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Bicyclists, Motorists and the Language of Marginalization

Mighk Wilson

Racism, Sexism and Mode-ism

Some might be offended by the idea of comparing the hatred and violence directed at bicyclists with the hatred and violence directed at people due to race, culture or gender. Yet, I believe it is entirely appropriate.

In his book The Culture of Make Believe author Derrick Jensen shows how violence in our culture is tied to three factors. First, is the person significantly different from me; do I see him or her as less human, or less important, than myself? Second, does this person seem to have something I want, like resources (as the American colonists saw the native tribes) or labor* (as Europeans and colonists saw Africans), or do I see this person as a threat to the resources I hold (as the Nazis saw the Jews). Last, will my culture support, accept or choose to ignore my hatred or violence? If the answer to all three is yes, violence is all but inevitable in our culture.

One can be significantly different not only by being born to a certain race, culture or gender, but also by choosing to live in a different way. The problem is broader than racism or "mode-ism." It is a way of thinking that is pervasive in our culture; the belief that power and privilege deserve the highest regard and the lion’s share of the rewards.

To some in our culture, bicyclists are strange people who wear odd clothes and act childishly. Native Americans were described in those same terms by colonists. But what do we take, or seem to take, from motorists? It’s time, the ultimate abstract resource. We are perceived as being a "hindrance" to motorists. We supposedly steal their precious time. (Never mind that the vast majority of motorist delay is caused by motorists.) And where does our culture stand on hatred toward cyclists? I can’t say it’s supported, but it is often ignored and accepted as "natural."

African-Americans can’t change their skin (without a lot of money) (and shouldn’t have to) to improve their lot in life. Women can’t change their gender (without a lot of money) (and shouldn’t have to) to improve their lot in life. Most bicyclists, after all, choose to be bicyclists. But it wasn’t many years ago that a white person could be attacked or even killed for choosing to befriend an African- or Native-American.

The bulk of this essay will address the many injustices, and elements of those injustices, that bicyclists experience.

Bicyclists as Minorities

Jensen describes how Irish immigrants had to struggle in the U.S. during the 19th Century to rise from being "minorities," hated almost as much as African-Americans, to members of the ruling class. For the purposes of illustration and comparison, one could say there was a hierarchy of "Whites," Irish, and African-Americans in those days (though of course there were many other minority groups). Today we could draw a similar hierarchy of street users: motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. Just as the Irish could take advantage of the fact of their Caucasian skin to help themselves overcome prejudice, bicyclists can take advantage of the fact that most states classify them as vehicle drivers (or the equivalent) to get along on our roads.

What happens when you’re in the position of the being that middle minority is you can get pushed or pulled in either direction. The Irish could have aligned themselves with the African-Americans since they were both terribly discriminated against and hated during those years, but they really weren’t given the choice. When it comes to putting food on the table and somebody else holds the key to the pantry, you do what you can to befriend the key holder.

Bicyclists are in a similar situation, but we have not collectively decided who we wish to ally with. This is because, for most people, bicycling is a discretionary activity. Many cyclists can choose to become motorists. The vehicular cycling proponents argue against special accommodation for cyclists such as paths and bike lanes, claiming that these facilities are like "bicyclist ghettoes," making us into pedestrians-on-wheels (POWs?) At the other end of the spectrum are bicyclists who wish to be completely separated from motorists at all times. Most of us fall somewhere in between. No wonder planners, engineers and elected officials inexperienced with cycling have such a difficult time figuring out how to "accommodate" bicyclists.

Much in the way whites have made erroneous assumptions (some well-intentioned) about racial and cultural minorities, non-cyclists have made erroneous assumptions about cyclists. These assumptions are evident in their language, and lurking in this language are hints of paternalism and ridicule. We’ve all grown up with this language, so to many of us – cyclists and pedestrians -- these assumptions are accepted as natural laws.

