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« The tale of two Tommy Godwins: Part I | Main | Bike to work, lose weight »
Monday
Nov232009

Stop handing them the stick

It is now common for newspapers and TV news channels to have websites.

News stories and articles are published, and like blogs most allow comments from readers.

I find it disturbing whenever a cycling related story is posted, it is inevitably followed by a stream of anti-cycling rhetoric.

This usually draws counter comments from cyclists, often equally as venomous.

Still more anti-cycling bullshit follows, and so it goes on and on. Nothing good is achieved; if anything the two sides are driven further apart rather than seeing the other’s point of view.

Recently I read this post from a TV news station in New Haven, Connecticut. Strictly speaking this was not a cycling story, but a business story about a business that happened to be a retail bike store.

I was dismayed when it drew the same anti-cycling comments from the general public. One responding to the report that the bike store had been broken into, stated, “I'm glad those liberal enablers got burglarized.”

In this persons eyes not only should people not be allowed to ride bikes on the road but bike store owners are fair game for abuse, because they encourage and enable cycling.

To the credit of the website’s administrators, at least one of the more hateful comments was removed. I read it earlier and it advocated running cyclists down in order to, quote, “Take back our roads.”

Although every cyclist sees this type of comment coming from a viewpoint of ignorance and extreme prejudice, we have to realize our counter responces are probably viewed in exactly the same way.

One also has to realize the person you respond to will never see your point of view, but a carefully worded, intelligent response will win over more moderate readers. It might be better to make a general statement rather than a response counter attacking an individual.

Cyclists are a minority group and as such will be judged by the worst behavior in our group. I can practically guarantee whenever a cycling related article appears, there will be at least one comment from someone that goes something like this:

“Cyclists seem to think they own the damn road, they never obey stop signs and lights.”

To be fair, people do not make this kind of stuff up. People say things like this, and others will readily agree with them, because they have witnessed exactly this behavior from cyclists on many occasions.

I witnessed it myself just a few weeks ago. I was sitting at a light in my car at the end of a long line of vehicles.

A cyclist on a road bike, rode calmly up the outside of the row of cars, and with a cursory glance to the left and right, without slowing, rode across the busy six lane highway against the red light.

With assorted vehicles passing through at about 60mph (Speed limit is 55.) ranging from cars, SUVs, commercial trucks, and eighteen wheelers.

I'm sure like me, these drivers experienced a serious WTF moment as we watched this idiot on a bicycle, weave his way through traffic dodging between gaps in the flow. I wondered his reasoning, a death wish, or outright defiance simply because he could.

I might have chased him down to ask him, but he went straight, and I was in the left turn lane. Would it have inconvenienced this cyclist to wait in line for the green light like everyone else was obliged to do?

Sadly there were at least another twenty or more people waiting at the four corners of this busy intersection, also witnessing this brazen defiance of the law.

In an instant, one cyclist gave forty or more people a reason to hate cyclists.

I question whether we will see an end to this verbal and online beating up of cyclists, when there are those among us who keep handing our critics the stick to do it with.

 

Reader Comments (25)

Unfortunately its the odd "ass" that gives the rest of us a bad name. The Daily Mail readers over here are full of hatred for cyclists - all for the wrong reasons of course :)

November 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoby

I've witnessed similar events, and I usually end up hanging my head in shame when I do. I've even seen entire club rides break traffic rules. I understand motorist frustration with such things, but it never excuses the vitriolic hatred that is displayed on internet comments. Of course, it is the internet...

November 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterToddBS

Dave,

Thanks for deftly crafting the words to address the issue. This is a very serious concern and the advocacy provided through your blog is helpful.

I'm an avid cyclist and veteran 50 mile round trip solo commuter from an earlier career. I also enjoy participating in group rides, for both the camaraderie and perceived safety in numbers. The group I generally ride with assembles (grudgingly) at 5:15 AM for our start, precisely to avoid mixing bikes and cars. We painstakingly select routes to avoid heavily traveled roads in an effort to reduce the likelihood of "accidents". I'm not suggesting that timed separation solves anything but it seems to work for our local group. In addition, while we don't have official membership, we do pressure riders to act responsibly and ride with greater safety. Those who repeatedly ignore the safety guidelines place the group at risk...and are ostracized for their behavior.

