Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Polite Dinner Conversation

I attended a dinner party this past weekend. Seating was prearranged, so I was seated at a table with some acquaintances - some I knew better than others - which usually means some fairly stiff but generally polite dinner conversation. So, to get right to the point, one of the people at my table asked me, "Do you still ride your bike to work all the time?"

"As often as I can," I replied. Then came a mildly annoying follow-up:

"So, are you a GOOD bike rider, or a BAD bike rider? Like, are you one of those guys who runs through red lights, and stop signs, and takes up a whole lane, and blocks traffic?"

For real? This is where you want to go for dinner conversation? You wouldn't rather extol the virtues of candidate Trump? Or give us the testimony of your "personal relationship with Jesus"? Maybe you'd rather tell us about your views on abortion?

Then, to take things from annoying to flat out hostile, a couple of other people at the table immediately piped in loudly, "OH MY GOD, bike riders are the WORST! They're so ARROGANT and BELLIGERENT, and THEY THINK THEY OWN THE ROAD!" (seriously - three of them bellowed the last part of that in unison).

You can imagine where things went from there. . .

"Bike riders shouldn't be on the roads."
"They slow down traffic."
"They get in my way."
"A bunch of bikers boxed me in once." (I'm guessing he got caught up in a critical mass ride)
"They NEVER obey the law."
"They don't pay their fair share."
"They should have to have a license if they're going to use the road."

I could see the expression on my wife's face clearly saying "Oh god - here we go." She knows me well, and knows not to get me started on certain subjects. My dinner ended up getting cold while I sat there ripping into all the anti-bike B.S. piece by piece.

Honestly, where to begin? Cyclists think they own the road? From a driver-centric point of view, I suppose any cyclist who actually expects drivers to respect his/her right to the road is an "arrogant" cyclist. But I don't think there's a cyclist anywhere in the U.S. who thinks for a minute that they own the road. How could we? We are reminded every time we ride that many drivers consider us, at best, a nuisance. At worst - well, let's just say that some drivers fantasize about turning us into road-kill. Read the comments to any bike-related story online, and you'll know that's true. Whether it's through drivers' negligence, or inattention, impatience, or pure aggression, they pull out in front of us, right-hook us, left-hook us, or just plain fail to yield when we have the right-of-way. Passing cars buzz by us close enough to remove the little hairs from the backs of our hands. We routinely get honked at and screamed at. We have things thrown at us from passing cars. There is no way that any cyclists in this country think they own the road -- but it's clear that a lot of drivers do.

Cyclists don't pay their fair share? Whether it's gasoline taxes, or license fees, insurance, or what have you, drivers love to claim that cyclists don't pay for the roads and therefore don't have the right to use them. It's a persistent myth that has been exploded again and again, but anti-cyclist drivers never seem to get the message. We ALL pay for the roads, whether we drive a car or not. Gasoline taxes haven't been increased in as long as I can remember, but the cost of building and maintaining roads keeps climbing. The share of road maintenance and construction costs covered by gasoline taxes and license fees keeps falling, while the share borne by income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, and the like has steadily increased. There have been some very thorough studies on the subject that demonstrate that auto usage is heavily subsidized by everyone else in our society. And that doesn't even take into account that fact that most adult cyclists are also drivers, and therefore are still paying the same taxes and fees that any other drivers do.

What about the one about how cyclists should have a drivers license to use the roads? I'm hearing this one more and more, and I have no doubt that car-centric politicians are on the verge of trying to make it happen somewhere. Here's where the problem lies. Most drivers think that their right to use the road is tied to their drivers license, but that's not exactly accurate. A drivers license is a permit to operate a motor vehicle on our roads -- a subtle distinction, but an important one. Bicycles, and even horses and buggies (common in Amish country) are classified as vehicles, and carry an equal right to the road -- but they are not motor vehicles, and for that reason they do not require a drivers license. We require a permit to operate a motor vehicle for reasons that should be obvious -- a typical car weighs around 3,000 pounds or more, while some trucks and SUVs can weigh nearly double that. Most cars are capable of speeds in excess of 100 mph, and can inflict serious carnage and tremendous amounts of property damage. Car accidents kill roughly 3,000 people every month in the U.S. alone. Here's another way to look at it: driving a car is a privilege, while riding a bike is a right. A drivers license can be revoked, but that doesn't take away a person's freedom to walk or to ride a bicycle. In many locales, if a person loses their license, it's possible that their only available means of transport may be a bicycle.

