City Desk

More On Cyclists and Their Image Problem

Yesterday Salon ran the provocatively titled post, "Are urban cyclists just elite snobs?" (Read it.) In the wake of last week's discussion about cyclists running red lights (comments are also well worth reading), it was good to see a story that hit on a lot of the issues that our commenters on both sides brought up.

To recap: bicyclists are far less dangerous than drivers, but there remains an image problem. And it's tied up in a paradox. As Alex Baca wrote earlier this year, on one hand, bicycling is seen as an elitist form of transportation, partly because bike lanes and trendy fixies tend to show up when young, white newcomers do. On the other, actual facts remind us that bikes are an extremely common form of transportation for poor folks, immigrants trying to get to work, and kids who aren't old enough to drive.

But back to that image problem: How to change it? While the "dangerous bicyclist" is a trope that probably won't die any time soon, author Will Doig argues that riders need to step up: "If we want to improve the image of urban bicyclists, we need to start with ourselves." As a relatively new bicycle commuter (who still owns a car and takes public transit occasionally), I say that sounds pretty smart.

Car domination isn't going to be defeated by bragging about how great one's commute was. Pedestrians aren't going to be won over by cyclists who've decided to ride though a crosswalk with people in it because they see an opening. It may take a little longer to get where I'm going, but stopping at red lights and staying out of crosswalks does help with that "predictability" factor that keeps everyone on the road or sidewalk more calm.

At any rate, cyclists: Do you buy the argument that some of the burden for being a positive advertisement for bicycling is on you?

Photo by nevermindtheend via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution Generic 2.0 License

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  • BW

    Plenty of bad behavior from drivers, pedestrians and cyclists alike -- negligently homicidal, suicidal and a little of both, respectively.

    Much to be said on the topic, but I think bikers and peds do need to realize that in many cases, probably most, driver anger is of the "I don't want to kill you! Why are you trying to make me kill you?" variety. And while peds need to pay more attention to their surroundings and realize that bikers are generally in control of where they're going, there is something to the idea that there's a fundamental right not to be startled and frightened unnecessarily.

  • Anon

    The other day I saw two police officers on bikes biking through a crosswalk. If police on bikes don't follow the law what hope do we have of average citizens following the law?

  • washcycle

    I buy the argument, but I think cyclists are doing more than their fair share. Looking at the numbers, cyclists are far safer than drivers (it's hard to compare to pedestrians due to a lack of data). Cyclists break the law less often than drivers do (when we consider all laws like speeding and not just stop signs and red lights). Cyclists are in fewer crashes per mile and when they are in a crash, drivers are more likely to be at fault. Whereas a minority of drivers bully and intimidate cyclists, the behavior is not returned - for obvious reasons. And cyclists are less likely to behave the same towards pedestrians. As a cyclist I'm regularly treated badly by drivers, but as a pedestrian I can't even think of a time when a cyclist yelled at me to get off the sidewalk or trail or gunned it around me.

    If a cyclist crashes into a pedestrian, they can be as badly injured as the pedestrian - so cyclists are heavily incentivized to avoid crashes with all other users. The same is not true of drivers. In fact, a cyclist in DC was killed this year trying to avoid hitting a pedestrian.

    My point being, that cyclists are already among the best behaved, safest road users out there. It doesn't seem that it is enough. Much of what drivers complain about is safe, legal cycling. About once a year there is a letter to the editor about cyclists who ride on Beach Drive instead of the trail. This is legal and safe, but drivers view it as rude if a cyclist doesn't get out of their way - and will label them as "arrogant". As long as cyclists are on the road, and slow drivers down at times, a few drivers will always be angry about them and will always be hostile.

    The reason to be safe and polite is that it is good and smart to be safe and polite. To do so to appease bullies behind the wheel is a fool's errand.

  • TM

    I don't buy that the presence of fixies has anything to do with bikers' reputation among the general masses. The only people who even know what the hell a fixie is or what it looks like are hipsters themselves, or the larger group I'll call "near-hipsters".

    Sometimes I wonder how much of the noise over biking is just "near hipsters" engaging in the vanity of small differences.

  • Crickey7

    Why am I not allowed to gloat about how great my commute on bicycle is? What are you, the fun police?

    Part of the issue is a normative one. Drivers for the most part see themselves as the normal users of the roads. While a certain amount of auto speeding, cell phone use and rolling stops are "normal", deemed non-risky and unobjectionable, cyclists break different traffic laws. Because cyclist behavior is not the norm as drivers see it, their lawbreaking--even if objectively happening at a lower rate--will stick out in the driver consciousness as annoying breaches of the road rules as practiced, rather than as written.

