Friday, August 28, 2009

Insoluble Conflict

Israelis and Palestinians will live together in perfect harmony long before motorists and bicyclists figure out how to coexist to their mutual satisfaction.

Road sharing is often a classic example of ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag.  When one user group feels it has to give up more than another, resentment builds to the point of an explosion.

Daily the cycling blogosphere and cyclists on social networks share anecdotes and news stories about motorist aggression toward cyclists.  The rants run their course.  Everyone goes about their business until the next one.

Some riding areas are better than others.  Some riders seem to have better luck.  Occasionally, the riding climate improves in an area formerly more hostile.  Then word comes in from a cyclist dealing with daily abuse that would make half of us quit and the other half buy firearms.

People are resilient.  I'm impressed by the riders who cope with abuse by turning the other cheek or giving soft answers.  I always wish I had a flame thrower or a grenade launcher when some pathetic coward in a motor vehicle acts aggressively.

I understand why bicyclists interfere with motorists so much.   We're the wrong size, the wrong speed, even if we're acting like vehicles.  We require motorists to be patient much more than they require it of us. Think of it: unless a motorist is being a jerk, we don't have to accommodate them nearly as much as they accommodate us.  They have to watch how they open doors when they're parallel parked.  They have to slow down, swing wide, wait to pass.  Yes, they have massive horsepower at their disposal, but that just makes it harder.  It's tricky to maneuver the average highway hawg at slow speeds among small, sometimes wobbly other vehicles.

A skilled, strong cyclist can flow pretty well with a lot of urban traffic.  I can bolt out of a track stand at a stoplight faster than most motorists can get out of the hole.  But I'm getting older and my track stand isn't bombproof.  A cyclist with a foot down often doesn't take off as easily as a motorcyclist with a foot down.

All this is made worse by the modern human love of black-and-white conflicts fueled by catchy slogans and intractable philosophies.  The decades since the 1970s have only seen the sides grow more polarized, the rhetoric more inflammatory.  In the 1970s we mostly believed, naively, that the general public would see the fun and logic of what we were doing and join in.  Almost 40 years later, we have at least as many drivers as ever making war on the cyclists they see.

We have to make the case over and over: why should motorists share the road?  Forget what's "right."  People all over the world have to fight ridiculously bloody battles to get to do what should be theirs by right.  Our goal is to make our case without one more ridiculously bloody war.

It's a time-honored human tradition to try to make an adversary pay for his point of view with his blood.  It's supposed to test the depth of your commitment.  The problem is that we don't threaten the motorists.  Unless we start an armed bicyclist insurgency, we just have to take it and take it and take it.  Like passive resisters everywhere, we prove our resolve by our willingness to take casualties until the other side stops out of sheer guilt.  Believe what you will about Gandhi and the American civil rights movement, those tactics only get you so far.  Throw down a black person in front of a mob of white supremacists today or tomorrow and you will not see a twitch of conscience from among them.  They are only prevented from heinous programs of ethnic cleansing by the threat of force against them.  The negatives of human nature are as deeply - or more deeply - entrenched than the learned behaviors of fairness and ethics. Civilization is maintained as much by threat of force and appeals to self interest as it is by any attempt at moral education.

Motorists generally have nothing to fear from cyclists.  That includes any consequences for injuring us.  It's a credit to the general motorist conscience and perhaps to a mistaken perception that they might get into trouble that more of them don't just rub us out.

A general sense of fairness probably encourages cooperative motorists, even if they are not cyclists themselves.  Willingness to accommodate can be eroded by other stressors.  The more solid benefits we can show the non-cyclist to support their willingness to live and let live, the more likely cyclists are to live.

If no replacement for fossil fuel comes along, cycling will rise by default.  If renewable, affordable energy keeps some sort of motor vehicle within reach of the general public, cyclists will continue to battle hostility and indifference from the vast majority who feel they have better ways to expend their energy. Cars get you there faster, much of the time. You don't arrive all sweaty or covered with precipitation.  You can thoughtlessly throw your junk in the car and drive to your destination, sitting in a comfy chair with an entertainment system.  It takes less thought, less planning, less effort.  Only a few weirdos want to do things the hard way.

While we try to win more motorists over to the notion of muscle-powered transportation and recreation, we have to show them why it's a better idea to put up with us than try to get rid of us.


RANTWICK said...

I don't hold much hope for us all getting along famously; I just do the best I can and expect some conflict along the way.

As usual, you're spot on about human nature.

cafiend said...

I'd love to be proven wrong in a good way.

Doohickie said...

Meh. You guys are looking at this thing all wrong. We're not trying to coexist with motorists, we're herding cars.

;- )

cafiend said...

I've compared it to running with the bulls.

I own the world said...

I am lucky enough to ride on a bike trail that goes somewhere and is safe. I hate pedestrians, dogs, and baby strollers. I will never learn to love them unless they learn to obey my will. They should stay in the shopping malls and sidewalks.

cafiend said...

@ I own the world: Use a handlebar bag to keep a ready supply of missiles handy with which to pelt those non-cyclist clots on the trail! And take a tip from some clever young motorists by holstering a paintball gun as well! Loads of laughs blasting people who can't catch you.