Animosity Towards Cyclists

23:46 Mon 17 Sep 2007. Updated: 21:51 06 Oct 2009
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There’s some of this in other automobile-centric countries too, but somehow it seems worse in America. A significant proportion of drivers here seem to really hate cyclists. I have a hard time understanding it, but I’ve encountred a lot of articles recently where commentary is virulently anti-cyclist, to the point of advocating violence against people on bicycles.

The basic claim is that bikes don’t belong on roads. Full stop. That seems to be it. Beyond that, there’s a great deal of self-righteousness about cyclists not following traffic laws, and about how they “slow cars down”. Dave Neiwert of Orcinus recently wrote a rebuttal op-ed in reply to an op-ed claiming that bicyclists were somehow “freeloading” on roads paid for by motorists, but the responses from anti-bike people in the comments are pretty crazy. This incident in LA and its associated commentary gets fairly insane also, although most of the commentary is supportive.

The very concept that people can be anti-bike, never mind virulently anti-bike, is somewhat mind-boggling to me. It would bother me a lot less coming from pedestrians, but from motorists? I drive regularly, and I really like driving, so it’s not that I”m somehow biased against it. But it should be clear that driving is much more dangerous, costly, and polluting as an activity than cycling. How someone can work up such outrage against a form of transport that’s almost completely innocuous is beyond me. At worst, at absolute worst, bikes represent a minor, a very minor, inconvenience to motorists, because it just doesn’t take that much effort to wait for an opportunity to overtake safely, and then the cyclist is no longer in the way. And any significant increase in cyclists likely means a decrease in drivers and hence an improvement in traffic.

Many of the motorists justify their responses by citing cyclist misbehavior (particularly running red lights and stop signs). I can see how that’s annoying, inconsiderate, and dangerous. Personally I follow traffic regulations pretty closely, and do not run red lights—partly so as to no give motorists any excuse for complaint by my own behavior. Nevertheless, the truth is that a bicycle running a red light is just not the same as a car running a red light. One of the vehicles is far more dangerous to others than its counterpart.

In any case, I suspect that even if all cyclists obeyed all traffic regulations, these motorists would still be irate at them. Part of the cause is probably due to the fact that minor irritants while driving can seem major, and that the drivers react to the cyclists essentially interrupting the flow activity of driving. Another part, however, seems to stem from some weird dislike of otherness. I don’t know exactly what it is, but something about the vituperative comments reminds me of comments attacking other “minority” groups. It’s clearly not as bad as other forms of discrimination, but there is still some common thread between the anti-cyclist vitriol and prejudice I’ve encountered online against women, non-”white” races, non-”straight” sexuality, people of other or no religions, people who dress in non-mainstream ways, hippies, and anti-war (or other generally left-wing/counterculture) activists. There’s something about the completely vicious and over-the-top response some people have to anything that isn’t part of their idea of “normal”, and which disturbs or upsets them even in a way that should be extremely minor.

One of the reasons that this discrimination is completely different (and generally far less serious) for cyclists is that cyclists are clearly so only part-time. It’s not a clear cornerstone of one’s identity in this society the way that gender, race, religion, sexuality, dress style, or political outlook is. Nonetheless, there is a real prejudice there, and it can get truly ugly and truly violent. That it can reach the level of actual violence is still shocking to me, despite having read about it many times, and even now it seems absurd to state that fact. But the United States really is a car culture, and apparently any alternatives to that are viewed by many as unconscionable.

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