Elitists? Really?

Well, I was going to write about the recent onset of cold weather and share some helpful links to articles about biking in low temperatures, and then I read this article, and I sighed.

The article references this article by John Cassidy in the New Yorker, which I discussed at some length here.  It attempts to summarize the “image problem” that urban cyclists have, without providing any evidence of this alleged image problem.  The article further conflates this image problem with cyclists images of themselves.

I’ve never understand this argument, that urban cyclists have an image problem or that we’re elitists.  These are two separate issues really; it would be entirely possible to have an image problem because we all have really bad teeth or something else.  Mostly, cyclists seem to have an image problem among people who say that cyclists have an image problem.  I’ve had numerous interactions with drivers since I’ve been a regular commuter and many of them, if not most, have been positive.  People let me turn first, yield to me when turning, and so on.  And I’ve had just as many negative experiences with drivers while on my bike as I’ve had while behind the wheel of my car.  Probably more, in fact.  The fact that those experiences are ever more terrifying while riding my bike is only somewhat beside the point.

The author of the articles makes numerous unsubstantiated claims, like “[cyclists] are viewed as inept at best and a grave threat to the walking public at worst,” or “[cyclists] demand bike lanes in gentrifying neighborhoods, but don’t seem to care if they ever reach the slums.”  Really?  Maybe this is the economist in me talking, but where’s the evidence behind these claims? Do cyclists really not care about low-income communities?  Sure, I imagine that some of us don’t, but then obviously many other non-cyclists also don’t care.

What is completely missing from the Salon article is any evidence – not one single survey or public opinion poll – that demonstrates that urban cyclists think they are “better” than drivers.  In fact, all the article proves is that, as cycling becomes more popular in U.S. cities, and as those cities (rightfully) devote more resources (i.e. road surface) to supporting cyclists, that there is some degree of tension between cyclists and drivers.  That’s it.

But there would have been that same amount of tension, if not more, had those resources not been reallocated as they were.  Imagine if the number of cyclists in some city had “more than doubled” without the introduction of bike lanes and other cycling facilities.  The lanes previously dominated by motor vehicles would have become ever more clogged with cyclists, leading to more interactions between cyclists and drivers, each battling to occupy the same space.  Sounds like a recipe for road rage to me.

And honestly, I do think that cycling is better than driving; that’s why I do it.  I’m not trying to get all “rational self-interest” on you here, but that’s largely how people operate.  We do the things we think are best, subject to various constraints.  That’s why I decided to start biking back in 2008: I needed to get more exercise, I wanted to use less gas and pollute less, and so on. Biking was and is better than driving by those standards.  Of course, driving has its advantages too: protection from the elements, speed (over longer distances), fuzzy dice.  Just as I think my cycling is better, I’m sure many drivers think the same about their choice of transportation mode.

But does that make me an elitist?  No.  I will admit to having a certain feeling of smugness when I pass people sitting still in traffic, but they probably feel the same when they see me getting caked in road grime during bad weather.  I don’t think anyone’s taking it personally.  Further, I find it kind of ironic that, in a time of crowd-sourced expertise and democratized reporting, we are still bunched up about so-called elitism.  Given the far lower barriers to entry that our online world presents, where all you need is a good idea, a blog about it, and you too can have a book contract, the opportunity for many more people to become experts or opinion-makers, do we really care what some urban cyclists think about themselves or us?  Further, the words “elite” and “elitist” are so completely overused that they are basically meaningless.  I personally blame FOX News for this, but then I am a card-carrying member of the Liberal Elite, so there.

For all the accurate descriptions about sources of tension between cyclists and drivers, I was never convinced that cyclists are primarily responsible for the tension or for rehabilitating their public image.  There are more cyclists on our roads now, but I think all parties bear responsibility for making the roads safe and dealing with the issues that this raises.  If drivers are annoyed because they lost a lane to cyclists, they might also consider the safety implications for everyone, not just cyclists.

In closing, I’ll have more time to write this week, so look for more posts about biking in Memphis.  Thanks for reading.


  1. Cort

    Doug, while you and I approached the world of cycling from an environmental and health standpoint there are probably thousands who saw someone riding a fixed gear sans helmet barreling through traffic and thought, “sweet!” Those people then bought bikes themselves and mimicked that behavior. As Em and I pulled into Asheville last week I almost hit that type of cyclist. He was running a red from the left lane even when there was a bike lane. I can see this elitist point of view and the article was speaking to those people and not all cyclists in general. But I think the message is transferable to all cyclists: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

    • Doug

      Hey Cort. Thanks as always for your comments. I agree with you 100% about the cyclist you and Em saw in Asheville. I’ve seen similar irresponsible behavior among some cyclists here in Memphis, and it always drives me crazy when I see it. I guess my point is that if someone saw a driver behaving in an equally irresponsible way, no one would ever say that all urban drivers are elitists or irresponsible or whatever. I know that there is a double standard for cyclists, and while I don’t like, I do have to accept it to a certain extent. I always try to adhere to the rules of the road, but I know that my responsible cycling won’t do much to counter the double standard. I view this as a long-term issue, one where the only solution is to normalize urban cycling to the point that drivers are used to us being on the road and recognize that most of us are perfectly responsible. Hopefully those bike lanes on Madison and elsewhere will help with this.

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