Does Urban Cycling Create Stress and Engender Aggressive Behavior?

Background Reading


The Lakefront Trail near Lake Shore Drive and Grand Avenue (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye / July 25, 2012)

Urban Cycling is fraught with aggressive behavior. It has materialized with events like Critical Mass. It has been excused by the musings of writer like Randy Cohen. The nature of this aggression works itself out as what has come to be known as “scofflaw behavior”.

The cycling community has taken several tacks when trying to deal with this openly illegal behavior. It has denied its existence. It has tried to minimize its importance by deflecting criticism onto motorists. But with Randy Cohen’s admissions it becomes impossible to deny the existence of this issue.

Cyclists As Lab Rats

If you speak to most urban cyclists they are idealists at heart. They can often come off as touchy-feely types who would rather eat plants than animals and ride bikes than pollute the atmosphere by driving cars. So what makes these mild-mannered Clark Kent-types turn so aggressive when it comes to the traffic conditions so prevalent in Chicago and elsewhere.

My take on riding in the city is that the continued daily stress of facing fast moving traffic that whizzes by inches from your head and honks loudly as it does so has created aggression where little existed before. If you listen to the talk on ChainLink there are specific laboratories (i.e. streets) which create fear and loathing. And it is palpable in their writings.

The current remedy for all of this is bicycle lanes. The green colors being used are actually calming and give the rider a sense of serenity that is sorely needed in an urban environment. But frankly the colors notwithstanding the danger is still real and ever-present. No white plastic bollards on even the more newly installed physically separated bicycle lanes can really provide safety. But the appearance of isolation is calming and instills a bit more confidence in newbies until the first instance of right hook brings the idyllic dream to a crashing halt.

If you want a study in contrasts try riding Lawrence Avenue to the Lakefront Trail and taking it south on a cool fall day. With the absence of pedestrian traffic the trail is a less frantic place than on weekends. It is as if you are riding in two different worlds. Lawrence is frenetic and dangerous while the Lakefront Trail (by comparison) is like a scene from a location a thousand miles away.

You could probably get more valid information from detainees at Gitmo by having them ride Lawrence at Rush Hour on a 24-hour basis than you could by “water boarding” them. It should be noted that cyclists are not the only ones affected by stresses of dealing with urban traffic. Motorists are equally affected. In fact the cycles of cross aggressive behavior are fully reinforced by the interactions between these two groups.

Motorists in an agitated state look for something or someone weaker than they to relieve their stress, scofflaw cyclists are their target. Cyclists tired of breathing fumes, loud honking horns, near misses from passers by become enraged at pedestrians who get in their pathway as they dart across streets between intersections. It is a bit of a mad-house out there and it breeds a lot of passive-aggressive behavior.

The traditional brunt of stressful situations has always been the family dog or cat. The classic kicking the dog syndrome is all too real. In lieu of a dog, a small child or the wife is always an easy target. But eventually the weaker player turns their anger back onto the ones who are really to blame. Pedestrians attempt to knock cyclists off their bikes and take them as they pass along darkened streets late at night and sometimes in broad daylight.

Cyclists turn the tails on motorists by gathering together for a round of share the frustration the last Friday of every month. It is probably more of a stress reliever than anything else. A chance to give as good as they got during the past month. But often times this stressful traffic causes a permanent change in the minds of the riders of bicycles.

Feeling as if they are the step children of the roadways they take to doing things directly to infuriate drivers. The most obvious behavior is to run stop lights and blow through stop signs. Randy Cohen says he only does this sort of thing when no one else is around. But I have witnessed the fact that this behavior has become routine. Bicycle riders simply cross intersections even if cars are present.

A near accident took place on Saturday afternoon when three female riders blew a stop sign only to be challenged by a left turing driver almost resulting in a collision which would have been critical only for the bicyclists. That got me to thinking that there is something going on here besides bad behavior.

You don’t seek out the stronger types to tweak their noses when you are the only one who can suffer as a result. That sort of thing is what happens only when you mistreat dogs so badly that they disregard their own personal safety to lash out at anyone and everyone who is viewed as a tormentor.

Last evening on the way back home we decided to grab a cup of coffee from a nearby Starbucks. A cabbie decided to leave his position at the side of the road just as we were approaching him. I slammed on the brakes in an attempt to avoid a collision. He took advantage of the situation by simply continuing with his entry onto the roadway. Lots of cab drivers are from foreign countries where this kind of driving is part of the culture. They transplant that sort of thing here and you end up with a very dicey bit of urban traffic experience.

I rolled down my window as I passed the fellow and “gave him a piece of my mind”. He was from Jamaica (judging by his accent) and seemed unperturbed. As far as he was concerned I was the one being aggressive not him. This is the source of the frustration levels that drive cyclists and motorists alike to be at one another’s throats on a fairly regular basis.

There are not enough benefits in these hybrid bike lanes that are being installed around the city to provide a real and lasting benefit in terms of safety. Motorists are going to treat them as their own private playgrounds as often as they can. Cyclists are going to get frustrated and vow to continue disobeying traffic laws they feel are stacked against them. Someone is going to get hurt in the final analysis.

In New York City you can see that the spike in traffic deaths is causing a bit of concern amongst the proponents of bicycling infrastructure. This is not the outcome they had hoped for nor predicted. But their European cousins could have told them that saving money on “pretend physically separated infrastructure” was going to “come a cropper“.

There really is not substitute for the kind of riding experience you get on the Lakefront Trail versus Lawrence Avenue. To try and make the case for something as useful as Kedzie versus what I hope the Bloomingdale Trail will be is pointless. We will see that in due time. Bicycles simply move too slowly and cyclists are too vulnerable to be placed in harms way on city streets.

For The Future

Sign holder at memorial for Kathryn Rickson

In the meantime we will all have to live with these hybrid solutions which can be fabricated at reduced costs while giving the appearance of increased safety. But as Portland and New York have demonstrated the magic bullet of bike lanes is a myth. We will need to understand how to couch the real needs of cyclists in terms that make it possible for the general public to buy into our vision.

Does that mean that we need to modify our own behavior first? Probably. Understanding the stresses of riding in the city and being supported of one another without all of the aggressive talk and behavior is a step in the right direction.

Like it or not we are “All In This Together”. Drivers need their vehicles almost as much as cyclists their bike frames. Each group finds solace in their chosen method of transportation. Demonizing the other in casual conversation does not good. It only reinforces the aggressiveness of individuals who have already been pushed far beyond their abilities to cope.

In an angry state of mind they will disregard personal safety to challenge their perceived tormentors. In the case of cyclists this could mean that someone decides to ram you from the rear or swipe you off our bike and flee the scene. You never know who is seething behind a steering wheel as the Critical Mass Ride passes by.

Education and town hall-style discussion might make a real difference. It is fairly safe to say that not talking with one another is about as healing as ignoring your spouse for weeks on end after a spat. Merely finding an excuse to push through an infrastructure plan both in the city and suburbs is simply not enough.

We are all tired of the “promised land” happy talk that precedes these discussions. It is time to have a “marriage counselor” type of talk that gets at the underlying behaviors that each group finds provocative. Ironically we have witnessed the Open Streets events that welcome pedestrians and cyclists but guess what ignore motorists. The notion behind the movement is to give people a glimpse of what a less concentrated city would look like if cars were removed.

But frankly that is like having a marriage therapy session in which wives are shown how wonderful it would be if men were removed from the Earth. Or failing that simply kept in isolated pens until such time as their biological secretions were required. I know this is perhaps a bit over the top, but from a motorists point of view an Open Streets event is a hassle that results in unwanted traffic congestion.

We need a way to bring these folks into the conversation, not demonstrate how wonderful it would be to have their chosen method of transportation banned from city streets.