The ‘Nice Way Code’ versus ‘Fear and Loathing’

Background Reading


When you look at the reasoning behind the need for dealing with scofflaw cyclists and their behavior you get one of two diagnoses most of the time:

  • The cyclist is simply being anarchistic. There are all sorts of movies about bike messengers that glorify and in fact demonstrate this as fact. It is a morality tale about the hipster cyclist as today’s answer to the motorcycle ‘bad boys’ of yesteryear.
  • The cyclist as an victim of fear and loathing. Critical Mass Rides are the anecdote to this problem or so the story goes.

A fellow blogger from the UK has written about this latter approach to understanding bicyclist behavior in his most recent article ‘The psychology of riding on the pavement and jumping red lights‘.

The Nice Way Code

Whether he realizes it or not, the Nice Way Code is fairly remarkable when viewed against the backdrop of the rather dismal lack of anything approaching a ‘head on‘ approach to the scofflaw behavior of cyclists here in the United States. We favor less of the Public Service Announcement approach here in Chicago to a kind of ‘carrot and stick‘ approach always but always makes the seeming thrust of the crackdown on bad behavior a targeted action against motorists. You simply cannot get Urban Cyclists to release their firm grip on their group narrative, that the reasons for the downfall of society are embodied in the automobile and it is their presence in the inner cities of America that represents The Final Solution.

Frankly the video is reminiscent of several that New York City produced using celebrities a few years back. They all have a sense of humor about them and easy to watch. But what about this thing that motivates the bad behavior in the first instance? And even more to the point is the example pictured in this video even relevant?

First The Example

Here in Chicago running red lights is more an art form than an impulsive move:

Urban Cyclist "Idaho Stop" Two-Step Variation

Urban Cyclist “Idaho Stop” Two-Step Variation

It is more akin to a mating dance than something done at the spur of the moment. And it is deliberate and intended to attract unnecessary attention to the handling skills of the cyclist while at the same time flouting the law with as much panache as can be mustered.

Here in Chicago the more likely candidate for what I would consider impulsive bike handling is the running of stop signs at 4-way stop intersections:

In the video you see me come to a complete stop (feet on the ground) waiting patiently while a couple approach from the left in the crosswalk. When they are nearly across a cyclist blasts through on my right without any hesitation whatsoever! That is what both of these bits of scofflaw behavior ‘look and smell‘ like.

Neither is so rare that people stop and gasp. They are as commonplace as nose rings on the northwest side of the City of Chicago. Less common than tattoos but you get the point.

Now The Motivation

I am not a very big fan of the ‘fear and loathing‘ explanation for bad cycling behavior. Here is the way it was explained in the article:

As was pointed out yesterday, the red light jumping behaviour being re-enacted in the video doesn’t really correspond to the way red lights are jumped by those motivated to do so while cycling.

We see the actress approaching the lights, and as they go to amber, she gives a ‘determined’ expression, and accelerates –

Running A Red Light On A Bicycle in the UK

Running A Red Light On A Bicycle in the UK

Passing into the junction just as the lights turn from red to amber.

To give this behaviour its official term, this is amber gambling – something motorists do with extraordinary regularity. Stand on any junction where there are significant queues, and you’ll see it happen repeatedly. Indeed, it’s how motorists generally jump red lights; by chancing their way through the junction just after the lights have changed.

However, this is not the way people on bikes generally jump red lights. They do so by inching their way across the junction in stages, using islands in the middle if they are available. (There is an example in the masthead at the top of this blog.) Or, they may choose to pedal through what they know is a pedestrian phase on the lights, when all the lights on a junction are green for pedestrians, and they know no motorists will be driving through the junction.

Obviously this kind of behaviour can be anti-social, and indeed dangerous if carried out with little regard for the safety of pedestrians. But in general it takes the form of ‘creeping’, a slow and progressive trundle through the junction, looking and watching to see where traffic is coming from. There’s a good reason for this slow and careful behaviour; if you’re on a bike, you really don’t want to get hit by a motor vehicle.

