Monday, June 14, 2010

What do bikers deserve?

Jason Clevenger's TAB op-ed raises another interesting point:

By running red lights and disregarding general traffic law, these cyclists are giving all of us a bad reputation, and possibly preventing additional investment in infrastructure to support a greater number of cyclists on our roadways.

As a statement of fact, I think that Mr. Clevenger is probably right. At least one alderman has said to me that she's disinclined to support better bike facilities until bikers are more law-abiding.

But, given the public forum to opine about bike safety, it's a curious position to take. If you want more law-abiding bicyclists, the best route is to increase the number of bikers on the road. The bicyclists most willing to ride without bike accommodations -- mixing it up in traffic -- are the least law-abiding, most risk-seeking. Mr. Clevenger might have re-assured folks who are concerned about bike scofflaws that the solution isn't to leave the roads to the spandex-clad crazies, but to encourage the less crazy. Every rider you add to the roads is, almost by definition, going to help solve the problem.

Mr. Clevenger's comment, however, suggests an interesting alternative universe, one in which funding for large bridge and road projects depends on motorists compliance with the rules of the road.


dr2chase said...

To tell cyclists that they cannot have more infrastructure until they obey the laws is both unconstructive, and somewhat insulting.

First, I have personally chased down two cyclists, on my bike, who ran lights in particularly flagrant ways. It was hard work, and in the end, when I said something like "you're making us all look bad" all I got was a shrug and another light run. I'm not doing it again. How, exactly, am I supposed to obtain the desired result? I've done my bit, more than anyone else I know, so where's my frapping infrastructure?

Second, we certainly do not hold cars to the same standard -- can you imagine not repairing the interstate as long as most drivers speed? Or not fixing potholes, till they quit rolling over the stop line? Or not plowing snow, because they fail to signal their turns? It's a double standard.

And finally, why is it so important? Cyclists kill or harm very few people other than themselves. A similar situation for cars, is the seatbelt law, which we only enforce when there is some other reason for pulling someone over -- we do not treat this as an important law, even though we know we have compliance issues. Pedestrians' rights should be respected, sure, but otherwise, cyclists will feel singled out unless drivers are similarly targeted by enforcement of for-your-own-good laws (like the seatbelt law). And a rational nanny state, would take steps to get more people out of cars and onto bikes or their own two feet, because most of us do not get enough exercise (if it is the state's job to nudge people to behave in ways that reduce early deaths, then promoting exercise is more important than fussing about scofflaw biking, for most traffic laws, because bike crashes are much less dangerous than cardiovascular disease).

And general, if you want people to respect the law, it really helps if the law serves an objectively beneficial purpose, and is applied equitably. Otherwise, the law is just a handy way of beating up on "those people" and making them "behave". That is not exactly a recipe for enhanced compliance from "those people".

Anonymous said...

regarding "If you want more law-abiding bicyclists, the best route is to increase the number of bikers on the road" That is NOT what Cambridge saw. From a globe article, "As the number of cyclists increases, police say they see more bikers blithely unaware that they are beholden to the same laws as drivers. The city has ticketed 952 cyclists this year (most of them warnings), up from 529 in all of last year and 718 in 2006." full article at:

MamaVee said...

I'd love to speak with that alderman. I mean what stupidness is that. I've heard it said around the bike net world that to have women and children bike is to see a big change in effect for bike friendliness and more biking happen. AND people who ride with children often obey rules more ( not everyone by far but I bet more) than racey speedy young guys. As you stated leaving the bike world to the speedy young guys does not beget bike friendliness. I am busting my butt trying to show that an approaching middle age woman with two kids can bike along at a slow pace to get to school, store and work without issue. To have some alderman punish me b/c young men will be young men is a Dr2Chase says Insulting. Until some drivers stop driving like assholes and yapping on their phones, inching forward through red lights and cutting off pedestrians I say we just stop fixing the highways let the go the way of the pothole. Block up busy roads with cones to slow them down and make them stop.

what a stupid thought.

Anonymous said...

We should close the big dig until massachusetts goes a week without a single car breaking the law.

Herzog said...

Bad infrastructure is one of the root causes of bad behavior by cyclists, IMHO. Just like poorly timed crosswalk lights make pedestrians jaywalk.

Therefore, withholding infrastructure from cyclists because of said behavior seems kind of counterproductive to me.

John Romeo Alpha said...

Bikers deserve results equal to the political and marketing skills they use to achieve their goals. Market your position better. Sell your projects better. There's a vast population of car drivers whose opinions you need to change. These comments do not bode well for that task.