The primary belief, held by most non-cyclists and even many cyclists, is that bicycling with motor vehicle traffic is difficult and dangerous. It’s believed to be so difficult that it is beyond the abilities of the average person. Try this: if someone tells you that bicycling with traffic is difficult, ask him or her to explain why. Ask them to explain the knowledge and skills necessary for cycling with traffic that are beyond the abilities of the average person. Chances are good they will give you a blank stare, because they don’t know. Yet somehow they "know" it’s difficult. (The answers: knowledge – the same rules of the road as for motorists; skills – balance/steering, braking, scanning for and assessing speeds of approaching vehicles, hand signals, looking over your shoulder for other traffic without swerving.)

The danger part is also rather peculiar. The assumption is that operating your bicycle as a legal vehicle on the roadway is what’s dangerous. We all know that it is not the roadway that is dangerous, but time and again that is the statement made. "I won’t bike on that road; it’s too dangerous." Setting aside the matter of just how relatively risky a pursuit cycling in traffic is – after all, every human activity carries risk, including being a couch potato – the responsibility to reduce this danger is rarely placed in the hands of those who pose it. The road does not present the risk. A solo bicyclist on a road does not experience much risk (aside from steep mountain descents and other extreme situations). A bicyclist following the rules of the road in traffic does not pose a risk. The main thing that poses life-threatening risk is the human being operating the motor vehicle on that road.

What you are most likely to hear from a novice (or non) bicyclist is that it’s scary. Who or what is making it scary? The design of the road? Of course not. The bike itself? Of course not. It’s the speed and volume of the cars on the road and the behavior of the operators (and sometimes passengers) of those cars.

Manifest Destiny

"Traffic," in the language of bicyclist (or pedestrian) safety, takes on the characteristics of a force of nature. It’s as though a stream of motor vehicles was a herd of bison or a flash flood, and not conscious, individual adult humans with morals and decision-making ability. There’s no point in trying to control a wild herd or a flood, right?

Why this tendency to translate human responsibility into an uncontrollable force of nature? It should be obvious. They are the majority; they hold the power. It’s in their interest to portray traffic – in the context of the motorist/bicyclist/pedestrian hierarchy – as something natural that cannot and should not be "unreasonably" controlled. It’s quite reminiscent of the concept of Manifest Destiny.

We often describe criminal behavior as "sick." I believe this implies that such behavior is unnatural. After all, if such behaviors were natural, how could we in good conscience punish people for them?

Humans have been drinking alcoholic beverages and getting drunk for thousands of years. Animals have also been observed getting drunk on fermented fruit. So alcohol use is quite natural. Motor vehicle use has been prevalent for less than a hundred years. A high percentage – at least a third -- of pedestrian traffic fatalities and injuries involve intoxicated pedestrians. Many traffic engineers and law enforcement officers use this as an excuse to do nothing for pedestrians. Only if a motorist is himself intoxicated is he severely punished for killing a pedestrian. Dennis Costello, a regular contributor to the Pednet internet list wrote:

The thing that the anti-drunk-driving people fail to understand is that the problem is not the drinking, it is the car! In the past, there was much less drunk driving because most people in urban areas lived within walking distance of a bar. Excessive drinking only produces drunks, while drinking and driving kills people.

7,326 fatality crashes were caused by intoxicated motor vehicle drivers in the U.S. in the year 2000, killing 16,653. 1,594 intoxicated pedestrians and cyclists were killed the same year. 25,168 people were killed in auto crashes that didn’t involve drunk motorists; 5,429 of those were pedestrians and cyclists, and 3,835 of those were sober. So even though 50% more people are killed by sober motorists, and 40% more pedestrians and cyclists are sober than drunk, we focus on intoxication as the problem. If we’d totally eliminated alcohol use we still would have had over 25,168 driver and passenger deaths (over 3 per hour) and 3,369 pedestrian and cyclist deaths (over 9 per day) for the year.

