February 17, 2010
I received a letter from an Adventure Cyclist reader recently about the sometimes bad behavior of cyclists on public roads, and it got me to thinking, well, more like rethinking. I hear from a lot of cyclists who tell me about the dangerous treatment they receive from automobile drivers, and I have not doubt that what they say is absolutely true. They also often report that law enforcement officers treat them like second class citizens when they are called in to deal with an automobile-bike collision or other circumstance that requires their involvement. Again, I don't doubt their stories and I have my own experiences regarding all of these scenarios to go by as well.
Most of the time I get pretty irate, both when these things happen to me or when I hear about them, but recently I've tried to be more sedately honest with myself about what's going on. I've noticed that when I drive, the behavior of other drivers about sends me over the edge. Some people clutch the wheel with such intensity and seem so nervous, as if the car were going to fly in any possible direction if they let go. Others drive so unnecessarily slow and cautiously that other drivers around them become agitated and pissed off, willing to do anything to pass them, and yet, when these slowpokes make a turn, they don't bother to use their turn signal. So much for cautiousness. And, of course, there's the drivers who are speeding, texting, talking, looking for cigarettes or matches, are drunk, or all of the above. How people aren't smashing into each other all of the time is beyond my ability to comprehend.
When I ride my bike instead of drive, I have a much better time. In Missoula, I can take a multi-use path (otherwise known as a dog-walking path around here) about 75 percent of the way from my house to downtown. I like this. I know I have my rights to the public roadway and use those rights, but I'll take a separate path anytime thanks. The 25 percent of the time that I'm on the road, I feel about the same toward drivers as when I'm in my own car, except I'm more careful. I've been hit a few times, once head on, and I'm not interested in that anymore.
None of this surprises me, but what does is how I feel toward cyclists when I'm driving or riding. I actually get angrier with cyclists when they act like morons than I do with motorists. Maybe it's because I like to think of drivers as the bad guys — even when I'm driving — and cyclists as the good guys. But sometimes, this just isn't the case. I've seen cyclists do some of the dumbest, most dangerous things from the perspective of my car and from my saddle. You probably have too. It's time, as the letter writer stated, to stop cutting these cyclists slack just because they're not driving a car.
I spend hours reading the comments posted after an article online about car-bike collisions or reports about how a particular city is trying to make infrastructure improvements for cyclists, and the bitterness on display there isn't really surprising. What is surprising, to me at least, are the justifications made by and for cyclists who don't follow the rules of the road yet clamor for the same rights as motorists. They usually go something like this, "Well, I'm only on a bike and can't hurt anyone but myself if I do something stupid, inconsiderate of other road users, or outright dangerous. A motorist is driving a dangerous 3,000- to 4,000-pound weapon that can seriously injure or kill people." Agreed. But think about that for a minute. I mean, think about it without your cyclist-colored glasses on. I know if I were driving and a cyclist did something that resulted in me injuring him or a bypassing pedestrian, I'd be pretty upset about it, even if I knew that what happened wasn't my fault. And if the cyclist or pedestrian were killed because of my reaction? Let's just say there's the potential for a ton of long-term emotional damage to the innocent motor vehicle operator. Yup. That's right. I said it. A driver can be innocent in such circumstances.
Another canard goes like this, "The rules of the road were made for automobile drivers, not bicyclists." So then, there are no rules for cyclists on roadways? Yeah, that works great. Big help. And let's roll through stop signs, too. It's always a good idea to introduce subjective decision making to an already potentially dangerous situation. Look, we all know we're going to do that. Cars do it too. But do we have to push to make it law?
Here's just one example of bad behavior that astounded me, and it's happened more than once. I'm at a busy intersection on my bike waiting at a red light. Another cyclist approaches from behind, I guess wondering why I'm stopped there, and blows by me and through the red light. The words that emanated from my head should not be heard by children or nuns and yet the scofflaw is the one who flips me the bird. Well, you could of fried an egg on my head.
One major problem toward this end, however, is that many people who use bikes to get around are not necessarily cyclists. They use a bicycle because it's the only vehicle available to them and they don't really care about the results of the bad road behavior. Vehicular cycling advocates hope to one day have a community that rides in perfect unison with each other and all other road users, having perfected all the required and necessary riding skills to exercise their rights and protect themselves. Good luck with that, especially when there's a population that rides bicycles out of necessity and not because they like to or want to.
So what am I up to here? I'm a cyclist, have been my entire life, with thousands upon thousands of miles under my wheels, both as a bike tourist and as a commuter. I'm the editor or a cycling magazine and the director of publications for an organization that promotes cycling, so why am I harping on cyclists? Because to make progress towards a more harmonious transportation mix, cyclists are going to have to behave better than motorists, not equal their bad behavior, and certainly not behave worse. I think we as cycling advocates of whatever stripe have to make this unequivocally clear.