Fellow cyclists, it appears we have a serious perception problem in the city of Chicago.
Despite the efforts of Transportation Secretary Gabe Klein, the Active Transportation Alliance, the chainlink, Grid Chicago, and other pro-cycling advocates, certain careless “cyclists” among us threaten the goodwill everyone else has fought so hard to garner. While being lumped together and stereotyped is not fair for reasons too numerous to list, it is a perception problem that we will need to address sooner rather than later.
It is difficult to wage a campaign for the right to share the road safely when some riders we seek to protect exhibit no regard for their own safety or the safety of others.
I’ll be the first to admit that riding a bike can be a very exhilarating experience. Moving forward under your own power, feeling the breeze against your skin, processing the changing scents like a dog with his head hanging out of a car window, all while continually scanning your surroundings for obstructions to your momentum is an endorphin rush like no other. It’s very easy to zone out – to ignore danger and suspend fear – just to hold onto that near-euphoric feeling for a moment longer.
But riding in city traffic isn’t the same as playing a video game.
Near misses with pedestrians aren’t a reinforcement of your mad skills. Outmaneuvering a bus pulling away from the curb doesn’t earn you an extra life. Leaving startled, frustrated, angry, or vengeful motorists in your wake as you zig-zag from curb to curb on a quest for a personal best doesn’t accumulate a points standing that will protect you from future failures. To paraphrase Rush (the band, not the blowhard), “you are only immortal for a limited time.”
As champions for the right to ride on public roads, bicycle advocates face perpetual headwinds and continual uphill climbs.
Certain taxpayers consider us a special interest group composed of annoying do-gooders, tree-huggers, fitness freaks, and elitists who desire a Nanny State to protect us from the evils of the world. We’re too idealistic, naïve even. We embolden, empower, foster, and protect anarchists. And we don’t pay gasoline taxes, so we don’t deserve to be on their roads.
America is facing an obesity epidemic, yet there is little political will to enhance an infrastructure that encourages greater physical activity. We’re noticing the effects of climate change, yet there is little desire to encourage activities that lower our carbon emissions. We pay an extraordinary price in blood and treasure to satisfy our appetite for oil, yet we’re not willing to invest in any technology, infrastructure, or activity that will free us from this dependency.
Despite a deaf ear to our simple solution, we cycling advocates soldier on - always focused on the battle at hand, winning some and losing some.
The last thing we need is to be fighting a battle within our own ranks.
Like it or not, cycling advocates are expected to answer for the individual behavior exhibited by their fellow cyclists. While no reasonable person would expect all Baptists to answer for the funeral protests of the Westboro Baptist Church, AAA to defend drunk drivers, or the NRA to apologize for mass shootings, for some reason, anyone on two wheels represents everyone on two wheels.
So what do we responsible cyclists do to alter the behavior of our “rogue” element?
My last two posts – Who Is Against Protected Bike Lanes and Protected Bike Lanes and the Demand for Cyclist Education – opened up a dialogue that resulted in some well-reasoned comments. Here are some excerpts:
“Bikers, though, seem to be the ones who complain most loudly about the behavior of those who choose other modes of transportation while ignoring the rampant disregard for rules in their own community.” – teewhy35
“No, the things they do that drive me bonkers is that they get in the way unnecessarily, they sometimes ride in an unpredictable and aggressive manner causing me to fear an accident, and they lobby for public expenditures on what are sometimes wholly unnecessary bike lanes.” – JakeH
“What I've seen from many of my fellow cyclist is that they switch back and forth acting like a pedestrian, bicyclist or motorist, whatever is most convenient at the time. And not knowing what they are at any one time makes it very difficult in dealing with them in traffic.” – ABIGSOXFAN
“The mistakes are too many to go through in this space, but they tend as they always do to statistically define a stereotype of youth, and/or ignorance (across all races and even genders) which will only be remedied through trial, error, the realization of affect, and an understanding of health and mortality.” – Commuteracer
“Cyclists need to stop making excuses and stop using the behavior of other, poor drivers as justification for their own behavior. Cars protect their drivers, bicycles don't. If you are the type of cyclist who blows stop signs and lights then you should expect to be hurt if not killed while riding.” – Jnathan
“So let's be part of the community. We've gained lots of rights to be on the road, we're now part of the normal flow of the public street. Let's act as we expect others to act.” – Kate Gillogly
While the Sun Times rant that inspired this series of posts focused on the usual enforcement-education-licensing-taxing-prohibiting solutions one might expect from the intransigent “majority” when dealing with any complex, progressive issue involving small groups of “others”, the solution to our perception problem is as simple as the cycling solution itself.
Not that I like to quote from the handbook from the War on Terror, but one simple phrase makes sense for us; “if you see something, say something.”
We know what bad cycling looks like. We have a duty to call it out. While no one likes to be confronted with, corrected, or lectured about their bad behavior, they need to hear it. Doing so may not be easy, pleasant, or without conflict, but it’s necessary.
There is a lot at stake in our fight for safer streets.
Beyond public acceptance and securing taxpayer funding is the safety of each of us when we ride. The moment a motorist fails to see cyclists as fellow human beings with loved ones, we become another point to be won in a video game. We only get one life. The motorist is immortal.
I'm not ready for Game Over...
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Keep riding and be safe.