Unintended Consequences In Scofflaw Cyclist Debate

Interesting Times

“May you live in interesting times” — Chinese Curse

Cycling Advocacy groups have been walking a tightrope for years. They have had to be the face of the cycling community at the table when the money was being “divvied up” during the never ending fight over transportation dollars.

The executive directors of these groups have had to go hat in hand to the halls of Congress in search of allies in the House and Senate. Each time they have had to answer criticism regarding behavior of scofflaw behavior of cyclists while trying to make the case that this was essentially a myth.

Legislatures are sometimes willing to toss a few dollars towards building or repairing bicycle trails. But such efforts are obviously for recreational riding and it has been the aim of the Cycling Advocacy groups to make legislators aware that cycling is more than just Sunday rides through the park with the kids in tow. It is in fact a viable means of transportation and should be seen as part of the overall effort to reduce traffic congestion in the business districts of each region.

Up until now everyone has been able to consider a unified theory of Alternative Transportation. We would:

  • Encourage the use of mass rail transit by improving the cars and stations for long distance commuters (mostly from the surrounding suburbs)
  • Improve the inner city rail people movers so that crime was reduced and stations were modernized.
  • Bus travel in and around the neighborhoods of the city would be modernized to include more efficient and alternate fuel use. GPS system were installed to allow transit riders to receive alerts when their bus was approaching their local boarding area. Shelters have been built to provide year round protection for those who are making connecting rides.
  • Sidewalks have been improved and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent putting up countdown timers to alert pedestrians of the impending light changes. In fact most of these same intersections have separate time slots for pedestrian crossings. Lines are painted sometimes in the middle of busy blocks to allow for mid-block protected crossings to accommodate situations where jaywalking had become so common as to cause serious injuries.
  • And now taking a cue from our European Cycling Communities in Copenhagen and Amsterdam the notion of creating protected bike lanes has become a front line effort in cities like Chicago and New York.

These efforts like all the rest for pedestrians and mass transit users are expensive but worth the costs if it makes traveling into densely populated central cities more convenient and safer. There has been a steady creep of business relocations to suburban areas for the past 50 years. And those tax dollars and the political and financial influence that have leaked away from metropolitan areas has made them poorer. City planners were seeing the erosion of their city from “white flight” to the suburbs and the collapse of school districts and the failing of small businesses in areas where poverty had replaced relative affluence.

To make cities attractive you need to make it possible for people to move around them quickly, efficiently and safely. To that end groups like Active Transportation Alliance changed their names from Chicago Bicycle Federation to alert their congressional clients that this was a more expansive organization with a vision for not only cycling but pedestrian and mass transit users as well.

But Things Are Coming A Bit Unglued

Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return.   Auden, W. H.

Regardless of what you name a bicycle advocacy group your cycling constituents realize that you are the organization to which they can turn when they have issues concerning the treatment and accommodation of cyclists on the roadways. Eventually however there are those who are impatient with the pace of progress. They have something of a deficit where the long view is concerned.

Thus arises the scofflaw cyclist.

If you read the musing of Randy Cohen on the ethics of being a scofflaw cyclist you understand why the Civil Rights Movement was nearly derailed. Dr. Martin Luther King had a message of non-violence. He patterned his approach after that of his hero Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

The idea was to not respond with physical violence even if it was directed at you during a demonstration. Now the word demonstration here is defined by Webster as:

“A public meeting or march protesting against something or expressing views on a political issue.”

It is meant to convey that walking into a “whites only” lunch counter area to sit-down and eat was a sign of the level of displeasure of the black population with their lack of public accommodations. Launching voter drives in communities where voting age blacks had not been allowed to participate in this most democratic of activities was another way of showing their displeasure with segregation. Eventually this idea would move northward as these same people decried the fact that housing loans were being denied to blacks who despite their financial abilities were being denied housing in “all-white” areas.

Critical Mass was dreamt up to serve as a monthly reminder of the cycling communities displeasure with the pace of adding road improvements that included cyclists. All along efforts were being made to get cities and states to recognize cyclists are intended users of the roadways in the same way as motorists.

John Forester‘s book titled Effective Cycling had been in print long enough to have curriculum designed around its central premise. Wikipedia describes his work in this fashion:

Effective Cycling is a trademarked cycling educational program designed by John Forester, which was the national education program of the League of American Wheelmen for a number of years until Forester withdrew permission for them to use the name.[1] It is also the name of Forester’s book (first published in 1984 and revised numerous times since then) on the topic. The program consists of textbooks and training courses (for both students and instructors) and a training video for students. The central teaching of the program is vehicular cycling practices. These practices are based upon years of statistical data about the experiences ofcyclists. The primary recommendation is that a bicyclist, as an operator of a pedal vehicle, should follow the rules of the road that are common to all vehicle types. Forester argues that behaving otherwise actually increases the likelihood of collisions with other vehicles.

Forester summarizes the rules of the road for vehicle operation in five principles:

  1. Use the correct half of the road, and not the sidewalk.
  2. Yield to other traffic as required.
  3. Yield when moving laterally across the road.
  4. Choose the correct lane and position within the lane at intersections and their approaches, based on your destination. For example, a cyclist planning to go straight through an intersection should avoid getting stuck in a right-turn-only lane, where it is easy to get clobbered by a right-turning car; a cyclist in a through-traffic lane may get a few surprised looks but will probably not get hit. Choosing the correct lane and position often involves taking the lane when the lane is not wide enough for a car and a bike side by side.
  5. Between intersections move away from the curb based on speed relative to other traffic and effective lane width.