Newcomers are coached and encouraged to ride-the-line (single file), signal turns, communicate obstacles and the presence of autos. In addition, despite testosterone fueled anger, to avoid confrontation with motorists. On principle we all understand and review our legal rights in sharing the road...but also recognize that while the law of the land allows us to ride two abreast...the laws of physics are on the side of the 4,000 pound vehicle. We do so sparingly, only on lightly traveled country roads, and quickly form back into a single line at the hint of a car. We do not run red lights. The mere act of doing so, as you point out, provides "the stick" for motorists to criticize the avocation of cycling. Occasionally it does happen...the riders in our group quickly admonish those who make this error...mistakes that are not often repeated.

The friction between motorists and cyclists is very real...and unnecessary...the stakes are high. Confrontation is simply not worth it. In the easiest case both parties go away frazzled and girded for future confrontations. When escalated either or both parties to the confrontation end up with heavy fines, marred records, and/or jail time.

In the worst case, regardless of who is at fault, the cyclist usually ends of being injured or killed. Alarmist? Hardly. I have attended funerals for two "experienced and responsible" cycling friends, killed while riding solo. Their families struggle on...nobody wins.

November 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike in CT

With the people who hate cyclists, for whatever reason, we're damned if we do, damned if we don't. There's no reasoning with such drivers, because these are people who themselves are road rule-breakers for the most part. They speed, they run stop signs, they buzz cyclists and pedestrians, they ignore yellow signals and end up going through on the red (greatly endangering the poor, law-abiding cyclist who waited for the green), they lane change recklessly, turn right on reds without stopping... you name it. Yet, let them see one cyclist go through a red light when there's no traffic, and we're all branded for life.

I agree with Dave that it's better to follow the rules of the road, but of course, that goes for drivers too. As for comments posted in response to media articles, just half an hour of internet access should convince anyone that the majority of people in the world are insane. Hopefully, the normal people are there somewhere even if they aren't being heard from.

November 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPierre

The problem with cyclists is that they are people. As an every day cycle commuter I see cars break laws left and right — from speeding to flying right turns on red, to never stopping at a crosswalk - ever. If these people rode bikes they would unabashedly break traffic laws on their bikes. At least when a car is approaching a four way intersection with no intention of stopping you can hear them coming. A cyclist will come silently out of nowhere and blindside you.

Your post reminds me that I need to do a post called "I don't want you to ride a bike," about...how I don't want people to ride bikes.

-t

November 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBig Bikes

When I wrote above that a little time spent on the internet reading comments may suggest that most people are insane, I was referring to the comments you can read on news media sites, not blogs like this one. Just wanted to make that clear :-)

Based on only the internet, you would think that every single person in America is either a left wing loon, or a right wing kook... with nobody left in between.

I have to admit that I sometimes do decide to break the strict rule of the road. It may be pure rationalization, but sometimes I would rather take advantage of some obvious break in traffic than wait for the light or whatever and be faced with the unexpected -- with cars, bikes and peds suddenly coming from every which way. Right or wrong, I call that defensive riding. It's the same as a pedestrian. You may have noticed that often, you're safer crossing against a light when you know the traffic is clear, than the guy who patiently waits for the free-for-all when the light changes and gets run over by a car turning right on the red, left turners, bikes appearing suddenly off the sidewalk, etc.

November 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPierre

Dave -- Excellent advice. Stop baiting bears with name-calling, emotional response. You just provide entertainment for the haters.

I work in communications, and I am a devotee of the thoughtful response, no matter how unthoughtful the original post.

People should respond if they feel it is important, but it is critical to respond in the right way — make a careful, reasoned argument. Be polite. You don't have to give them an inch, but you have to show respect for everyone, including those whom you may think don't deserve it.

This is the best way to handle the crazies (in communications, in politics or in forum posts). Take the high road.

If you mix it up with them, nasty blow for nasty blow, you legitimize their mean-spiritedness, and you just invite more venom.

