So long as our society treats cyclist as a high-risk activity, we should not be surprised if most bicyclists are risk-takers. If we want bicyclists to act like “normal people” maybe we should create a cycling infrastructure that makes normal people feel comfortable on a bike.
The questions begin right after someone learns that I’m an active cyclist. First, they test my commitment: “Do you commute by bike all winter?” (Yes – once the streets are plowed using the proper clothes keeps me dry and warm.) Then they admire my courage: “Aren’t you afraid of all those crazy drivers?” (No –I’ve learned its best to boldly “take the lane” when the street is too narrow to safely ride on the side; I use back-road alternatives to certain streets; and I push to the front of cars at intersection in order to get a car-free head start when the light changes.)
Then I brace myself for the inevitable harangue: “Why can’t you do something about those obnoxious bikers who run red lights, weave around traffic, make illegal turns, and nearly run down pedestrians?”
I take a deep breath and ask if they’ve ever exceeded the speed limit in their car, or if they’ve ever crossed the street without waiting for the walk sign. I point out that our society seems to allow a degree of flexibility for certain types of transportation transgressions, so it is hypocritical to single out cyclists for scorn. I say that it’s not that nearly everyone living in Massachusetts is a scofflaw – its that our entire transportation system is so poorly designed and operated that people have little respect for the official rules.
If none of this mollifies my accuser, I point out that his first two questions contain the answer to the third. This country, unlike much of Western Europe, has created a transportation system that is hostile to every method of movement except cars: walking, trolleys, busses, and bicyclists. Our culture is so aggressively car-centric that people instinctively assume that streets exist for the primary purpose of moving as many cars as fast as possible. In fact, streets are an enormous network of public spaces that we could theoretically use for a variety of purposes from festivals to retail business, from classrooms to play areas, from block parties to concerts – and from walking to bicycling. Being more creative in how we use the largest single public asset we own is a necessary step towards creating neighborhoods and cities that are more livable, sustainable, healthy, and affordable.
However, for a variety of reasons, in this country we’ve created a transportation infrastructure that makes bicycling feel dangerous. And if cycling is risky, the only people who will do it are risk-takers. So why are we surprised that a noticeable minority of bike riders are aggressive?
On the other hand, if we were to create a more bike-friendly infrastructure (with separated bike paths, well designed on-road bike lanes, safer intersections, and lots of bike parking), or if we were to follow the European plan of actually giving bikes priority over cars (with re-timed traffic signals and clear policy guidelines), then not only the number but the nature of bike riders would fundamentally change. If cycling felt safe and easy for the “traffic intolerant” majority of potential riders then our streets would be significantly less clogged with noisy, polluting, expensive machines. Which would encourage even more people to bike – including children. And the people bicycling down the street would be a more representative cross-section of our neighbors – good people just trying to get from one place to another, with the obnoxious ones relegated to a simply annoying fringe.