrow two-lane roads. No matter what we do, motorists must change lanes to pass, or do a straddle pass.
    Perhaps this is uncle-Tom of me, but I normally switch to single file when I know of an overtaking motorist. I stay in the middle of the lane, to enforce a lane change pass.
    I think people perceive this as courteous. I know sometimes, if you don’t single up, regardless of what everyone reading this knows about passing, they perceive not singling up as discourteous.
    You might call this a concession to popular misunderstanding.

    • On a very narrow 2-lane road, it does make a difference. 2 cyclists side-by-side can obscure the motorist’s view of the oncoming lane, making his decision to pass more difficult. I make decisions about whether or not to stay double on a 2 lane road based on multiple factors, many of which are dynamic.

      I was specifically taking about multi-lane roads in my post.

      • On a very narrow 2-lane, a car may not even be able to pass in the opposing lane while giving the left cyclist 3 feet.

    • I don’t know about the notion of 2 cyclists obscuring a view, but I DO find it peculiar that I encounter little hostility when riding by myself in precisely the same lane position that I would use if riding as the leftward part of 2 cyclists, but feel very vulnerable when doing so pair riding. John Forester had advice for people asking about riding in pairs in his Google lecture that mirrors my experience. Personally, I think it is mostly a part of motorist psychology.

  15. I’ve been going back and forth in my mind as to whether this is really bigotry. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of bigot is “a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices, especially one who exhibits intolerance or animosity toward members of a group.” But is it bigotry when it’s a prejudice which is widely held and that most people are unaware they are even holding such a prejudice? I’ve seen many intelligent people argue that any cycling which delays a motorist even momentarily is unsafe, because that’s been beaten into their heads their whole life and they can’t see the disconnect.

    Here’s an interesting post with images of the route where the students were suspended for riding to school. Not the kind of route I would expect to a school. The commentary of the writer of the post who is a cyclist is interesting, I would consider it more of a bias than bigotry.

    http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2012/05/23/when-riding-a-bike-is-a-prank/

    • Brian: I think bias is when someone assumes the Other is misguided but otherwise an okay person, and makes assumptions about behavior which are based on ignorance. A biased person will often listen to arguments and perhaps change their minds if persuaded. For example, many Americans who were biased against gays getting married have had a gay couple move in next door, get to know them, and come to realize they should be allowed to marry just like opposite sex couples. A bigot would never be so convinced. A bigot thinks you’re an absolute idiot, sub-human and/or evil and will not listen to a thing you have to say, no matter how polite or well-reasoned your argument.
      Many motorists are biased against cyclists; relatively few are outright bigots. But if 1 out of 1,000 are bigots, we can expect such abuse pretty often in an urban area.