November 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRider

I'm afraid it may be the majority of cyclists who are giving us a bad name, unfortunately! I'm really appalled how many cyclists blow through stop signs (not just slowing and rolling through, but barreling through when there is oncoming traffic), and red lights, which I find really unconscionable. I'm noticing that at least half the cyclists I see on the road after dark have no lights at all. And the hand signal seems to have become a quaint relic of yesteryear. When I see cyclists attempting to make a hand signal, they've often reversed the signal, or made up their own version.

I used to think it was a tiny minority of cyclists doing this, but I'm not so sure anymore. I've sat at intersections and watched nearly every cyclist blow through the stop, often cutting off cars or other cyclists. I really don't understand the reasoning behind this kind of riding... it strikes me as foolhardy, selfish, and pointless. Much like driving a car everywhere!

That said, the guys posting about wanting to run down cyclists are clearly crazy; and I don't think "our" posts are ever quite their equal. I never see cyclists posting about wanting to gun down drivers.

November 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Ong

Unfortunately even if every cyclist on the road obeyed the laws, the vitriol would not stop. You see we the American people have been sold the idea that cars are freedom, tools to make our lives easier and more prosperous. The reality is the opposite. Drivers are stuck in traffic and have to keep up with maintaining, insuring, and fueling an enormous money pit. Plus the car isolates you from the rest of society and gives you disproportionate powers. Along comes this person riding a cheap "toy" passing them in traffic. Marketing meets reality and the results are often not pretty.

This is not excusing the law breakers or the bad message they send, but I think the driver/cyclist clash is much deeper than traffic violations.

I agree with lots that have been said here and David's post but are we now accepting that drivers have a valid reason to hate cyclists?

What's next? Are we going to agree that riders should be run down by drivers because they (we) break road rules?

In an instant, one cyclist gave forty or more people a reason to hate cyclists.

Sorry for the simplistic approach but I don't get it!!!

AMR

November 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAMR

Just to be clear, while the perception is that most — or if you ask many drivers, all — cyclists run red lights, the reality is quite different. A recent London study showed that 84% of cyclists obeyed red lights (www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/businessandpartners/traffic-note-8-cycling-red-lights.pdf), while a Melbourne study showed 89% observe stop signals (http://www.rsconference.com/pdf/RS080140.pdf).

The problem is we — cyclists and drivers alike — tend to notice the problem riders, and not the majority who ride safely. No argument that we all need to observe the law and ride in a safe and predicable manner. And I hate the law-flouting jerks on two wheels every bit as much as the ones on four, but let's stop agreeing with the bike haters who say we never obey the law.

And Dave, I couldn't agree more that the online bike vs car flame wars don't benefit anyone.

November 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterbikinginla

Excellent post, Dave. Certainly there are cyclists who don't obey the rules of the road. They usually get away with it without injury, but if they are struck, they are much more vulnerable than motorists and their passengers. However, if motorists disobey the rules of the road, it's rare in my experience to hear people call them scofflaws, labeling all motorists similarly. And of course, the fact vehicles are so well designed with airbags and seatbelts, as well as armor to prevent injury to occupants, means that they are less likely to suffer serious injury if they do break the law.

I routinely see drivers pass my house on a curve while talking on the phone, and because they're driving one-handed, they often skid into the other lane because they're not steering well or adjusting their speed. And talking on the phone is illegal. Do I hear a public outcry about scofflaw drivers? You guess...

November 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDiana

Sad but likely to get worse as the strains on everyone increases with an economy designed on cheap oil begins to choke on its own fuel. Drivers are more distracted than ever and drive faster than ever to the next STOP light. Seating there and watching cyclists take full advantage of road freedom sends them into texting frenzy. All made worse by believing that the price tag for a $50 refill (and a few more days of road freedom) went to pay for those roads that cyclists ride on for "free".

But let's be clear, the layout, design, traffic signals, lane sizes, etc have been designed for decades to serve autos not bikes. What was once free flowing auto traffic a few decades ago is now gridlock. Expanded highways (cyclists not allowed) quickly become crowded in rush hours so that stop-&-go is the norm. Starting at 6 in the morning, helicopters circle overhead in order to fill the morning tv-radio shows with live traffic updates. Drivers plan their daily routines and schedules around the traffic data and are definitely enraged when a cyclist is seen cruising between cars and through STOP lights with ease.

