Two Sides of the Coin

26 Jul

Photo credit: City of London Police

One of the most confounding issues associated with cycling for transportation is this vicious circle: cyclists not being treated as legitimate users of public roads, and cyclists not acting like legitimate users of those roads.  When cycling advocates lobby for, say, a state law that would require at least 3 feet of distance when a car driver passes a cyclist, they often hear the retort: “Why should we pass a law to protect people who constantly break the law?” (Never mind that plenty of motorists break laws without being disqualified from legal protection, but that’s another issue).  At the same time, cyclists are not infrequently told to “get off the road” or are otherwise harassed by motorists who see them as nothing more than a nuisance.

This dilemma is coming even more to the fore as cycling increases in U.S. cities.  At some point, hopefully, the presence of cyclists on the road will be so common that no one will think twice about whether they really belong there.  And hopefully that will also mean that more cyclists will embrace their status as drivers of vehicles and the responsibilities that this entails.

A couple of recent NY Times pieces suggest that we have some distance to go.  The most recent article explains that New York City, which has seen a marked increase in cycling over the last few years, has started sending cyclists to the equivalent of driving school when they get written up for traffic violations.  In one sense this is exactly what is needed: cyclists being treated the same as motorists, with everything that entails.  On the other hand, one does come away with the impression that the NYPD has been a bit overzealous in its enforcement in some cases.

A popular video by Casey Neistat points this out in a bitingly humorous, slapstick sort of way, and captures the dilemma described above very well too: after being cited for not riding in the bike lane, he films himself crashing into all sorts of obstacles blocking the bike lane, including a police cruiser.

Another Times article published just a few days earlier shows how some cyclists have been able to document harassment and other bad motorist behavior using small digital video cameras.  Given that cyclists are at a huge disadvantage in relation to cars, anything that tips that balance just a bit is welcome.  The article speculates that drivers in general might take more caution if they think a lot of cyclists are wearing such cameras.

At the same time, I wonder if this indirectly exaggerates the danger of cycling.  I ride in Richmond and the surrounding area constantly, and although I’ve had a few “encounters,” so far they’ve never ended in injury or a crash (just attempts on my part to convey the message “WTF??!!” with hand signals on the chance that he or she is looking in the rearview mirror).  It doesn’t happen often enough for me to feel the need to document every ride on video.  At least not yet.  But if wearing cameras becomes enough of a trend for motorists to think twice about how close or fast they’re passing, for example, I’m all for it.  In the meantime I’d like to see more lobbying of relevant officials to teach drivers how to interact with non-motorized vehicles in driver’s education classes and on tests.

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4 Responses to “Two Sides of the Coin”

  1. Kirk O'Brien August 10, 2012 at 4:01 PM #

    I think you need to look at this a bit further. There are certainly scofflaw cyclists, but the myth of their overwhelming numbers and danger to the public is unexamined and overstated. On the rare occasions statistics are presented in a way you can separate out children from the bicycle accidents rates, we find that motorists are responsible for the majority of adult on adult bike to car collisions. This certainly suggests the problem of the scofflaw motorist is a far more serious one.

    In addition, bikes are often put in situations where they have to pay for the sins of motorists. The four way stops in the fan are a good example. These were put in to calm motorists, who were speeding through the fan. They were not put in to calm cyclists, who were doing nothing wrong.

    Lastly, you’ve got the false equivalance thing going on in most of these arguments. A bike is not a car; it is nowhere near as dangerous to the world around it. If a car runs a stop, the possible result is exponentially worse than a bike doing the same thing.

    I realize when you’re advocating, it is hard to run into received “wisdom” such as the idea of the scofflaw cyclist. That doesn’t mean you need to accept it without investigation. Too many bike advocates do; for a good example, see Bruce Drees’ uninformed whine on the VBF site (I would not call Bruce a bike advocate). But it is received wisdom, and often it is simply used to excuse bad behaviour on motorists’ part. Look a bit deeper next time.

    • bikeablerichmond August 10, 2012 at 7:29 PM #

      I hope the post didn’t leave the impression that I’m railing against “scofflaw” cyclists or exaggerating their prevalence. That was not the point of the post. The NYC enforcement measures seem like harassment, often focused on trivial stuff like riding a few feet on the sidewalk to get to a place to park. My real point was that cyclists occupy a tricky, ambiguous place: they are treated legally as a vehicle in many respects, and there are good reasons for them to act like one most of the time. Yet they are different from the majority of other vehicles currently on Richmond streets, and there are times when it makes good sense to not act like a motor vehicle. I do think that the more blatant and dangerous things that a few cyclists do are counterproductive both in terms of their own safety and in confirming the “mode bias” against cyclists that other drivers already have. As I never tire of repeating here, one of if not the biggest hurdle faced by cyclists in the U.S. is being accepted as legitimate road users.

      • Kirk O'Brien August 10, 2012 at 8:15 PM #

        No, I think you’re pretty level on much of this. Or relatively so. The “scofflaw cyclist” myth is too often accepted as fact and used to excuse motorist actions, however, and even a cursory examination of available information shows it to be largely untrue. You have some scofflaw road users, true, but everything points to the automotive users being far worse. Look at the way this myth is used in fatal accidents, for example. Having cycling advocates repeat the myth without taking a real hard look at it only re-inforces the myth.

        Part of fighting for our rights on the roads involves taking a look at the negative assumptions cyclists are painted with and the often awful “improvements” for cyclists non-cyclists make. These range from we don’t pay taxes, to the the assumption mandatory helmet laws are good, to the “fact” we are scofflaws. Not one of those three statements above holds much water. A prime example of non-cyclist thinking is a recent letter to the RTD, stating that cyclists should ride against traffic, for their own safety, of course.

  2. Amy George (@georgeae) July 26, 2012 at 12:26 PM #

    My only issue with the ‘remedial cycling’ classes is it sounds like NYC is sending people to them for less than serious issues.

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