Updated : Our Cycling Leaders Need To Do Better…


President Obama speaks at an interfaith vigil for the shooting victims from Sandy Hook Elementary School on Sunday at Newtown High School in Newtown, Connecticut.© Getty Images

President Obama speaks at an interfaith vigil for the shooting victims from Sandy Hook Elementary School on Sunday at Newtown High School in Newtown, Connecticut.
© Getty Images

I sat tonight and listened as President Obama spoke about our shared loss as a nation when the horrible events of Sandyhook Elementary School became known. And it was a sobering experience to say the least. It is the kind of speech that makes you glad to be alive and helps to focus your mind on what is truly important in life.

The real tragedy of life in America is that for some portion of our population human life is expendable. These are sick individuals who have no business whatsoever with lethal weapons. But I am not writing to debate issues surrounding gun control. Instead I am asking myself what it takes to be a leader and frankly I know very few folks in leadership positions who rise the occasion as often as they should.

I keep getting disappointed by priests, ministers and rabbis. I keep hearing that this or that religious group has decided that the only way that it can honor God is to slaughter someone else. This is not solely an American problem it is something that extends to every corner of the globe and fans out across all of human history.

It causes children across the globe to lie in the crosshairs of adults who for one reason or another seek the annihilation of their fellows. And if not actually gunning for one another we are seemingly satisfied to hate one another because of the colors of our skin, the god we worship, the politics we support, the genders into which we are born, our sexual orientations, the status we attain, the kind of vehicle we choose to take us to and from our places of work or on errands or simply to recreate.

It is the latter of these things that I would like to focus on here. We should never allow ourselves as Americans to be separated from one another because of our choices in transportation.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution we were able to cease pressing our fellow creatures into serving as the source of energy for our personal transport. Over time we have perfected the internal combustion engine and in fact made it quite clean and cheap to purchase. Millions of animals are no longer dying in the streets, whipped to death because they are unable to any longer pull a carriage and have suffered malnutrition. One could almost say that the internal combustion engine was a blessing.

Along with these engines came additional modes of transport and cyclists have focused on the bicycle. It uses our personal energies to allow us to transport ourselves just about anywhere on the planet so long as there is traction to be had. The bicycle is an amazing instrument.

But over time there has arisen a rather ugly conflict over the question of automobiles versus bicycles. That conflict is in the early stages and probably will mutate into something quite different over the next couple of decades as both the automobile and bicycle become more intelligent and complex.

Automobiles will became far more intelligent as will the road systems that they run on. And automobiles will become hybrid vehicles capable of either electric or fossil fuel propulsion upon demand. Bicycles will eventually look more like velomobiles than the current upright bikes of today. And into the bargain these bikes will be e-assist vehicles, capable of propelling the rider at speeds upwards of 30-35 MPH using very strong and very lightweight electric batteries.

The kinds of lanes we currently are building will become less meaningful as the top speeds of bicycles increase. And the days of protected bike lanes will give way to a single lane that accommodates both hybrid vehicular types. It will be a brave new world in which consumers can choose between both kinds of vehicles based upon the payloads they need to carry.

What is tragic is that we are stuck on stupid by virtue of our current focus on what is certainly not going to be a long lasting situation. What is even more tragic however is that our leadership has such limited vision. We seem rather to favor having people sit in positions of responsibility to fan the flames of hatred (at worst) or assuage our guilt (at best) by telling us what we want to hear.

These are folks who lead from the rear and not from the front. Theirs is not a calling to die in battle but to keep their jobs by virtue of attempting to be all things to all people. This is what cowardice looks like.

When you have a culture in which religious figures tell you that they stand for Family Values but are discovered to be either pedophiles or philanderers it simply takes your breath away. When a politician asks you to sacrifice for the common good and is discovered to be lining his pockets you can only shake your head.

When you are offered an easy excuse for behaving badly as a cyclist by saying that “only you have skin in the game” it makes a mockery of everything cycling should stand for. Every time a ghost bike goes onto a street corner it should be because as a community we are mourning the death of a comrade. Presumably that death it because someone else made a terrible mistake and behaved badly.

But we are faced with a new kind of death on a bicycle and that is the one which results for our doing some illegal but ethical. The ethicality here is supposedly because “we are the only ones with skin in the game”. When we blow stop lights and perhaps get clobbered by some unwitting motorist we have only ourselves to blame and we are purported to be the only ones to suffer.

But this is a lie. It is not just incorrect, it is a fabrication of the worst kind. It is something that a leader tells you to coerce you into doing what he wants. People who are advocates for anything be it clean air, pure water, sustainable farming, solar or wind power, or anything else including cycling as a form of transportation have a stake in getting you to happy with the changes they are offering.