    Ergo, the "I'm happy to share the road" statement that invariably precedes a litany of cyclist lawbreaking, without acknowledging that driver lawbreaking is at least as prevalent. And without any comprehension that no one is asking to share the road. We cyclists are legal road users, and we're using the road the same as any other road users. The bottom line is that it's not drivers' to share.

  • Will

    I'd argue we need to formally adopt the Idaho Stop as a means to give cyclists a reasonable and easily followable paradigm for intersection behavior. The Idaho stop acknowledges the physics involved, and allows cyclists the lattitude to make decisions that are both legal and in their own interests (I'd argue that stopping at every stop sign and light is not in the cyclist's interests from both safety and efficiency standpoint).

    Once that's established, then everyone can better anticipate what cyclists will do, and can behave accordingly without the anxiety of the unknown.

    But let's keep the safety argument in perspective. I'm pretty familiar with all the recent bike fatalities in the region, and most are cyclists being hit from behind by inattentive drivers. Conspicuously absent is the "cyclist T-boned by car that had the green light", and that is because cyclists don't run reds unless they have a sufficient gap to make it across safely. Cyclists are fundamentally concerned for their safety, and will continue running reds when it is safe to do so no matter what we all agree on from a policy standpoint.

  • bill

    As a native Portlander (OR) who ended up in DC for now, my primary sense of the district's transportation culture is that it's the "me first" city. Everyone is eager to beat each other through a light, intersection, crosswalk, etc., so i think a lot of this outrage is just a cultural artifact. That said, I've walked, run, ridden a bike, taken the metro, and driven around the city for years. When I walk or run, my key concern is speeding cars (because lights around here are timed for faster-than-speed-limit driving w long reds). When I ride or drive, I'm mostly afraid of hitting jaywalkers, esp the ones who look away as you approach...

  • Get With It

    Anon @1:15: Sometimes cops need to put their bikes on the sidewalk so they can execute their patrols more effectively. For example, if they see a pick-pocket do his thing and then run down an alley way, do you expect the cop to park his bike on a rack and then run down the alley way? Quite silly. I would be surprised if such an exemption for cops was codified somewhere, too.

    Instead of creating a straw man with the cops, how about we focus on bikers in downtown DC who think they are immune from the traffic laws? I often walk by the 15th Street NW bike lane near the Treasury Department and bikers who use that lane fail to obey simple traffic laws--instances like this certainly put them in a poor light. Bikers are easy to group and cry foul when they feel oppressed, so why don't they use such organizational skills to promote what Mr. Doig stands for above?

  • oboe

    Any "out" group will--if it is seen to inconvenience the dominant majority--come to be defined by its most marginal elements. We've seen this over and over again with any effort to claw back the rights of marginalized groups. There's only so much individual members can do to "set a good example." At some point, you get sufficient political power to get a seat at the table, and the reactionary forces just have to deal.

    I think we're coming to that point. In 10 or 20 years, we'll either be a traffic choked hell-hole, or drivers will just accept the fact that bikes are going to be on the road.

  • WeRideNorth

    It's not hard to buy the (self-evident) argument that we, as bicyclists, have a responsibility to project a positive image. Like WashCycle, though, I buy it only with a whole lot of qualifiers.

    Will Doig over at Salon writes interesting, well-sourced pieces on the evolution of urban areas. But in this article, he's trying to show cyclists the error of our ways while touting his own cycling cred, as cyclists will presumably be more likely to listen to one of our own.

    I'll be the first to welcome Mr. Doig to the cycling community, and it's always nice to have a fresh pair of eyes on the issues we face.I'm going to have to call shenanigans, though, on his attempts to cut to the core of cycling's "image problem" when he (according to his article) did not start riding until the Prospect Park West lane was laid down in 2010. He, perhaps unwittingly, gives credence to facile arguments, such as the a priori assumption that bicycles operate in the same way as cars, and thus should be held to the identical legal standards for road use or risk undermining our image.

    Even more problematic is his implication that cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians are mutually exclusive, and that cyclists, as a collective, are smugly trying to "convert" motorists. We're not all Yehuda Moon disciples who believe that cars are inherently evil! Most US cyclists are also sometime pedestrians and drivers (and bus riders, etc.) who simply choose between methods of transportation depending on their needs in each case. One particular mode may agree with you more than others, yes. But the artificial separation of road users and their defining ideologies based on what they happen to be doing that day (driving, walking, biking, public transport) clouds the debate and unnecessarily polarizes our attitudes.