Cyclists never obey the law? It's an unfortunate fact that there's some truth to that. I stop for lights and signs. I signal my intentions. I follow the law the same way I expect drivers to respect my rights. But sadly there are plenty of riders who don't do the same. Some are simply inexperienced, while others are sadly uneducated cyclists. But there are enough out there who know the laws apply to cyclists as well as cars - they just don't care. Those riders make me mad too - and conversations like the one I had the other night are an excellent example as to why. Every time I find myself in an argument with a driver who's just put me at risk, their retort almost always works its way around to some variation of "you bikers don't follow the law, so you don't have any right to complain." Drivers love to throw that crap in our faces rather than admit they've done something asinine and/or dangerous. Part of the reason I am so conscientious about the law is because I never want some A-hole driver to use my actions on the bike as some kind of half-assed justification for putting some other rider at risk.

But even that point about law-breaking needs some perspective. I sometimes see cyclists run red lights, but it's not as though they go blowing through like they have a death wish. On the other hand I see - and I know we ALL see - drivers go blowing through traffic lights. Every. Single. Day. A traffic light turns yellow, and a string of drivers hit the gas to get through the intersection. (Strictly speaking, any driver more than a car length or two away from the intersection when the light turns yellow is really supposed to stop - but when was the last time you saw that enforced?) After the light turns red, and sometimes even after the cross traffic gets the green light, there will still be another jackass (or two, or three) who plows though the intersection with his pedal to the floor. Who is the bigger risk to the public?

For a bit more perspective on this point, I would argue that the average person sees more drivers breaking the law on any given day than they see bicyclists on the road -- law abiding, or otherwise -- in a week. Period. On my typical commute to and from work each day, whether I'm in my car or on my bike, I'll usually see several cars run traffic lights in the way I previously described, while some roll through stop signs, while I see a few more speeding excessively, and I'll witness at least a half dozen more texting while driving (illegal in my state). On the other hand, on an average weekday, I seldom encounter more than one or two other cyclists apart from myself, and that's when the weather is good. Drivers are conditioned to notice and remember the cyclist who breaks the law, while they have the uncanny ability to ignore other drivers who behave far more dangerously.

Lastly, I'm fairly convinced that a lot of what drivers label as law breaking by cyclists is really just cyclists following the law in a fairly assertive manner - such as taking the lane when it's unsafe for cars to pass. When many drivers don't even acknowledge that cyclists have the right to use the road at all (or grudgingly admit they have the right, but shouldn't actually exercise that right), then a proven concept like "vehicular cycling" is probably seen as a threat.

Oh - I could keep going on and on, but to wrap this up, let me just say that after a while my righteous anger drove all the bike-haters out to the patio to smoke their cigarettes (and no, I'm not being ironic), leaving my wife and I alone at the table. Just another pleasant night out.

I guess it just goes to show that you can dress an arrogant cyclist up, but you can't take him anywhere.


  1. Good for you. If a bunch of boors basically want to insult you to your face, it serves them right that you were able to drive them to the patio.

  2. You sort of touched on it, but I'll elaborate, as I think there's been a huge upswing in hate, at least at my local level, due to a fairly recent change in behavior, seemingly semi universally. A lot of it comes from customers of mine, yes, cyclists even, seem irritated by this new group think.

    Right or wrong, I was raised to single file out, when riding in a group, if cars approached from behind. Allowed them to pass without incident, and showed courtesy for their plainly greater speed potential.

    As such, I was always given a half lane and a wave most of the time, and was for many years.

    Not much biker hate was heard.

    Now? Many popular cycling side roads are clogged with groups, riding 3 and 4 abreast. Thing is, they never single file out.

    In fact, the caboose riders seem to look back frequently, as if to see if the line was growing behind them. Never once, do they work in to a line and allow easy, safe passage. In fact, they encourage reckless passing many times.

    I've been stuck behind said groups, many times now, and it really boils my blood after about 5 minutes.

    Being a militant wanker about your rights, doesn't make you right, as much as possibly dead, injured, or at a minimum, reviled by a group of formerly, pretty tolerant drivers.

    Things work better when everyone tries to get along and not unnecessarily impede others out of myopic visions of each parties judgements of right vs wrong.

    True for politics, as much as for drivers and cyclists. I think we can all note where the lack of flexibility has gotten the former?