But why shouldn't they? Should we wait 10 minutes inhaling the fumes from the cars in front of us before pedaling away? Meanwhile in a court of law (the very essence of a civilized society), a first responder gets a slap on the hand for shooting a gun at a cyclist who was taking his son for a pleasant riding experience. Cyclists are outraged... and should be.

November 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Are all red lights equal?

In Dave's example it's clear the cyclist should have waited, but what about these situations where you're stuck at a light when the pedestrian crossing is green and there isn't any pedestrian in sight? On my commute I have 3 or 4 such lights where you have to wait 30 seconds for the pedestrian crossing to go through even if no one is using it. Crossing at 5mph would actually be much safer than waiting with the traffic revving their engine...

So maybe in that situation one should dismount and run across the zebra crossing (crosswalk for you USians) instead of cycling at 5mph to avoid pissing the cars off...

November 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterArnaud

Though I understand where you're coming from here, my life being on the line as I ride in traffic with these idiots prevents me from taking the moral high road.

America is filled with fat dumb people. They need to be called out.

November 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterkeanon

Even in bike crazy Seattle, where lots of people ride and commute, every bike related news story posted online in the "paper" is followed by a stream of anti-bike comments. All pretty predictable - cyclists break laws, money towards promoting bike use is a waste, bikes should be licensed, cyclist don't pay for the roads - blah, blah, then toss in the comments by people who can't get past bike shorts. All pretty moronic.

The good thing is that attitude appears to be limited to folks who get to anonymously vent their ignorance via the Internet. I rarely get treated badly out on the road itself - most drivers are polite. The occasional goof ball blares the horn or cuts me off - but it's rare.

I do see tons of cyclist blow through red lights in Seattle. I occasionally do, but only when cars aren't around - it does set a bad example. I'll also occasionally ride through a red light when there's no traffic and I'm holding up drivers waiting to make a right turn.

When it comes down to it, everyone breaks some law while driving or riding. Who actually drives the speed limit? Everyone is 5-20 mph over. Who decides what's worse - rolling a stop sign on a bike, or doing 10 mph over the speed limit while driving?

I think in the US, the car vs bike mentality is here to stay. It's just ingrained into the culture. I am glad I live in Seattle, where it's minimal - or least better then other areas I've read about.

November 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDan O

When I stop at a red light (I always do, it's good to make a habit out of it that it no longer feel like a drag slowing down), an approaching cyclist from behind want me to move since he can't pass me, and I'll always ask this question;

"what's your rush?"

nearly all of them couldn't answer that question, also 20 seconds isn't a lengthly time to wait, after all you're still going quicker than motorised vehicles in busy traffic.

it also worth noting that drivers show more respect toward cyclists who follow the rules of the road, working with the traffic get a better outcome than against it.

November 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEdward Scoble

This post had a reverse effect on me. I ALWAYS stopped at red lights, even the annoying pedestrian-crossing-red-ligh-without-a-pedestrian-in-sight ones.
I give hand signals and shock! horror! I even wear hi-viz when cycling.

On the negative side, at times I do ride on pavements (sidewalks in the US) but I do so SLOWLY and CAREFULLY. Equally, I sometimes cycle through pedestrianised areas where cycling is prohibited, but again I do so with care.

Now this red light business had me thinking: roads do NOT belong to cars. In fact roads were around long before cars. Traffic lights were invented because cars needed them - I'm a cyclist and I don't need them, so I now consider myself freed from having to obey them.

Flame me if you like, but my (CAREFULLY!) cycling through a red light (IF and WHEN I deem it safe to do so) I see as my right as a cyclist and certainly no different to pedestrians doing the same.

I don't simply tear into traffic at speed, and if I believe it isn't safe to go then I will of course wait for a green light.

Once the world treated people of colour as having less value. Some people of colour treated themselves as having less value, through conforming and doing what was expected (demanded?) of them. And yet some refused to conform, which led to a revolution and the freedom of people, regardless of colour.

Similarly, I refuse to obey CAR laws, as I'm a cyclist. And one day, there'd be more cyclists that also refuse to obey car laws than cyclists that do, and the whole system will HAVE to change.

Viva la Velorution!

