"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?
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.