Peter said...

bikers deserve to be allowed to ride every single street in America in safety, comfort, and dignity, period. get over it - get used to it - etc. any excuse for not providing this minimal degree of freedom of movement is contrived and petty. every human has the right to freedom of movement while holding onto their dignity.

First, I have personally chased down two cyclists, on my bike, who ran lights in particularly flagrant ways.

man, if you chased me down -- assuming you could catch me -- and you said that to me, i'd tell you to go eff yourself. hopefully we'd fight. as i was busy defending myself, i'd lecture you about the danger posed by motor vehicles, and direct to towards the 'bikers need to stop at stop signs' internet meme -- just to drive a very obvious point home.

good luck chasing down your next victim -- i hope you get what you deserve -- a righteous lesson.

dr2chase said...

Oh Peter, please.

Belligerence is also bad marketing, and it's not my style to get into fights. My naturally sunny disposition and disarming style help with that. The point of the example is that it is silly to ask cyclists to regulate each other's behavior, as if we were some large and well-governed organization with rules and by-laws (perhaps an anarcho-syndicalist collective). If someone runs a light, and you wait for the light to turn before giving chase, it's really hard work, and just given the natural odds of these things, there's only a 50-50 chance of catching him, never mind convincing him when you did. So it's simply not going to happen, and the alderman's implied deal of better infrastructure for better behavior is a bad joke. Add to that, as other people have noted, that the way you get better behavior, is not to change the behavior of existing cyclists, but to add new cyclists who behave better, and you don't get that without infrastructure. (and marketing, seriously).

That said, I was riding a cargo bike when I caught those guys, so I hope that they were a little embarrassed, and were probably too surprised to start a fight. And besides, I'm such a charming and friendly guy (and I'm old and getting a pile of gray hair, and I wear not just glasses, but bifocals. You would beat up an old man in bifocals? Shame on you, for even thinking about it. :-)

I was thinking about replying to JRA's marketing comment, because he is more or less right, but on the other hand, I think people are marketing their asses off already, to the best of their abilities. Mikael over at Copenhagen Cycle Chic, David Hembrow at a view from the cycle path, and Charlotte at Chic Cyclist, MamaVee at Suburban Bike Mama. Even Bike Snob is trying to promote cycling as something that ordinary people do to get around, and nudging people towards better behavior by making fun of particular annoying bad behavior ("bike salmoning", "schluffing"). I've written articles in a local newsletter (May 2010, pdf) -- "here's ways to get around town you might not have thought of, here's how you negotiate this horrible intersection safely".

But we have multiple problems to solve -- too many people perceive cycling as unsafe, or weird, or simply not practical transportation -- and it's not as if cars aren't heavily marketed, too. If 10% of the population suddenly started riding as much as I do, corporations in several industries would notice -- car sales would eventually dip (not only do you drive your car less, you can live with a crappier car, because if it doesn't work, just take a bike), gasoline sales would immediately dip, and even drug company revenues would go down (because, less need for cholesterol, blood pressure, and diabetes meds). 3% (figure 1/3rd of the car miles, or 1/3rd of the people were taking meds and can cut back) does not sound like a lot, but for a large corporation, that's a big number, and it's the job of their marketing departments to make that 3% not happen.

The interesting thing is, what got me back on my bike, was not marketing happy talk, but bad attitude. It was a combination of not happy about the OIL war, not happy about climate change, and not happy about getting old (and not happy about my new role as a revenue source for drug companies). Not a "model worker", so to speak, but a model consumer. It was very much a "had enough?" reaction.

Peter said...

nudging people towards better behavior by making fun of particular annoying bad behavior ("bike salmoning", "schluffing")

people like you refuse to see the error of your ways - focusing on the innocuous behavior of bikers instead of the deadly behavior of drivers. i honestly don't know if y'all are being purposefully obtuse, or if y'all are really that stupid.

in any case, it's not my job to try to divine your true intentions -- it's enough to know the predictable consequences of your actions -- bikers being harassed, maimed, and killed on the streets -- and penalized unjustly in courts of law. hope you sleep well at night.

dr2chase said...

Peter, you doofus. We're all well aware that choosing to drive is fundamentally antisocial in quite a few ways. Ask yourself, how often do you change the mind of an antisocial person (perhaps unconsciously so) by yelling at them? Flies, honey, vinegar.

The alderman is a different case -- he's in authority, he is supposed to think before he speaks, and you can perhaps club him with the facts. But people in general, if you go after them like that, it does not change minds at all.

