Urban Cycling Community : Not Always A Good Information Source

Background Reading


Safe After Dark

Safe After Dark

One of the reasons that the Urban Cycling Community is so very frustrating to deal with is that there are seemingly a half dozen sets of “Talking Points” from which people are dispensing their homegrown wisdom. The problem is not that the wisdom is “homegrown” but that there is a lack of consensus in its content stream.

A glimpse into the chaos was presented in a recent article by one Michelle Stenzel. She is attempting to both “defend” and “rebuke” the critics of Cynthia Bell. It seems that this black cycling activist ruffled the feathers of the some readers of another blog. Here is what the StreetsBlog editor wrote:

Editor’s note: After Michelle reported on the Women Bike Chicago Conference earlier this month, the Tiny Fix posted a critique of Cynthia Bell‘s advice to “not look too sexy” at a workshop on comfort, safety, and style. This is Michelle’s response.

I made a feeble attempt to rebut both her argument and that of the Tiny Fix folks. Michelle tried to make it clear that not every segment of the Women’s Camp of the Urban Cycling Community is clear about its ideas. She writes:

I believe that the sight of widespread helmet use in a city is detrimental to encouraging bicycling because it sends the message that bicycling is a sport, it’s dangerous, and it requires special equipment. If a bicyclist is killed by a driver, the mainstream media often notes whether she was wearing a helmet or not – especially if she wasn’t – even if an SUV ran her over, and a little plastic on her head wouldn’t have made a shred of difference. The insinuation is: Didn’t wear a helmet? Tsk, tsk, she was asking for it.

I think that advocating for people to wear bright orange safety vests while riding their bike isn’t optimal because it puts the onus on the bicyclist to look clownlike in an attempt to be more visible, when the real responsibility is held by the people maneuvering their enormous motorized vehicles to look where they’re going.

I think it’s unfortunate that bicyclists (not just women, either) might have to ride on a stressful main arterial route and not be able to take quiet side streets because of the criminal element present in the out-of-the-way areas. So, we’re going to let violent people force us to choose between getting attacked in a quiet area, or having to mix it up with 18-wheelers on Western Avenue? And anyway, it doesn’t matter in the end even if you do choose the “safer” option, as proven by Allison Zmuda’s horrible recent experience on Milwaukee.

She has some very good points here. And had I been writing the piece I might have chosen to use irony in much the same fashion. But sometimes we cyclists forget that what we do is largely for the benefit of raising the consciousness of non-cyclists in order to swell the ranks of those who use bicycles for basic transportation. And if you lose sight of that aim while trying to “score points” everybody loses.

Fortunately this little kerfuffle is of the all female variety. Another one erupted on the ChainLink a few days ago where the majority of the participants were using “male handles“. Needless to say the testosterone-laden variation was far more abusive and violent and typical of one of the main participants. He is a self-appointed Enforcer on the Forum and takes great pleasure in being seen to be an Alpha Dog. Having taught Junior High School for a decade my take on him is that he is a weakling who would have given Atomic Wedgies to any and all of the smaller kids in his class. But frankly Bullies are always cowards at heart. When they meet up with someone face-to-face that they can see to be stronger than they, like any sane individual they knuckle under. So much for being an Enforcer.

Why Consistency Matters

Roller Coaster Riders Using Restraints

Roller Coaster Riders Using Restraints

When you read the words of the ChowderHeads Trained Seals who haunt the ChainLink they almost always are mouthing the words of someone else whom they think has the respect of their peers. Take for instance the widely held notion that somehow wearing a helmet signals to newbies that cycling is dangerous and thus diminishes the numbers of individuals likely to become commuters or otherwise use bicycles for basic transportation. I tried to indicate that while Mikael Colville-Andersen is a likeable chap it would seem that helmets described as making people fearful of cycling simply does not hold water.

Take for instance the roller coaster that we have these days that far surpasses the thrill levels of those I rode as a kid at RiverView here in Chicago. My two favorites were the Comet and the Bobs. Today’s roller coaster turns you upside down in addition to given you fearful drops. And as you might expect if Collville-Andersen is right amusement parks would gladly let riders board these thrill rides without helmets of passive restraints in order to get more ridership.