So why do it? Clearly a minority of people are doing it because they are impatient. But a much more important reason is, I think, an eagerness to get away from the motor traffic stacked up behind you. This is part of the reason I and many other people dislike Advanced Stop Lines (ASLs). They put you right in front of a revving array of motor vehicles that will be faster at accelerating than you, and eager to get back past you. It’s like being a small mammal placed in front of some fast and angry bears.

I cannot tell another cyclist how to feel when riding the streets. I have felt fear and anxiety in certain situations when traffic speeds are high and there is a general cramped feeling regarding the width of the road. There are clearly places where a cyclist is not going to have a ‘comfortable experience‘ riding a bicycle.

For years our cycling buddy was our next-door-neighbor Manfred Smolibowski. Connie and I would ride with him just about everywhere in DuPage County. We always rode out of the driveway on our bikes and returned without ever using a motor vehicle to effect a remote start. That of course meant that at times the only way to get back home was to either use a trail or streets. Trails were his preferred method. I could tolerate streets as well.

Manfred was born and raised in Germany. His wife was a native-born Japanese woman who had a horrible fear about bicycle riding. She had taken a tumble on a bike with a coaster brake and had since sworn off riding bicycles ever again. Both of these people would have been candidates in my mind for the ‘fear and loathing‘ explanation of cyclist scofflaw behavior.

But the fact is that Manfred was a stickler about following traffic laws. And he would never have even dreamt of running a stop sign, let along a red light.

Americans who are riding these days in urban settings are from my experience ‘simply lazy‘. They seem to have this fear of ‘losing momentum‘ that is almost laughable. Why would anyone who is riding a bicycle worry about having to pedal? After all isn’t the reason for choosing a bicycle over say a motor scooter to gain some exercise? So why would doing just that present a problem?

Not only are they averse to pedaling but when they reach their destinations in the city the very last thing they ever want to have to do is park their bike a few blocks away and walk the rest of the distance. They instead find every excuse to lock their bikes to something like a railing or a gate using a U-Lock and then are dismayed when the owners of the private property decide to cut the back away from its mooring and confiscate the remains. Again, if your reason for riding a bike is to get fit, and save the planet, what’s the big deal with a bit of walking to find an allowable public bicycle parking spot?

Again this overall ‘laziness‘ is reflected in how we handle traffic situations. Crossing on red lights is not just being impatient it is all about maintaining a high overall average speed in order to justify the use of the bicycle as a ‘replacement‘ for the automobile. At least that is the party line each Hipster tells to themselves while greasing their nose rings in the morning. The sad reality is that they have Walter Mitty-like dreams of being as bad-ass as the guys in Premium Rush. They can spin it any way they want to but that is the real truth.

Cycling Advocacy Groups Acquiesce To Maintain Backing

When Ron Burke hides his head up his rectum when questioned about this sort of thing he does so because he has to keep his troops in line and that is necessitated by the fact that despite their lack of financial wherewithal if things are humming along smoothly then the real force in the Cycling Movement the suburban donors will continue to give.

I really cannot blame him for being something of a weasel on this issue because frankly he would have his scrotum sac handed to him on a platter if he were to take a stand. In fact Julie Hochstadter just suffered this same indignity when administrators of her Chicago ChainLink Forum were rebuked for trying to keep the tone of a conversation civil. Outright mutiny nearly brought the whole thing to a halt. And she had to promise that nothing like that would ever happen again from her staff.

What is amazing here is that the tail is definitely wagging the dog when it comes to Urban Cycling. The inmates are running the place and that is simply a fact.

A Difference In The UK?

I kind of doubt that the UK is as brash as the US in terms of how things work. We are so ‘rough and tumble‘ here that it is difficult to imagine that anything resembling ‘law and order‘ is in place. Our cities are ruled at the point of a gun and our cycling forums are run by bullies. And the folks who should be dictating how the face of cycling looks to the outside world are cowering behind their desks in fear of their jobs because they would hate to anger a few ‘thugs on fixies‘ who are the real power behind the throne.

So in the meantime I will politely disagree on the cause of the behavior of scofflaw cyclists (at least here in the US) with my fellow blogger from the UK. I simply wish each of us a safer future in cycling and transportation in general. And may each of us find a way to corral our populations for the betterment of mankind.