Monday, May 10, 2010

Bicyclists need to "earn" respect? Really?

Despite the headline -- What cyclists neglect: After a fatal crash, they want more respect on the road. They need to earn it. -- an opinion piece in the Globe Magazine isn't terrible. But, it's another in a long-line of unfortunate blame-the-victim broadsides that impose a disproportionately higher burden on bicyclists than on motorists.

I can't quibble with author Dan Most's recommendations:

  • Give lots of room to buses. Good advice for other large vehicles. Trash trucks seem to inflict a higher body count than most vehicles.
  • Wear a helmet. But, that has nothing to do with avoiding conflict, only surviving it.
  • Don't wear earphones.
  • Wear bright clothes.
  • Ride defensively.
  • Strive to be visible. Assume you're invisible. (Can't go wrong citing NS&S fave David Watson.)

But, he uncritically quotes a Boston police officer misunderstanding the law. Bicyclists are not supposed to abide by the same set of laws. Bikes can pass on the right. Drivers have special obligations to avoid bikes. Cars can pass bikes in a single lane of traffic. Bikes can go in bike lanes. Cars have to be registered. There are special bike-specific lighting requirements. Drivers have to be registered and insured.

Even more objectionable is Most's suggestion that the motorist v. bike problem is at least as much a problem of biker's not respecting motorists, that cyclists somehow share an equal burden for the difficult environment cyclists face. He reduces (to zero?) the special obligation drivers should have as pilots of potentially lethal multi-ton vehicles. And, he completely ignores the fact that driver indifference (at best) or aggression (at worst) plus an overallocation of our streets to cars keeps potential cyclists off the streets entirely.

As I laid out in more detail here, it's not necessarily the sensitivity like Most's to cyclists' flaws that irritates, it's the fact that the blame-the-bikers attitude reveals the extent to which we've normalized the often atrocious behavior of motorists.

And, it's unfortunate that Most doesn't take any policy stand. With Nashville underwater, record rains in Massachusetts, a Gulf of Mexico oil spill that would fill Cape Cod Bay and then some, traffic eroding our quality of life, &c., there's good reason to favor bicycles over cars. Why exactly should there be a burden on cyclists to earn respect?


Doug Cornelius said...

I agree that the article is a mixed bag of good suggestions and poor allocation of blame.

However, I have to say that cyclists are ignoring the rules they do need to obey. On my bike commute from Newton to Boston, I am usually the only bike that stops at a red light. Everyone other rider seems to blow through the light.

We need to educate our fellow riders to behave better in traffic if we want the respect we deserve. Otherwise we will be viewed as fringe elements that disrespect the law of the road.

Anonymous said...

How can the blogger possibly say there is not a problem with bikers not respecting motorists. Here are the rules...
It's impossible to bicycle around boston without seeing bikers ride two abreast, go through red lights, obnoxiously make drivers wait because they want to take up too much of the lane, and for some reason dream they are really keeping up with traffic. Personally, I'd rather live with their obnoxious behavior than risk hurting someone with my car. But that's me, at least when I'm in a good mood. Let's be truthful, however, in many, many cases, the bicyclist's behavior is obviously obnoxious. It's hard to believe the bus driver would have wanted to hit the cyclist. Could he somehow have left more room for the cyclist? Maybe, but how much room is enough? And chances are a car would have jumped in ahead of the bus if there was any room to be had. It seems clear that the bicyclist was doing something pretty dumb - in traffic and riding in line with tracks. The blogger seems to think drivers and bicyclists are like little kids and adults. Bicyclists get to kick, punch, pull the nose hairs of all the drivers they contact, but because they are so vulnerable, the driver has to take it and just be beyond careful or become responsible. It's only going to be a matter of time till the those bicyclists run into either an angry or unwitting driver who isn't expecting their obnoxious behavior. Yes, respect has to go both ways. From some of the posts in this blog (sheesh), the blogger has yet to learn that, be it bicycling or road configurations.

