Why “Bike Rage” Is So Pernicious

Cycles of Rage the headline screamed.   I knew it was clickbait designed to trigger me.  It was like passing a crash on the side of the highway.  I couldn’t resist looking.  I clicked and immediately wished I hadn’t.  It was more of the same, this increasingly common refrain that feels to me like it is poisoning all that is good about cycling.   It goes like this.

  • Motorists hate us.
  • Pedestrians hate us.
  • City planners hate us.
  • Law enforcement officers hate us.
  • Traffic engineers hate us.
  • Politicians (especially Republican politicians) hate us.
  • Cycling is very dangerous.
  • We could die.
  • Protect us.

The story I referenced above appeared at Streetsblog NYC.  It tells of a city cyclist who keeps getting ticketed for running stop signs.   He doesn’t “blow” them.  It’s more like a slow roll…the Boise Stop.  His behavior would be legal in Idaho but it isn’t in New York.  Maybe it should be, but it isn’t.

I think he knows this, but he keeps doing it anyway and the fines keep piling up.  He looks like a smart enough guy.  Surely he’s done an informal cost benefit analysis on his behavior, right?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Seems to me that an awful lot of people these days are perfectly willing to blow themselves up if it allows the opportunity to show the rest of us how they really feel.  That’s fine right up until it starts hurting the rest of us.  More on that in a minute.

Way back when he was running Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher was saddled with an unfair law that prohibited flying out of Love Field in Dallas to destinations beyond Texas’ border states.  Called the Wright Amendment and named for Congressman Jim Wright, it was passed at the behest of Braniff International and American Airlines, ostensibly to protect the new DFW mega airport when in fact it was just good old political payback.  It was costing Southwest a lot of business and so Kelleher was asked about it in an interview.  I’ll never forget what he said in response.”

 “The Wright Amendment is a pain in the ass, but not every pain in the ass is a constitutional infringement.”

This is a good place to apply that quote.    Having to stop at stop signs on a bicycle may be annoying, but in the end it is just not that big of a deal.  Everybody is expected to stop at stop signs. You stop and then you roll.  It happens dozens of times in the typical city ride and yet life goes on.  Still, the comment stream accompanying the article is full of frothing, irrational rage.

I’ve long suspected that some people genuinely like being angry all the time.  Last year, The Atlantic’s CityLab website published an article titled “The Joys of Bike Rage.”  I can’t figure out if it’s intended to be satire or not, but taken at face value its premise is that bicycle commuting is terrifying and dangerous and just not worth the effort.  Interesting…  On the plus side, the article did introduce me to this video that tends to reinforce the stereotype of the angry cyclist.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so counterproductive.  Here’s my concern.  If this stuff turns me off as a cyclist, I wonder how many people who don’t cycle might read it and decide that cycling just isn’t worth the effort.  I suspect it’s not a small number.   It might be part of the reason why we can’t move north of 10% when it comes to percentage of people who get on a bike regularly.   Meanwhile in Copenhagen 50% of the people ride daily.  Raging cyclists claim it’s because they have protected infrastructure but I’ve been to Copenhagen and I know that they cycled BPBL (before protected bike lanes) and they’d continue to cycle if it was all taken away.  I wonder how we can possibly move from 10% to 50% when our narrative is one of rage and hate and lunacy.  I don’t know that we ever will.  What was it that Gandhi said?  If you want to change the world, change yourself first?  Hmmm.

From the Citylab article. Extreme care must be taken so as not to reinforce this  mindset.

And so I think that the obvious answer is that the bicycling as dangerous narrative needs to change.  New laws and new infrastructure are worthwhile goals, but what we really need more than any of that is new cyclists.   It’s time to put the bike before the bike lane.  If we cycle, they will build it.  They won’t have any other choice.

I’d love to see the advocacy community (because this is really where the problem is) shift its focus from everything that’s wrong to everything that’s right with cycling.  Perspective matters.   It’s no secret that most laws favor motor vehicles over cyclists.  So what?  The other side of the equation is that cycling is still healthy, both physically and mentally.  It’s low impact and good for the environment.  It helps build strong communities.  It saves money by the billions.  I could go on and on.

Back to the stop sign story.   Close your eyes for just a minute and imagine a New York City where the same percentage of people cycle as in Copenhagen.  Imagine what that city might look and feel like.  That’s what those of us who love cycling must be working towards.   This stop sign stuff is just a distraction…an insignificant battle in the war to get to 50%.  I don’t know how you feel about it, but in the end I’d rather lose the battle and win the war.

Rotary Presentation

I was invited to speak to the Rotary Club in my adopted hometown of Jefferson Iowa yesterday. I gave a brief presentation on why bicycle friendliness is so important to the overall health (both physical and economic) and vitality of small towns like ours.  The purpose of this post is to share the slide deck as well as my thoughts about the presentation.  Feel free to use the slides and images.  If you do, attribution is greatly appreciated.

As I’ve talked to people about cycling over the years, I’ve come to realize that in the minds of many this is an “all or nothing” proposition.  To choose a bicycle is to reject the automobile and everything that goes along with it.  I  think that’s part of the reason so many folks stubbornly resist cycling even when it makes more sense than driving.   It doesn’t have to be that way.

So my presentation stressed that pro- cycling is not anti-car.   Nobody has to give up their cars.  You can get all the societal benefits of being bike friendly…things like civic vitality, a higher quality of life, economic prosperity…even if you never get on a bike.   All you have to do is be willing to share your space with people who do.

I talked about the correlation between bicycle friendliness and the world’s best places.  I provided examples from Pittsburgh (large), Boise (medium) and Park City (small) that illustrated shared spaces.  There wasn’t a single slide of a bicycle-only place.

Pittsburgh has done better than any other Rust Belt city in terms of reinventing itself. Shared spaces are a big part of that success.

 

Boise’s North End is one of America’s best neighborhoods.

 

Park City Utah. Sandals, latte, a bicycle helmet and not a care in the world, even though cars are everywhere.

Even though I was hesitant to do so, I talked about our stubbornly high traffic mortality rate and our implicit willingness to accept carnage as unavoidable.  I compared us to the Dutch and explained how they made changes that saved lives.  I showed a picture of Dutch children riding without helmets to challenge the irrational assumption that cycling is somehow more dangerous than driving.

Don’t tell the Dutch there’s nothing we can do.

 

Amsterdam. Helmets optional.

Finally, I explained that the best way to make a place bike friendly is to just get on your bike and go.  The more cyclists on the street, the more naturally bike friendly the community will be.  I understand that people who haven’t been on a bike in awhile may be concerned about safety, so I pitched the crowd on the League of American Bicyclist’s Smart Cycling course that is taught by League certified instructors like me.

I think it went really well.  Will anything come of it?  I don’t know.  Jefferson is already pretty bike friendly but my wish is for it to become more so.  I think it’s critical to our future, as well as the future of just about every other small town and big city in America.

If you feel that your community would benefit, feel free to use the slide deck as the basis for your own presentation.  If you’re located between the Appalachians and the Rockies and would like me to present to someone in your community, please let me know.  I would be happy to do so.   We could do it online or I could come.  Either way is fine.