Thoughts On Cycling Safety
Probably the most disappointing thing about the death of Father “Vic” Capriolo is just how little impact it has had on the Chicago bicycle scene. I have not read or heard from any of the Cycling Advocacy groups any mention of this tragic event. I suppose that this might change in the near term as these groups get a chance to consider whether they can weather the firestorm of vitriol that could be hurled at them from a community whose membership is more like than unlike that espoused by the young man whose video is posted above.
He is an active member of the Chicago ChainLink forum and one whose views on African-American communities I take issue with. He likes to proudly refer to them as “shit holes”. I guess that my complaints about this went further than the ChainLink community could stand and I got banned for my troubles. You’ll note that the announcement is rather cryptic. What they had done was actually delete my account. A courageous move on their parts.
An Insular Mentality
This is a group that’s pretty insular. They can shovel crap at just about every motorist, suburbanite, cop and pedestrian that comes their way, but you had better not criticize anything they say or do on the streets. One of their number was the unnamed Ride Marshal serving at the pleasure of the Active Transportation Alliance on the most recent Four Star Bike Tour.
What distresses me is that so much of the attitudes of this group are centered around anarchic behavior and so little pushback is given by those who claim to be the authority figures in the world of Cycling Advocacy. But that is what it is.
I would challenge any of these so-called Executive Directors to “pick up pen paper” and try to refute the sentiments so eloquently expressed by the courageous staff of the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation. We like to pride ourselves on being superior to motorists whose vehicles are polluters and are often the instruments of death for cyclists. But what we fail ever to do is really confront the source of the problem in our own midst. And to my mind that problem is our smug and sometimes arrogant attitudes.
Perhaps it is that the age of many urban cyclists is under 40. Perhaps it is that many urban cyclists have come to revile the suburban life for something they feel to be more authentic. And if that means thumbing their noses at society gets a rise out of “Gabes Sister” or anybody else for that matter so-be-it. That is exactly what moves them.
If you want to understand what is wrong with politics today you only need to look at the current state of the Cycling Community in Chicago. We are more about winning a struggle for an increased number of bike lanes than we are about really transforming the cycling scene with a renewal of our own behavior. And what is worse is the willingness to not be as authentic as our language would suggest.
A Lack of Real Leadership
What I heard at the start of the Four Star Bike Tour from the Executive Director in no way matched how his Ride Marshal behaved on the roadway. And what is worse (in my mind) is that this ride route segment was populated by parents with children in tow. Just how eager are we to strike a pirate pose when there are impressionable minds “close to hand”.
We are curiously intent upon making certain that we can blow every red light and stop sign without fail. In fact this behavior is endemic that the riding behavior of the young lady behind (who Connie and I rode when approaching the Open Streets Festival on Milwaukee Avenue this week) stuck out like a sore thumb. She waited at every light regardless of the conditions. She might even be a member of ChainLink for all that I know. But clearly her voice would be in the definite minority.
No amount of physically separated bike lanes (as nice as they might seem) is going to change the behavior of a single cyclist who is intent on being a scofflaw. For most of them it is a right of passage. And for the folks here in Chicago who make their living either running forums or acting as Executive Directors of this or that Cycling Advocacy agency it is indeed a “tough row to hoe” to even think about confronting this 800 pound gorilla.
You might want to consider (if you doubt my notions about cycling’s future here in Chicago) what is presently occurring in Portland, OR. There as here the urban cycling community has decided to become a law unto itself. Running red lights and blowing stop signs is as much an important symbol of who you are as having a tattoo or wearing a knit cap in the dead of summer. Fortunately there is someone out there whose business has been impacted by this trend and is providing pushback. That is sorely lacking here in Chicagoland.
Gabe feels quite comfortable being the “bad boy” of the ChainLink forum. But despite the one or two folks who chide him for his descriptions of African-American enclaves he still represents the best and brightest of this motley crew. They might not like seeing his words in online threads other than their own but I am guessing that his approach is more welcomed than mine.