The question is not whether or not you are correct in your assessment -- the question is, how do you get people to agree with you, who do not already? I'm guessing that you've not had much luck with this, seeing as how you manage to insult people who DO agree with you.

Peter said...

Peter, you doofus. We're all well aware that choosing to drive is fundamentally antisocial in quite a few ways.

people 'choose' to drive because they have no other choice. is this really rocket science?

Eric said...

I've gotta say, that "Peter" is exactly the wrong guy to be making the pitch for better bike accommodations. Because he's the guy that most drivers hate, the "I'm better than you, you're killing the planet, what do you mean stop and red lights" guy.

Peter needs to understand some hard truths. One- Cyclists are a minority, no amount of road design or increased public awareness is going to change that, cars are woven into the fabric of the country and they will always get first dibs on the streets. Two, and I'd have to side with the dr here, you'll catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Be nice, observe the laws that you probably quote when a car cuts you off, and see how that works for a change.

Peter said...

I've gotta say, that "Peter" is exactly the wrong guy to be making the pitch for better bike accommodations.

i'm not sure why you're so concerned about finding 'the right person' to make an argument. i'll take any help i can get. i'm not crazy about the fact that you guys seem to be defending the status quo, but i'm hoping you come around eventually.

One- Cyclists are a minority, no amount of road design or increased public awareness is going to change that, cars are woven into the fabric of the country and they will always get first dibs on the streets.

this statement is demonstrably false. do you work for GM? BP?

Two, and I'd have to side with the dr here, you'll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

i have no idea what this means. given the nature of your comments, i can only assume you guys are about 60 years old, and vehicular cyclists. get on the right side of history -- it's not too late.

Eric said...

this statement is demonstrably false

Really? How? You mean there's not more cars than cyclists on the roads? Secondly, the car is very much a part of America that will never take a backseat to bikes. This isn't Europe, the streets here, Boston being the exception, were made for cars, designed specifically with them in mind. That's why cyclists will always fight for accommodations, because no one's ever going to build more than a path for a bike.

Peter, clearly you don't understand the true nature of communication. There are many parts, the message being one, but the messenger is another. You want to get your message of cyclist safety and more driver awareness across to DRIVERS, not like minded cyclists, then you ought to change your tactics. You come off as zealot, without the ability or desire to see both sides of a situation and make rational decisions.

It's not that I disagree with you, cyclists are being hurt and killed on the streets, I know, I respond to those accidents as a firefighter, when I'm not working for BP that is. IN my whole career, I've seen one dooring, but the rest of the car vs. bike accidents I've seen could have been prevented by a more attentive driver, or a cyclist that understood that you can't demand the right of way from a 2 ton car, no matter how right you are in that moment.

Peter said...

This isn't Europe

we all understand your cynicism. you've given up. that's fine. just don't bring your negativity around to those of us who haven't given up. we don't need it.

the "We're not Portland" rhetoric is meaningless. we're not Houston, either. who cares? no place is magic -- it takes courageous people demanding real policy changes to get things done.

before there were cars, LA had 20% mode share for bicycles.

even Copenhagen only changed their policies 30 years ago to create what is now one of the best cycling cities in the world. they used to be just as car-dominated as we are today. this is all _basic_ knowledge that anyone who would consider themselves a bicycle advocate should know.

we're going to a better place with or without your help. whether you choose to join us in advocating for that better place is up to you.

Eric said...

before there were cars

Yes Peter, and before there were bikes, walking had a 100% mode share. You have completely missed the point. SO here it is one more time...

If you want someone who doesn't ride a bike for something more than recreation to begin to think of being a more courteous driver you ought not to do things that will make them think that all cyclists are elitist douches, ie. running red lights. Do unto others and all that.

Peter said...

Yes Peter, and before there were bikes, walking had a 100% mode share.

i know some horses who would like to have a word with you.

SO here it is one more time...

your arrogance exceeds only your ignorance. no amount of cyclist-bashing you do is going to make things better for cars than they already are. why? because the tide has changed. people like me are running the show now. vehicular cycling is dead. it took you 19 years and tens of millions of dollars in investment to go from 1% cycling mode share to...1% cycling mode share. you and your merry band have failed. the grown-ups are now in charge. please don't interfere with the extraordinary success we continue to have -- just sit back, cool your heels, and watch as we transform our cities and towns into safer, more pleasant, more just places to live, work, and play.


dr2chase said...