Anonymous said...

This seems a bit strange, "Drivers have special obligations to avoid bikes" Was that supposed to be a quote, or was it the original poster's own belief? I suppose drivers have "special" obligations to avoid anything that accidentally might cross the cars path, either purposefully or through lack of judgement... kids, cars, trucks, adult pedestrians, etc. And, why exactly is this different than a pedestrian's or bicyclist's obligation to avoid a car or pedestrian that either purposely or through lack of judgement ends up crossing its path? Let's face it, a pedestrian can stop on a dime, a bicycle might be able to stop on...let's say a beach towel, and a car can stop on...let's say the length of 2 bicycles when driving reasonably in traffic. Just curious, would the original poster like to comment on whether he obeys the traffic laws and stops for lights, and signals turns, etc. when he is on a bicycle? Does that change when he drives...that is, if he drives?

Anonymous said...

Best practice, especially in Germany/France, for cars entering a highway is that the traffic must be able to merge, without the existing traffic even having to let off the gas, let alone hit the brake. Does a bicyclist get to put himself in harm's way and have it be other's responsibility because his vehicle moves slower? Lots of times, bicyclists turn right on red, and are in the driver's lane going 5mph. Is this a case for the driver's special obligation?

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree that drivers of autombiles should give cyclists the room and caution they deserve just as motorists should look out for school buses and pedestrians. However, I myself once nearly hit a bicyclist who was riding 1. on the sidewalk, and 2. facing opposite traffic. The rider came out of nowhere and I was exiting a parking lot, looking for pedestrians in my near vision, and cars on the road. Never saw him coming. Had I hit him, it would have been my fault legally. But really? This was an adult who should have been obeying the rules of the road.

In addition, I concur with the other commentors here; I am constantly having to break for cyclists running red lights or making illegal turns, riding two abreast. Until cyclists start following the rules they are supposed to follow, I for one will have less sympathy when something happens precisely because they were ignoring their own rules, thereby putting themselves and others at risk.

Lastly, I can't tell you how many times as a pedestrian I have nearly been mowed down by a cyclist. They need to obey THOSE rules, too!

Mark said...

Others have made comments like "I constantly have to brake for cyclists" and "pedestrians nearly mowed down by cyclists" as justifications for not being sympathetic to cyclists.

Some time, take an actual count of how often your progress is slowed by a cyclist, and how often it is slowed by OTHER CARS. In my experience as a driver, I am slowed down by other cars something like 100 times for every time I am slowed down by a bicycle.

Likewise, as a pedestrian, I am threatened by inconsiderate cars or trucks at least 100 times more often than I am threatened by bicycles.

So why do some people focus on bicycles? I think the answer is simple: they out take their frustration with traffic on the "little guy," the bicyclist. It's hard to take your frustration out on another car, and if you yell, they probably have their window rolled up and don't hear you. It's so much easier to take it out on a person on a bike.

A little introspection might be in order.

Brent said...

I have to second Mark's comment. I hardly ever find my driving slowed by bicycles, but cars block my path at every turn. My average speed in town is now usually less than 15 mph -- my car's computer reminds me of this fact every trip I make -- the very speed that many cyclists are able to maintain with ease.

I think everyone ought to spend a few hours bicycling around town before commenting. The road is a different place altogether on two wheels.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the real problem is that they force drivers to slow down, the problem is that the bicyclists aren't thinking when they come into traffic unpredictably. If they're taking up a lane, that's just obnoxious, just as obnoxious as drivers who double park, probably more so, since they are supposed to be on the right. But when bicyclists come into traffic after going through a red light or a stop sign, they suddenly appear in front of a car going 3x the speed. And the original poster seems to think that behavior has nothing to do with bikers earning respect on the road. The drivers evidently have all the special obligations to avoid accidents. As someone said, natural selection will take care of those in time.