A reader asks the gang at BikePortland how best to:
- judge whether it is appropriate to speak when a person is operating a vehicle in a distracted manner
- and what is the middle ground between passive acceptance of scofflaw behavior and…
- complete road rage
On Wednesday I was parked in Chicago on Jackson just at the intersection with Morgan. The traffic in had been wonderful on the inbound side and having arrived early I parked and let my wife know that I was already in town.
She responded that she was on her way over and I decided to complete the journey to our usual meeting spot. As I was preparing to pull into traffic, I glanced in the rearview mirror and spotted a fellow on a bicycle riding in the bike lane (all ‘dolled up‘ in a riding kit that might have been for the Chicago Blackhawks, it was indeed red and black but I could not make out the logo) and so I waited.
He was riding one-handed. It turns out that he was either texting or doing something on his cell phone that required his attention. Like the picture above he too was driving distractedly.
He is not the first cyclist I have seen doing this. I have watched countless riders talking on their phones and crossing intersections in the pedestrians crosswalk completely oblivious of traffic. True there are probably far fewer cyclists guilty of this particular act of inattention than there are motorists, but the demographics of the two groups would explain that. There are many times more motorists than cyclists.
But what is interesting (and not in a good way) is that the frequency of these acts of inattentiveness appears to be increasing. That means that either there are more people using bikes in the areas through which I drive or that cyclists are increasingly comfortable with exhibiting the behavior in themselves that they abhor in others.
The Cult of Blame
The reason that articles which are presumably aimed at cyclists about the bad behavior of motorists is problematic for me is precisely because of the effects they have on us as cyclists. We are prone to ‘learn‘ from all of the ‘finger-pointing‘ that motorists are ‘bad people‘.
We gain reinforcement for our developing bigotries through interaction with others of like mind. These days you do not have to attend secret meetings of the KKK or some other White Supremacist group to learn to hate and despise ‘the other‘. If you are a cyclist you have your choice of literally dozens of online forums where you can rant about motorists.
There are several caricatures into which we shove motorists. The most popular is the one which depicts the driver in an upscale German-made automobile who is honking for no reason at all and driving in a very impatient manner. The second most popular verbal cartoon of a motorist is the one who parks in the bike lane, just to spite cyclists and for whom the agreed upon punishment is the publication of a picture of their vehicle complete with license plate number.
What is missing in all this latent road rage is the fact that we too are impatient with pedestrians and indeed park in places where we are knowingly not allowed to. We are resentful of anything that interferes with our need to ride up to our destination and lock up our bikes. You would probably be surprised that Chicago’s Blackhawks celebration-bound cyclists were prepared to be offended if the Mayor had suggested that bicycle parking along the parade route be prohibited.
Since I could not imagine anything useful in reliving my experience of last year when I stumbled upon the soccer matches in Soldiers Field and was met head on by thousands of fans climbing up the walkway along the back of the Field Museum of Natural History where in the midst of this sea of pedestrian humanity came at least three or four pedicabs trying their best to avoid being trampled underfoot as they struggled to take their passengers to the front gates, I wondered why anyone would be offended at the idea of not being allowed to park their bikes along the Blackhawks parade route.
Most of this interaction amongst cyclists (and indeed any other social group) is probably conducted online in a virtual discussion group known as a forum. This is America and we are justly proud of our claim to have the Freedom of Speech. It is indeed guaranteed by our Constitution.
But forums are places which help solidify the ‘us versus them‘ mentality that is one of the weaknesses in our social fabric. Being a country that is no longer as religious (if the polling by the folks at Pew Research Center is accurate) as it once was our youth are less likely to be reminded of the need to forgive one another and thus are more likely to learn to blame one another.
Add to these discussions the fact that every single movement has a so-called ‘advocacy group‘ whose job it is to represent it in the public discussions held Congress and you have a recipe for events like those which unfold all too often when one of the adherents to their groups decides to ‘make a statement‘.
South Carolina is the most recent place in which a person decided to eliminate ‘the other‘ rather than to forgive. And despite the fact that this sort of gun violence is repeatedly occurring in places like Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut and now a church in South Carolina we still maintain a ‘heads in the sand‘ (or elsewhere) approach to our group bonding.
We cyclists even have monthly rides in which we can and often do provoke outrage in ‘the other‘ by doing what we hate when they are in control. And yet we avoid the problem of having to deal with this inconsistency by actively engaging in ‘finger-pointing‘.
Every chance we get to point out that a motorist is using a cell phone while driving is a score for our side. Every time we feel threatened in a ‘near miss‘ we rush to disclose the fact and to gain ‘street credit‘ amongst our fellows on our forum. And should be suddenly be faced with an act of recklessness by one of our own that is bad enough to reach the national media we simply avoid talking about it.
We used to say that ‘Cars kill, Bikes Don’t‘ but that has gone the way of the spat. We simply have our journalistic lapdogs speak for us by informing the pedestrians public that when two pedestrians die in Central Park in as many months from collisions with a cyclist that everyone should take heart in the fact that there are far more deaths caused by motorists.
And the blame the other guy beat goes on. We now have a cult of people who are cyclists who have learned to feel blameless in the face of carnage and hypocrisy.
