Have you ever been talking with someone and, just when the conversation gets interesting, a casual glance at the clock results in a frantic “I’m late for a meeting!” or “I’m late for my bus!” Or have you been watching your favorite TV show and, predictably but painfully, the plot thickens and it’s time for a commercial break?
Something like this happened to me in December. It wasn’t a commercial break—but pretty close.
I was on The Conversation on KUOW. Based on a recent Salon article, the subject was “Are Urban Bicyclists Just Elite Snobs?” While I’m a fan of the show, I was disappointed that, as a show guest, I had exactly 124 seconds as part of the conversation. We barely had any time to dig in. It left me—and many listeners, I’ve learned—with a disappointment that we just skimmed the surface and missed a good opportunity.
At Cascade, we’re committed to having the conversation about attitudes, perceptions, misperceptions and respect on the road for everyone. So let’s create and sustain one here. It’s a conversation that many of us want to have. And we should be able to have it without pulling together tight sound bytes or obeying a strict time limit.
To kick things off: Elite Snobs.
When I caught the article, my first reaction—to the headline—was disappointment. How can our beloved easy and cheap mode of transportation (or popular form of recreation) be anything close to a central character in a social hierarchy struggle?
Bicycling is more normal and ordinary than ever, so I tire of the notion that bicycling is only for one group of people. When we look at the numbers, we find it to be completely false. In fact, when we look at the census data, those who ride bikes span income levels quite evenly. Are there elite snobs who ride a bike? Are you an elite snob? Better yet, who actually cares? The real question isn’t about snobbery, it’s whether or not we’re going to recognize the serious interest of all ages, races, incomes and backgrounds in this cheap and easy way to get around and make sure it’s safe and accessible for everyone. And beyond recognizing this increasing demand by the masses—people really want to ride—will our city’s leaders build the infrastructure and let us?
Rant over; I then actually read the article. Beyond the snarky headline, the Salon article does dig in. The author even calls the media to the carpet and notes the disparity in enforcement and rash of hyperbolic headlines (um, his is a case in point). Its thesis is that it’s not so much that bicyclists are elitists, but that we’re saddled with that unfortunate and ironically poor public perception. Okay, good point. Next?
Next Stop: Us vs. Them
Poor public perception? But we are the public. And let’s take that back. This is not a divide between completely different segments of society. This is the case of people forgetting who our neighbors are, who our friends are, who our coworkers are. In some cases, it’s a case of people even forgetting who they are: we’ve seen people stake claims of one kind of biking or one kind of appropriate bicycle clothing over the other. Bicyclists aren’t bicyclists. They’re people of all types who ride bicycles. And any conversation—like the one on KUOW—that pits one side against another side isn’t going to get real far. There are no “sides.” We need to recognize that there are groups, associations and differences—that we’ve got individuality but also similarity. When we see this common Us vs. Them circular, unproductive chatter happen, we need to break the cycle.
Let’s Be Honest: We’re Afraid
Being on the road can be scary. Almost all of us know someone who has been injured or killed while riding or driving, no doubt. So while even though many people aren’t fully aware of the risk of distracted, drunk or inattentive driving/riding, I’d bet that most of us carry around a bit of fear with us. It’s why my wife always tells me to “be safe out there” before I ride to work or drive anywhere.
And, sure. None of us wants to make a mistake and hurt someone. So as we’re trying our best to get where we’re going safely, someone (on bike or in car) who throws an unpredictable or sudden movement, stretches a yellow light or rolls through a red can get our adrenaline going. And while I’m tempted to think that this is truer for the most vulnerable users of the road like those on bikes or on foot, we can’t dismiss that many motorists (including us when we’re driving) are truly afraid to cause harm.
Enter a stressful situation with the background of fear and it can move suddenly into anger and blame. If you’re anything like me (and I’m loath to admit), when you’re pushed too far, it’s often the other person’s fault. Ah, a simple projection gives temporary relief. Taken together, the Us vs. Them and fear-turned-anger might result in some people blaming the bicyclist for simply existing and refusing to recognize the rights of bikes to exist on our roadways.
Rising Above: A Better Dance
At the risk of alienating the junior high crowd, how many tiny trips to Facebook do you need to make to remember how much we all really just wanted to be liked back then? Think junior high school dances. And while I’d like to think that we’ve learned some things along the way, maybe even matured a little, it’s probably still true.
We’re never going to be able to reason with those who blame us for simply existing. But it can’t start from there with everyone and need to reset the conversation to calm, civil and mature. We are all legitimate users of our public infrastructure.
So let’s acknowledge our long-standing desire to be liked and also use this maturity. It might, in combination, get us to a place of being respected if we can elevate the blame game to an honest discussion about the needs of all road users.
Aside from stopping the blame game and agreeing to engage in a calm, civil and mature conversation with and within the community, you already know the best way to contribute toward a solution: ride. (And, of course, let’s also remember that when we’re driving a car, we’re piloting what can be seen legally as a dangerous weapon. So let’s drive with extreme care.)
Yes, there’s a sentiment that bicycle evangelists are trying to convert the masses from the sins of car driving and that we’re a preachy, holier-than-thou bunch. Let’s not get stuck here. No one wants to be told what to do—but if everyone is doing it and it looks fun and easy, well, why wouldn’t people give it a try? Let’s lead by example—in word and in deed—and ride.
The more of us who ride make it safer for everyone on the road and more likely that we’ll push ourselves over the tipping point and into a city and region where bicycling is an ordinary as using a vacuum cleaner. And a place where, as Bike Snob NYC wrote “humanity will marvel that there was once an age in which a mode of transportation as inexpensive and accessible as the bicycle was considered ‘elitist.’”