    There's a lesson in there somewhere. =:)

    1. FWIW, in the UK the Highway Code says you should give cyclists as much room as a car when passing, which suggests you should be over in the other lane anyhow. Riding 2-up means a car has a shorter group of cyclists to pass, rather than trying to squeeze by a long crocodile forced into the gutter. IMO splitting a large group into groups of 6 or so (2-up and 3 deep) with gaps in between for cars to pull into if necessary is the safest way to ride on the road. Still doesn't stop arsey car drivers getting wound up about it, mind.

  3. Funny how people (non-cyclists) all pop-off with the exact same nonsense. Is there a memo going around with idiotic talking points?

    I like to mention how many drivers I see staring into their phones (or eating, or reading) and swerving all over the road. "Not me" is the common retort. Well, bud, if you see "all" cyclists being scofflaws, then I see "all" drivers as distracted. Two can play that game.

    Of course I always like to ask, "so, you think it's OK for a driver to kill a cyclist because they were delayed getting to the mall 30 seconds later than they otherwise might have?" and, "Why do you need to rush to the next traffic light?"


  4. I had never seen the "5 Car Rule" in action until I moved to Illinois. Apparently here after the light goes from yellow to red, five more cars are allowed to go through the intersection. Maybe your dinner companions can explain that one. Haha.

    1. While they're at it, have them explain the "Illinois 30" -which is 40-45mph in a 30mph zone.

  5. ..and you never hear people bitching about how licencing semi-trailer is not 6000 times the cot of a family car? Because that's how much more damage they doto roads..
    Golook it up.

  6. Funny, as a cyclist since the early 70s I am old school, single file, polite, stop at lights, etc. I see how most of th cyclists I see now ignore the laws and are generally jerks. They brought it on.

    But gosh to start about Trump, Jesus, and abortion. Who knew cycling was so left politics? Perhaps this closed mindedness is what makes modern cyclists such smug jerks.

    1. You may have missed my inference about trump, jesus, etc. -- I'm sure you've heard the old chestnut about not talking about religion and politics. However, now that you mention it, the anti-cycling forces out there today are overwhelmingly from the political right, and nowadays equate bike riding with socialism - and make bicycling a talking point in the so-called "culture wars."

  7. Agreed, most of the serious anti cycling vitriol is from folks who plainly spend a lot of time listening to the Narrow Network. I tend to just ignore their insipid whining generally.

    I noted it more, when long time, decent, fair minded cycling customers of mine, started bitching about the big groups who wouldn't move over for anything.

    Asked around, turns out it's part of a movement to take and own your lane, forcing motorists to treat them as traffic, like a farm vehicle or horse and buggy. Believe it grew out of the 3 foot rule, and the desire to enforce it around your person.

    Thing is, there's been no massive public, educational push on this (like the anti texting signs on major interstates now), so pretty much anyone who isn't drinking from the same well as those cyclists, never got the memo. As such those cyclists just look like first rate jerks to the general public, cyclists or not....

  8. As much as cycling has grown in popularity, we (cyclists) are still the minority on the roads. So, as with any other minority group, when one of our members misbehaves, it's all the more noticeable to the majority.

    Also, we are out in the open, plainly visible, while those motorists who text, talk on the phone, put on makeup, shave and read Kindle while driving are ensconced in layers of metal, glass and foam and are therefore less visible.

    Also, I think that even with the rise of bicycle commuting, cycling is still seen as a leisure or recreational activity in the US. So, we are seen as people who "don't work" and therefore don't pay taxes. That, I believe, is what gives rise to the misconception that we "don't pay for the roads."

  9. A drivers license is also required since the car has the power equivalent to 150 to over 300 standard horses. The most I ever saw on an Amish buggy around Lancaster was 2.

    John Hawrylak
    Woodstown NJ

    1. Funny thing about Amish buggies - Ohio's Amish country isn't very far from where I live, and so I'll encounter them occasionally if I ride out that way. I recall some rides with friends where we'd actually find ourselves racing with them. Cyclists can indeed go faster!

  10. Also to be noted on "breaking the law": lights at intersections are sometimes not triggered to turn green by cyclists. This means bikers must awkwardly shimmy over or dismount to push the crosswalk button, wait for a car to come along and trigger the light to turn green, or cautiously cross a clear intersection against the red light. Some lights are on timing loops, but others use sensors to trigger a green (only activated by larger metal objects i.e. cars), which might be a cause for some cyclist to run lights that were never designed to permit them to safely cross the intersection in the first place.