We Need to be Self-Critical
But I, like Mr. Huckaby, think that Vehicular Cycling is never really “out-of-fashion”. There is a thread on ChainLink having to do with the terrorizing conditions that resulted in a cyclists death on Lawrence Avenue. I have ridden Lawrence and like most streets in Chicago it is crowded, busy and dangerous. But as I have often noted sometimes the terror of city riding rises to the level of a fish story. The more terrible and blood curdling the conditions described the more “street cred” the teller feels he has earned. North Avenue between Route 83 and Route 59 is far worse. But even then we probably have nothing on the folks living in countries like China or India where the sheer numbers of bicyclists and the volume of traffic would make most urban cyclists wet their pants.
Cycling in traffic is not some sort of game. It is not an online first person shooter. It is deadly serious and requires the kind of focus that few ChainLinkers really want to bring to bear on the situation. They would far rather be scofflaw riders than to try and navigate the mean streets. If you ask them why, they are far more likely to cite Randy Cohen than anything written by John Forester. I think it is a generational thing. Americans who live in a world where the Copenhagen and Amsterdam models are held us as nirvana have come to agree with their European counterparts that Vehicular Cycling is some sort of cult belief.
But what makes me most upset is that the brand of physically separated infrastructure we are proposing really does not measure up well with that to be found across the pond. We are (as usual) looking for a hodgepodge approach which is frankly cheaper and can be slapped together with a minimum of effort on the part of cities (which are wealthy enough to afford it) and trotted out as proof that our town is bicycle friendly.
Frankly this is exactly what the No Child Left Behind legislation was intended to do. It was supposed to prove that we as a nation were up the challenge of teaching inner city kids by forcing the responsibility for their education onto the backs of the teachers and administrators at the schools where performance was lowest. The added benefit (an intended consequence) was that we could close low performing schools and bring in for profit alternatives with lush corporate backing and showcase the benefits of a non-unionized approach.
To be honest teacher unions have sat on their hands when they knew that members in their midst were frankly bored and underperforming. But as with the cycling community it is always better to turn a blind eye to the “bad behavior” in your midst than to try and root it out. If you are a leader and enough of the followers deem you a threat then you lose the cushy perks that come with a teachers salary in an urban area and the extra monies earned as a union president. That is the self-same dilemma faced by every Executive Director for Cycling Advocacy in the country. Even bloggers like Jonathan Maus are not immune. He can say with a straight face that he is worried about scofflaw cyclist behavior and then in the next breath plant the blame squarely on the lack of bicycle infrastructure as a way of explaining why cyclists run red lights and ignore stop signs.
He treats these acts as a lower level concern when the real danger (wait for it) is the automobile. That one line of thought brings cheers and pants wetting into the lives of any urban cyclist worth their salt. You get to lay the blame onto the shoulders of someone else while giving cover to a bunch of brats. It it almost like being John Boehner the Speaker of the House. You cannot negotiate with the opposition party because that would bring the wrath of the Tea Party and they have the big bucks behind them. If you cross the Libertarian Establishment you are likely to find them putting up a candidate to oppose you. So you shut your mouth turn on the crocodile tears and do what you are told.
I Was Wrong
That is not good enough for me. I would rather be honest with the cycling communities both urban and suburban. Bicycle infrastructure will no doubt provide some benefits (if properly applied) but will introduce other problems. And it most certainly will not usher in the new age of non-scofflaw cyclist behavior. Cyclists who are committed to ideas like Critical Mass are simply not going to give up a cherished tradition of “sticking it to the
man motorists” when that has been their rallying cry for more than a decade. Besides how will you ever attract younger hipsters into the fold if you suddenly turn all serious and act like adults rather than prime examples of Arrested Development?
