Harassment, Polarization, Backlash

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:

  1. throw an object in the direction of a cyclist,
  2. threaten or purposely frighten or disturb a cyclist,
  3. honk or shout at a cyclist in an attempt to frighten or disturb,
  4. intimidate and make cyclist fear injury, or
  5. knowingly endanger a cyclist.

(See this post on Carbon Trace for the full language. And this one for some other good links.)

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.

29 replies
  1. ChipSeal
    ChipSeal says:

    Wow Keri, more really good content! Lots to chew on and digest. But on my first read, it is resonating really well.

    Keri said; “However, there is a subset of sociopaths who are looking to pick a fight.

    Sociopaths are rare, as they get culled from the herd rather quickly. I have encountered them, but it is too rare to worry about I think.

    I had another off-duty cop try to enforce imaginary laws today, but he began the encounter as a traffic bully. I will post a full write-up this week at my blog.

  2. Rantwick
    Rantwick says:

    I’m with Chipseal. That was just plain good stuff. I typically don’t experience much harrassment in the warm months, but “no one has sympathy for fools with a deathwish”… I have thoughtfully found ways to cycle safely in Canadian winter. It can definitely be done, but most people think I’m an insane risk-taker, and the insults fly along with the snow.

  3. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    Keri wrote:
    “You can keep the non-emergency number for your local PD…”

    Kevin’s comment:
    Acts or threats of violence constitute a police emergency. Our local police department considers this to be the highest category of emergency, more important than crimes against property. Whenever I am the victim I call 911 and say to the operator “This is an emergency…” and describe what happened.

  4. Rick
    Rick says:

    Great article! Having experienced all of the above, I would love to have some specific law. Unfortunately I have to take councilman Wade’s side on this one. Harrassment of anyone, whether they are a pedestrian or cyclist or rollerblader is unacceptable. What’s next, a new ordinance the size of a dictionary for each group of people?

    I have read on this blog and others of people who have called the non-emergeny number with no results. Even if you have the presence of mind to get the tag and get it right, there is very little chance that they can prove this person actually did what you say they did.

    As far as polarization, I doubt of anyone would really care if there were an ordinance and I feel it would be largely symbolic.

    It’s too easy for me to flash some quick sign language when I hear the car horn and screaming (like yesterday). Thanks for the reminder to keep my cool!

  5. Abhishek
    Abhishek says:

    Nor do I think new laws will correct the problem, because they don’t address cultural influences.

    How do we better the culture? If there can be laws against littering and jay walking, there should be a law against harassing. If one group gets harassed most often by another, there needs to be a specific law.

    Upholding the law is a whole different story. How many motorists have been cited for driving within 3 feet of a cyclist? How many motorcyclists have been cited for overtaking a bicycle in the same lane? These two infractions have a direct impact on safety. Harassment is mostly verbal and not as low of a quality as the car that buzzed past your elbows.

  6. andrewp
    andrewp says:

    Keri: A couple of points ….

    From the book you lent me on Traffic**, part of the book dealt with the fact that getting in a car lets us be (drive) anonomous(ly). We do things that we would never do face to face. And if there is little chance you will ever be held accountable? More likely behaviors that we would never do in person. A thought — If all cyclists had a video camera that recorded events, it seems bullies would realize that bad behavior could be recorded and then used for law enforcement purposes (proof of one person’s word vs. anothers). Cameras are getting smaller and cheaper all the time ….. would that work?

    On another point — so why ARE communities pushing for and spending for bicycle infrastructure? What are their reasons? Who in the community is doing the pushing? It’s hard for me to believe that such a small group of people (the dedicated bicyclists) are getting the $$ funding simply because they say “I want this …”.

    And a last point point — I know there is a lot of bad special-interest legeslation out there, but there is some good special-interest legislation too — and it was needed at the time it was voted in. Think Nineteenth Amendment, for example (the right for women to vote). So let’s not rule out special interest legislation out of hand — sometimes they can be good things to have.

    Kinda like bike lanes …….. 😉

    **Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and what that says about us) by Tom Vanderbilt.

  7. Keri
    Keri says:

    Results from the PD depends on the department and on the incident. In my experience, OPD takes intimidation seriously and will put out a bolo for the offending vehicle. Lt Kelting of Seminole County also takes harassment seriously and has told me his department will follow up.

    There is little they can do in the way of arrest or citation if they don’t witness the incident, but making contact with the perpetrator does send a message. BTW, if someone throws an object at you, you have evidence. Collect the object. It has the perp’s fingerprints on it.

    But Rick is right, in many cases it’s difficult to get the license plate or even distinguish the model of car. Stuff happens fast.