The governments of local, state and national jurisdictions are geared to offer the use of tax dollars to promote the common good. If there is a hesitation on the part of society to move in a specific direction, our advocates come to the front and offer their leadership in exchange for being paid a salary to essentially lobby politicians on our behalf.

Lobbyists in Washington D.C. are handsomely paid. Lobbyists and advocates are sometimes unable to be as effective as they might like because like politicians your primary aim is to get rehired or re-elected otherwise you career sputters to a halt. The pressure to always being showing progress is exceeded only in the sports arena. You never get a chance to take a deep breath because there is always someone who is willing to “call you out” and owners or voters willing to find someone else to be their savior.

We have been watching politicians learn to mouth the things their constituents think they need to say. When the focus however the cyclist community goes awry it is sometimes necessary for our leaders to help us both understand the problem and to hear gentle prodding to get back on task.

An example of this sort of thing occurred this weekend as riders responded to the Dearborn Street Route opening this past Friday:

Reply by Lisa Curcio yesterday
The entire run from Polk to Kinzie is 1.2 miles. If you rode the entire length at an average of 10 mph it would take about 10.5 minutes. If you rode the entire length at an average of 15 mph it would take about 7 minutes. In the broad scheme of things, if a two and a half minutes makes a difference in one’s life, one should leave earlier!
The lights for cars are not coordinated. If you were riding and stopping for lights, as required by law, it would not be any different. The lanes are not intended to make it faster for bikes; they are intended to make it safer for bikes.

Shaun Jacobsen said:
10mph, in my opinion, isn’t “speedy.” Signals for cars are different that signals for bikes: drivers don’t exert a lot of energy to start moving after being stopped, people on bikes do. It would have been nice to have at least a few blocks worth of greens at a certain speed to at least move quickly through the Loop.

Our mission as a community is to alter the cycling landscape such that anyone wishing to involve themselves in the sport can do so as safely as is humanly possible. But sometimes cyclists forget this just long enough to let other priorities surface which could jeopardize our ultimate goal. Lisa did an admirable job of help Shaun to refocus.

Likewise this focus on speed versus safety is exactly why so many cyclists feel the need to run red lights and blow stop signs. It is all in the name of getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible and sometimes by sacrificing personal safety. Now along comes a cycling advocate or an ethicist to offer you a tantalizing reason to support your “need for speed”. You are asked to focus on the fact that what you are doing (despite it being illegal) is nevertheless ethical because it does the “least harm“. If you were to get killed it is likely to not involved injury to anyone else.

But as the President was saying in the speech I mentioned above nothing that any of us does is every an isolated thing. If we are hurt or die then it does affect everyone else no matter how insignificantly. Should a cyclist die on his bike by virtue of reckless behavior we all suffer. Everyone from the cops on the scene to the EMTs has their lives turned upside down once again.

And there are the probably unaccounted for issues of cops and EMTs being on scenes which were entirely preventable and unable to visit ones (to save a seriously injured person) simply because a cyclist decided to take chances. In fact every time a first responder goes out to answer a call there is the chance that he will himself be embroiled in a fatal accident that might even involve the loss of his life. And of course all of this was preventable.

The motorist who is unlucky enough to encounter a cyclist who is running a red light might in shear terror attempt to avoid the collision and instead injure a pedestrian or even another cyclist. They may even collide with a parent or child stepping out of their car unaware of the tragedy unfolding around them.

If we have children or a spouse or even parents still living their lives will turn tragic if only for a short season. But when a child is force to grow up without a parent or a spouse no longer has financial support even society at large could be brought into the picture to aid in keeping a roof over her head and food on the table. And at a minimum if emergency room operations are necessary the whole of our society helps to foot the bill, especially if the cyclist has no health insurance.

There is nothing about the situation which proves that you are “the only one with skin in the game”. That is a lie. We need leaders who have the capacity and skill to tell us what is true despite it not being what we want to hear. And to do that they must be people with a moral conviction about the correctness and truthfulness of what they say. We do not need to be pandered to, despite the fact that we crave such.

But aside from telling us the truth about the consequences of our actions, we need to have leaders who are not pandering to our fears and loathing of those around us. Too many times we read and hear from our leaders that our misdeeds are no worse than those of our adversaries. But there are no adversaries in this. We are all trying to go about our daily lives on chosen modes of transport and we must all cooperate in that endeavor or we will fail miserably going forward.

We need leaders in the cycling community who are big enough in mind and spirit to help unite us rather than support our willingness to be divided. Speed around the streets of Chicago never, ever trumps safety. The seldom admitted truth is that cyclists who run red lights are counting upon the motorists behind them and in front of them not to act in the same manner. Cyclists are always assuming that motorists are less likely to be venturing out into an intersection on a red light leaving them to navigate the shoals solely concentrating on the cross traffic. How ironic. The very group we claim is as likely to behave badly serves as our ally in our attempts to break the law, by adhering to it themselves.