I mistakenly thought that most of this crowd was single and unmarried. There is a measure of truth in that description. But it is more a matter of cultural mores. I should have listened to Steven Vance. He was right. This is not about being too lazy to follow the Rules of the Road. It is all about a determined effort to abolish anything resembling normalcy where cycling is concerned. Vehicular Cycling is a cult to this group and should be sent to its demise sooner than later.
And what exactly will move in to fill the void? Probably a version of Vehicular Cycling with a different name or slight twist. Envane (one of the ChainLinkers who spoke about the Lawrence Avenue cycling death. He put it succinctly as “adapt or die”. And that is the essence of any notion in Vehicular Cycling. It is not some lame slavish devotion to the rules but rather a set of strategies to get you from Point A to Point B in one piece.
Cyclists Rely on the Good Behavior of Motorists
So much of scofflaw behavior relies on the one thing that few urban cyclists like to admit to and that is the willingness of motorists to follow the Rules of the Road. Without this self-policing on the part of motorists few cyclists could ever navigate any large intersection.
For instance it makes no sense for a cyclist who is unprotected and riding a bicycle to blow stop signs unless it can be assumed that cars generally do not. This reliance on good motorist behavior is even more important when crossing through intersections on a red light. You simply don’t attempt this foolhardy maneuver if you think that cars behind and in front of you (and not just those whose path you are attempting to cross) are likely to try the same thing and cross alongside you against the light. The probability of you getting shredded goes way up when it appears that every intersection is more of a demolition derby than a lawful meeting of two ton behemoths.
Wearing a helmet or not is unimportant when you are mixing it up with automobiles who are as reckless in their behavior as any scofflaw cyclist. I guess that Gabe does not wear a helmet because he anticipated each intersection being a demolition derby of some sort. Will he put one on when all of the promised physically separated bicycle infrastructure goes into place? I seriously doubt it. Why?
Well if you hadn’t noticed Europeans think helmet espousers are the Spawn of Satan. Just ask Wiggo. I am awaiting the next trend in urban cycling to move away from the Bern helmet to the New York Yankees fielders cap or better yet the knit stocking cap so favored by any self-respecting hipster.
To be fair helmets are not as good at doing what they purport to be for as we would like. They certainly do not protect against concussion. But when you consider the benefits for young children it helps to sway me at least. And frankly that is the real reason that the Rules of the Road need to be followed. We need to be setting good examples for our kids.
Everyone Needs A Degree of Selfishness
The mantra that ChainLinkers like to toss around is that they demand to be self-actualizers. They don’t use those terms. That would be too New Age for most of them, but that is indeed what they mean. The whole idea behind Critical Mass is to “Rage Against the Machine”. It is not unlike the mantra of my generation which was to “Never Trust Anyone Over Thirty”. Each generation is always trying to self-actualize and often in self-destructive ways.
We smoked pot, used LSD and paved the way for harder stuff like heroin and cocaine. And when it was discovered that you could sell a particularly potent version of cocaine that was cheaper to produce (namely crack cocaine) and our own children were emulating the kids from the ghetto, we decided to put a stop to it and thus the War Against Drugs was born. And it has been as much a failure as the No Child Left Behind legislation. We will no doubt find the current enthrallment with bicycle infrastructure a bit less enthralling when the wider society decides that in exchange for the dollars spent on pretty green lanes we need to be licensed and ticketed for bad behavior.
Presently we are telling ourselves that licensing will never happen. Perhaps not. But I see the tide changing a bit in favor of great responsibility on the part of cyclists. There are only so many rabble rousers on ChainLink (like myself) that you can unceremoniously kick off before you begin to have made enough enemies amongst suburban motorists (like myself) that your whining and smugness begins to fall on deaf ears.
You will know this to have occurred when City Hall starts getting complaints about scofflaw behavior on streets with all the amenities of protected bicycle infrastructure but few of the benefits to the motoring public. That is when the mayor will turn to his transportation chief who will turn to the Executive Directors of the various Cycling Advocacy groups and demand to know what can and should be