    It’s taken me many years to develop the discipline to keep my hands on the handlebars. There are still times when I fail at it. What I have learned is that not reacting makes the majority of harassment incidents fade faster. I consciously make it roll off, it steals less of my energy. I’m less likely to remember it a few hours later.

    The vast majority of harassment I experience is someone honking or yelling while passing safely and easily in the next lane.

  8. P.M. Summer
    P.M. Summer says:

    On another point — so why ARE communities pushing for and spending for bicycle infrastructure? What are their reasons? Who in the community is doing the pushing? It’s hard for me to believe that such a small group of people (the dedicated bicyclists) are getting the $$ funding simply because they say “I want this …”.

    Because people desire linear parks to play in, either on foot, on a bicycle, or on skates. The overlap with available transportation funds (and groups pushing the idea that it’s dangerous to walk on sidewalks or cycle on streets) has led to a new infrastructure demand. And yes, it’s a relatively small group. Part of the initial attraction to politicians is the seemingly low cost for MUPs, the availability of other people’s money to pay for them, and the chance to stand in front of TV cameras and win votes.

    Because politicians (like too many “advocates”) basically believe that bicycles don’t belong on roadways (for different reasons, but with the same result), building facilities seems like a win/win situation. But the two paths are both a downward spiral into a abyss of segregation.

    If “the government:” is constantly spending money on keeping bicycles out of the way of motorists, then motorists can’t help but become emboldened to the idea that every cyclist on the road is a trespasser. The inability to provide MUPs everywhere someone needs to go leads to cycle-tracks, that increase exposure to real risk at intersections and driveways, and that increase dangers to pedestrians (the odd man out in all these discussions).

    Partly it’s about the confusion as to whether a bicycle is a vehicle or a piece of recreation equipment. The latter usually wins out. It’s the soft prejudice of low expectations come to life.

  9. ChipSeal
    ChipSeal says:

    andrewp said; “So why ARE communities pushing for and spending for bicycle infrastructure? What are their reasons? Who in the community is doing the pushing?

    The imperative of getting cyclists “out of the way” is a necessary sacrifice at the feet of the “traffic flow”god. A god worshiped by municipal traffic engineers and local politicians.

    The siren song of “matching funds” makes magik paint seem inexpensive. Local brownie points at the expense of tax-payers far away.

    Anti-automobile interests and ecology interests are also in favor of P&P projects, being seen as compatible with their agendas.

    These groups are organized. They seem to represent large numbers of the public when acting in concert. General motorists who would rather scarce taxpayer funds be used for more of the general good are unorganized and uninformed during the planning process. They are not heard from until the deed is done.

  10. Keri
    Keri says:

    “Kinda like bike lanes” says Andrew.

    Right you are. They are both symbolic things aimed at making cyclists feel better. They are both desired by cyclists to shield them from problems they cannot solve… but that need to be solved on a broader scale. And they both have the potential for negative unintended consequences.

  11. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    Abhishek asked:
    “How do we better the culture?”

    Kevin’s answer:
    In this case, effective law enforcement. Criminal charges such as “Assault With a Weapon” (for throwing an object) or “Uttering a Death Threat” (for threatening to run over a cyclist with a car). Both of which, here in Ontario, are good for serious jail time. When police arrest the perpetrators and throw them in jail, and judges sentence them to serious jail time, then I predict that the culture will change rapidly.

  12. Abhishek
    Abhishek says:


    I know those laws but how do I prove the crime? Law enforcement can be biased too. I know because I have experienced it first hand. Does every cyclist run around with video cameras strapped to their bikes?

    These questions appear rhetorical but they are not. They are a little pessimistic but also very real. I want to ride a bike anywhere I want and legally can without feeling like a martyr. How do I get there?

    What do we have to do to not be in this situation: link?

  13. Keri
    Keri says:


    In areas where there is regular harassment, I recommend cyclists use video cameras to document and then arrange a meeting with your local PD to discuss solutions. Decent video cameras are relatively inexpensive and the documentation is priceless.

    I know some good advocates up there who have good relations with Jax-area PDs. If you email me, I’ll hook you up.

    Cyclists in Lake County are currently working with the Sheriff to find solutions to a real problem with harassment out there. The Sheriff has been very receptive and supportive. The issue was approached and framed well, and that’s key. I’ll be happy to share some insights on that, if you’d like.

    I really believe the best thing to do is sit down with the PDs. It’s more effective to form a partnership than to have more laws dumped on them from above.

  14. Keri
    Keri says:

    One more thing. I think some publicity about the police cracking down on bad motorist behavior by enforcing existing laws which protect ALL PEOPLE sends a different PR message than the passage of a new law which protects CYCLISTS.