If we’d totally eliminated motor vehicle use instead, we might have had a few dozen cases of drunken bicyclists killing pedestrians, and a few drunken bicyclists and pedestrians dying through their own incompetence. Drinking and walking, which has been done since man discovered alcohol, is characterized as irresponsible. Drinking while operating a motor vehicle is clearly much more dangerous to other people than drinking while bicycling, but the latter carries the same penalty as the former. Somehow drinking is the bigger problem than motor vehicle use. I can only surmise that people believe motor vehicle use is more natural and safe than drinking.

In June of 2002, Robert Noel, a lawyer whose dogs killed a woman in his San Francisco apartment building, was sentenced to the maximum four years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. He was not even present when the dogs attacked. They were under the control of his wife, Marjorie Knoller, who was convicted of the same crime that July. What kept Ms. Knoller from being convicted of second-degree murder was the lack of evidence that she knew her actions would have resulted in the other woman’s death. In October of 1998, cyclist Ray Howland was struck and killed by a motorist who carelessly took a turn too wide and hit Ray as he stood on the paved shoulder waiting for his friends during the Mount Dora Bicycle Festival. The motorist, who saw the other cyclists approaching and knew that cyclists would be common on area roads that weekend (he was an area resident), was found guilty of careless driving and fined eighty dollars. Both the dog owner and the motorist had the responsibility to control things they knew had the potential to harm others. Both were being careless with those things. Comparing these two cases one might conclude that carelessness with a massive, powerful dog is a more serious crime than carelessness with an even more massive, even more powerful motor vehicle. Owning and operating a motor vehicle must be more "natural" than owning and walking a large, aggressive dog.

Much as 19th Century American leaders terrorized and killed Native American tribes, justified their actions through Manifest Destiny, and then blamed the tribes for contributing to their own downfalls, motorists terrorize cyclists and pedestrians (especially when we get in their way while obeying the written laws), justify encouragement of still more and faster motor vehicle use through the construction of enormous parking lots and wider, more frightening highways (which bicyclists and pedestrians help pay for), and them blame cyclists and walkers for acting – out of fear for their lives -- in ways contrary to the rules of the road. Just as it did not require a majority of Colonists to terrorized and slaughter the Native American tribes, only tens of thousands of troops, it only takes a minority of motorists to terrorize bicyclists and pedestrians and discourage them from using the public roads. If only one-in-a-hundred motorists are rude to bicyclists, it will not take long for a cyclist to experience harassment.

If there were any Colonists who objected to the slaughter of native tribes, they kept fairly quiet and certainly had no impact on policies. Or if they did promote a policy it was one of shoving tribes into reservations; soothing their conscience while freeing up prime land for agriculture and logging. The same can be said for motorists. Bike lanes and paths allow motorists to feel they’re being benevolent lords while at the same time getting cyclists out of the way so they can drive faster.

What’s more, there are many cyclists who believe in this segregation. Why? Because they’ve been won over by motorist propaganda that says cycling with traffic is dangerous and have been threatened one-too-many times. Consider this quote from a post to the Florida Bicycle Association list:

"Claim the Lane" annoys motorists and further discourages people from bicycle commuting as it fosters further fear. If I owned a bicycle shop, I would be very concerned about the negative images this form of bicycle advocacy portrays….I will only donate to those organizations (like the Rails to Trails Conservancy) that promote safe, sane, responsible bicycle advocacy and who listen to the needs of the public. They want bike trails, lanes, and other conveniences.

Evidently one of our primary purposes as cyclists is to avoid annoying motorists. I replied, in part:

How does a citizen obeying the law while traveling on a public road portray a negative image? I wonder why one's liberty and safety should take secondary status to the desires of some motorists to pass.

Don’t get me wrong. I like paths. They’re often very pleasant places to ride. But they simply do not and will not solve the huge, over-riding problem – that motorists threaten bicyclists on a regular basis. Neither will bike lanes or paved shoulders remove the hatred. My brother was hit by a beer can thrown from a passing car as we rode on a paved shoulder. Evidently the occupants did not think it prudent to confront us directly. It was easier to drive off at 55 MPH, like Klansman driving off into the night after a cross burning.

