Time to Stop Behaving Badly on Bikes

I know that, in general, bicyclists behave no worse than anyone else.  I know that, ultimately, the current rage at cyclists who run red lights, weave around lanes, and endanger pedestrians is just a car culture temper tantrum, like an older child outraged at the pushy presence of a newly arrived younger sibling.  Still, when even my closest friends – not to mention my wife – start cursing at the arrogant, stupid, endangering nuts on two wheels, I’ve got to acknowledge that something else is also going on.

To be clear where I’m coming from:  my first priority is increasing the number of bicyclists.

The more people who cycle the more drivers will get used to their presence and adapt their own  behavior – which is the real cause of most pedestrian and cyclists fatalities – in ways that improve road safety not only for non-motorized travelers but for car drivers and passengers as well.  In addition, the more people who bike the larger the political constituency that pushes governments to install more bike facilities – which will make even more people feel that society approves of cycling, which will increase their willingness to venture out on the streets.  It is the classic “virtuous” feedback cycle.

Therefore, I support the massive construction of protected bike lanes (aka sidepaths or cycle tracks) and off-road paths (preferable with separate paths for bikers and walkers) and on-road bike lanes and bike parking facilities and office-building showers and everything else that makes it safe and easy to use a bike for short errands and visits to friends and commuting to work.  Therefore, I support allowing people to bike in bike lanes or in the street as they desire.  I oppose requiring helmets, even though I think they’re safer, if someone wants to go without.  I even support changing the law to allow cyclists to treat red lights and stop signs as if they were “yield” signs so they can avoid the muscle drain of constantly stopping at empty corners.

Still, I know that so long as our society treats bicycling as a weird and risky activity, it will be primarily done by eccentric risk-takers who enjoy creating their own rules.  So the best way to change cyclists’ behavior is not to issue moral exhortations but to change the composition of the cycling population.  Make bicycling mainstream and bicyclists will act more normal.

But, let’s face it – bicyclists who charge into busy intersections aren’t anarchist heroes, they’re idiots.  Bicyclists who race down sidewalks or into busy pedestrian crosswalks aren’t just rude, they’re dangerous.  Cyclists who wear dark clothing at night and don’t have white lights in front and red in back, blinking or steady, scare everyone.  Bikers who go the wrong way down busy streets, on a bike lane or in the road, are no better than drunk drivers going up the exit ramp on the Interstate.  And bicyclists whose own inner rage explodes into self-righteous attacks, verbal or physical, on drivers who make unintentional mistakes are just another type of vigilante, if not in need of getting back on their meds.  Worst of all, this type of behavior also scares off “ordinary people” – the kind of people who will never wear weird clothes or use expensive equipment when cycling but who have to form the majority of our increased numbers.

So it’s time the bicycling community began making it clear that immature, asinine, and dangerous behavior is no longer acceptable.  It’s time that we use our growing numbers, our growing integration into the American mainstream, to act like the maturing movement that we’ve become.  It’s time we started telling the misbehaving cyclists we pass that their actions are a danger to us all.

Yes, it might take the edge off the high voltage, alternative bikey culture that has provided so much of the energy that got us to where we are today.  If cycling wasn’t cool, it wouldn’t have survived or started to grow.  But now that it is growing, it is time to pass through adolescence and begin acting like responsible adults.

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