  • Jerry

    I commute to and from work a couple times a week - I'm a fairly casual biker, not particularly fast and I try to obey the rules of the road... and I can't believe the shit I get from other bikers. It's not the really serious commuters with all of their gear and the very solemn expressions, or the hipsters on fixed gears - it's the aggressive-macho-man bikers who rage against everyone not riding bikes, but seem really put out that anyone else is on their roads. Just last night another biker - one of these macho types - swore at me for stopping at a red light that he was trying to blow through. He can swear all he likes, I'm still not impressed and I'm not going to stop biking.

  • Will

    I ride a folding bike, so I definitely feel for all different kinds of commuters/forms of transport. Sometimes I put my bike in the trunk and drive part of the way to work before parking and riding the rest of the way in. Sometimes I take my bike on the train with me - I'm a law-abiding cyclist, not just for my own safety, but because I know how starlting it can be as a driver, when someone on a bike comes at you the wrong way or blows through a light.

  • Crickey7

    Wearing a slightly different hat today. Yesterday I questioned the premise that cyclists need to please drivers as a condition of "sharing" (answer: no). Today, I wear my hat that says cyclists should follow the rules of the road, for the most part, since no road user is empowered to decide which rules to follow. The caveat is that purity is not necessary (and certainly drivers should be the last to throw stones on that score). To me, that means running red lights is a no-no. Stop signs are generally stop, and always yield to those with the right of way. Sidewalks downtown are off-limits for legal plus safety reasons. And finally, being obnoxious in any form will earn you massive negative karma. There is a certain amount of blowback from obnoxious cyclists that accrues to all of us law-abiding ones, and I'd frankly encourage all the a-holes to cut it out.

  • whackamole

    I guess the answer is "yes, of course," but no matter what, cyclists have equal access to the roads. When I take up a whole lane it's because that's the only safe thing to do but a lot of people interpret it as me being a jerk. So screw them. It's my lane too. I try like hell to avoid situations like that but sometimes you can't.

    I drive and I walk so I always think about what the other person is experiencing and what it might lead them to do. I'm very conservative on my bike. I try to factor in my own propensity for stupidity as well as others. I wear reflective clothing and have plenty of lights.

    I'm one of those bikers who stops for pedestrians in cross walks, often while cars zip past, but if I need to, I'm going to fight for my right to be on the road. If people think I'm an ass hole for it, then so be it.

  • dc-cyclistandped

    I walk, bike, ride transit and drive a car to get around. I have a problem with anyone who compromises my safety, regardless of transit mode.

    This means that I have a problem with cyclists who blow lights without looking or ride on the sidewalk when there are lots of pedestrians. Or pedestrians who hop out into bike lanes when they're jaywalking.

    But really, it's cars that terrify me most. They fail to yield to me when they need to make a right turn in front of me. They fail to yield when I'm in a crosswalk on New Jersey Avenue nearly every day. I shouldn't have to run to get out of the way because you're bearing down on me in a marked crosswalk.

    It's a two-ton vehicle. If you hit me, I will die. And it's for that reason, I am intolerant of drivers who accelerate when someone is jaywalking, who speed anywhere, who will race by a cyclist to scare them. Those who are operating the largest machine should have the fewest rights and the most responsibility. You should have to slow down to allow peds to cross where there isn't a light -- what costs you two seconds can cost them several minutes. Everyone needs a little more context, a little more patience and a little more care.

    We're all people. If you have respect for human lives, you'll be a little more responsible.

  • Mark B.

    The subject boils down to finger-pointing on both sides, about who is worse, the scofflaw cyclist, or the scofflaw driver?

    Reality check, everyone -- unless a law is so egregious that its application is a hazard, we are ALL REQUIRED TO OBEY THE LAW as we move through society, regardless of our personal rationalizations for not doing so. The "REQUIREMENT" comes from our own demand, self-righteously voiced, that we are entitled to due respect as we navigate our lives.

    Scripture says to pull the log from your own eye before removing the speck from your brother's; Michael Jackson urged us all to look at "The Man In The Mirror".

    Start with someone you CAN direct and control -- yourself.

  • PSandoval

    One thing to do is to make it easier to abide by the laws. Open more bike lanes and encourage cyclists to use them, as well as drivers to abide by bike-lane laws. There's more info no what we can do to improve image here: