Learning To Embrace Controversy


People on bikes just want to get to their destination. Pictured above: people riding bikes in Copenhagen. Credit: Eastown Community Association.

People on bikes just want to get to their destination. Pictured above: people riding bikes in Copenhagen. Credit: Eastown Community Association.

The Chicago Urban Cycling scene has been visited with a “super-wedgie” by none other than their foremost adversary John KassShaun Jacobsen has borrowed a not-so-novel approach to dealing with “detractors” in a recent blog post on his site. The idea is to “ignore” people with whom you have a public disagreement. That is pretty much the way in which Washington D.C. gained its notoriety as a dysfunctional morass. So I guess if you like “circling the wagons” whenever someone presents you with an argument you would rather not hear, and you like the Tea Party approach to governance, Shaun is your man.

Discourse is tough.

You can find places like the ChainLink which when it decides your ideas are not fitting their “general narrative” takes a more active approach by banning you from its premises. That appeals to lots of folks who have fixed ideas about the truth of their position and very little capacity for self-criticism. Time and again when a person on ChainLink is about to say something they think will engender reproach they preface their remarks with an admission that what they have to say will not be welcomed. That is indeed sad. It indicates that this is a climate in which free and open discourse, give and take is unwanted. Above all else the narrative is the thing.

The Chinese Communists were like this as well. They would listen to someone describe the pitfalls of their political system and when all else failed pulled out Chairman Mao’s little book and quote back passages they thought best explained their position. In fact religious groups tend to take this tack as well. Only they are quoting back at you their particular holy texts and constantly telling you that in lieu of your converting to their thinking, they will “pray for you“. Even political groups here in the U.S. have their favorite TV stations to which they will listen and usually only that one. There are also particular radio stations for which they have great affinity and likewise retreat to these to listen to the likes of Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity, Medved or even Beck.

They love to talk about the “lame-stream media” and the fact that you simply get a well reasoned position from such sources. So their followers end up with a steady diet of “happy talk” from Fox News or the 700 Club. And for reading they love to curl up with a copy of anything written by Ann Coulter. At all costs it is believed that you must not allow your spirit to be quashed or your mind polluted by toxic thoughts from the Left or the Ungodly or Whatever.

Urban Cyclists are no different. They have their singular forums to which they retreat and reinforce their anti-motorist thinking. And at the end of the day neither they nor the motorists they hate ever reach any kind of understanding. You would think that at some point one or both of the groups might have decided to take a page out of the Mormon Playbook and send acolytes out in pairs to proselytize the Unbelievers. But at least in the case of the cyclists, they simply ban those from their midst who are intrepid enough to question authority and with their fingers firmly plugging their auditory canals recite the “pretty green lanes” poem until they fall asleep.

It’s hard to argue against cynics – They always sound smarter than optimists because they have so much evidence on their side.

Molly Ivins

John Kass and I are cynics. Neither of us likes “group think“. And I gather from his opinion pieces he shares with me an extreme dislike of hypocrisy. You know what hypocrisy looks like, right? You trot out your dislike of abortion while your priests sexually abuse children. You claim that you want people to share the roads while in fact you have your gurus telling you that you can ethically break traffic laws. And during the imparting of wisdom to the masses they explain that “riding against traffic” is a sin. Alice In Wonderland is a tale which has much in common with this sort of thinking.

I simply reject hypocrisy for what it is, the last refuge of weak leaders and even weaker-minded followers. Elmer Gantry is not my hero.

Ignoring Our Detractors Has Been Tried And Shown To Have Failed

You don’t have to look much further than the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict to know that ignoring your foe does not work all that well. You end up with lots of fatalities and the surreal notion that despite having a death toll on your side more than 10 times as great you nevertheless claim victory.

No conflict should ever really be reduced to the body counts each sustains. Despite our best attempts to ignore the South by talking past its wants the North ended up in a war that it nearly lost and despite having won the cost in human lives was enormous. You simply cannot ignore your detractors.

200px-Team_of_RivalsInstead it makes better sense to build “a team of rivals” as did Abraham Lincoln and invite all sides of an argument to take a seat at the table. Lincoln was a bit of a genius at getting people who disagreed with him and each other to come to join his cabinet. It gave him a much need depth of understanding of situations that can never be replicated in a far more insular setting.

If the ChainLink crowd is guilty of anything it is in not wanting to hear competing views that conflict with its collective narrative. Everyone gets that cycling in the city is tough. Indeed it is dangerous and people die from doing it. Motorists can be jerks and because they have such large vehicles their nastiness can result in the death of a relatively unprotected cyclist.

With the acknowledgement of these facts comes the implicit admission that cycling in urban settings is not safe. In fact the pretty green bike lanes are an attempt to gain a tipping point for cycling in general. If you can ease the fears of newbies as well as the current crop of veteran riders you stand a chance of getting more people involved. The more people involved in cycling the more political and financial clout you are likely to have when it comes time to vie for the funding available for all modes of transportation.

But the problem is that pretty green lanes are not safe enough to allow me to let my child ride to and from school on them. They can help but I would frankly prefer a segregated lane over a protected one. That way I can be assured that the sudden misstep by a motorist does not result in the death of my loved ones. Pretty green lanes are more of a comfort to adults than they are a solution for kids.

Getting the numbers up for cycling involves creating a positive impression of it by those who have been sitting on the fence. But frankly after this weeks murderous rampage in Connecticut the very thought of try to put a rose colored vision of urban cycling out to draw people in seems a bit ridiculous. If you as a parent cannot send your child off to school in the certain knowledge that they are free from the violence of the city streets then we are doomed to being disappointed.

All of the psychologists I heard interviewed said level with your kids about the tragedy but assure them that they are safe. I guess that might work with adults who are afraid to ride a bike to work, but only up to a point. The first time a nasty motorist decides to honk loudly enough to frighten a newbie cyclist out of their wits, there will be one less rider the following week.

And for every fatality on the roadway still others will fall away until on those who have the need or the gumption to continue will do so. Meanwhile if we are unwilling or unable to confront the questions raised by Jack Kass then we will have a very difficult time trying to explain to newbies that the death of one of their colleagues should not discourage them. It would if it were my friend who had died. I would feel a strange sense of paranoia.

Some Observations On City Riding

The first thing I noted tonight while driving around the city is that the street markings that divide lanes are very hard to read in the dark. So much so that I nearly crossed the midline while driving along Damen crossing the overpass north of the Elston intersection. That intersection by the way is simply stupid in its light control design. We noticed for the first time that left turn signals are non-existent. At other intersections (especially just north of the Lincoln Park REI store) are much better lit and have left turn signals. They make all the difference in the world.

The chaos that is the urban setting is the real problem. The congestion and confusion that poorly designed intersections make is a contributing factor to the mayhem that results. Putting more bikes lanes in really does not help when everyone reaches these kinds of intersections. What would help is better traffic control. You need of course left turn signals, but you also need traffic signals that are capable of detecting when they need to stay green a bit longer to allow straggling cars to make those left turns.

The other big problem is that because there is so much chaos people in cars and on bikes are acting as if the doors of Best Buy have swung open on a sale of $10 iPhone 5s. It is simply a madhouse. If we cannot get control of the intersections then all is lost. I would rather see the millions spent on intersection control than bike lanes.

Future Costs

Maintenance of the bike lanes will be an interesting problem to watch. I really do not see how protected bike lanes with the plastic cones will be easy to keep free of snow. And if street sweepers are too wide to navigate through these lanes how on earth will the glass and debris ever be cleared to prevent massive numbers of flats? I rode through sections of Damen today where I was worried about my automobile tires. I could hardly feel good about traversing them on bike tires.

Connie and I ride on Schwalbe Marathons which are relatively thick and slow. But I do not relish the idea of getting stranded on a busy street trying to replace an inner-tube in traffic. And if the regular striping in lanes is wearing off badly enough that you cannot read them at night, how much more difficult will it be to keep lanes painted green freshly maintained and clear of debris. Time will tell.

John Kass has a point in that before long someone will be asked to foot the bill for the maintenance of these lanes. If special equipment is needed that will have to be purchased and maintained as well. How thrilled will the non-cycling public be to learn that in these difficult financial times that yet more money has to be spent on something they think to be frivolous?

It is yet another reason why winning the public’s trust and respect is so very important. And that begins of course with our behavior. We are so few in number that we stick out like sore thumbs. And frankly our behavior is so uniformly bad that it leaves even cyclists with the impression that no one bothers to wait for traffic lights or to stop a signs. That is likely to bike the urban cycling community in the saddle when it comes time to pass referendums.