But the fact is none of us is blameless. Every mass shooting is somehow evidence of our unwillingness to deal with ourselves as ‘blamers‘. It is nearly impossible to imagine that anyone is going to empathize with the young shooter in South Caroline save the ones who are ‘on his team‘. And we standing outside of the fray will cluck our tongues and wonder how anyone could have done such a thing and feel smugly superior to those who are avowed racists.
But we should be aware that his behavior is our own, ‘writ large‘. Every discussion on every single discussion board that singles out ‘the other‘ is responsible for shaping the minds of our most impressionable discussion members. Every time we talk about putting a Taser on the end of a stick to serve as a jousting weapon against pedestrians we find in the bike lane is evidence that we are all guilty.
Every time that we frame a complaint about motorists as the ‘bad guys‘ we make it that much easier for someone to decide to unleash havoc on motorists who have done nothing more than gotten stuck on a street where a Critical Mass Ride was happening. Every motorist who is suddenly confronted with what is essentially mob behavior by a group of cyclists is an instant convert to the ‘blame the cyclist cult‘ that is on some forum somewhere.
Those Who Perpetuate The Cults
Most of the cults that develop in and around a given issue have enablers. They are either advocates whose supposed purpose is to ‘speak truth to power‘, or journalists whose duty is to help uncover problems but often only ‘reinforce the cult of blame‘ or the service providers who provide the virtual universes in which we all meet and cultivate our hatreds.
Now let me say that this is pretty strong language. None of us ever seems to feel that we are ‘haters‘. We do admit to being outraged that ‘they‘ did something that endangered us and so we feel justified in our responses. But this is not much different than a group that protests the shooting of an unarmed person and responds with a level of social violence against property that seems pointless.
But our ‘cults‘ are full of unwritten rules. We never acknowledge that we did anything wrong, even if we did. We ignore the looting and arson (in the case of street protests) by telling the media that while we are not ‘happy’ about the outcome we understand it.
This is something of a copout. No wait, this is a copout. It is not something of a copout, it is something that we must ‘own‘. We seem to have lost the courage to ‘own‘ our faults. That virtue has been replaced by the ‘culture of blame‘. It is an idea that is akin to the Flip Wilson tag line, ‘The Devil Made Me Do It!‘
Dylann Storm Roof Is Us
This young person is not somebody that is to be dismissed as an ‘outlier‘. He is the current personification of what is terribly wrong with our culture. And though removing guns seems like a choice that Liberals would love, it is not a panacea. Neither is buying more guns to defend ourselves (a choice Conservatives might choose) likely to prevent this sort of thing.
And while I am at it having more bikes and bike lanes is not necessarily going to resolves these feelings is so many of our youth either. This young man will not be the end of our woes. A few short years ago two black males drove across country using a rifle to shoot and kill people from the inside of their car. Next year we might get to see gender equality ripen into a full scale rampage of violence by a couple of Asian girls, who knows?
But we are not going to be able to deal much with the problem until we address our failures as perpetuators of anger against ‘the other‘.
Slow Roll Rides
I had hoped that the Slow Roll Ride Culture could overtake that of Critical Mass. But a quick examination of the membership counts of these two groups shows a very wide disparity. It seems that we (every single human being on Earth) have a predisposition to expressing our outrage as opposed to trying to work out our differences.
The idea behind Slow Roll is to bring people of different cultures, neighborhoods, ages, and ethnicities in contact with each other in a manner that promotes harmony. It is designed to serve as a ‘laboratory of healing‘ brought about by the indifference that estrangement brings. But there is a ‘problem‘.
We Need Something Much Bigger Than Slow Roll
You know, let me rephrase. Slow Roll needs to be ‘broader in its scope‘. That word bigger is me succumbing to the ‘bigger is better‘ mantra of Capitalism. But if that mantra had any veracity to demonstrate to us, fat people would excel in every possible way over the rest of the thinner world. We don’t.
Having Slow Roll address culture by means of the bicycle is fine. But the target audience is a bit skewed. And quite frankly our message is more than lame it is absurd. Bike lanes are not a means to an end. They are evidence of recognition that we are aware of one another’s needs.
Having a woman on a $10 bill is great! But I will not settle until we have a gender-blind culture in place. That means we need more than just having Hillary Clinton be President. It should be clear that Barack Hussein Obama did virtually nothing to win the hearts and minds of the Tea Party and those in the cult of blame that hold Blacks as the personification of what we cyclists think of as German car driving motorists.
If Slow Roll is to ever be truly a ‘transformative agent‘ it will have capture the hearts and minds of motorists. It will in fact have to become the Anti-Critical Mass. That is a very tall order! That would mean not only winning over a large majority of motorists who either never ride a bicycle or who do so in venues far away from urban traffic lanes, while at the same time convincing other cyclists that they are not ‘sellouts‘ for embracing ‘the other‘.
In point of fact it would mean essentially finding a way to change the culture of the ‘online cycling universe‘ to include a lot more introspection that it currently seems capable of.
Getting Past The Hate Mongerings
Setting aside a verbal tongue lashing of motorists, let me get to the things that still persist in our own ‘backyard‘.