It’s also relevant to note that, like the Native American tribes, we were here first. Bicyclists were responsible for the first paved roads in America, and many inventions developed for bicycles were later incorporated into automobile design. Most European colonists would have died soon after arriving in North America if it hadn’t been for their help of native tribes. As soon as the colonists got a large enough population and learned how to take advantage of the environment, they quickly over-ran the native population. As soon as manufacturers learned how to build a reliable vehicle (but still far less reliable than a bicycle) the rich started buying them. The rich of course always have the best access to political power, so motorists – in spite of operating a vehicle that was clearly a danger to others – were quickly given precedence over pedestrians, cyclists and equestrians. As this transfer was being made, some questioned the wisdom of allowing such vehicles to be sold and used. Here is an excerpt from The Magnificent Ambersons, the 1918 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Booth Tarkington:

"I'm not sure he's wrong about automobiles ... With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization -- that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men's souls. I am not sure. But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men's minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can't have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that the spiritual alteration will be bad for us. Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward changes in men by that time, I shouldn't be able to defend the gasoline engine, but would have to agree with him that automobiles 'had no business to be invented.'"

(The character George, referred to in the excerpt, was killed by a motorist at the end of the story. The Magnificent Ambersons was made into a movie, starring Joseph Cotton, in 1942.)

Eighty years later, the London organization "Take Back the Streets" echoes the Ambersons quote:

The street is an extremely important symbol because your whole enculturation experience is geared around keeping you out of the street. "Just remember: Look left, look right, look left again… No ball games… Don't talk to strangers… Keep out of the road." The idea is to keep everyone indoors. So, when you come to challenge the powers that be, inevitably you find yourself on the curbstone of indifference, wondering "should I play it safe and stay on the sidewalks, or should I go into the street?" And it is the ones who are taking the most risks that will ultimately effect the change in society.

The car system steals the street from under us and sells it back for the price of gasoline. It privileges time over space, corrupting and reducing both to an obsession with speed or, in economic lingo, "turnover." It doesn't matter who "drives" this system, for its movements are already pre-determined.

We can ride four-abreast on the reservation paths and the motorists won’t care; we’re out of their way. But ride four-abreast on the road and we become law-breakers and targets for harassment. If you leave the reservation you will be compelled to live within the terms of the colonists, but will still be harassed and ridiculed while you do so. Participate in a non-violent Critical Mass ride and you risk being beaten by law enforcement (this has happened and is documented) for the crime of delaying the important people in motor vehicles. Their time is more important than your time, your happiness, and your freedom to associate with your friends and neighbors while you ride.

Subspecies of Bicyclists and Where to "Put" Them

Earlier I said that cyclists have adopted (or been taught to accept) many "truths" about the nature of traffic and of bicycling with it. This is also true of bicycle planning, design, and education professionals. We speak in terms of "Type A, B & C Cyclists." 

"A" cyclists are "advanced, proficient or professional" (does that mean you get paid to ride?) and can ride confidently in most traffic situations. "B" cyclists are novice adults who presumably have little more ability to ride with motor traffic than children. And "C" cyclists are children. "A" cyclists are sometimes characterized as "aggressive." We supposedly shouldn’t design for aggressive "A" cyclists because they are such a small percentage of the cycling population. When I protested to a local consultant that I prefer the term "assertive" he dismissed my argument as "semantics." Really? "Aggressive" implies that I behave in a way that threatens others; "assertive" that I peacefully assert my basic right to mobility. Being aggressive when on a 30 lb. vehicle surrounded by faster multi-ton vehicles does not sound like a sane course of action. For a planner, engineer or politician, calling someone "aggressive" gives them justification to ignore that person’s needs and rights.

Supposedly these three "types" of cyclists need different types of accommodation. Funny, we teach the basic skills and traffic principles mentioned earlier to 9-year-olds. All cyclists need only one type of accommodation: the accommodation of all motorists to be polite, sympathetic and cautious.