November 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWilliamNB

The same idiot bicyclist is the same idiot car driver. An idiot is just a idiot no matter what form of transportations he/she chooses that day. I said he/she, but it's been my experience that few if any female riders earn the distiction of idiot unless they are in a group ride. Don't know what that means, maybe women are the superior beings, but that is a different story altogether! :)

November 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTom Bastian

The flaming wars are applicable to any area, not just cycling. Given the privelege of being anonymous and sitting behind a screen, people tend to take a new form of personality, where they can trade on as many barbs as they want without getting called out. Some people get a thrill out of this activity. Not only do they drag their self imporant ass into a conversation, they have to disagree with someone with an opposing viewpoint in the most vehement way possible. I glady stay away from conversations such as these, including being on forums.

November 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRon (Cozy Beehive)

To argue for or against ,right or wrong in todays political climate can seem an excersize in futility. My experience has taught me that it is difficult to influence another persons viewpoint. That being stated I understand my actions as a daily cyclist in my urban enviroment where witnessed by the general public may be viewed at times unfavorably. I do understand I project a catch all image where others may benefit from or in my case more than likely be berated to as a result does not alter my cycling style in so much as a myriad of other determinate factors.In many ways I am a poster boy for cycling and on the flip side of the coin, the one most often seen, I am the anti-cyclist...To ride or not to ride-there is no question...

November 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTom Knoblauch

As a mountain biker I see the exact same conflicts play out on trails. Log onto any bike/hiker/equestrian forum and you'll find the hiker vs. biker vs. horse "war" mimics everything mentioned above. Including the internal debates about separate trails (lanes) for various user types. (Just mention anything about cyclists having separate, protected bike lanes and see what kind of a hornet's nest you'll stir up.) All in all, as long as there is a speed disparity there will be conflict. Until bikes and cars can travel at the same speed, or are removed from each other the "gnashing of teeth" will continue.

November 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSine Botchen

I commute by bike and I am terrified of other bikers. On one segment I ride on a road that crosses a bike trail. The bike trail has clear stop signs posted; the road does not. This is not an unfair situation. The road has higher volume. As a commuting cyclist I would think there would be mutual respect among cyclists. But, not once when I have approached this intersection cycling on the road has a cyclist on the trail EVER stopped for me. I have always stopped to let the other cyclist pass. What would happen if I were a car?

I've seen cars drive legally through this intersection when a cyclist is approaching at roughly the same time on the trail. The cyclists always either give the motorist the finger or shake their heads in morally superior disapproval. Because they have likely never cycled on the perpendicular road (it's quite safe and has slow moving traffic) they don't even realize that the perpendicular route has the right of way. But, there is the deeper problem: cyclists don't acknowledge an obligation to yield right of way to others because right of way is a moral right, which only applies to the morally superior cyclist.

Right of way is a practical, not a moral, construct, which seeks to enable traffic to successfully navigate the physical law that two objects can't exist in the same space at the same time. I'll admit to slowly crawling up to a stop sign and proceeding when there is no other traffic, e.g., when I do not impinge on another's right of way regardless of whether the other "user" is a car, truck, bicycle, baby carriage, jogger, or pedestrian. But, when the stop sign is for me and another user has the right of way, I always yield so that I don't impede the other user, scare the other user into stopping or slowing down for me, and signaling to that other user visibly that he or she should proceed and that I will stop (if necessary) or proceed so slowly that the other user can pass with lots of space and complete safety.

This should be a characteristic of civil society. As cyclists, it is how we earn our right to be on the roads and it is how we protect our own safety--because when we properly yield the right of way, we can demand (but not quite expect) that others yield the right of way to us, when it is ours. Motorists also violate bicyclists' rights of way--it has happened to me and you. But, I have actually seen cyclists violate this norm more often than motorists.

November 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLewis Levin

Hey, thanks for posting this -- I'm a New Haven resident and a Devil's Gear patron, but I wasn't aware that they were moving downtown. It's actually good news: their location right now is kind of remote and a pain to walk to with a busted bike. But you're right to note the anti-bike comments: New Haven is a maze of narrow, crowded, one-way streets that are practically begging for cyclist/driver conflict.

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