I'm an experimental kind of guy. I tried that not-running-lights, obey-all-laws stuff for several decades. Didn't work. Most drivers always were ok with bikes, but the yahoo fraction remains, and you can certainly see it in some blog comments.

There are at least three reasons why this might be the case.

#1, many people in cars are in a big hurry, and any impediment is enraging to them, even a law-abiding impediment (try driving the speed limit on any road in Massachusetts, see the cars accumulate behind you after a while). The golden rule does not apply, my "neighbor" just wants to get there quickly.

#2, even if the golden rule DID apply, you imply a collective golden rule -- if by some miracle, I could get every other cyclist to obey all the traffic laws, why,then we would get respect. You might claim that it is an education problem, but that's also been tried, and it's also slow to work. Also working against getting bicyclists to obey the law, is that drivers break traffic laws -- why should the small, non-dangerous vehicle behave better than the large, dangerous vehicle? I've certainly got no answer for that.

#3, it is collective on the other end, too. It only takes a few bad drivers to make cycling unpleasant. Can you get me the signatures of all the yahoo drivers in Massachusetts, pledging to respect cyclists after they obey all traffic laws? That's not too much to ask, is it?

So the implicit deal that you propose, is impossible to satisfy on the individual cyclist end, and thus, bogus. Repeating a bogus deal as if it were actually a real deal, is at best a waste of time.

Why do you keep offering your bogus deal? Think about it, please. Look at the reasons I think it is bogus -- didn't work in practice, drivers are looking for a different deal, collective-vs-individual behavior, drivers (collectively, dangerously) break laws all the time. Is any of that not, in fact, obviously true?

We've seen what works, we should get there as quickly as possible. We don't yet have the political clout to get there, but your proposal is a non-starter, since it requires an impossibility, and would just waste time.

I can think of one way that vehicular cycling can help, but it is not collective. In marketing cycling (which is what we are doing, and seriously, Peter, put your polite foot forward, even when you are right), it can be helpful to say things like "It takes me 45 minutes to bike home, always, versus anywhere from 25 to 50 in a car, and I don't have to break laws to do that". Or --"I beat hundreds of cars driving across Lexington today, and I didn't break any laws to do it". Individually, it can give a story like that more credibility with semi-skeptical drivers who imagine themselves not breaking any laws if they rode a bike. But collectively, not going to happen, and we should not condition any "deal" on cyclists suddenly behaving like vehicular angels.

Eric said...

I love Peter, he doesn't even realize we're on the same side, he just keeps plugging along, and with the gall to call me arrogant....

I would agree with you dr, there are law breakers on both sides of this issue, and while one, the driver, is obviously more dangerous to the other than vise versa, I would argue that both are equally annoyed by the law breakers of the opposite persuasion.

Here's the problems as I see it.

#1 Market Share. Roads will always be designed to benefit the mode of traffic it sees most. That will always be cars. Why because...

#2 America is lazy. Have you ever biked up a hill? That's work. We live in a society where there's a market for seat belt extenders and The Rascal. Where the Commonwealth of MA will give you a handicapped license plates if you're too fat to walk to the store from a parking spot in the back of the lot. It's impossible to make something that a majority of the populace looks at as exercise be considered a viable means of transportation to that majority.

#3 Weather in Boston. Those that can get past #2 have a hard time with this one after say Thanksgiving.

I could keep going with more reasons, but it's pointless. I wish I lived close to my job so I had better commuting options than a car. I admire those of you that brave the streets with cars every day in the hopes of saving money or the planet or whatever it is that makes you want to do that. But realistically, money spent to move the majority of the commuters away from cars is best spent on mass transit, as it is the mode of transportation closest to the one used by all those currently not in your 1% mode share.

dr2chase said...

I don't think we quite agree. I don't think "annoyed" is as important as "dead bodies", and it is clear that the cause of the dead bodies is people driving cars unnecessarily and carelessly. The lack of exercise kills the drivers prematurely (this is actually the larger body count), the perceived threat to cyclists and pedestrians keeps people in cars (self-perpetuating large body count) and the actual threat amounts to hundreds of cyclists and thousands of pedestrians killed, every year. So to the extent that you think "annoyed" drivers has much importance at all (or that we have any means of solving it, which I think we do not, except by getting more people on bikes), I think I quite disagree. Cyclists are annoyed, because they don't like it when other people carelessly put them at risk -- especially when the people causing the danger (and breaking the law) attempt to lecture cyclists on risk and obeying the law. Especially, when the drivers are so un-self-aware, and so uneducated about risk, that they fail to realize that they are at greatest risk because of their lack of exercise.