I’m repeatedly told – by law enforcement, other motorists and other cyclists – that this change in cultural attitude toward cyclists will never happen. Or that it will happen after we’ve built a system of separate bikeways. How do we expect motorists to learn to get along with cyclists if at every opportunity we strive to segregate the two modes? Separate-but-equal didn’t work in the 1950s with race. As the Supreme Court noted, separate-but-equal was really only separate. Some bike advocates believe that bike lanes give "legitimacy" to cyclists. I don’t know about you, but I respect Native Americans as a group because they have a rich culture that we could all learn from, not because they live in reservations. And the many people who still hate Native Americans do so with the same intensity as those who did 150 years ago, in spite of this segregation into reservations. Why should motorists who hate bicyclists change their minds because the government gives bicyclists a special place to ride?

If I’ve got you riled up so far, hang on…

Duh Laws

There are two laws that govern the relationship between cyclists and motorists. We all know of both of them, though only the written one is consciously recognized. The written law was created by the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws & Ordinances and adopted by most states, including Florida. It’s called the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC). Many states have made modifications to this uniform code over the years, but it’s mostly the same essential concept. This law is enforced by officers of the states, counties and municipalities. The other is the unwritten law enforced by many motorists as well as by some officers.

The written law was developed primarily by people – traffic engineers -- who wanted bicyclists out of the way. John Forester documented this very thoroughly in Effective Cycling. Florida is generally credited as having one of the more bicyclist-friendly statutes in the country. Our law (FS 316.2065) defines bicycles as vehicles and says we have all the same rights as the drivers of other vehicles…"oh, aside from all these exceptions here in paragraphs five and six." The law, based on the UVC, uses vague language in explaining how far right one must ride, so vague that it takes five minutes to explain to someone what "as far right as practicable" means. Then it goes on to list some circumstances in which a cyclist may leave the right side. It’s quite a paternalistic law when you think about it. I have a simpler version everyone could understand without legal translation:

Bicycles are vehicles. Every person propelling a vehicle by human power has all of the rights and all of the duties applicable to the driver of any other vehicle under this chapter, except as to provisions of this chapter which by their nature can have no application. A bicyclist shall move as close as is safe and practical to the right edge of the roadway to facilitate the passing of overtaking vehicles when the bicyclist considers it safe to do so.

If the law were written in such a simple manner, Kimberly Cooper and her attorney would not be spending hundreds of dollars in legal fees to appeal convictions for citations written for taking the lane on a St. Petersburg street. The lanes in question are 10 to 11 feet wide, clearly too narrow to be shared by motorists and cyclists. Yet the St. Petersburg Police Department and the Pinellas County court believe otherwise. The police never made the case that the lane was wide enough to share safely. (The burden of proof is supposed to be on the prosecution, right?) Who is better qualified to determine when it is safe for a motorist to pass a bicyclist: the motorist, a law enforcement officer, or the bicyclist? The answer is "the bicyclist" for two reasons. First is that the bicyclist is the more vulnerable roadway user; vulnerable not only to the impact with a motor vehicle, but also to potholes and other dangerous things on the pavement. Second is that the cyclist has more experience with being passed than the motorist (or officer) has with passing. In an average hour of cycling I’ll probably be passed by over 100 cars, while during the average hour of auto driving I might pass at most one or two cyclists.

The rationale for the written law as it stands is that interactions on public roads occur between classes of vehicles and pedestrians, not between individual persons. Faster-moving travelers are presumed to be more important than slower-moving travelers. And of course bicyclists are also assumed to be "out for recreation" (not contributing to the economy). For the sake of "efficiency" it "makes sense" to limit bicyclists (a minority) in their use of the roadway so that motorists (the majority) are allowed to travel faster. Remember your grade-school civics lessons: matters of basic liberties are not decided by majority rule. I don’t know about you, but I interact with other road users only one or two at a time. All the bicyclists using the roads on a day do not interact with all motorists who use them on that day. Each cyclist interacts with a dozen or so motorists during each mile of her trip, and each motorist (in the Orlando area anyway) interacts with at most two bicyclists during an hour.

