I’ve been really fortunate in my time as a commuter cyclist in Memphis in that I haven’t had one single accident, be it single-vehicle (i.e. me alone) or due to a car driver’s error. Â I’ve had a few close calls, one of which I wrote about at the end of this post, but mostly I’ve been fine. Â And I’m happy to write that the vast majority of drivers are generally pretty cool and give me the three feet of clearance required by law (and common sense, even if they don’t know they are supposed to), if not the entire lane, when I am biking on streets without bike lanes.
I’ve also become a lot more bold about “taking the lane” and thus requiring passing cars to wait until the next lane (whether the traffic in that lane is moving in the same or the opposite direction) is clear. Â Granted, I still make efforts to ride as much as possible on residential streets, even when a more direct route on aÂ four-lane road is available. Â Nonetheless, I haven’t really encountered much overt car-on-bike hostility in the past three years.
All of that said, when I saw this article come up on my blog reader, I immediately copied the URL to save for a later read. Â I’ve just read the article for the first time today, and I very much appreciate the points raised about how drivers and cyclists interact on the road and how each perceives the other. Â I especially agree with the quotation about how the car, especially one that is single-occupant, decreases the interaction on roads and the resulting cooperation that can occur when people make eye contact. Â (This is why I always stare directly at the driver of a vehicle waiting to turn left across my lane. Â If I see them seeing me, I figure they are less likely to run me over.) Â Also, when individuals assume that their behavior is largely anonymous, it further encourages unfriendly driving habits. Â (Trolling in a car? Â Sounds about right.)
But what really resonated with me are the perceived differences in class between drivers and cyclists, and how these differences vary depending on who is driving the car or riding the bike. Â To the wealthy suburbanite driving the SUV, maybe I appear to be a loser who can’t afford to drive (although I’m not, and I can). Â To the wage earner just getting by in an old beater, maybe I appear to be an elitist who decision to bike only acts as an impediment in an otherwise hectic day. Â (It should be noted that I’ve never actually surveyed any non-cyclists about their perception of cyclists, and that I have had pleasant bike-related conversations with both wealthy suburbanites – which I wrote about here – and wage earners – which I wrote about here. Â Also, I’m not trying to lapse into stereotypes about the attitudes of suburbanites or wage-earners, just speculating.)
To be fair, I can see how someone might perceive me to be an elitist when I’m cycling. Â My bike is not especially fancy or expensive, but the replacement value of the frame, wheels, tires, and all the bells and whistles I have attached to the frame would easily be $1000 to $1200. Â That’s some serious bank when you’re just getting by. Â It’s not as though I slowly saved enough money to buy my bike over the course of months or years, or bought a used bike at a pawn shop. Â I just went to the bike shop one day and bought the thing outright. Â And whenever I see a new toy I can’t live without, I buy it. Â End of story.
(As for the “loser” epithet, I’ll just leave that for Hollywood to perpetuate.)
But I think there’s something else at work here. Â I’m reminded of a story a fellow Memphis cyclist told me about a friend of his who noticed an increase in anti-cyclist hatred three years ago when gas prices spiked so rapidly over the summer. Â Maybe this perceived increase was due to observation bias, that the first act of antagonism only served to increase awareness of future incidents which might have been otherwise ignored in different times. Â Whatever the case, the feeling of a lack of control over one’s life can cause one to lash out at the perceived causes of (or beneficiaries of) this feeling. Â I’ve heard feelings of frustration and helplessness cited as a potential cause of young men to sympathize with, if not engage in, terrorist activities and organizations. Â (No, I am not comparing angry drivers with terrorists, just commenting on how those feelings can drive people to behave badly.) Â So the driver, feeling ever more pinched by rising gas prices and with few options other than to drive, sees the cyclist tooling down the street, oblivious to the vagaries of the market for gasoline, and feels his blood begin to boil. Â Certainly, it’s not the cyclist’s fault that gas prices are so high – indeed, if more people biked, this would reduce the demand-side pressure which tend to keep fuel prices high – but that doesn’t matter. Â What does matter is the perception that this cyclist is “above” the concerns of the common person.
This feeds the belief that cyclists are elitists and exacerbates perceived class differences between cyclists and drivers. Â Not only do we have the flexibility to avoid higher gas prices, but we also have fewer concerns about how we look when we arrive at our destinations as well as the option of adjusting our schedules to fit our desire to bike. Â It is as though the strictures of regular life don’t apply to this special class of people: ironically, the very ones who have the least amount of protection from injury on the roadways.
The perception that cyclists live by different rules is not helped when we do things like running red lights or failing to signal when we turn. Â I know that I might catch a little flack for that – no one should try to blame the victim – especially considering that I myself have done both of those things. Â Yep, I’ve run red lights (although very rarely) and failed to signal properly. Â So am I a hypocrite? Â Yep. Â And apparently I’m part of the problem as well.
But let me be clear: regardless of how often cyclists violate the rules of the road (and I have a bit more to say about that in a moment, so be patient) or the extent to which we are regarded as elitists, this in no way justifies any act of violence or aggression against a cyclist. Â Ever.
(Plus, as this article reports, research indicates that in many if not most cases, accidents involving a car and a bike are the fault of the driver, not the cyclist. Â Side note: the commuter cyclist featured in that article is my new hero.)
Unfortunately, simply because we are the exception on the roads, cyclists will likely continue to be perceived as “elitists” or “the problem.” Â It’s been my experience with people who are, shall we say, biased against certain demographic groups, that those people only really notice the members of the group when those members do something inappropriate (or which is perceived as such). Â I call this “having a book.” Â Here’s how it works:
Imagine an average driver tooling around Memphis on an average day. Â Very likely that driver will encounter other drivers engaging in defensive driving practices, as well as some drivers who violate the rules of the road. Â In the first case, the well-behaved drivers are barely noticed; in the second, the poorly-behaved drivers, if noticed at all, are usually dismissed with a curt rejoinder and then forgotten. Â Driving, being the default mode of transportation, is all but invisible to drivers, whether that driving is respectful or not.
Now imagine that the driver in question happens upon a cyclist fully obeying the rules of the road. Â Likely the cyclist will be passed with little thought and soon forgotten. Â But if the driver sees a cyclist, say, running a red light? Â “Oh HAIL no! Â Just look at that arrogant cyclist who does he think he is elitist spandex sidewalk!!” Â Or something like that.
My point is that the driver keeps a book in which s/he records the interaction s/he has with other travelers on the road, Â But, only the negative behaviors of the “other” – in this case, the cyclist – are ever recorded in the book. Â Poor decisions by the “norm” are not recorded, nor are good decisions by anyone.
The result of this is that some drivers have a biased perception of how cyclists behave on the road, who has the ultimate right to occupy our streets, and who is to blame when cars and bikes collide. Â This bias is made easier to maintain by failing to recognize that there is an enormous amount of variation in the cycling community. Â If a driver lumps all cyclists into one bucket, then bad behavior by one cyclist applies to all cyclists. Â This generalization is not applied to drivers, of course.
So what do we do with this? Â Hopefully as more cyclists take the road, we will be recognized by more drivers as legitimate users of the road. Â Increased enforcement of existing laws by local law enforcement will also help. Â But I think we are looking at a long-term project, where each successive generation becomes ever more likely to support cycling. Â Creating more facilities for cyclists can only hasten this trend.