The Case of the Rude Bicyclists

A family shopping trip by bike.

To a Friend:

I’ve been thinking more about our conversation this morning, about how when you were driving you encountered two rude bicyclists who were biking side-by-side and wouldn’t get out of your way. A few more points occurred to me. One is that when you said this I instantly imagined two lycra-clad men very purposefully getting in your way. I think this is what most people would imagine. And what I imagined does seem rude.

But upon further reflection I thought what if the bikers were a family coming home from the grocery store, as maybe you were that day? What if this family wanted to talk with each other on the way home without another vehicle disrupting their conversation? Does the family in the car have more of a right to a pleasant conversation on the road than the family on the bikes?

Note that the “lycra-clad” cyclists I imagined were recreational cyclists. Our culture has come to see bicycling as a sport rather than as transportation. This helps gives us the feeling that bicyclists are “in the way” rather than fellow travelers on city streets. People think “Bicyclists are just out there for fun and they should get out of the way because we motorists have important things to do”. (I’ve actually had motorists tell me this.) So this view may help explain why a motorist will wait patiently behind a left-turning car but they become enraged when they have to wait to pass a bicyclist.

And notice a third assumption I made: the cyclists were men. I think because most American cyclists are men, cycling here has come to be seen as an aggressive pursuit. I think as more women and children bike we’ll see that attitude change. If I had to pass two women or two kids biking side-by-side I don’t think I’d assume they were making a statement and being purposefully rude.

So this whole issue is kinda schizophrenic. You are a cyclist yourself. And I am a driver sometimes. Heck, some of my best friends are motorists :-). So unlike the civil rights movement in which a black person could never be a white person or vice versa, we can see each others’ points of view on a daily basis. I am hopeful that this ability will lead to a transportation system that works for everyone.

If you want to read a hardcore cyclist’s point of view in a traffic situation similar to your own, check out this  blog post. I think I might pick up Fighting Traffic, the book he mentions. He writes about the book:

Automobile interest groups and drivers wrestled the purpose of streets from everyone else, often by bloody force (200,000 Americans were killed on roads in the 1920’s, a majority were pedestrians back then). It was not uncommon in the early decades of automobiles on the streets for newspapers to depict the typical driver as Satan, and mass memorial services for slain children were common in urban places. Safety campaigns eventually brought down the proportion of pedestrian fatalities, but in the process began to highly limit what had been previously very liberal rights to those who walked in cities.

  • Very well put though it’s hard to tell whether your friend was a car driver or bicyclist at the time this “inconvenience” occurred. One thing I notice is the impatience that sometimes comes while driving a car. Both in myself at times or in others. For example I often drive the speed limit while others around me want to go faster and one of my vehicles is an electric car that can’t go very fast. Other drivers can tend to get irritated and roar around me sometimes unsafely but then at the next stop light they’re waiting while I drive up. In other words their impatience and risk taking often doesn’t make any difference. But I do the same myself at times. Fortunately in my area the bicycle lanes are good enough that there isn’t much cross interference between cyclists and motorists.

  • I think it’s ironic that you say that cycling is seen as a sport. Most of the advertising and marketing for cars, even utilitarian pickup trucks, focuses on how enjoyable and thrilling they are to drive. Cycling is much the same. Even when we tote groceries home on the rack we’re having fun.

    But for cars, the sport is a consolation for all the other expenses of driving. The reason we ride bikes is cause it’s fun. It just happens to also be a practical transportation mode at times.

    Good post.