Forester sums up Effective Cycling with what he calls the vehicular cycling (VC) principle: “Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” This injunction is consistent with the rules of the road, which generally apply to all types of drivers of vehicles. The VC principle is often misunderstood to mean “act like you’re a car”. At most, it means to act like a driver of a low-powered motorcycle. Forester’s injunction speaks not only to cyclist behavior but also to the way cyclists should be treated by motorists, police, and road engineers.

Forester generally opposes segregated cycle facilities (such as bicycle lanes) which he contends encourage behavior that is contrary to the vehicular cycling practices. This contention is challenged by those who believe that such facilities increase cyclist safety, such as the authors of a meta-study on cycle infrastructure safety research at the University of British Columbia,[2] who have publicly stated that “In comparison to cycling on bicycle-specific infrastructure (paths, lanes, routes), on-road cycling appears to be less safe.”[3] However, that study also concludes that “sidewalks and multi-use trails pose the highest risk” and Forester has published a reply. [4]

 No Hiding Place

If you suddenly find yourself faced with responsible theorists advocating a disregard of vehicular laws that they don’t like your work as a Cycling Advocacy lobbyist becomes more difficult. The scofflaw cyclists was not a myth but rather a longstanding reality. He is not the Yeti but rather your next door neighbor. And if you were a motorist blithely unaware of the molten lava of cyclist discontent moving beneath your feet, learning that willing law breakers are your neighbors has to be disconcerting.

San Francisco is in the midst of trying to regroup in the face of this “sea change” of cyclist opinion. It’s as if you were Martin Luther King, Jr. being interviewed on the Civil Rights Movement by a staunch segregationist and being shown on air photographs of your demonstrators pelting police with rocks. So much for claiming the “high ground”.

San Francisco’s Bicycle Coalition are scrambling to deal with the negative effects of this “outing” of their core membership and the concerns of their allies in the public sector. If your closest allies start to get “cold feet” and wish not to be aligned with so obvious a scofflaw movement things get sketchy. Organizations that had been willing to help you organize and supply fundraising events will find other places to spend their advertisement dollars.

You can be certain that Fox News and the GOP will have something to say about this next round of budgetary consideration regarding transportation. And even the allies the cycling movement might have had amongst its more conservative congressmen will be sorely tested by Tea Party legislators who are hell bent on finding places to cut spending. It will take staunch defenders of cycling in the mayoralties of large cities to keep the pressure on for monies to help fund the modernization of streets to accommodate commuters and tourist cyclists in our central cities.

The Civil Rights Movement lost many allies when the Black Panthers gained visibility in San Francisco and Chicago. Mark Clark and Fred Hampton are the continual reminders of what can happen when impatience overtakes incremental change.

As always there are folks who feel threatened when a movement turns militant. It emboldens law enforcement officials to “crackdown” on the offenders. San Francisco and New York have already seen their share of this phenomenon. But what is more worrisome are when motorists decide to insert themselves into the situation with even more aggressive behavior aimed at unsuspecting and often law-abiding cyclists who get tarred with the same brush as their more militant cousins.

What About Our Children?

I watch the videos of Kiddical Mass rallys and realize that children have been largely ignored in this ongoing debate regarding scofflaw cyclist behavior.

Having taught Junior High for a decade before leaving to enter the field of software engineering I can tell you firsthand that of all the kinds of behavior children tend to mimic it is “bad behavior”. By the time a child has reached junior high school it is those “attention getting” behaviors that become the weapons in their arsenal to rid themselves of adult supervision. Everything from binge drinking to premarital sex and drug usage becomes fair game for their young minds. And as is often stated what they lack most is an ability to weight and understand the consequences of their actions.

If is why we have a different standard for children when dealing with criminal actions than we do of an adult who should know better having lived long enough to have undergone sufficient brain development. But frankly, I am beginning to wonder if there really is a magic age at which the youthful mind turns adult. It would seem that Randy Cohen has cast aside his adult brain function in an effort to recapture the reasoning of his junior high self.

Kids trying to mimic the “bad boys” by running red light intersections and rolling through stop signs is inevitable. Mothers are going to have an even more difficult time convincing their sons and daughters that the booklet they brought home from that last bicycle rodeo has any relevance whatsoever.

If responsible adults can write about breaking the law in a cavalier manner why would any teenager in high school not come to despise his Driver Education course and its instructors? If you see a law that you don’t particularly like then by extension to the thinking of Randy Cohen you can simply ignore it. And this way lies madness.

A One-Hundred Eight Degree Turnoff

As we must account for every idle word, so must we account for every idle silence. — Benjamin Franklin

It was only a year or so ago that we saw the beautiful sights of thousands upon thousands of cyclists flooding down thoroughfare in Copenhagen and Amsterdam heading to work. Beautiful women dressed in their finery were pedaling quaint looking “Dutch Bikes” while wearing high heels. It was a very lovely and unthreatening view of what the future of cycling could be like here in the States. Who would not want to have beautiful young women with long flowing hair wandering their streets on bicycles laden with retail shopping bags and the occasional poodle or kids in a cargo bike hopper?

Now the notion of aggressive, disdainful, “Hipsters on Huffy Bikes” is the new vision of cycling. And what gets lost in all of this are the high principles of “vehicular equality”. We have moved away from wanting “equal treatment” with motorist to wanting “special treatment” because we are different. And the chance of having a clever advertisement on television to bolster our cause is less and less likely to sell with each passing day.

Critical Mass becomes the poster illustration that will adorn the mental halls of the legislatures and will drive the lobbying efforts of those on “K Street” who are determined to stem the leakage of funds from motorist concerns to the wasteful spending on scofflaw cyclists.

Are we really willing to allow all of this to happen? Speaking up is required. Staying silent is not an option.