Like Native Americans who can no longer hunt on land that their ancestors hunted for generations because they were evicted from it by the United States government in the 1800s, bicyclists lost the ability to freely use an entire lane during the 20th Century. Just as Native Americans were described as children, so were bicyclists. It was for their own good, right?

The "two-abreast" part of the law is also discriminatory. (Imagine implementing it in China.) But there’s a logical loophole in it that allows two-abreast cycling, or even more than two-abreast cycling, in most circumstances. The law says we are not required to keep as far right as practicable if the lane is of substandard width. (By the way, FDOT has clarified for the record that it considers lanes less than 14 feet in width to be substandard for the purpose of sharing between motorists and cyclists.) It doesn’t say, "You can ride four feet from the curb instead of two feet when it’s substandard." So you can ride two feet from the left side of the lane if you wish. We all know it is illegal for a motorist to pass on the right in this circumstance, so tell me, what does it matter from a practical perspective if there are one, two, or even three other cyclists to the right of the first cyclist? The motorist’s ability to pass is unaffected. On most of the rural roads club cyclists and racers use the lanes are only 10 to 12 feet wide, fitting the criteria for a substandard width lane. So any individual cyclist has the right to use any part of the lane. Let’s say a pack of 50 cyclists is traveling such a road. Which is safer: for the cyclists to all hug the white line, single file in a paceline that would stretch at least 400 feet, which would take a motorist about 10 seconds to pass (risking a sideswipe all the while because he’ll try to squeeze by even when there are oncoming vehicles); or for the pack to ride four-abreast, taking up only 100 feet of length and requiring only about 3 seconds to pass? And please don’t tell me we shouldn’t travel in large packs:

"Congress shall make no law … abridging… the right of the people peaceably to assemble."

Hundreds of employers can choose to open and close their businesses at the same time, encouraging thousands of motorists to individually take to the roads during the same period, causing widespread congestion, deaths, and billions of dollars in injuries and property damage, and the community responds by throwing millions and billions more at the "problem" to enable even more businesses and motorists to continue an insane system. But if thousands of cyclists think it would be fun and would make a neat political statement about the way our public streets are used, and to gather one Friday evening per month and ride in a large, non-violent mass for a couple hours, adding minor delay to the street system – it’s time to call out the cops in riot gear and bust some heads.

Then there’s the unwritten law. It’s based on ridicule, an attitude of superiority, ignorance or disparagement of the written law, and the ability to flee the consequences of antisocial behavior. If it were written it would say:

Stay out of our way or we will scare the crap out of you, hit you, or maybe even kill you.

This unwritten law is the one that has the greatest impact on bicyclist behavior. As I said before, this law does not have to be enforced by many officers or self-appointed deputies to be effective. My wife was a victim of this vigilante justice system. A motorist threatened her, hit her with a lit cigarette that burned her arm, tried to get her to run into the rear of his vehicle by slamming his brakes, and finally got out of his vehicle, stepped in front of her, grabbed her handlebars, stopped her and threatened her some more. Fortunately an off-duty sheriff’s deputy saw the incident and gave the motorist a stern talking-to. He didn’t call the city police department to come pick this guy up for assault, though (it happened in the city and was out of his jurisdiction). Why not? He told my wife that, while he understood that cyclists have the right to use the roadway, such treatment was to be expected.

Imagine if she had been a black woman walking down the sidewalk and assaulted by a white man walking the same sidewalk. Is such treatment to be expected?

Florida Bicycle Association board member Duke Breitenbach was struck from behind by a motorist a few years ago in Lake County. The driver had already passed three other cyclists not far behind him. The motorist claimed Duke had swerved in front of him (of course) even though there was no reason for Duke to have done so; no crossroad, no driveway, no debris. It was a four-lane road; the motorist had an entire second lane in which to pass. The Florida Highway Patrol officer who worked the crash visited Duke in the hospital and told him he believed the motorist’s story, not that of the four cyclists. Furthermore, he told Duke he felt that bicyclists were a nuisance.