I am not sure that I buy into your #1, though you are certainly correct for the short term (next five years, say). If nothing else, your reasoning is tautological -- we cannot change, because we cannot change. Other countries changed.

What I think will change it, is a combination either of actually doing something about global warming, or the possibility of gasoline getting really expensive. Cars are a relatively recent invention, and there are still people in this country who never learned to drive one.

I have low hopes that we'll get serious about global warming; as you say, and as I certainly notice, most of us are lazy. However, we also seem to be seeing more unambiguous effects -- the Arctic ice level is 4 standard deviations low right now. This is well below estimates made earlier in the decade, and raises the possibility of interactions (with Greenland's ice cap) explicitly not discussed in the earlier sea level estimates. So we might be motivated to do something.

I think it is more likely that gasoline will get really expensive, and that will move people out of their cars, or cause them to support things that might (so to speak) "get my neighbor to ride a bike". The attitude towards cyclists shifted quite favorably back in the gas-shortage days of the 1970s, but when the crunch eased, things returned to the norm. I think this is the more-likely route to change; if prices truly spike, people will react.

Winter biking is no big deal. I've been doing it for four years. Biggest problem, as usual, is the danger presented by people in cars, in reduced light, on narrower roads, often without snow tires.

Eric said...


You have articulated very succinctly the problems cyclists have with drivers and the reasons they're annoyed and or injured by them, I do not dispute these things, we do agree there.

When a car company becomes aware of a defect in one of their automobiles they perform a statistical analysis on the most cost effective way to proceed. Option one is a recall and a fix for the problem, and all the cost and bad PR that go along with that. Option two is to do nothing, admit nothing and pay out and lawsuits and settlements as they come in. Then it turns into a simple numbers game; which one is smaller?

I don't believe you can ever succeed in changing people's current driving style, for lack of a better generalization type term. America will choose option 2, and every cyclist hit and injured will be a tragic accident instead of an avoidable collision, REGARDLESS OF THE ACTUAL FACTS OF THE CASE, ie the collision in Newton a couple weeks ago where a rider got right hooked while passing on the right. It's easier that way, and way cheaper monetarily and morally than education and enforcement.

The future of biking as transportation will probably be decided via an external factor, like gas or climate change, as you have suggested. You said things like "attitudes toward biking" and "might motivate us to do something", I'm not quite sure how those relate to actual safety or increased mode share, people will always be resistant to change and lazy. I'm not sure we agree there, but I hope it's amicably.

dr2chase said...

Again, I am not sure I agree, though I am closer to agreeing. In the case of the recently driven-over cyclist, it is most likely that the cause of the accident, was failure to use a turn signal. The "cost" of using a turn signal is very, very low, and it is easy to explain, and if we cared to enforce such a law aggressively, it would be quickly learned.

I think also, that you assume that cyclists (especially with much experience at all) are not doing everything that they can to avoid being hit. Riding up the right side of traffic is pretty common, meaning that accidents are (measured as a rate) not as common as accidents at intersections, etc. I get the impression that the guy who was run over, was actually going slowly (since he was not thrown), and that this accident was a result not just of failure to signal, but also of a sudden swerve.

In terms of overall effort required, the majority is always quick to propose more work for the minority, on the grounds of reduced overall effort. The problem with this line of argument is that it can be used to justify all sorts of unpleasant status quos, and it produces a less-than-good-attitude on the part of the minority. It's not quite might-makes-right, but it is very close. The related inversion of the word "responsibility" (as in, of course the cyclist should be careful not to get hit, it's his responsibility to avoid being harmed because cars are so dangerous) raises the question, "maybe what we need are more dangerous bicycles". I just don't think that this is a very productive logic to use. And, in particular, your monetary cost analysis ignores externalized costs; the taxes on gasoline do not cover the full costs of building and maintaining roads, nor do they cover the health care costs created by lack of exercise (imagine paying 10% of your health insurance bill as a gas tax -- I think the number is at least that large), nor do they cover the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which are ultimately about oil -- OBL and his followers were initially inspired by opposition to US military bases in Saudi Arabia -- oil) which comes to something like $.50 to $.70 per gallon. The moderate proposed early-stage taxes on carbon to blunt global warming ($40/ton) work out to about $.40/gallon of gasoline.

However, I commend you on your synthesis of the phrase "morally cheap", which I think exactly captures what it is about careless, hasty driving that so many cyclists find annoying.