Bikers and critics just can’t see eye to eye. Why?

Background Reading

Randy Cohen

Bicycling has become one of the most volatile subjects in New York City. Almost no other topic inspires such passionate responses from both sides; few people have no opinion on the issue, and there are virtually no “middle-of-the-road” points of view. Some of our most esteemed writers have spent countless column inches trying to convince people one way or the other.

About a month ago, Randy Cohen, the original “Ethicist” for The New York Times Magazine, came out of retirement to write a column about why he believes the way he and thousands of other New Yorkers commute on their bicycles is ethical, if illegal. Two weeks later, in his review of the new movie “Premium Rush,” Will Leitch, founding editor of Deadspin, posited that almost all cyclists, even if they are perfectly pleasant and normal in the rest of their lives, become rude and dismissive of everyone else the moment they mount their bikes.

These are two succinct summaries of the diametrically opposed opinions on cycling in New York City. Bicycle advocates argue that bike infrastructure makes streets safer for all road-users and reduces carbon emissions. They point out the enormous ratio of pedestrians killed by cars versus bikes and that bike lanes have decreased all types of traffic accidents on every street where they’ve been installed.

Critics of cyclists and bike lanes point out that bikers routinely break traffic laws in ways that surprise them, and they express fears of being hit.

But despite how often and articulately these arguments have been repeated, I’ve never heard a single person on either side of the issue change his or her opinion. This is a strange phenomenon for a city that contains a diversity of intelligent perspectives on almost every other subject. All of this begs the question: Why? Why is there such a breakdown of communication on this topic, and is it worth the amount of discussion it receives?

Personally, I think cycling deserves all the attention it has gotten, but the caliber of the conversation needs to elevate, and it must do so quickly or we are going to miss an opportunity to unite New Yorkers around an important cause and bring about sustainable change.


The Conspiracy Theorist In Me

Like Keegan it does seem odd that there is so very little common ground. And I doubly believe that we must quickly find a way to unite cyclists and motorists around the need for “sustainable change”. But the level of animosity is stoked each and every time I read a heated argument that erupts on the forum.

The hatred that some cyclists have for motorists is palpable. But even more troubling is the level of fear and disrespect leveled at the police in the City of Chicago. I have not seen this kind of spiraling emotion since the hey days of the Civil Rights Movement. You could always count on the more radical types to want to resolve their differences with The Man at the end of a gun. And I have remarked more than once on both the ChainLink and here that I am still amazed at how different the response is to young urban whites when they say essentially the same sorts of things that got Fred Hampton and Mark Clark killed in a shootout on the West Side of Chicago back in the day.

At the end of the day there is always someone who benefits financially from humanity being in discord. You either have folks whose jobs are threatened if “the cause” becomes passé or the funds from suburban donors dry up if they cannot be stampeded into yet another round of giving to bring about Nirvana with the issuance of a decree to build more bike lanes. There is always someone who wants to paint the movement as a struggle against oppression and The Man.

When the riots broke out after Dr. King’s death the West Side of Chicago literally burned to the ground. And the behavior of a few became the enduring vision of what Civil Rights was all about. Liberals began to wonder if things had gone a bit too far. They questioned whether Dr. King was moving too fast. Conservatives decided that the rest of the world did not have to have the dots connected for them to understand that if giving people equality was going to result in this kind of behavior society was doomed.

A week or so ago I did the 38-mile Loop of the Four Star Bike Tour 2012. We were accompanied for much of the second half of the ride by a Ride Marshal whose on bike behavior was nothing short of amazing. He spent most of the time demonstrating how to break each and every rule of correct bicycle etiquette where traffic laws were concerned. I wondered to myself what the aim of this sort of behavior could be. Was he trying to provoke a response from the folks following along behind him?

I did not hear a single person question his behavior and that fact spoke much louder than his behavior. Cyclists have decided to poke their heads in the sand where scofflaw behavior is concerned because they have possible become convinced that as members of a transportation minority group the system is stacked against them. They would rather revel in the unlawful behavior of a Ride Marshal than give him pushback.

The ChainLink group is notorious for taking apart anyone who does not toe the party line. It reminds me of the level of thought management that prompted the GOP Purity Test of the last election cycle. This sort of thing is only done when there is money to be made. In the case of a Purity Test someone is willing to donate to the party if they can be convinced that the candidates running have been vetted to ensure consistency of thought. Chilling!

The real problem among cyclists (I don’t know of any motorist forums) is that they have been successfully cajoled into the mental equivalent of Self-Deportation. It has become a matter of respectability to believe that the answer to bicyclist scofflaw behavior is the introduction of Protected Bike Lanes.

Don’t get me wrong I support their introduction. But as with School Desegregation and Open Housing efforts there is no Magic Bullet. It takes years to groom young blacks from poor neighborhoods into something other than fodder for the NBA’s grist mill. Academy where 100% of the black male youth gained acceptance into prestigious universities is not a chance happening. Adults have to sacrifice and children and their parents have to buy into the notion that self-sacrifice can bring about the attainment of meaningful personal goals.

And unfortunately some of these young men are going to graduate from Harvard and run for President of the United States and have members of the GOP question their parentage, nationality, religion and sexual orientation to a degree that is breathtaking. Oh, wait! We don’t have to wait for that to happen it already has. My bad.

But the GOP is doing this for one reason and one reason only, money. They get bigger bucks from their wealthy donors not only during this election cycle but many more into the future. The folks who give that money are attempting to ensure that their personal financial fortunes remain intact and safely ensconced in off shore accounts where taxation is impossible.

The same thing is going on here when we see the level of hysteria that surrounds the cycling movement. Somebody is getting money. Somebody is being paid to defend scofflaw behavior and to offer bike lanes as the solution, knowing full well that places like New York and Portland have scofflaw problems to this very day. And the pushback in both these areas is going to increase and continue.

Running stop signs and red lights really only works if cars are mostly obeying these traffic controls. If you remove all inhibitions amongst motorists such that they ran lights and signs when it pleased them you would have transportation chaos. Cyclist understand this quirk and exploit it. They know that it is unlikely that a cop witnessing a motorist driving through a stop sign will turn a blind eye to the behavior. And they furthermore understand that intersections all over the city have cameras which can peg those scofflaw motorists who run right lights, but are impotent when it comes to identifying scofflaw cyclists.

This is a trend that has to stop. We need to stand up and be counted where traffic rules are concerned. We need to stop complaining when a car is parked in the bike lane and yet unwilling to honor stop signs and red lights. It is a two way street out there, both literally and figuratively.

Our Cycling Advocates need to stop pandering to our fears and leading from the front and not the rear.