While Urban Cyclists May Be Self-Righteous Scofflaws They Seldom Wear Spandex

Background Reading


Dave Schlabowske has written some pieces I dearly love. But I think his premise in his most recent article is incorrect. He writes:

I can’t tell you how many times people complain about “cyclists” who run red lights, blow through stop signs, ride without lights at night or and don’t pay for the roads.  If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that cyclists should be taught the rules of the road and given a test like motorists, I could retire and move to Copenhagen where those things actually happen.

But it surprised me to still hear these tired myths brought up in response to sincere requests to level the playing field when innocent people riding bicycles or walking are killed by someone driving a car who has been proven to be negligent. It is one thing to complain about “scofflaws” and quite another to tell someone who has lost a loved one or friend that anyone walking or bicycling deserves what they get because roads are meant for cars and all “cyclists” are self-righteous, spandex wearing law breakers.

Let’s be fair here. We have the reputation we do because we have openly offered justifications for out “scofflaw” behavior. You cannot have a group like StreetsBlog offer up a video like those made by Roger Cohen without sending a message to those who were in doubt that cyclist in general have a problem with authority.

And as angry as his column in the NYTimes makes me he does not hide behind the notion that his behavior and that of countless thousands of cyclists is some sort of myth, it is not. I can respect his willingness to own up to what Steve Vance describes as urban cyclist mores. But try as I might I cannot agree with the premise that you can be both ethical and unlawful simultaneously in this instance. Yes if you were a John Brown attempting to Abolish Slavery then I could agree, but what we are talking about here is not some sort of lofty ideal that is being upheld by running stoplights and blow stop signs.

In essence, it has been my observation that “scofflawcyclists take advantage of the fact that most cars are unlikely to blow stop signs or run stop lights and thus are relatively safe entering an intersection when they choose to disobey traffic controls. But far more important the motivation behind ignoring traffic controls is exactly the same one that motivates motorists to speed along streets and that is to get to the other side of town as quickly as possible.

Entering intersections as the light is just about to turn red and speeding through is how motorists accomplish this. Cyclists not being as fast and having to at least look out for motorists who might be speeding through an intersection (since if they fail, they die or suffer great injury) are a bit more cautious. But the motivation at its core is essentially the same as that of motorists, greed. They want what they want and everyone else’s safety is secondary.

‘Urban Cycling’ Rides In Chicago

“Bicycles Also” signs like this should not really be necessary, for a lot of reasons.

“Bicycles Also” signs like this should not really be necessary, for a lot of reasons.

Most of the riding I do in Chicago is on the weekends these days. A couple of years ago I rode during the week as well. When you venture off the Chicago Lakefront Trail you immediately notice the difference in rider etiquette. In fact running red lights and stop signs is common that it is when someone does not behave in that fashion that you notice them. I have ridden for years in the suburbs and really never noticed the “scofflaw” behavior. But having seen it firsthand in the city I am at the point of being more than tired of it.

Last year on the Four Star Bike Tour an annual fundraiser by of all things the Active Transportation Alliance I happened to be part of a wave of riders accompanied by a Ride Marshal who managed to break just about every rule in the book. He crossed on red lights, ran through stop signs, even rode on the other side of the double yellow line. I was appalled and frankly furious. There were kids that eventually entered the group with their parents. I thought the behavior of the Ride Marshal was stupid and dangerous and certainly could not set a good example for either the adults or the kids.

I will probably never know why he did what he did. But I reported the incident to ATA in the hopes that they would follow up. I wrote several messages to their comments page on their website and even wrote emails to the Director Ron Burke. No one ever contacted me. Now how is that for proof that this “scofflawcyclist this is no myth?