Let’s make a fictional comparison to Duke’s story with a different cast of characters. A white man trips a black man as he’s walking out the door of a store because the black man had the nerve to buy the last six-pack of Budweiser at the only open store in town. The black man falls hard (his hands are full) and breaks his arm. The white guy tells the police it was an accident, while three friends of the black man saw it happen and describe it as intentional. The cop visits the black man in the hospital and says he won’t arrest the white man because he believes his story. "Why don’t you just leave town, boy."

A Florida Highway Patrol officer once told me, when I suggested that the pedestrian’s right-of-way should be respected and enforced at marked and unmarked crosswalks at unsignalized intersections (as spelled out in Florida law), that that must not be done because, "I’m not going to stop all the traffic on SR 436 because some guy wants to cross the street to get to the Wendy’s for a Frosty." 

Most traffic engineers believe pedestrians should walk hundreds of yards (along sidewalks barren of trees, in the sweltering Florida summer) out of their way to cross at signalized intersections. Why? Because in order for motorists to realistically be able to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks at unsignalized intersections (as the law already requires), they must travel at 25 to 30 MPH. The Motorist’s Manifest Destiny belief says this is unnatural.

Let’s also remember that the engineer’s rationale that the majority should be given priority gets tossed out the window when bicyclists become the majority. This is true not only on rural roads, but on shared use paths and in cities where bicyclists far outnumber motorists, such as in China.

In the early 1990s, then Florida DOT pedestrian and bicycle coordinator Dan Burden was invited by the Chinese government to go there and help address some of the problems they were experiencing with the huge numbers of bicyclists in their larger cities. Thinking their purpose was to find better ways of accommodating cyclists, Dan went eagerly. When he arrived he learned that the "bicycle problem" was that there were too many of them and that they were impeding the handful of motorists. Dan said, "Sorry, I can’t help you." (Meaning "I won’t help you.") Of course this would not happen in the U.S.; that many cyclists would exhibit a clear block of voting power.

Or would it? Take a trip on the Pinellas or West Orange Trails and you’ll see that the paths, which can carry 1,000 to 5,000 vehicles (bicycles) per day, are made to stop for cross streets that carry only a few hundred vehicles per day, and even for driveways. This is in clear violation of the engineering community’s own manual on traffic control. The message is clear: people in cars are more important than people on bicycles, even when they are the minority.

Act Up

We are ignored and despised and threatened and injured and sometimes even killed because we are "different," because we are believed to "take resources" from motorists, because we are believed to be doing something childish, or worse, inherently dangerous and therefore foolish, because those who despised and threaten us are not held accountable, and because carelessness behind the wheel of a motor vehicle that results in the death of another is not considered to be a serious crime because it is "inevitable."

We need to destroy the belief that bicyclists are "different." We can do this by celebrating bicyclists as individuals, telling our stories, and showing how we contribute to our communities.

We need to destroy the belief that bicyclists take time and resources from motorists. We can do this by showing that we contribute more than we "take" -- through our stories.

We need to destroy the belief that bicycling among motorists is inherently dangerous. We can do this by cycling conspicuously among motorists.

We need to destroy the belief that despising, harassing, or threatening bicyclists is acceptable. We can do this by shaming and ridiculing those who express such thoughts. Tell them, loudly and in public, "You should be ashamed of yourself." Then tell them why.

We need to destroy the belief that deaths and injuries of cyclists due to motorist carelessness are inevitable. We can do this by characterizing such carelessness as the equivalent of being careless with a gun, careless with poison, careless with dynamite, or careless with a large, vicious dog.

We have made some progress with cycling in this country over the past ten years. Money is flowing toward bicycle programs and accommodation. Our public health agencies are beginning to recognize cycling more as a solution to our sedentary lifestyles than as a safety problem. But we also have fewer children cycling to school, we still hear stories of motorists who intentionally injure and kill cyclists, and we still are harassed by motorists on a regular basis. Even though our interest is in an activity that many Americans enjoy and that also imparts many benefits to those who choose not to bike, we still are treated by many policy makers as a "special interest group." Those of us who drive bicycles know it is special, in a very good way.

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