Monday, April 7, 2014

Editorial: Why do Americans have so much hate for cyclists?

I know better than to read comments on the Internet, but sometimes, I just cannot help myself. I try (I really do) to ignore the hate filled diatribes that permeate the likes of Youtube video comments about cyclists and every effort is made to not even glance at the comments that follow any article that discusses cycling in cities. What is it about cyclists that sparks such vitriol among so many people? Drivers hate us and want to run us over. Pedestrians hate us and want drivers to run us over. Police officers often presume fault when a cyclist is involved in a collision. Even our justice system is stacked against cyclists as killing someone riding a bike is frequently deemed an accident and most cases result in little to no punishment. Why has one group come to draw so much disdain from everyone else?

There is, of course, no easy answer. Most Americans learn to ride a bicycle at some point in their childhood and many use it as their primary means of getting around town until about high school, where it suddenly became imperative to get your driver's license as soon as humanly possible. From that point forward, most Americans likely spend little to no time on any kind of 2-wheeled conveyance, much less one that requires them to actually power it with their own energy. We all become complacent and reliant upon our cars, especially as our cities often lack adequate public transportation options as alternatives, and much of our lives are now centered around using our cars to get around. That instills a sense of necessity, but also a sense of immediacy since the car is able to travel at greater speeds.

It also does not help that for the vast majority of Americans, cycling is seen as a recreational activity and not a means of transportation. Wealthier cyclists on expensive bikes and equipment along with form-fitting attire do little to dissuade people of that image. But for every Lance Armstrong wannabe that is tearing it up on the roads, there are probably just as many, if not more, people who genuinely rely on cycling as their means of getting around town. Sometimes it is by choice, but many times it is out of necessity. A bike is an efficient and inexpensive, especially compared to a car, means of getting around and with a few attachments, can even be extremely versatile for carry light loads. As urban settings become more crowded and cars become more expensive to maintain (i.e.. increasing cost of parking, gas, etc.), we are likely to see more people turn to cycling as an ever more viable means of transit.

That means that drivers and pedestrians are likely going to encounter more cyclists in the future, and not less. That also means that the tension between all of these groups is likely to peak. Among drivers, the thought of this seems to set off the greatest ire. They see cyclists as slow moving law breakers who do nothing but get in the way of traffic and do nothing to help pay for roads. That last point is one myth that has already been busted many times, so I will not rehash the arguments. The fact that cyclists generally move slower than cars is unavoidable, but cities can do more to separate bicycle traffic with things like dedicated cycle tracks that reduce confrontations between cyclists and faster car traffic. Where a cycle track or bike lane is unavailable, more needs to be done in the form of education for drivers and cyclists about interacting with each other. As for cyclists being law breakers, that is a red herring argument since unless every driver never speeds, never rolls a stop sign, and always uses a turn signal, there are just as many drivers guilty of the same kinds of minor infractions that cyclists are frequently accused of perpetrating.

Image courtesy of union-bulletin.com
Of course, enforcement of laws is part of the problem. All to frequently, rather than enforcing traffic infractions on a regular and consistent basis, police departments will set up periods of heightened enforcement or checkpoints targeting cyclists. This kind of singling out of cyclists does a poor job of reinforcing desired outcomes and generally casts cyclists in the same negative light as drunk drivers, who are the ones most frequently subjected to this kind of targeted enforcement. Instead, police officers should treat cyclists as they do other motorists - stopping and citing for infractions more regularly and more consistently. Additionally, police forces need to train their officers to be more impartial when dealing with traffic incidents involving cyclists. All too often, police officers, who are far more likely drivers than cyclists, make the assumption of contributory negligence on the part of the cyclist in a traffic accident, even when evidence or witnesses indicate otherwise. This kind of bias by law enforcement contributes to the image of cyclists as being a menace and needs to stop.

At the end of the day, the only way to really change how Americans perceive cycling is to improve the education of motorists and to update the designs of our streets. Currently, most driver's education classes dedicate barely nominal time to the rights of other road users and how driver's should interact with them. That part of the curriculum needs to be strengthened and reinforced during the driving exam with real world interactions with both cyclists and pedestrians to ensure that a driver has internalized the right way to handle these situations. Simultaneously, municipalities need to increase the presence of dedicated bike lanes and cycle tracks to separate bikes from car and pedestrian traffic to help ease tensions between the groups. Over time, these kinds of changes will help encourage more people to take up cycling and should hopefully help more Americans embrace cycling as an accepted means of transportation.

Tags: automotive, bicycle, cycling, driver education, transportation