It is alive and well and needs to be addressed, but there is far less chance of that than the rather bigoted behavior that these same urban cyclists demonstrate when they try and report altercations with young black and Hispanic males on the streets of the city. I happen to be an African-American and can attest to the fact that as far as myths go, there is no shortage of urban legend where males of color are concerned. Cyclist dislike being on the receiving end of that same kind of bigotry where their collective behavior is concerned, and rightly so. Perhaps it is time for these same cyclists to consider how it feels to hear yourself described in unflattering terms just because you share a genetic similarity to someone who tried to mug a cyclist.

You really cannot have it both ways. Either you stop being self-righteous or you own up to the fact that you too are a “scofflaw” in the tradition of a Randy Cohen and share that trait with most of the commuter cyclists with who you share the road each morning and be done with it. Trying to say that this is a figment of someone’s imagination is deceitful.

So’s Your Old Man Is Not An Argument

David Schlabowske goes on to write:

Last Tuesday at the Bike Fed’s Lobby Day in Madison, that actually happened to a person who had taken the time off to travel to the Capitol because friend bicycling legally and safely on a straight, rural road in broad daylight. When meeting with her elected representative, the legislator balked at supporting the Vulnerable User Law. He went on to tell his constituent, that even though the driver admitted guilt and has been charged,”bicyclists” don’t obey the laws and although it may be legal to ride a bike on the road, the roads were meant for cars and people deserve what they get if they choose to roll the dice and ride somewhere other than trails.

To the credit of our citizen advocate, who had the support of a Bike Fed staffer and one of our paid lobbyists in the meeting, she responded with facts and a rational argument that all road users have a right to expect people in cars to obey the laws. In fact the group did such a good job making the case for Vulnerable Users Law, that the legislator eventually apologized and said he would likely support the bill if it comes to a vote on the floor. While that is great, and it shows the importance of talking to the people we vote for about issues we care about, it also points to a genuine public relations problem bicycling has.

There seems to be an almost universal perception that as soon as someone puts a leg over a bicycle, they stop obeying traffic laws. I think this is because the laws that are easy to break and get away with on a bicycle are much more obvious. Having studied traffic safety for more than a decade, it is my contention that people break the traffic laws they can get away with, no matter what mode of travel they are using. People in cars know they can get away with driving 5-10 mph over the speed limit and that they don’t have to stop for someone trying to walk across the street in a crosswalk. People walking know they can cross against the “Don’t Walk” light at a signalized intersection if no cars are coming, and people on bicycles know they can run red lights or stop signs in similar situations. But what are the actual statistics? Are people on bicycles more likely to break laws than people in cars?

Let’s talk about the Vulnerable User Law and my objections to it. If cyclists were not so obviously disdainful of traffic controls (at least in my experience) I could understand and support the idea of a Vulnerable User Law without hesitation. But frankly having seen how very careless riders in Chicago are about things like avoiding the “Door Zone” I am suspicious that some are doing this to in fact “run a scam” hoping that they will be found blameless despite knowingly riding in “harm’s way“. What else am I to think when a Ride Marshal on an invitation ride behaves as our did?

On the ChainLink Forum here in Chicago there have been fairly frank and open discussion about people who profess to extensive injuries and are suddenly seem in public in a scant month’s time moving about in an exercise class. One lawyer on the forum asked about the appearance of this sort of thing and got roundly chastised, but I too was puzzled over how the “victim” was able to heal so fast.

As for the idea about “universal perceptions” that should tell your something. When cyclists behave badly is such numbers as to be considered part of a scofflaw class it hurts everyone. Everyone who is a motorist is aware that the single biggest problem among drivers is “speeding“. Motorist do it for the same reasons that cyclist disregard traffic controls, they want to get to their destination as fast as possible. Neither group seems to understand that patience is part of being safe. And what really chafes is that cyclists are a self-righteous as they are when discussing the “sins” of motorists.

You either unilaterally decide to be on your best behavior or you simply shut the heck up and continue being an ass. You do not write articles bemoaning the richly deserved stereotype that all cyclists now have to live with. You man up and act like Randy Cohen and admit your “sins” and move on.