    Cyclists are people.

  15. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    Abhishek asked:
    “I know those laws but how do I prove the crime?”

    Kevin’s answer:
    One alternative is to go around with video. Nowadays, this is surprisingly inexpensive. I don’t do that, but am increasingly contemplating doing so.

    What I do when I am the victim of a crime is to call the police immediately. Quite often there are witnesses; the last time this happened, there were two witnesses at a nearby bus stop who were quite voluble in complaint to the policemen who showed up when I called.

    Even when there are no witnesses, the police always follow-up and investigate my accusation of a serious crime of violence. Sometimes the perpetrators even confess.

    When the police officer arrives at the perp’s home to interview him, I imagine that he’s got a bit of explaining to do to family, neighbours, etc. as to just why the police arrived and were talking with him.

    Sometimes there is no witness, but the aggressive drivers is a violent criminal who is wanted by the police for something else. My saying is this: “Violent criminals rarely make model drivers.”

    I once had an interesting experience when I telephoned in a complaint and the police computer lit up like a Las Vegas slot machine that hit the jackpot. Within five minutes, three more policemen, including a police supervisor, showed up and went into the building after the perp. For details, see:


  16. Abhishek
    Abhishek says:


    Thanks for the link. I will be sure to call when I get harassed. I did not think about the social effect when a police officer shows up at the perpetrators home.

  17. Steve A
    Steve A says:

    It’s pretty simple. If authorities wink at, take lightly, or participate in harassment of any group, it gets worse. If authorities find a way to get across the message that it is not only unacceptable, it recedes. Cyclists can help themselves by encouraging the “no tolerance, no nonsense” approach. The climate of harasser intimidation has to be broken down.

    Otherwise, as a Dallas radio host said last year, after Meredith Hatch was run over by a drunk driver – “how many cyclists have to die before we get them (cyclists, not drunks) off the roads.” I’ll tell you, when I heard THAT, I durn near rode right off the road and into the weeds. I was proud to hear one caller that disagreed with him vehemently was a police officer that was also a cyclist. The radio guy was ill at ease trying to argue with a cop calling him out.

    I don’t buy the notion that assertive cyclists are harassed less. But I don’t think they get harassed more either. Mostly, they just happen to be a “different” road user.

    Myself, if I’m going to be harassed, since I can’t avoid harassment by any logical action I can take, I’d prefer it not be when emulating road lice (Forester’s term).

  18. Steve A
    Steve A says:

    I’ve been harassed 2 1/2 times in the last 6000 miles. Once was on a four lane road and I contributed to escalation since I DID catch up to the perp at the next light. Second time was on a two lane road and the perp was the only other vehicle in sight. 1/2 time was a Fort Worth cop who didn’t like where I was riding (another two-lane road) and didn’t mind making stuff up as he went along. In retrospect, the 1/2 time was scarier than both the others put together. That cop influenced a half dozen people.

    I’d be willing to bet that fred dot u’s stops by legal authorities make a BIG impression on him, even though he knows the law and is unwilling to abandon it.

  19. fred_dot_u
    fred_dot_u says:

    Andrewp wrote about the book Traffic, which I have also read and specifically the portion about the fact that getting in a car lets us be (drive) anonomous(ly). I think that plays an extremely huge part of the poor treatment that drivers “dish out” to other road users.

    I don’t advertise that I have “rodney-cams” on my vehicle and they are somewhat unobtrusive, but I think if I could make them vandal-proof, I might advertise that they are recording if I’m rolling. Anonymity goes away quickly enough when video is recorded, although it’s not perfect in some cases.

    I was stalked recently and did not get the tag number, hoping that the camera would catch it. The compression in the original video was pretty high, so the culprit got away. I’m hopeful that the culprit was merely curious, or simply mildly disturbed that I was occupying the lane. Google YouTube for “Am I being stalked” for the few minutes of motor vehicle pursuit/boring video.

    The local law enforcement officers are better informed, apparently. I don’t get pulled over any more.

  20. Eric
    Eric says:

    I must admit that I have been known “to take the law into my own hands” knowing that the police would give neither sympathy nor assistance.

  21. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    Eric wrote:
    “I must admit that I have been known “to take the law into my own hands” knowing that the police would give neither sympathy nor assistance.”

    Kevin’s comment:
    I find that an ordinary carpenter’s awl is the perfect tool for puncturing car tires. I learned that while…. um… er… making Ho Chi Mihn sandals. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it! 🙂

  22. Ed W
    Ed W says:

    I’m glad someone pointed out the ‘feel good’ aspect of these laws. Having them on the books is one thing, but getting an officer to respond and enforce them is quite another. It’s not unlike the 3-foot law that is currently in vogue. I’ve heard of just one instance where a motorist was cited. One. Locally, two cyclists were killed recently, and the DA won’t charge the driver with this violation in addition to other charges.