- We are seemingly convinced that wearing helmets as cyclists is akin to accepting ‘slave names‘. That ‘X‘ behind Malcolm symbolized his frustration with what he felt to be a vestigial yoke of slavery.
- We cannot seemingly embrace measures that should help both us as individual cyclists and the shops we frequent. Thus when someone suggests dressing in hi-vis clothing or even reflective clothing be required by law we cringe. Our merchants could use the business and we could use the tax write-offs for compliance with a law that benefits our safety.
- Why being licensed and tested is such a burden for us, is beyond me. But we are continually refusing to accept this as anything other than an inadvertent killer of growth in the cycling movement. If licensing were indeed something that depressed a movement then how did the automobile gain ascendancy?
- We need to get beyond ‘feeling self-righteous‘ concerning our choice of vehicle. After all we do not complain that our beer and wine arrive in trucks. Nor do we eschew the fact that our employers and landlords have heating and air-conditioning systems which like trucks are reliant on fossil fuels.
- Trying to shame folks into getting healthy by riding bicycles is a bit inconsistent with our notion that the World Naked Bike Ride is partly a chance to promote a body-positive world. If being obese or wrinkled is okay then why bother riding a bike?
The Mistakes of Missionaries a Century Ago
One of the laughable mistakes made by our ancestors a century ago was to visit foreign countries where people called Missionaries attempt to ‘spread Christianity‘ to the heathen. We got caught up in the legalisms of the times. Women in cultures who had grown up going bare-breasted were taught that this was a ‘sin‘. And so to mock our ignorance the great-grandchildren of these folks started the Wiccan-inspired World Naked Bike Ride to bring things ‘full circle‘. They appear once a year with both bare breasts and exposed pubic areas. Go figure!
We are doing much the same today. We have decided that driving the automobile itself is the social equivalent of naked breast. And thus it is a sin to own one let along drive one. This is counterproductive at best and silly in every respect.
What we are looking for are essentially two major changes in our American Culture:
- We want to be treated as equals on the roadway, never superiors but equals
- We want to be allowed to ask for help in building infrastructure that suits the limits of narrow two-wheeled vehicles (for the most part)
That could mean trails in some places, bicycle super-highways in others and perhaps bike lanes as well. But we need to embrace the ‘people who ride in cars‘ as eagerly as we do our bicycle-riding friends.
Look at it this way. If South Carolina is to heal in the next few months people who either do not know each other or perhaps distrust or even think they hate each other are going to have to swallow their pride and ‘hug it out‘.
A grand gesture would be if the NAACP were to provide legal services for the fellow who did the shooting! Now, how is that for outrageous? But like the Slow Row Ride is needs to be audacious to succeed.
We need as a nation as well as a cycling movement to get beyond ‘the other‘. We need to be ‘as critical of ourselves as we are of each other‘. We cannot afford the luxury of being indignant that a black man is shot by a cop, and silent when a gang members does the same. Reconciliation is far more helpful in a climate like ours that retribution.
Inviting ‘The Other’ To The Table
Nothing brings about understanding as quickly as hearing what the other guy has to say. We keep asking for more and better bike lanes. We keep pushing agendas for separated bike lanes and Idaho Stop Laws and all manner of stuff that we want to have unilateral acceptance of.
Did anyone ever suggest asking what a motorist would like to see? After all they have a say in so far as the costs are concerned. On the other hand why not invite motorists to join us in Critical Mass-style Rides where instead of practicing the recreation of traffic jams we celebrate the Happy Friday Idea for real?
Why not have cyclists and motorists meet for a tailgate style party? We bring enough bikes for them to ride (or suggest that they pull theirs out of mothballs) and ride around their towns together? How radical is that? Just imagine leading a ride of 4,000 people of which a full 90 percent are non-cyclists for a ride from their suburb to the nearest large shopping mall parking lot where pizza and lemonade are the main fare?
Along the way you allow them to observe what it feels like to be on the roadways in traffic. Then allow them to consider how much more terrifying this would be if they were a ‘group of one‘!
They turn the tables by offering to do ride alongs with them as you both get a chance to see what cyclists are doing that is ‘all wrong‘.
I got a chance to see exactly what most motorists fume about today. A fellow neighbor was riding her adult upright trike through town and starting making a lefthand turn beginning in the right half of the street. She never signaled her intentions until she heard me behind her patiently (at least I hope she thought I was patient) waiting for her to indicate her intentions.
When I saw her signal the left turn I then understood the drift movement of the trike. Until then I though perhaps she was simply having steering problems! But seriously, this is the kind of stuff that both groups (motorists and cyclists) need to discuss together.
In many ways we are as far apart in our reactions to the same situations as are men and women. Both considers ‘the other‘ boneheaded and arrogant and then gains reinforcement of their bigotries on their favorite forum that night. This is what makes things so very difficult.
Having pretty green paint and PVC bollards is not an ‘answer‘. That would be like believing that Mother’s Day is sufficient to bring out gender equality. So I propose thinking outside the box.
You will know you have it right if you piss off your closest buddies who really hate guys who drive German automobiles.