Courtland Milloy Sticks by His Bike Column, Say It’s a “Public Service”
Courtland Milloy owns a bike. It currently has a flat tire, but he still owns it and says it's pretty nice—a multispeed Bianchi that he likes to ride around Hains Point or to Mount Vernon from his home in Fort Washington, Md.
But commuting on it? Milloy says not a chance.
"No, I'm not going to commute on my bike, that's a skill set that I don't have," he tells City Desk today. "You should be licensed to do that. You should have training." (Longtime readers of Milloy's column will remember, of course, that he biked on city streets in 1998 after his license was suspended for speeding.)
Milloy is indisputably the most hated man in D.C.'s bicycling world this week. He penned a column Tuesday calling cyclists "bullies" and "terrorists" who wreak violent havoc on D.C. streets. The column provoked anger from bicyclists and a number of reaction pieces, including more than a half dozen articles from the Post itself. Even Milloy's fellow local columnists Petula Dvorak and Colby King weighed in, offering stances that were more understanding toward Milloy than most.
Most notably, the column prompted a protest in which cyclists biked to Post's downtown headquarters in the hopes of talking to Milloy or his editors. The protest's organizer, Michael Forster, says he emailed Milloy twice with an invitation, but the columnist never responded. Milloy says he's still getting through his pages of emails in response to his column, but had heard about a potential protest, and didn't think it would be the right environment to have a productive dialogue. More than 40 cyclists showed up yesterday along with journalists from seemingly every local media outlet, but not Milloy himself.
"I had heard that there might be a protest," Milloy says. "A protest is not where you have a dialogue, it never has been."
But Milloy says he already has tentative plans to meet and speak with Greater Greater Washington's David Alpert. In his column, Milloy criticized Alpert for suggesting in a blog post, more theoretically than concretely, that it could be easier for cyclists to go up the 15th Street NW hill with a bike escalator, technology that is currently used in Norway. Milloy also wants to go on a bike ride with Veronica Davis, co-founder of the organizing and advocacy group Black Women Bike. He'll even fix his tire and grease his chain before the ride, he says.
"There are some really skilled riders on the road and Veronica's group is one of them. A lot of the really big bike commuters are really good, but there are a lot more that don't know what they are doing out there," Milloy says.
Milloy's column has been criticized as being sloppily argued and factually dubious, particularly the part of the piece in which he writes that bikers are often violent toward drivers and that, in turn, drivers might consider being violent toward cyclists:
Actually, bike ninjas are much worse. They don’t just ride without lights at night. Or ride on sidewalks and go the wrong way in a bike lane. If you demand that he show common courtesy and obey the rules of the road, a biker just might spit on your car. Kick the door. Hit the side mirrors. Bang on the hood. And dare you to do anything about it.
It’s a $500 fine for a motorist to hit a bicyclist in the District, but some behaviors are so egregious that some drivers might think it’s worth paying the fine.
Many people interpreted that last line as a suggestion that drivers were justified in simply hitting the most egregious riders.
Milloy stands by those paragraphs, but says he was in no way advocating that drivers hit cyclists. Instead, he says, these lines should be read as a "public service" warning cyclists that if they are violent on the road, drivers may react with violence.
"In any situation there is the possibility of violence. It is a public service, I think, to explain why it might happen so people might know what to do to prevent it," he says. "I'm saying that if a biker might commit violence or destruction of property then they should be aware that it may infuriate a driver to the point that they might consider violent action."
Milloy says his piece wasn't meant to troll bicyclists or be a work of click-bait. (He didn't know what trolling meant, but once I explained, he said the column was definitely not that.) He'd been thinking about the behavior of cyclists recently and decided to write the column the day before when his fellow Post columnist John Kelly wrote a column urging cyclists to stop riding their bikes on downtown sidewalks. He never expected the reaction this piece would receive, and while he's received some heavy backlash from previous columns, the reaction to this one was "rare" and he was "amazed" by the response.
"I never know what the result is going to be," he says. "I think it is likely that everyone is going to be riled up on the inside by something, you never know what that is going to be."
One criticism Milloy has received is that he doesn't live in the District and that he has no authority to comment on D.C. biking problems. His response: "It's craziness, we comment on Iraq, we don't live there. I lived in the city for a long time."
With D.C. undergoing profound demographic changes, Milloy's column touched on an area of tension, noting the disparate treatment of "mostly white millennials" who bike now and "black juveniles" who were harassed by police in the past, and otherwise channeling the frustration of some local drivers with the city's growing population of bike commuters.
Milloy says that, based on the cyclists' reaction, his article may have landed on some real fears among D.C. riders, particularly given how many people thought he was promoting violence.
"It might be latent fears that make people emotionally edit," he says. "People's [response] says a lot about a mindset."
Photo by Darrow Montgomery