Taking The ‘Long View’

Background Reading


Crowds are common in Waterfront Park. (Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Crowds are common in Waterfront Park.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)


What exactly is the ‘aim‘ of the Urban Cycling Movement? Is it to get more miles of bike lanes? And if that is your view, what is the purpose of the additional bike lanes?

Well, I hope you said that with better (and more lanes) comes the conversion of newbies to bicycle commuting, right?

So in essence we are like members of the GOP who are desperate to grow the party but afraid that our most popular candidate is offending the very groups we need to continue a majority. It is kind of a wickedly difficult tightrope we would be crossing.

The GOP and the Urban Cycling Movement Have Identical Missions

If you represent a movement or a political group that is in the minority (numbers wise) you cannot see your party or movement grow unless you can attract newbies.

So there are certain things that come with trying to bring new members into the tent:

  • We have to fine tune our message so that it is clearly understood and easily remembered.
  • What we are offering has to be attractive. That is why things like fashion shows for cycling commuters are often spotlighted.
  • We need to target the most likely groups from which we can draw new members. That would mean that either the pedestrian or the motorists we deal with daily have to develop a positive image of our movement. And since we are the embodiment of that movement it means that they have to think highly of us as people.
  • Our behavior on the streets is the most defining aspect of the kinds of people in the movement and thus the movement itself.

For The Good Of The Community

Sometimes there is a struggle to keep a movement going forward because its members often develop a ‘siege mentality‘. That quickest way to signal to the rest of the world that you feel under siege is to complain that the laws applied to everyone else are not something you wish to have applied to you.

Chicago's Cycling Movement Issues A Leftist Manifesto

Chicago’s Cycling Movement Issues A Leftist Manifesto

You can come up with fancy reasons for this, but at the end of the day most folks are smart enough to know that the smell of smoke wafting up from under their dresses ‘signals hucksterism‘.

A siege mentality is not how you offer benefit to the community. For that matter there are certain things like the Critical Mass Ride which fairly shout we feel alienated and we are fighting back. And when an unaware motorist who never gave a moments thought to the cyclists around him suddenly finds them being aggressive he develops the same kind of animas towards cyclists that cyclist do towards motorists who begin to all seem aggressive.

In short the kinds of decades long struggles between groups that have shaped out world begins to develop on our streets over something as straightforward as ‘Sharing The Road‘.

But even that simple phrase has lost is savor. Towns are discarding it because evidently the idea of ‘sharing‘ has either lost its meaning or become unfashionable.

Never Lose Your Pedestrian Allies

What I am noticing more than ever before is the growing rift between cyclists and pedestrians. Cyclists are perhaps unaware that when they talk openly (on forums) about their disdain for pedestrians who are sharing a MUP or using the crosswalk, that notion begins to filter outward.

Pedestrians begin to see cyclists as an all-to-cozy threat to their personal and physical safety. When they have scared the bejeezus out of the umpteenth pedestrians while slicing through a crosswalk in an attempt to ‘amber gamble‘ it makes an impression.

We are losing the struggle for the minds and hearts of pedestrians.

Our Demonstrations Need To Focus On Community

When you memorialize the death of someone and get the local news outlets to cover it, that personalizes things. But when your efforts single out motorists as the ‘killers‘ and do not deal honestly with the fact that cyclists are killing pedestrians, people get offended.

Most people whether drivers, pedestrians or cyclists can relate to the campaign that talks about the appalling lack of safety on our roadways for everybody. Failing to keep that message front and center is one of the singular failures of the Urban Cycling Community.

Never Let Your Community Activities Be About Tit-for-Tat Measures

When I have attended Critical Mass Rides in the past the air was thick with disdain for motorists. That is something that does not create a bigger tent. In fact what it does it alert people who were unaware of the problems that cyclists have to describe to the fact that they blame motorists for the ills of the streets.

Think about this. Suppose you were trying to launch a movement to get the right to vote for every person in the country regardless of color. Now imagine that you speeches appearing on nightly news left viewers of a specific racial group with the distinct impression that you held them responsible and perhaps had no interest in seeming them join your ranks.

It is a fine line that one must walk to speak truth to power while doing so in a way that allows people to ‘feel invited‘. There is not enough green paint or concrete for protected bike lanes to create newbie riders out of thin air. Bicycling has to be put into context.

It is far easier for people to relate to a new Rails-to-Trails Conversion than a bike lane of any sort running down a busy street in the sketchier parts of town. That is simply a fact. More Americans have spent holidays in forest preserves and on converted trails enjoying the sunshine than slogging along a lane sharing exhaust fumes with a diesel bus.

The Data Shows Us Losing

Something is amiss with our strategy. We are seeing injury and mortality rates climbing in places where bike lanes have been installed. We need to find out what is causing this and deal with it openly.

Our approach should not be a mad scramble to find ways to ‘spin the bad news‘. If we are paying people to help us lead the Urban Cycling Movement we need to be as straightforward with them as a political party would be with a National Chairperson who is unable to keep the unruly candidates from cannibalizing one another before the general election.

In short we need to grow up. Stop the ‘hucksterism‘ and deal with the internal behavioral problems that beset the movements progress while at the same time gathering support from motorists and pedestrians to help us find meaningful ways to make the streets safer.

Losing The Attitude

One final note. Nothing smacks of a bad PR campaign more than an a whiff of collective personal arrogance. It is as if all the bicyclists in the world had suddenly turned into a petulant group of clones of the worst managed pop star imaginable.

At every turn this star is being brought up on disorderly conduct charges, is trashing swank restaurants and generally declaring to the rest of the world that social laws that govern all the rest of us do not apply to him. It is sort of like saying that the reason you should cut these self-absorbed stars some slack is because the rules were made before they were ever around. Good manners apply to mere mortals not the likes of him.

That sound familiar? It is the same sort of logic being bandied about regarding stop signs. We don’t believe bicycles should have to obey these laws because they were created before the presence of bicycles in urban settings.

Maybe teenagers will race to join a movement with that much disdain for social order but it is unlikely to attract many who are thinking about commuting by bicycle to responsible jobs. Just saying.