    I don’t get harassed very often. Partly that’s because I’n not exactly a quiet, unassuming, 220 pound former sprinter with a notoriously short temper, but it’s also because when they honk and yell, I wave at them using all five fingers – for emphasis.

  23. Laura
    Laura says:

    Andrew said “so why ARE communities pushing for and spending for bicycle infrastructure? What are their reasons? Who in the community is doing the pushing? It’s hard for me to believe that such a small group of people (the dedicated bicyclists) are getting the $$ funding simply because they say “I want this …”. ”

    Like others pointed out, they’re popular. We’ve had 20 yrs of federal transportation bills that have called for transportation enhancements – which includes trails. We have some good ones in the Orlando Metro area. I’ve seen some great ones in and around Denver along river beds and the like, San Antonio’s River Walk is fantastic, Kansas City has a great one as well. They are linear parks and they do serve a public purpose and can make places more liveable. I also have heard that the DC Metro area has a significant trail system that’s heavily used by commuters.

    There are many many bike users and trails serve one group of cyclists but in general I don’t see them as just for cyclists, but other groups as well. In a subdivision or large group of subdivisions they make great connections between residences and destinations like schools, parks, libraries. Often times the roadways within developments don’t follow a straight line from point A to point B. Putting in a trail system that bypasses those roadways AND is a shorter distance might just get people out of their cars for those short trips they make day in and day out.

    Lake Nona Elementary School has a huge bicycle parking lot. I’d really like to see how well it’s filled up during the school day. If those kids are riding their bikes to school rather than being driven a half mile or less to school like we have occuring all over Central Florida today that’s a plus. Many parents lack the ability to understand that *they* are the traffic they think is too dangerous to allow their kids to walk or ride a bike to school.

    Trail groups are well organized like someone else mentioned. In Central Florida there was a lot of resistance to the West Orange Trail initially. Winter Garden embraced the trail and they saw a rennaissance in their downtown. Now other cities (Occoee) that resisted the trail are now wishing they had embraced it. Property values along the trail have increased and it’s a heavily used amenity. But the trails are under the control of the parks and recreation department, not transportation a key distinction.

    Perhaps in Colombia, MO the trails were not well designed or well thought out. Or, it’s such a new concept for the area some people resisted them (the Hems and the Haws of Who Moved My Cheese fame). Who knows and it’s a shame that a small group of curmudgeons I suspect has complained about a City investing in public infrastructure. Parks, including linear parks, are incredibly valuable assets to a community and worth investing in. Far more in my opinion than more and more roadway extensions and widenings so that people can live out in the middle of nowhere and still get to their jobs in town within 20 minutes.

  24. Keri
    Keri says:

    I want to add on to Laura’s excellent comment.

    There are many economic and social benefits to a multi-modal community. Quality of life attracts quality employers, helps businesses flourish and increases property values.

    The notion that cyclists are an “indicator species” of a healthy community has been promoted very well in recent years in the growing industry of sustainable planning. I believe it’s true. Nothing says quality of life like an abundance of humans (cyclists and pedestrians) on and around the streets—it speaks to safety, trust and freedom of movement.

    The problem is how communities are attempting to accomplish it. We’re very stuck in the car-culture mythologies that surround bicycling. Bike lanes and sidepaths are a product of mythology and car-dominance. They appeal to the fear-based mindset of people who were raised on a steady diet of “get out of the way or we’ll kill you” indoctrination. Catering to people’s fears is way easier than trying to change the paradigm. But as with most things in life, short-cut solutions to complex problems have consequences.

    I know there is a better way. We CAN do it right, if we choose to.

    Trails are another animal. I love connector trails! They enhance cyclist access and make cycling more pleasant by allowing us to choose more quiet, scenic (and shady!!) routes. Trails like Cady Way and Econ are also wonderful options for peaceful travel. They are primarily linear parks, but it’s a bonus when they can be built on a transportation corridor.

    Whether it serves recreation or transportation needs, a good trail enhances the community. WOT in Winter Garden is a textbook example.

    I get frustrated with trails (and the mentality behind them) when they run out of right-of-way and become sidepaths. That’s another product of our damaged culture—bicycles are toys and must be kept out of the way of important vehicles.

    If we revisit trail design from the perspective of enhancing the existing transportation grid, and treat bicycles as vehicles, we could create a truly useful system that would better serve utility cyclists while also offering pleasant recreational opportunities.

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