But the fact is that despite the passive restraints these are the most highly sought after rides in the park. In fact the emergence of competitions like the X-Games is clear evidence that we Americans are “thrill seekers“. Show us something we are not supposed to do and we gravitate in that direction regardless. Wearing helmets is more expensive that not wearing one for certain, but I doubt very much that the sight of a helmet causes a 20-something rider to even blink. It’s the 40- and 50-somethings whose knickers get in a twist over the helmet issue.

But again it is newbies that we are dealing with here and they are supposedly in search of information that is clear, concise and reliable. When we design our newly minted bicycle infrastructure and leave out key elements we are doing a disservice to folks who might be newbies or tourists and do not know our streets very well. They are suddenly thrust into situations where the complete compliment of bicycle infrastructure “devices” and not present and it means that while in traffic they have to make decisions which could be tragic.

My Opinion: Michelle Stenzel Got It Wrong

Long before most of the current crop of Urban Cyclists had bothered to take off their training wheels, Effective Cycling was in print and being used to enable Vehicular Cycling Strategies. Much of what John Forester had to say is now considered passé. We Yanks have fallen prey to the soothing promises of Europeans that the shoe-horn versions of protected bike lanes (PBLs) they are hawking will work despite some evidence to the contrary in New York City this past year. Of course Ron Burke and others have neat explanations for why the data are not bearing out their predictions of safety but “facts are persistent“. They keep staring you in the face and demanding that your theory be modified.

Safe After Sunset Joe Lindsey © Bicycling Magazine

Safe After Sunset
Joe Lindsey © Bicycling Magazine

Bicycling Magazine recently published an article (short and sweet) on riding after sunset. The author Joe Lindsey makes some timely observations about how to navigate when darkness falls. Click on the graphic to the right to read what he has to say.

He sums up his strategy in three words:

  • Divert
  • Illuminate
  • Reflect

What is key in his article and paramount in using the Vehicular Cycling Strategy is that you the rider must be proactive. The onus is on the cyclist. If you want to stay alive and healthy you need to do things that mean unilateral action.

Michelle like a lot of Urban Cyclists take a stance more appropriate to that of a Trust Fund Baby who demands that the world conform to it, not the other way ’round. But this is where the current approach to cycling at meetings like the one where Cynthia Bell made her comments is lacking in a very accurate sense of reality.

Sure the cops are supposed to be there to protect you from a mugger who takes your last $20 and kisses you on the cheek after knocking you off your bike. But they often are not. In fact the supposed manual that the Tiny Fix folks dreamt up is a bit laughable. I mean that simply put when you decide to escalate the situation do not arrive at a gun fight with a pocket knife. Using a small gouging tool is probably akin to doing that when what you need is something lethal if you plan to ward off attackers.

Far too much emphasis in the Urban Cycling Community is placed trying to get motorists and pedestrians to conform to our view of how the world should operate. This is a Fool’s Errand. Baden-Powell said it best, “Be Prepared“. Or to update the notion think back to the PSA spots that the government has been running about civil preparedness in regards to the aftermath of natural disasters. Since you do not know when they will occur you need to take “unilateral action“.

Sure the Red Cross and the National Guard should be there to protect you. You should be able to rely on them to get you and your neighbors through these disasters. But why not be proactive? If you are out at night not only do you want brightly colored clothing but you also want reflective clothing. And sure motorists should be mindful of you on the street, but often they are not.

Sure motorists and cyclists are suppose to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks but one pedestrian in California lost his life to a cyclist who just had to ride around town on a fixed gear bike devoid of brakes and lost control on a steep downhill. His initial reaction to the situation was to lament the fact that he lost his helmet in the crash. He later of course had to change his tune when the pedestrian died from his injuries. I suppose that the Tiny Fix group has very little to say about the dangers of riding brakeless.

If we plan to win the minds of hearts of new riders we need to be at least as consistent as the strategies we think we are replacing. Vehicular Cycling was great at preparing riders for all sorts of situations. Now that it has been abandoned in favor of pretty green paint and PVC bollards we are now faced with having to make certain that when we remake a street we do it completely. Failing to do so with a population which is no longer getting training from folks who are LCIs means that our infrastructure has to “take up the slack“.

Likewise when we offer advice to one another it needs to be meaningful stuff, not political posturing. Cyclists have to be proactive and must expect to act unilaterally. Prince Charming is never going to arrive in time to keep that distracted motorist from running you over. So get used to that and be alert.