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.
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.